Saudi-Iranian proxy war threatens to spill over

Multiple Saudi Arabian-Iranian proxy wars, playing out in sectarian conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, are threatening to spill over into the mostly Shiite area of eastern Saudi Arabia.

The Eastern Province, home to Saudi Arabia’s two million Shiite minority and most of its oil wealth, lies across the Gulf from Iran, the Middle East’s Shiite powerhouse.

With the proxy war comes a media war that spawns misinformation, demonization of the other and incitement to further sectarianism.

In the latest instalment in this propaganda war, Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency reported on May 6 that a “Saudi source disclosed the date of the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr”.

Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court sentenced the Shiite cleric and outspoken political dissident Al-Nimr to death in October 2014 on charges of “disobeying” the king and “seeking foreign meddling” in Saudi Arabia, among many other charges.

Amnesty International described the trial as “deeply flawed.”

The death sentence is thought likely to be commuted on appeal.

The Arabic-language service of Fars News Agency reported that Al-Nimr will be executed within days. 

The Arabic-language service of Fars News Agency reported that Al-Nimr will be executed within days. 

“The Saudi regime is set to commit another crime in violation of human rights. A well-informed source revealed that the Saudi authorities decided semi-officially to carry out the death sentence against Sheikh Al-Nimr on the 25th of [the Islamic month] Rajab [14 May],” the Iranian news agency said.

The Saudi authorities want to execute Al-Nimr on the anniversary of the death of former Saudi Crown Prince and interior minister Nayef Bin Abdelaziz, the “source” told the news agency.

The late crown prince had a reputation of distrusting Shiites.

The Shiite minority has long complained of discrimination by the Saudi regime whose perception of the Shiite sect as a heresy is one of the fundamentals of its Wahhabi creed of Islam.

Al-Nimr, who hails from the village of Awamya in Qatif in the Eastern Province, was a leader in a wave of Shiite protests that engulfed the province throughout 2011 and 2012.

The Fars news agency’s report, whose content has yet to be confirmed or denied by Saudi Arabia, is part of a campaign of sectarian incitement well entrenched in the two countries.

Sectarian incitement in mainstream and social media and political platforms has reached a new height in severity since a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arabic countries launched a war on Yemen’s Houthi insurgents backed by Iran in March.

The Fars news agency report coincided with the escalation in the Yemen military operation and an acerbic war of words between Saudi and Iranian officials.

It seems that the Iranian report served, or might have been designed, to reignite sectarian unrest in the Eastern Province or at least to revive a campaign for Al-Nimr’s release launched by his supporters last year after his conviction and was marred by sporadic violence.

Since the news about his alleged and imminent execution was published, social networking sites have been abuzz with calls to attend protest marches both in his hometown of Al-Awamya and in cities all over the world.

A campaign on Twitter to free Al-Nimr.

A campaign on Twitter to free Al-Nimr.

In a posting on Facebook, Al Awamya News Network made a call for people to attend a protest at 8 pm on May 9 near Al-Awamya medical centre under the banner “Nimr will not be put to death”.

The group said that it was up to each person to choose how they express their rejection of Al-Nimr’s death sentence.

Pictures of protests were posted on Twitter and Facebook.

A picture posted on Facebook of Al-Nimr's supporters holding a protest in Al-Awamya.  

A picture posted on Facebook of Al-Nimr's supporters holding a protest in Al-Awamya.  

Shiites in Bahrain and Iraq joined in the campaign for Al-Nimr’s release.

A picture posted on Facebook of a protest in Baghdad in solidarity with Al-Nimr. 

A picture posted on Facebook of a protest in Baghdad in solidarity with Al-Nimr. 

Shiite protests escalated in the Eastern Province after Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain in 2011 to support the Sunni monarchy against an uprising led by a Shiite majority.

To Bahraini journalist Jawad Abdel Wahab, the execution of Al-Nimr would be “an act of insanity because of its potential negative impact and repercussions”.

“It would be injudicious for the Saudi regime to embark on a foolish act of such gravity at this particular time and under these circumstances, potentially exposing its domestic front to unpredictable possibilities,” he wrote on a website devoted to Al-Nimr.

Bahraini journalist Jawad Abdel Wahab's comment on a website devoted to Al-Nimr.  

Bahraini journalist Jawad Abdel Wahab's comment on a website devoted to Al-Nimr.  

Nevertheless, Abdel Wahab warned that the “children” in power in Saudi Arabia “could not be trusted”—a reference to the newly appointed Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, 55, and deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, believed to be in his early 30s.

Abdel Wahab urged “organisations, governments, parties and senior Shiite clerics to make a move before it is too late”.