Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
The exploitation of identity politics by some in Saudi Arabia and Iran is already deeply troubling, and it could poison the region for decades to come.
Pakistani Shias hold placards featuring cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a protest in Quetta on 3 January 2016. Photo by Getty Images.Pakistani Shias hold placards featuring cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a protest in Quetta on 3 January 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

The international political fallout from the execution of a dissident Saudi cleric, Nimr Al Nimr, reflects several years of rising sectarian tensions, driven by geopolitical competition in the Middle East. Beyond today’s war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a deeper, long term worry is that a whole generation of people in the Middle East, where the majority of the population is under 30 years old, is growing up with the assumption that the sectarian divide is the main issue in politics. Five years on from the Arab uprisings, when mass protest movements called for a more democratic, peaceful and just form of politics, democracy remains elusive. Political violence – both by state and non-state actors – is on the rise. With few now believing in the grand slogans of 2011, political leaders often simply have narrow visions of advancing their own immediate community. In some places, this pits Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims; elsewhere, ethnic, regional, tribal or ideological identities provide the fault lines.

It is largely the failures of many states in the region to provide equal protection or prosperity for the different groups they govern, which has encouraged people to seek refuge in pre-state identities. Sectarian divisions have been particularly pronounced in the conflict in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and in the uprising and subsequent civil war in Syria − both cases where Iran and Saudi Arabia have taken opposing sides.

Against this backdrop, sectarian identities have been used to create allegiances – or enmities – in the geopolitical competition between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. This competition has intensified after the international deal over Iran’s nuclear programme, as Iran now expects to play a bigger role in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia worries about its expansion of influence. These regional rivalries are also contributing to an increasingly sectarian polarization in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are backing different sides in a conflict that originally had very little to do with identity politics.

In this region-wide battle of sectarian narratives, Sheikh Nimr’s execution has taken on a particular symbolic importance. Now routinely described in media reports as a leading Shia cleric, just a few years ago, Sheikh Nimr was a little-known preacher in a small-town mosque. Rather than being a famous theological figure that used his religious influence to undermine opinion of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Nimr became an icon for many in the Shia Muslim world because he said what they were already thinking about the Saudi authorities.

Not all Shia Muslims sympathize with Iran's government or religious leader, but Iran's support base is growing, as it uses issues such as Sheikh Nimr's execution to position itself as the leading defender of Shia communities. These communities feel vulnerable in the face of threats from militant organizations, especially Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has developed an even more sectarian narrative than most Al-Qaeda affiliates. Such communities typically view Saudi foreign policy, preachers and media organizations as sources of anti-Shia prejudice.

But Iran’s objections also alienate people, especially in the Sunni world. The angry response by Iranian officials is hardly consistent with Iran's own treatment of dissidents. Iran and Saudi Arabia are routinely among the top three users of the death penalty in the world, and the numbers of executions have been increasing in both countries. Meanwhile Iran's allies in Syria and Iraq hardly have a record of tolerance and inclusiveness; ISIS has been able to recruit in both countries partly because Sunni communities there feel targeted by their governments for sectarian reasons. Against this volatile backdrop, the international agreement over Iran's nuclear programme has further polarized the politics of the region. In this politically charged context, many Saudis see Iran’s strong words as validation of their view that it is supporting dissidents only in order to undermine certain governments.

Leading Sunni religious authorities such as Al Azhar in Egypt have expressed support for the Saudi executions, while the most vehement criticism has come from Iran, Iraq and Lebanese Shia politicians − moderate and non-sectarian voices are virtually silent. There have already been violent protests in Iraq as well as Saudi Arabia, while Bahrain has threatened to jail people who speak against the execution. In Lebanon, the main rival political factions, backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively, have been able to maintain a precarious political balance because they know the costs of civil war − but this is not guaranteed to last. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has declared an end to the already shaky ceasefire in Yemen, where they are fighting a militia loosely allied with Iran, and the renewed tensions will further complicate efforts to make peace in Syria. Some political leaders are using the issue to curry favour with either Saudi Arabia or Iran in the hope of future sponsorship from oil exporters known for their chequebook diplomacy. Thus, Sudan is sending troops to Yemen and has broken off relations with Iran, hoping Gulf support will lessen the international pariah status it has had since the ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

While the theological differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims go back some 14 centuries, the extent to which these religious differences are sources of conflict changes over time. Most Sunni and Shia Muslims live together peacefully − especially when states make efforts to integrate people and treat them equally. But the trend in the Middle East seems to be moving firmly in the opposite direction.

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