West Asia has welcomed the New Year in probably the worst manner possible, and if this is a prologue to what’s coming, there is a lot to be worried about. On Saturday, Saudi Arabia announced that it has executed 47 ‘terrorists’, most of whom had links with terror groups like al-Qaeda. Among the 47 was Saudi Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent voice in the Arab Spring who inspired Shia groups in Saudi Arabia to participate in the protests. Iran was quick to condemn Nimr’s execution and protests broke out in many places across the country. Things took a turn for the worse on Sunday when the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad, in northeast Iran, were attacked by protesters. Riyadh has suspended diplomatic ties with Tehran and has asked Iranian officials to leave by Tuesday.
Through the executions, Saudi Arabia is trying to send a strong message to its nationals, dissuading them from joining terror groups. What is of concern is that the kingdom is in no mood to go slow on the death penalty. On the second day of the year, Riyadh has killed about 30% of the total number of people it executed in 2015. The embassy attack makes it clear that Iran has failed to protect international diplomats. Tehran has arrested about 40 people but the incident could have been averted with prompt action.
This fallout will have a bearing on the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and will increase the lack of cohesion among nations fighting this menace. The interests of different countries in the region have often been at cross-purposes with no unified plan to date. The cooperation between the two major powers in West Asia is imperative for resolving the conflict in Syria and, more important, in Yemen. As Sunday’s developments are set to further deepen the sectarian fissures, more unrest can be expected in Iraq, Lebanon and even Bahrain. As Saudi Arabia and other nations prepare to contain sectarian backlashes what should be of concern is that the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had vowed revenge attacks if its people were executed. In this sectarian din the focus should not shift from terror. It is to be seen if Iran and Saudi Arabia will act like the responsible regional leaders they project themselves to be.