Controversial Saudi cleric Nimr Al-Nimr arrested

The provocative arrest of prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr was most likely triggered by internal concerns and pressure from hardline clerics; it has crushed local hopes that the death of Prince Nayef might lead to a changed approach from Riyadh.

Though he discourages violence and has encouraged youth “not to return bullets with bullets”, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr’s Friday sermons in his home town of Awamiyah are known for stirring controversy. In the past, he has denounced allegiance to the House of Saud and suggested the Eastern Province secede.

A warrant for his arrest was issued in 2009, but his outspoken criticism continued to be tolerated, presumably out of concern that detaining him would enflame tensions in an area awash with weapons. But he was finally arrested on 8 July, after a car chase during which he was shot in the thigh. News of the sheikh’s detention, and images of him bloodied and apparently semi-conscious in the back of a car, sparked angry protests in Awamiyah and nearby Qatif. Two demonstrators were killed by security forces. Daily demonstrations have taken place since.

His arrest after so long, and at a time when the oil-rich and restive Eastern Province was relatively calm, inevitably raises the question: why now? Some analysts have linked the event to a US military build-up in the region (see page 9), noting that General David Petraeus, director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, met King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz in Jeddah on 9 July, the day after Nimr’s detention.

This visit also coincided with the disbanding of Shiite political group Amal and the jailing of human rights activist Nabeel Rajab in neighbouring Bahrain, leading Cambridge University’s Toby Matthiesen (among others) to question whether the US sanctioned a Saudi crackdown to clear the way for an attack on Iran. “The silencing of the most outspoken dissident voices then, goes hand in hand with possible preparations for war, and is probably also taken as a precautionary measure in the event of an attack on Iran,” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine on 10 July.

Hardline pressure

The arrest was more likely connected to pressure from hardline Sunni clerics in Riyadh. Following the death of Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdelaziz on 16 June, Nimr gave a sermon – a video of which has been circulated online – rejoicing at his demise. “This is the man who spread fear and terror so why should we not rejoice?” he said, noting with no little delight that Nayef’s intelligence agencies and army would not protect him from the worms in his grave.

Outraged by the comments, clerics led by Sheikh Nasser Al-Omar (a hardliner who notably shed tears in February as he called for blogger Hamza Kashgari to be executed for blasphemy, (GSN 920/3)) started a concerted campaign against Nimr, saying Sunni sheikhs would be detained for much less.

“There was huge pressure by the Salafi sheikhs in Riyadh for the government to take action,” said Dr Tawfiq Al-Said, a local writer and community leader. “There are scores of Salafi religious leaders in prison, among them prominent clerics. The Salafis were [complaining] that Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr is free to deny loyalty to the regime, whereas although the Salafis are the natural allies of the government they are left in prison for years.”

Liberal Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi told As-Safir newspaper on 13 July that this was a case of Al-Nimr going too far, not least in his calls for secession. “The man had exceeded all limits, and the government gave him many chances through mediators to back down, but he did not,” he said.

Strained relations

Another recent article in As-Safir described the relationship between King Abdullah and the Sunni clergy as “boiling” after the clampdown on donations to the Syrian cause through mosques (prompted by some ultraconservatives calling for jihad). It has been an “especially sensitive time in government-clerical relations”, as expert Frederic Wehrey wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, citing the King’s recent dismissal of an adviser to the royal court for his criticism of reform, and that of the head of the mutaween (morality police) for his hardline views (GSN 924/1, 917/7). With this in mind, Nimr’s arrest may have been meant as a kind of appeasement.

“The government is always under pressure from the Salafis and they are trying to send a message that the government will not treat Shia and Salafis differently,” the former chairman of Qatif municipal council Jafar Al-Shayeb told GSN.

The appointment of Prince Ahmed Bin Abdelaziz as interior minister may have also been a factor. Riyadh has strategically handled the Eastern Province for some time, considering it a security issue rather than a political one, and some Saudi watchers suggest the prince might have been flexing his muscles (GSN 910/7). Shayeb said any hopes that the departure of Nayef might lead to a new approach to the problem of Shia dissent had been quashed. “The arrest of Sheikh Nimr could be taken as an indication that they will be even tougher,” he said.

Despite a few meetings between provincial governor Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd and local leaders in Autumn last year, local leaders say there has been little meaningful discussion for years (GSN 910/6). They say the lack of progress or hope is losing them influence, and warn that, without political engagement, there will be more violence. “In the past, community leaders and notables could talk to the young, keep them quiet and limit them to peaceful protests, but recently they’ve not been able to do so,” Al-Said said.

That was demonstrated by further unrest on 13 July, when the official Saudi Press Agency said a man was shot dead as assailants attacked Awamiyah police station with Molotov cocktails. In another incident, masked gunmen injured four security personnel on patrol in Saihat, and later that weekend petrol bombs set parts of a car park on fire.


Originally published in Issue 928 - 20 July 2012.

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