On Saturday, in twelve different cities, Saudi Arabia carried out executions of forty-seven Muslims convicted of terrorism.  --  Forty-three were Sunnis and four were Shi'ites.  --  One of the Shi'ites executed, Nimr al-Nimra, was a prominent cleric whose principal crime seems to have been criticism of the brutal, obscurantist, intolerant, theocratic, yet faithfully Western-backed Saudi monarchy, an absolutist regime that in 2014 was the leading importer of military hardware in the world.  --  "The executions are Saudi Arabia's first in 2016.  --  At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the ninety people killed in 2014," Reuters reported.[1]  --  "[F]our prisons us[ed] firing squads and the others beheading."  --  It was the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabia since Jan. 9, 1980, when sixty-three were publicly beheaded in the aftermath of the Grand Mosque seizure of Nov. 29, 1979, but Saturday's executions were not carried out in public.  --  Saturday's executions "seemed mostly aimed at discouraging Saudis from jihadism," Angus McDowall said.  --  But many Shi'ites believe the four Shi'ites executed were innocent.  --  Their families "have vigorously denied they were involved in attacks and said they were only peaceful protesters against sectarian discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom," McDowall said.  --  Iraq's Shi'ite leaders expressed outrage at the executions, with Ayatollah Sistani describing them as "an injustice and an aggression" and Moqtada al-Sadr calling them a "horrible attack," AFP reported Sunday.[2]  --  After the Saudi embassy in Tehran was stormed and partially burned by protesters, "Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran . . . and gave Iranian diplomats forty-eight hours to leave the kingdom," the New York Times reported Sunday.[3]  --  This despite the fact that "The Iranians did, however, appear to be taking steps to prevent the dispute from escalating further," Ben Hubbard and Thomas Erdbrink said.  --  "Forty Iranians were arrested in the anti-Saudi mayhem -- a sign that the authorities were trying to contain public outrage."  --  Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said the "very disturbing escalation" of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran guaranteed that "instability across the region is going to continue," particularly in Syria, whose civil conflict is also a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran...



By Angus McDowall

January 2, 2016


Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric and dozens of al Qaeda members on Saturday, signalling it would not tolerate attacks by either Sunni jihadists or minority Shi'ites seeking equality, but stirring sectarian anger across the region.

Scores of Shi'ite Muslims marched through the Qatif district of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province in protest at the execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimra, an eyewitness said.  They chanted "down with the Al Saud", the name of the ruling Saudi royal family.

But most of the 47 executed in the kingdom's biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago. Four, including Nimr, were Shi'ites accused of shooting policemen.

The executions took place in 12 cities in Saudi Arabia, four prisons using firing squads and the others beheading.  In December, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula threatened to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for any execution of its members.

Riyadh's main regional rival Iran and its Shi'ite allies immediately reacted with vigorous condemnation of the execution of Nimr, and Saudi police raised security in a district where the sect is a majority in case of protests, residents said.

However, the executions seemed mostly aimed at discouraging Saudis from jihadism after bombings and shootings by Sunni militants in Saudi Arabia over the past year killed dozens and Islamic State called on followers there to stage attacks.

Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud family has grown increasingly nervous in recent years as turmoil across the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, has empowered Sunni jihadist groups that seek to bring it down and given opportunities to Shi'ite Iran to spread its influence.

The simultaneous execution of 47 people -- 45 Saudis, one Egyptian, and a man from Chad -- was the biggest mass execution for security offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 jihadist rebels who seized Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979.

The 43 Sunni jihadists executed on Saturday included several prominent al Qaeda figures, including those convicted for attacks on Western compounds, government buildings, and diplomatic missions that killed hundreds from 2003-2006.

The four Shi'ites were convicted of involvement in shootings and petrol bomb attacks that killed several police during anti-government protests from 2011-13 in which over 20 members of the minority sect were also shot dead by the authorities.

Under Saudi Arabia's reading of Islamic Sharia, such attacks are interpreted as "banditry," which carries an automatic sentence of death followed by public display of bodies on gibbets.

Justice Ministry spokesman Mansour Kafari said on television another four prisoners remained on death row for acts of terrorism.


Most jihadist groups follow an extreme interpretation of the Salafi branch of Islam, the strict Sunni Muslim school that was developed in Saudi Arabia and is still followed by its clergy; but they have long regarded Riyadh as an enemy.

Government-appointed clerics have for years denounced al Qaeda and Islamic State as religious "deviants," while the government has cracked down on jihadists at home, squeezed their funding streams abroad, and stopped them travelling to fight.

