Governments in the Middle East aren’t exactly renowned for celebrating free speech. Yet there’s something especially concerning about the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. From 2011-2012, while he was 16 and 17 years-old, al-Nimr protested against Saudi Arabia’s anti-Shiite prejudice. In early 2012, he was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death. Barring King Salman’s intervention, al-Nimr will be beheaded and then gibbeted in public.
Why such visceral brutality? The House of Saud faces an overwhelmingly young population. 45 percent of the country’s people are aged 30 or younger, and the regime hopes al-Nimr’s sentence will deter other young Saudis from questioning the regime. Aware that the good days of high oil prices and near-limitless revenue are fleeting, the Saudi government fears growing unrest as it scales back the generous social handouts it has long used to keep its citizens comfortable and quiet. But if Saudi Arabia believes that beheading al-Nimr will advance its security strategy, it likely has another thing coming. In reality, his execution could spark a multi-layered crisis.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr isn’t just any political prisoner. He’s the nephew of Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a revered Shiite cleric who also faces a Saudi death sentence. As I outlined last year, the elder al-Nimr is despised by the Saudi government as a prominent, long-time critic of the ruling family. His advocacy against the House of Saud has made him a favorite of the Iranian government, a bitter enemy of the Saudi regime and supporter of various Shiite protest movements in the country. Saudi Arabia knows this, and by presenting the al-Nimr men as Iranian agents, it is attempting to send a message of resolve to Iran. But while a credible deterrent posture against the ayatollahs is vital, executing the al-Nimrs could backfire on the regime, causing chaos at home and abroad.
After all, if Ali Mohammed al-Nimr’s young decapitated torso is displayed in public, it might well spark a violent uprising in the kingdom’s small but outspoken Shiite community. Many Shiites revere martyrdom, and would see the executed al-Nimrs as modern descendants of a tradition stretching back to Husayn ibn-Ali. Beheaded by a Sunni kingdom at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, ibn-Ali is immortalized annually by the Day of Ashura. With Ashura falling on October 23rd this year, executing the al-Nimrs in the next few weeks would be seen by Shiites in much the same way slaughtering the Pope in the lead-up to Good Friday might be seen by Catholics. And Iran, emboldened and increasingly unrestrained in their expansionist foreign policy, might also use any execution as a pretext to launch terrorist attacks on Saudi targets, or to unleash its militia proxies against Sunnis. The al-Nimrs’ hometown, Qatif, is just over 200 kilometers across the Persian Gulf from Iran. This small distance reflects the ideological commitment Iran’s theocrats feel toward the Shiite cleric.
If Saudi Arabia believes that beheading al-Nimr will advance its security strategy, it likely has another thing coming.
But the consequences of executing the al-Nimrs would not be limited to the Middle East. Such a move would, for example, drill another nail in the coffin of the United Nations. The UN is already defined by near-total impotence. If Saudi Arabia proceeds with its planned beheadings while continuing to serve on the UN Human Rights Council, the global organization will continue its determined path to implosion. And America will be harmed as well. Whatever its flaws — and as this incident shows, it has many — the House of Saud is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. Unfortunately, President Obama prefers tweeting about clocks to conducting serious policy in the region, and he has eviscerated his credibility with the Saudis. Which means Obama’s ability to pressure King Salman toward leniency is limited. But if the al-Nimrs are beheaded, America’s credibility as an arbiter of human rights will take a big hit.
It would, in short, be a moral and strategic disaster if the Saudis carried out their executions as planned.