The Execution of Nimr Al-Nimr: One More Reason to Re-evaluate the Toxic U.S.-Saudi Alliance


The brutal Saudi execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr has led to protests around the globe, as well as the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, followed by the Saudi severing of relations with Iran. This exacerbation of Sunni-Shia tensions is the result of the reckless Saudi action against a popular, nonviolent Shia leader. Also reckless is the US government’s response, which has failed to condemn the Saudi government and distance itself from the abusive regime.

On January 2, the Saudi government executed 47 people, most of them by beheading. Those executed included Sunnis convicted of Al Qaeda-affiliated attacks, as well as Shia opponents—Sheik Nimr Al-Nimr and three others arrested when they were still juveniles. The killing of Al-Nimr has sparked a massive reaction because he was a prominent religious leader who defended the Shia minority and criticized the abuses—both domestic and foreign—of the Saudi regime. He supported the 2011 anti-government protests in the Eastern Province, protests that erupted in the wake of the Arab Spring. The oil-rich Eastern Province is home to some 2 million Shiites, who have long complained of discrimination by the Sunni government.

In response to increasingly vocal demands for reforms from Shiites, who constitute about 15 percent of the total population, Saudi authorities waged a harsh crackdown. Al-Nimr was arrested and imprisoned in 2012, then convicted of sedition, disobedience and bearing arms. He did not deny the political charges against him, but insisted he never carried weapons or called for violence.

He also distanced himself from sectarian divisions. He called for people to stand up to tyrants regardless of their sect, from the Sunni rulers in Bahrain to Syria’s Assad, who is from the Alawite sect of Shia Islam. “Sheikh al-Nimr preached that we should support the oppressed against the oppressor, regardless of religion,” said Gulf scholar Ali al-Ahmed. To add insult to injury, Sheik al-Nimr’s nephew, Ali al-Nimr, was targeted and arrested at the age of 17 for protesting government corruption, and his since been sentenced to beheading and public crucifixion.

The Saudi government was well aware that killing Sheikh al-Nimr would enrage Shia both inside and outside the country. Their actions abroad have already raised sectarian tensions, such as the 2011 Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to crush a democratic revolt dominated by the country’s majority Shiites. The Saudi military intervention in Yemen against the Houthis (a Shiite sect), an ongoing intervention that has killed thousands of innocents and caused a humanitarian crisis, has also angered the Shia community. And Saudi efforts to topple the Iranian-backed Assad regime in Syria also fuel tension between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni leadership and its Shiite citizens.

An additional factor fanning ethnic hatred has been ISIL attacks on Shiite mosques in the kingdom. Many Shiites hold the kingdom’s religious establishment responsible for the attacks and maintain that Saudi officials turn a blind eye to ISIL’s sectarian agenda in the kingdom.

The cleric’s execution will also complicate Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq, where the Saudi embassy was justreopened for the first time in nearly 25 years.

The US government has expressed concern that al-Nimr’s execution risked “exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.” The government understands that the explosive reaction to the al-Nimr execution has the potential to bring even more bloodshed to the Middle East, from derailing Syria peace talks to prolonging the war in Yemen to rekindling uprisings in Bahrain.

But instead of insisting on al-Nimr’s release during his years in prison and echoing Amnesty International’s condemnation of his “deeply flawed” trial, the US government was silent. Even after the execution, the US refused to issue a strong denunciation.

For decades US governments, both Democratic and Republican, have backed the kingdom. The US-Saudi alliance dates back to World War II, when US officials started to see Saudi’s oil as a strategic advantage. Since then, the US has blindly supported the Kingdom in almost every political and economic effort, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is an ultraconservative monarchy rife with human rights abuses.

Saudi Arabia has consistently been ranked by Freedom House as one of the worst humans rights violators in the world. Earning the lowest possible score in all three categories of freedom, civil liberties and political rights, it is one of only ten nations considered “not free.”

The killing of Sheikh Al-Nimr should serve as a prime moment for the U.S. to reconsider its alliance with the Saudi regime, a regime that not only denies human rights to its own people but exports death and destruction abroad. An upcoming activist-based Saudi Summit, which will be held in Washington DC on March 5-6, is an effort to build a campaign to support challenge this toxic relationship.


More articles by:

Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human right organization Global Exchange. Follow her on twitter at @MedeaBenjamin.

March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone