Riyadh knew its killing of Nimr al-Nimr and three other Shi’ites for involvement in police deaths would prompt outrage and protests abroad, but seemed to calculate that, within the kingdom at least, the consequences would be controllable.
Amid rising regional turmoil and a series of bombings and shootings that have killed over 50 Saudis since late 2014, Riyadh’s execution of 43 jihadists was a warning that internal support for militant Sunni groups would be crushed.
Awadh al-Qirni, a prominent Sunni cleric who backs the Government against the jihadists, tweeted that the executions were “a message to the world and to criminals that there will be no snuffing out of our principles and no complacency in our security”.
The Al Saud ruling family regard the expansion of Shi’ite Iran’s influence in the Middle East as a threat to its security and leadership.
Inside the kingdom, however, it is the threat of a rebellion by the majority Sunnis that most alarms a dynasty whose rule is based on conservative support at home and an alliance with the West.
All past threats to the Al Saud, from a 1920s tribal rebellion to riots in the 1960s, a siege at Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 and protests in the 1990s, were caused by conservative Sunni anger at modernisation or ties with the West.
That was why the al Qaeda uprising that began in 2003, and attacked the Al Saud by turning its own conservative Salafi brand of Sunni Islam against it, was such a danger. It is why the jihadi Islamic State is also a problem.
While Islamic State seems to lack real support among Saudis, some may sympathise with its broader goals, approving of its rhetoric against Shi’ites and the West and its criticism of corruption among the Al Saud.
By executing al Qaeda ideologues and attackers, Riyadh was showing its determination to crush support for the militant cause. By also killing four Shi’ites, angering Iran in the process, it was telling conservative Sunnis it was still on their side.
The notion that Saudi Arabia believes it is facing not only a physical threat, but an ideological battle with a rival interpretation of Salafi Islam, was strengthened by state media’s focus on Faris al-Shuwail al-Zahrani among the executed. Zahrani helped articulate the jihadist view that the Al Saud had abandoned Islam, and it was the duty of Muslims to kill them and their allies.