By Robert F. Worth
JAN. 6, 2016
In recent days, Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute a prominent Shiite dissident has been assailed around the world as a rash act of provocation, inflaming sectarian tensions across the Middle East.
Yet for many Saudis, the act was simple justice: The elimination of a man who was widely viewed as a traitor, and a dangerous one at that. In a country where most people feel that they are literally under siege by Iran, the execution appears, by every available measure, to have been enormously popular, even with some who have been critical of the Saudi government.
Some Saudis go further, saying that the beheading of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric, allowed the Saudi government to steal the thunder of the Islamic State — and perhaps begin to wean away some of its sympathizers — by claiming the mantle of mainstream Sunni resistance to the Shiite challenge.
“People were waiting for these executions, and the vast majority of Sunnis and Shiites approve them,” said Abdulaziz AlGasim, a lawyer in Riyadh and former dissident who was imprisoned in the 1990s for criticizing the regime.
“Nimr was seen as a spokesman of the Iranian system, like Hassan Nasrallah,” he said, referring to the leader of the militant Shiite organization Hezbollah in Lebanon. “He was a man who was trying to capture the state here.”
That view is not universal. There were small protests in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-majority eastern province — where Sheikh Nimr lived — after the execution, with some demonstrators boldly chanting “down with the House of Saud.” Other critics may have kept their silence, given the risks of speaking out on such a sensitive subject.
A number of commentators, however, have observed that the Saudi government would probably have faced great popular anger if it had spared Sheikh Nimr on the day that 43 Sunnis accused of terrorism were also executed.
And though the execution of the sheikh will not win the Saudi king any fans in the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State, it did appear to put some radical Islamists on the defensive, according to a review of jihadist Internet postings by Laith Alkhouri, a co-founder of Flashpoint, a research and analysis firm in New York.
On the Islamic State’s official networking forum, one writer warned that the Saudi monarchy was scoring propaganda points by signaling to Tehran that “we have the ability also to mobilize the Muslims and form a front against you and your interests.”
It may be a paradox of the present, polarized moment in the Middle East: The easiest way to win hearts and minds in the battle against extremists is by appealing to sectarian sentiment — which is likely to damage everyone in the long run.
The execution on Saturday of 43 Sunni jihadists alongside Sheikh Nimr — and three other Shiites — has mobilized predictable anger online among supporters of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. One of those executed, a Qaeda ideologue named Faris al-Shuwail, was revered by many Islamic State members. But Mr. Shuwail and most of the other jihadists had been on death row for many years and had garnered little sympathy among the Saudi public, which endured a brutal domestic insurgency by Al Qaeda a decade ago.
Popular opinion is difficult to gauge in Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy. But on Twitter — one forum where the government has allowed a modicum of free speech — the past few days have seen a flood of approval for the executions, along with fury and accusations of hypocrisy at the way the events have been portrayed in the West.
“The Iranian regime has executed hundreds of Sunni Arab nationals, but have you seen the Saudi leadership launch hostile comments at Iranian sovereignty?” wrote one woman, Ibtisam al Qatabi, voicing a common sentiment. Many others cited the fact that Iran sheltered members of Al Qaeda in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Ali Alkheshaiban, a columnist for the government-owned newspaper al-Riyadh, said the Saudi public had not just reacted positively to the executions; it had actively pushed for them to be carried out.
“It is important that the world understand that Saudi society has demanded since 2010 that the government move faster in executing those perpetrators of terrorist crimes,” Mr. Alkheshaiban said. “Nimr al-Nimr is no different than the others. He formed military cells, and contributed to the killing of ordinary people and sedition in eastern Saudi Arabia.”
Abdul Aziz Qassim, a writer who until recently hosted a show that explored religious approaches to social issues, said it was a “brave decision by King Salman to execute Nimr al-Nimr. He stood against all the people who said this was a sensitive issue.” The king, he added, had “demolished the Iranian project” inside the kingdom.
Many of the king’s subjects eagerly concurred. Khaled Alamri, 36, who lives in Riyadh and is self-employed, said he did “not understand those who oppose” the decision to execute the 47 men. “We are talking about terrorists who got a fair trial.”
“We have to fight the terrorists,” he said. Al Qaeda and Sheikh Nimr, he added, “did not feel sorry for their victims and the victims’ families.”
But a 50-year-old woman named Fatima, who also lives in Riyadh and asked that her full name not be published, said the executions made her worry for the safety of her two sons who had studied in the Eastern Province and who counted many Shiites among their friends.
“What could happen to my sons?” she said. “Will they be treated the same as before? With all this tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the government forgot about us Sunnis who don’t mind being among Shiites.”
Similar concerns have been expressed by many columnists and analysts in the West. But a minority have credited the Saudi government with having played a deft hand with the executions.
“Unless it spins out of control with the Iranians, it’s kind of a master stroke, domestically,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle East Studies at Princeton and an authority on Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have also capitalized on the aftermath, assailing the violent ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by protesters after the executions. That act of vandalism, which the Iranian government now appears to recognize as a mistake, has been held up by Saudi diplomats as an illustration of Tehran’s dependence on thuggish proxies and disregard for international norms.
The Saudi public’s support for the glut of executions is not just a matter of sectarian affiliation. In Saudi Arabia, as in Egypt, the collapse of authority across the region has fostered a fierce nationalism and a craving for strong, authoritarian gestures.
“After five years of states crumbling, of civil wars, people are longing for someone to rally around,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a prominent columnist based in Riyadh. “They need someone who makes them feel we are powerful, our government is not weak. From the Saudi perspective, the Iranians keep feeding the militias, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Yemen — and the militias are the opposite of the state.”
Although domestic considerations appear to have figured in the decision to behead Sheikh Nimr, regional politics may also have played a role. In November and December, the Saudi government was involved in delicate behind-the-scenes negotiations with Iran over the makeup of a new Lebanese government, mediated by American diplomats.
The Saudis made what they saw as a key concession, agreeing to allow a Christian ally of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to become the president of Lebanon. When that effort failed, the Saudis blamed Iran, and may have concluded that there was nothing left to lose on the diplomatic front.
Source: The New York Times