Contrary to popular belief, Nimr al-Nimr is not an example of persecuted Shia

Following the execution of the Saudi Shia cleric, Nimr Al-Nimr, media outlets in the UK have rushed to condemn the execution, carried out alongside that of 46 other Al-Qaeda and terrorist operatives. The media however did not cover the whole story, neglecting to pay attention to the real relationship between the government and his family, as well as the wider geopolitics of the region and the role Nimr Al-Nimr played in it.

It is often cited that Nimr Al-Nimr and his family have been mistreated in the most heinous manner. Some have even mistaken him for being Iranian. In reality however, and many may find this particularly surprising, the family have benefited greatly from the Saudi government. Nimr’s son, whilst actively campaigning and protesting against the government, had actually been given a fully funded commitment free scholarship by the very government he was campaigning against. This consisted of full fees, an annual ticket to return home, a monthly allowance of USD1600, and a fully comprehensive health insurance policy.

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News outlets originally claimed Al-Nimr was an Iranian.

Moreover, his late wife who was an employee at the General Passport Directorate, was sent for cancer treatment in the US in 2012 entirely on government expense before her unfortunate death during her treatment.

Additionally, Shia in Saudi Arabia have been freely and openly celebrating Ashura and related events since at least 2004, in and with their own very mosques in places such as Al-Qatif. Public signs and boards in that area in relation to these are visible throughout the region.

Similarly, there are groups in Saudi belonging to sects that can be seen as even more contradictory with Sunni Islam, such as Ismailis in the South who practice their own interpretation of Islam. Other controversies such as the Mawlid, condemned by the religious authorities as an innovation and not from the religion, are celebrated by Sufis in the country.

The biggest contradiction in this whole situation is that Iran has used the case to point fingers against Saudi Arabia and launch a vicious media campaign, when it itself is a government with a human rights record that is worse than the Kingdom’s. In terms of executions, Iran is the highest in the world per capita. This includes executions of both juveniles and Sunnis (Iran on the same day approved the execution of 27 Sunnis).

Was Nimr a peaceful man? Possibly. But for a man who was arrested with his crew that opened fire on police forces in a high speed chase, and who once defined himself in a leaked cable in 2008 as “first a Shia, then a Muslim, then a member of Ahl Al-Bayt, and finally a member of humanity”, his work and conduct were at the very least questionable and tainted with sectarianism. Equally was his readiness to defend the “right” for Shia Saudis to receive foreign assistance against the Saudi government in any ‘potential’ conflict. Given the man was also a strong advocate for dividing the country geographically and calling for a new state in the Eastern region and ‘Jihad’ against the Saudi government, it is difficult to place Nimr al-Nimr as the ideal example that peaceful Shia are being persecuted.

By Mohammed Al-Yusuf, Saudi Arabia