Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 men last weekend quickly became an international drama, agitating markets and triggering a flare-up with longtime rival Iran. But Saudi-watchers say the move was really meant to send a message inside the kingdom’s borders.
After a year of domestic attacks that left dozens dead, and with the economy hurting from the oil slump and a prolonged war in Yemen, the rulers of the world’s biggest oil exporter may be seeking to show the Saudi public that they’re tough on terrorism and won’t tolerate dissent. A large majority of those executed were Sunni Muslims said to be linked with al-Qaeda and implicated in attacks more than a decade ago, though it was the death of Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr that received the most overseas attention and spurred protesters in Shiite-ruled Iran to set the Saudi embassy on fire.
“It largely plays to a domestic audience,” said Toby Matthiesen, author of The Other Saudis, a study of the kingdom’s Shiite minority. “The executions, especially the one of al-Nimr, are very popular among a lot of Saudis,” he said. “It’s a way of kind of rallying people around the flag.”
Al-Nimr’s execution on Saturday and the subsequent breakdown in ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran raised the specter of deepening conflicts in a region where the two powers are already on opposing sides of wars in Syria and Yemen. Tensions have escalated as the administration of King Salman, who ascended to the Saudi throne almost a year ago after the death of his brother Abdullah, breaks with the kingdom’s traditionally cautious foreign policy.
The executions may be intended to reinforce Salman’s more assertive stance, said Robert Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Some of the defendants had been “languishing on death row,” Jordan said in an interview on Bloomberg TV on Monday. “King Abdullah had been hesitant to pull the trigger and now King Salman is trying to show that he is a strong leader.”
While Shiite communities across the region protested al-Nimr’s death, Saudi state television broadcast round-the-clock coverage of the executions and their aftermath on Sunday and Monday. Reporters roamed the streets, asking ordinary Saudis to weigh in on the question of the hour: “What is the punishment that a terrorist deserves?”
The Interior Ministry said on Saturday that many of the men were responsible for terrorist attacks more than a decade ago, including the bombings of residential compounds and an attack on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah.
“There’s a tendency for some people to read this as a message to Iran or perhaps the international community in general,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG, Inc. and a former analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. “But if there’s a message, it’s mostly to Saudi Arabia’s own extremists and militants.”
U.S. and European officials have expressed concern that the killing of al-Nimr may exacerbate sectarian tensions that underlie the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the region. Saudi’s decision to break off relations should have no impact on ongoing peace efforts in Syria and Yemen, Saudi’s ambassador to the United Nations Abdallah al-Mouallimi told journalists, Agence France Press reported.
Saudi officials “are annoyed at the level of international interest in the matter” because they see the execution as a “purely domestic issue,” said Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, chairman of Shamal Investment and a member of the royal family.
“There’s been a popular groundswell for years saying, what’s taking so long, why aren’t these people being executed?” he said. The Saudi government probably expected that Iran’s reaction would be limited to “blustery speeches,” he said. “I don’t think they necessarily expected a move such as the storming of the embassy.”
The inclusion of al-Nimr and three other Shiites along with the Sunni militants made the executions “more acceptable” to the Saudi royal family’s Sunni power base, Matthiesen said. But he said that authorities are playing a “high-stakes game,” risking renewed tensions in the Eastern province where most Saudi Shiites live, and which also contains key oilfields.
That region saw a series of attacks on Saudi Shiites last year by Sunni militants affiliated with Islamic State. Still, it has been relatively quiet since a wave of protests that followed the Arab Spring of 2011, as Saudi Shiites vented long-held grievances about what they say is their second-class status in the kingdom.
Al-Nimr was a prominent figure at such demonstrations, and in 2009 he threatened to lead Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslims to secession. His execution, in the face of Iranian protests, sends a clear signal to the Saudi Shiite community not to expect any help from the Iranians, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at U.A.E. University.
“The message is very clear: Iran can’t do anything about it,” he said.