Saudi Arabia's Mass Execution Of 47 Includes Nimr al-Nimra, A Prominent Shiite Cleric

Shiite Muslims have taken to the streets of Qatif to protest the largest execution to take place in decades in Saudi Arabia on Saturday. The sheer scope of the mass execution shocked the world, but tensions also escalated over who the Al Saud regime had put to death. Among the 47 people killed in Saudi Arabia's mass execution was prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimra, who had reportedly been found guilty of seeking foreign meddling and disobeying the government as well as acquiring arms, according to his brother. Nimr was sentenced to death in 2014 and had been arrested two years prior following massive anti-government protests in the Eastern Province, where Qatif is located.

Nimr began protesting in the Eastern Province with his fellow Shiites in 2011 over treatment of the minority religion in Saudi Arabia. Qatif and large swaths of the Eastern Province are predominantly Shiites while a majority of the country practices Sunnism. Shiites are the majority in neighboring Iran, however, and relations between the two countries have been strained for decades. Nimr's killing will only further complicate that. The foreign ministry in Iran has reportedly stated that Saudi Arabia will "pay a high price" for what they did to Nimr. A fellow Shiite cleric has similarly spoken out about the execution and its significance in the face of tension between Shiites and Sunnis in the Gulf region. He said:

Why don't you attack the foreign country? Why do you attack us, a few dozen poor souls? If a foreign country is responsible, then attack the source of the problem, attack Iran. If it's Iran you mean then attack it, and let's see what you're capable of.

Saturday's mass execution marked the largest such act of capital punishment in three and a half decades for the oil-rich country. Likewise, the total number of executions in Saudi Arabia has continued to rise in recent years. There were a total of 157 executions over the course of 2015, up from 90 the year before. Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle expertly sums up the statement Saudi Arabia is seeking to make. Speaking with the Associated Press following Nimr's sentencing in 2014, his statements still ring true today. Coogle said:

I think the message that Saudis are saying is: "We will arrest anybody. We don't care how high profile they are... nobody is above this. We don't have any tolerance. We don't have any flexibility."

The majority of the 47 people executed in Saudi Arabia were reportedly al Qaeda members, thus killing Shiites seeking religious equality and better treatment sends a strong message. Those protesting Nimr's death may be further putting themselves at risk as a result, even if they do so peacefully.