However, critics of the Al Saud ruling family say it has not done enough to tackle sectarian intolerance, hatred of infidels, and praise for the principles of violent jihad propagated by Saudi clerics, which they see as contributing to militancy.

Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to the Interior Ministry, commented:  "There is a huge popular pressure on the government to punish those people.  It included all the leaders of al Qaeda, all the ones responsible for shedding blood.  It sends a message."

Analysts have speculated that the execution of the four Shi'ites was partly to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia's majority Sunni Muslims that the government did not differentiate between political violence committed by members of the two sects.

But a top Iranian cleric said the kingdom's Al Saud ruling family would be "wiped from the pages of history", Yemen's Houthi group described Nimr as a "holy warrior," and Lebanese militia Hezbollah said Riyadh had made "a grave mistake."

Saudi police increased security in Qatif district of Eastern Province, where the 2011-2013 protests took place, residents said, and Bahrain police fired tear gas at several dozen people protesting against the execution of Nimr, a witness said.


Human rights groups have consistently attacked the kingdom's judicial process as unfair, pointing to accusations that confessions have been secured under torture and that defendents in court have been denied access to lawyers.

Riyadh denies torture and says its judiciary is independent.

Family members of the executed Shi'ites have vigorously denied they were involved in attacks and said they were only peaceful protesters against sectarian discrimination in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

The three other executed Shi'ites were Ali al-Rubh, who relatives said was a juvenile at the time of the crime for which he was convicted, Mohammed al-Shayoukh, and Mohammed Suwaymil.

The cleric's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, said he hoped any response in Qatif would be peaceful, but activists said new protests were possible.

"My mobile is getting non-stop messages from friends, all shocked and angry.  We know four of the names on the list.  The fear is for the children among those detained," an activist in Qatif told Reuters.

The Interior Ministry statement began with Koranic verses justifying the use of execution and state television showed footage of the aftermath of al Qaeda attacks in the last decade.  Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh appeared on television soon after to describe the executions as just.

The executions are Saudi Arabia's first in 2016.  At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.

(Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi, Sam Wilkin, Noah Browning, Omar Fahmy and Katie Paul, editing by Ralph Boulton)


Middle East


Agence France-Presse
January 3, 2016


NAJAF, Iraq -- The execution of prominent Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr is an "aggression," Iraq's top Shiite authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in a statement Sunday.

"We received with deep sadness and regret the news of the martyrdom of a group of our brothers in the region," he said.

"The spilling of their pure blood -- including of the late cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, may his soul rest in peace -- is an injustice and an aggression," Sistani said.

Other leading Shiite clerics in Iraq have reacted with outrage to the execution Saturday by the Saudi authorities of Nimr and other Shiite activists.

They were among a total of 47 people, most of them described by the interior ministry as involved in killings by Al-Qaeda.

Moqtada al-Sadr, a well-known cleric who heads the Saraya al-Salam militia, said Nimr's execution was a "horrible attack" against Shiites and called for international condemnation.

Mohammed Taqi al-Mudaresi, another cleric who is based in the holy Shiite city of Karbala, took a harder line.

"The execution of the martyr (Nimr) isn't just a declaration of war against the People of the House (Shiites) but against all Muslims," he said in a statement.

The executions also sparked a wave of anger in neighboring Iran, where protesters firebombed the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

The kingdom's mission in Iraq reopened on Dec. 15, a quarter of a century after diplomatic ties were severed over the invasion of Kuwait.

The embassy is located in the fortified part of central Baghdad known as the "Green Zone", which is home ot most ley institutions and embassies.

Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan, who arrived in the country four days ago, posted a message on social media in which he said they are being "looked after by the Iraqi government."

Several clerics and protesters in Iraq have said that the embassy should be closed down and the envoy expelled over Nimr's execution.


Middle East


By Ben Hubbard and Thomas Erdbrink

New York Times
January 3, 2016


BAGHDAD -- Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday and gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the kingdom, intensifying a strategic and sectarian rivalry that underpins conflicts across the Middle East.

The surprise move, announced in a news conference by Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, followed harsh criticism by Iranian leaders of the execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, in Saudi Arabia, and the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by protesters in response.

The cutting of diplomatic ties came as the United States and other countries were hoping that even limited cooperation between the two powers could help end the crushing civil wars in Syria and Yemen and ease tensions in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and elsewhere.

Instead, analysts feared it would increase sectarian divisions and investment in proxy battles.

“This is a very disturbing escalation,” said Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute research center in London. “It has enormous consequences for the people of the region, and the tensions between the two sides are going to mean that instability across the region is going to continue.”

The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Saturday that Saudi Arabia would face divine vengeance for the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a day after protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.  Saudi Arabia, which put the cleric to death in a mass execution Saturday of 47 men accused of terrorism-related offenses, fired back, saying Iran had “revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism.”

The heated rhetoric underscored the mounting tensions between the two powers, each of which considers itself the leader of the Islamic world and supports opposing sides in conflicts across the region.

Sheikh Nimr was a Shiite cleric from eastern Saudi Arabia who often criticized the Saudi royal family and called for Shiite empowerment.  He had become a leader in Shiite protests, and the government accused him of inciting violence.

Most of the reaction in the region to the execution broke cleanly along sectarian lines, with Shiite leaders in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere criticizing the Saudis for killing a man they called a peaceful dissident while Saudi Arabia’s Sunni allies applauded what they called the country’s efforts to fight terrorism.

Most of the 47 executed had been convicted of being involved with Al Qaeda in a wave of deadly attacks in the kingdom a decade ago and included prominent leaders and ideologues. Four, including Sheikh Nimr, were Shiites accused of participating in violent demonstrations in which demonstrators and police were killed.

The BBC reported on Saturday that one of those executed, Adel al-Dubayti, had been convicted of fatally shooting Simon Cumbers, a freelance journalist on assignment for the BBC in Riyadh in 2004.  The attack also left a reporter, Frank Gardner, critically wounded.

Most of the men were beheaded; some were shot by firing squads.  Unlike most Saudi executions, those on Saturday were not public.

Outside the Middle East, some criticized the Saudi justice system and the mass execution, the largest in the kingdom in decades.

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said Saturday that he was “deeply dismayed” by the execution of Sheikh Nimr and the other men after “trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process.”

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, called the mass execution “a very disturbing development, particularly as some of those sentenced to death were accused of nonviolent crimes.”

Mr. Hussein, a Jordanian prince, also questioned whether due process had been observed during the men’s trials.

In the United States, Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, refused to comment specifically on the execution of Sheikh Nimr but said the United States had been complaining to the Saudis for years about human rights issues.

“We also would like to see steps taken by Saudi Arabia and other countries to reduce sectarian tensions in the region,” Mr. Rhodes said.

The European Union, which opposes the death penalty, said that Shiekh Nimr’s execution in particular “raises serious concerns regarding freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights.”

Yet calls for restraint went largely unheeded in the Middle East.

“God’s hand of retaliation will grip the neck of Saudi politicians,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said in comments reported on his official website.

“The oppressed scholar neither encouraged people to take armed action nor engaged in secret plotting,” he said of Sheikh Nimr.  His “only action,” the ayatollah added, was “openly criticizing” the Saudis and “promoting virtue and prohibiting vice -- something that stemmed from his religious ardor and devotion.”

The Iranians did, however, appear to be taking steps to prevent the dispute from escalating further.  Forty Iranians were arrested in the anti-Saudi mayhem -- a sign that the authorities were trying to contain public outrage.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, on Sunday also condemned the execution but said that the attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and on the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad had damaged Iran’s reputation.

“We do not allow rogue groups to commit illegal actions and damage the holy reputation of Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said in a statement.  “What happened last night in Mashhad and Tehran and collateral damages in Saudi Consulate and Embassy is not acceptable and justifiable.”

He called upon the interior, judiciary, and intelligence ministries to guarantee the safety of Saudi diplomats in Iran.

Saudi Arabia accused Shiekh Nimr of being actively involved in violence against security forces during Arab Spring protests in the east but has not released any evidence it may have against him.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry responded to Iranian criticism on Sunday by accusing Iran of “blind sectarianism” and of spreading terrorism “in the entire region.”

Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Sunday, chanting slogans against Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, but no violence was reported amid a heavy police presence.  The protesters left the area after about two hours.

Tehran and Riyadh, the Saudi capital, already back opposing sides in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen and have vied for influence in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and elsewhere.

Further straining tensions are Saudi concerns that the Iranian nuclear agreement could increase Iran’s ability to spread its influence. Iran remains angry over Saudi Arabia’s handling of a deadly human crush during the hajj pilgrimage last year that left more than 2,400 pilgrims dead, according to a count by The Associated Press.  More than 450 of the dead were from Iran.

Amid that hostility, some criticized the mutual recriminations.

“This spat between KSA and Iran is becoming ridiculous,” Michael Stephens, an analyst at the think tank Royal United Services Institute, wrote on Twitter, using a shorthand for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  “It’s like watching two children in the playground . . . pot calling kettle black.”

Both sides, Mr. Stephens wrote, accuse the other of abusing human rights, undermining Islam and cooperating with “the Jews and the West.”

--Correction: January 3, 2016.  Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified the member of the Saudi royalty whose picture was being burned.  He is Prince Sultan, not his brother King Salman.