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Sectarian Tensions Between Saudi Arabia, Iran Reach Boiling Point Over Executions


And let's turn now to a developing story in the Middle East. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on terrorism charges. This is the largest mass execution that country has carried out in two and a half decades. For more on this, we turn to Angus McDowell, a reporter with Reuters, who joins us on the line from Riyadh. Angus, good morning.

ANGUS MCDOWELL: Good morning.

GREENE: So can you tell us a bit more about who was put to death here?

MCDOWELL: Well, of the 47 people they executed, 43 were convicted al-Qaida members who had carried out a series of bombings and shootings in Saudi Arabia about 10 years ago that killed hundreds of people. However, the main response to the killings has come over the execution of four Shiite Muslims, particularly a Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who is a prominent cleric in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia and who had pushed for protests among the Shiite minority in the kingdom over inequality.

GREENE: So what is the timing of this that Saudi Arabia would execute a Shiite cleric along with, as you say, you know, more than 40 al-Qaida members?

MCDOWELL: Well, there are two schools of thought. One explanation is that they are seeking to show Iran, which is Saudi Arabia's main regional rival and - with which it engages in a series of proxy wars and ideological conflict across the Middle East - that it wants to show Iran and its Shiite allies that it is tough and will not be - will not back down in its contest with Tehran. The other explanation is that the timing is more about Saudi Arabia's internal politics, and particularly in regards to the surge of Sunni militancy that there has been over the past year or two in which supporters of Islamic State have killed over 50 Saudis in a series of bombings and shootings. And the idea is that by executing 43 al-Qaida people, it's sending a strong message to domestic Sunni militants that it will crack down very hard. And at the same time, by executing four Shiites for the acts of violence that's occurred during protests by the minority, that it is not showing sectarian favoritism and that it's not singling out Sunnis.

GREENE: I think a lot of people hear about Iran and Saudi Arabia being two very important players - you know, a Shiite country, a Sunni country sort of competing for influence in that region. With these new tensions, how important a moment is this?

MCDOWELL: Well, this is the latest in a series of escalations. However, given that the two countries are already backing opposing forces in wars and in political conflicts across the Middle East, it's hard to see quite how far the escalation could go, what new forms of escalation they could take short of some much bigger conflagration. And I really don't think that either Saudi Arabia or Iran really wants to go that far.

GREENE: And Angus, let me just ask you, I mean, we're already seeing reaction in Iran. The embassy has been attacked -- the Saudi embassy has been attacked in Tehran. But you're saying these two countries don't really want this to escalate much more than what we've seen so far.

MCDOWELL: I don't believe they do. And if you look around the Middle East, it's hard to see quite where they could take further escalations given that their proxies are already engaged in open conflict against each other in so many places.

GREENE: All right, we've been talking to Angus McDowell from the Reuters news agency. He's in Riyadh, talking to us about a mass execution in Saudi Arabia. Angus, thanks very much.

MCDOWELL: You are most welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.