OPINION

A dangerous escalation

The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an influential Shia cleric, by Saudi Arabia has expectedly led to a flare-up of sectarian passions in West Asia. Sheikh Nimr was the most prominent religious leader of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, which has long been subjected to institutionalised segregation by the Sunni monarchy of the al-Saud family. He was the driving force behind the 2011 protests in the country’s east, inspired by Arab Spring protests elsewhere. Moreover, Sheikh Nimr was a respected cleric among the Shia community in general. He had spent years in Iran’s Shia seminaries. Tehran had repeatedly asked Riyadh to pardon him. By executing him, ignoring all those pleas, Saudi Arabia has dangerously escalated its rivalry with Iran. Within days, the stand-off has snowballed into a full-blown diplomatic crisis with sectarian overtones. Saudi missions in Tehran and Mashhad were ransacked by protesters. In return, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan have cut diplomatic relations with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates has downgraded ties.

West Asia is already witnessing sectarian conflicts. Iraq, which is torn apart on sectarian lines, is taking baby steps under the new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to rebuild national unity. The country witnessed a bloody phase of sectarian strife in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. Parts of the country, including the second largest city, Mosul, are still under the control of Islamic State, which is carrying out a systematic campaign against non-Sunni religious groups. In Yemen, the Shia Houthi rebels are fighting forces loyal to a Saudi-protected government led by Sunnis. In Bahrain, the wounds of a Shia rebellion which was crushed by a Sunni monarch with the help of the Saudis are still not healed. By executing Sheikh Nimr, Riyadh has poured oil into this sectarian fire, for which the region will have to pay a huge price. For decades, one of the main sources of instability in West Asia has been the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Though the ultimate goal of both nations has been regional supremacy, they use sectarianism as a vehicle to maximise their interests. While Riyadh has the support of Sunni monarchs and dictators in the Arab world, Iran is aligned with Iraq and Syria, besides its proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. This sets the stage for a dangerous Shia-Sunni conflict across the region. Unless tensions are dialled down between these two heavyweights, there will not be peace in West Asia. Both the U.S. and Russia, allies of Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, have called for calm. Moscow has reportedly offered to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran. The U.S. and Russia should use their influence to rein in further escalation of tensions. Unchecked, the Saudi-Iran rivalry could plunge the region, already torn apart by invasions, civil wars and terrorism, into further chaos.