The government changed its ignore-them-and-they’ll-go-away stance on Shia rabble-rousers once the Arab Spring began. In Bahrain, Shia protests threatened the stability of the regime, and the Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to help quell uprisings. But protests also spread from Bahrain into the kingdom. Nimr preached forcefully against the regime, and was rare in speaking up both in favor of the domestic protests and those in Bahrain.
“In any place he rules—Bahrain, here, in Yemen, in Egypt, or in any place—the unjust ruler is hated,” Nimr said. “Whoever defends the oppressor is his partner with him in oppression, and whoever is with the oppressed shares with him his reward from God.” He also denounced the king and his family as “tyrants,” saying: “We don’t accept al-Saud as rulers. We don’t accept them and want to remove them.”
In another 2011 speech, Nimr said, “From the day I was born and to this day, I’ve never felt safe or secure in this country. We are not loyal to other countries or authorities, nor are we loyal to this country. What is this country? The regime that oppresses me? The regime that steals my money, sheds my blood, and violates my honor?”
That was all too much for the regime, and in 2012 it moved to arrest him. But during his apprehension, police claimed they came under fire. Nimr was shot in the leg. He was charged with sedition and various terrorism-related crimes. In his absence and persecution, Nimr’s popularity soared. There were “near-nightly protests [at his mosque] and elsewhere in the Eastern Province,” wrote Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2013. “Nimr speaks to what we are feeling in hearts,” a young activist told Wehrey. A cleric added, “Awamiya is just the opening of the volcano, and you don’t judge the size of the volcano from its opening.” Wehrey reported little change in the area since the height of the 2011 demonstrations. Many Shiites put more faith in interfaith dialogue than did Nimr, but they were frustrated by reticence among hardline Sunnis.
Protests once again died down. Then, on October 15, 2014, Nimr was sentenced to death, and unrest broke out again. The timing of the sentence baffled some observers, who said it was simply stoking resentment all over again. Matthiessen suggested it might be an attempt to assuage criticism over the Saudi government’s sentencing of Sunni alleged terrorists to death—evidence for naysayers that Sunnis and Shiites alike would be dealt with harshly. The sentence also drew condemnation from Iran.
(Since then, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in frequent tension on a variety of matters: the Iranian nuclear deal, a diplomatic effort to bring peace to Syria, and the deadly stampede at the Hajj in September.)
Nimr’s execution, along with 46 others, on Sunday once again jumpstarted protests that had gone dormant. This time, however, the backlash wasn’t just in al-Ahsa—it was in Bahrain, and in Lebanon, and from Yemen’s Houthi rebels, a Shia insurgency that has been targeted by months of Saudi bombings. And it was in Iran, where demonstrators marched in the streets and sacked and burned the Saudi embassy, triggering a break in diplomatic relations. The immediate effect of the execution and protests has been to make the Middle East into an even less stable place than it seemed before. Once again, the broader geopolitical turbulence has overshadowed Saudi Arabia’s Shiites.