In recent days, news of Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, and the diplomatic clashes with Iran that followed, has often been accompanied by an explanation that, in simplified form, goes something like this: The schism between Sunni and Shia Islam is an ancient one, expressed today in part through the rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Those two countries are intractable enemies—“fire and dynamite,” as one Saudi journalist memorably described them. Their proxy battles and jockeying for leadership of the Muslim world have ravaged the Middle East and, as has been vividly illustrated this week, could yet ravage it further.
Frederic Wehrey doesn’t buy that narrative. A scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who researches identity politics in the Persian Gulf, Wehrey believes the execution of Nimr, rather than being the latest salvo in the Saudi-Iran shadow war, was primarily motivated by domestic politics in Saudi Arabia. Specifically, the Saudi royal family wanted to appease powerful Sunni clerics angered by the kingdom’s cooperation with the United States in the fight against ISIS, a Sunni jihadist group.
Nimr, Wehrey pointed out in an interview, was executed along with dozens of Sunni jihadists. To Wehrey’s knowledge, the Shia cleric never called for armed insurrection against the state (as the state alleged he did). But Nimr’s biting condemnations of the royal family made him an “easy target for the House of Saud to throw in and dispose of, and they could say to their Sunni constituents, ‘Look, we’re not being soft on Iran, we’re not abandoning the Sunnis even though we’re fighting ISIS.’” (Wehrey, who in 2013 visited the village in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province where Nimr preached until his arrest in 2011, characterized the cleric as a “populist” who didn’t appear to be a full-throated supporter of Iran. Nimr, he said, advocated not just an end to discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s minority Shiites, but also economic development for the downtrodden community where he worked.)