Since Saudi Arabia beheaded 47 people on Saturday, January 2, anger has spread throughout the Middle East.
Shia Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr was beheaded on Saturday alongside 46 other “convicts.” Nimr al-Nimr was a fervent dissident against the Sunni Muslim Saudi royal family – a capital crime in Saudi Arabia.
Later that night, protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned al-Nimr’s execution.
The split between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to the early days of Islam.
Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism because it backs Syrian rebel groups including ISIS fighting with the United States to oust President Bashar Assad.
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard said Saudi Arabia’s “medieval act of savagery” would lead to the “downfall” of the country’s monarchy.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran had “revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism.”
Protesters took to the streets across the region. In Bahrain, police used water cannons and fired birdshot at demonstrators, wounding some. In al-Daih, west of the capital, Shiite protesters chanted against Saudi Arabia’s ruling Sunni Al Saud family, as well as against Bahrain’s ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family. Anti-Saudi demonstrators marched in Lebanon, Turkey, India and Pakistan.
The cleric’s execution has threatened to complicate Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iran’s Shiite-led government in Iraq, where the Saudi Embassy was preparing to reopen for the first time in nearly 25 years. On Saturday, there were calls for the embassy to be shut down again.
Authorities shot al-Nimr in the leg during the arrest, and his family said that he had been denied proper treatment for his wounds during his imprisonment—much of which was spent in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, al-Nimr’s family prepared for three days of mourning at a mosque in al-Awamiya in the kingdom’s al-Qatif region in predominantly Shiite eastern Saudi Arabia where the nation’s oil fields are located. Saudi officials informed his family that the cleric had been buried in an undisclosed cemetery, an indication that he had been severely tortured – a common practice in Saudi Arabia.
The author, John Harding, has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for nine years.