Talmiz Ahmad in The Wire:
The new year has commenced with the execution of Saudi Arabia’s firebrand Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and the Saudi decision to break diplomatic ties with Iran by asking its ambassador to leave Riyadh in 48 hours.
These events mark the culmination of the steady deterioration in relations between these two Islamic giants over the last five years, poisoned by the infection of sectarianism that has divided West Asia since the Islamic revolution but which has gained resonance since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In Saudi Arabia, the Shia are said to constitute about 13% of the national population, which makes them a substantial three million or more in the Kingdom. They are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where they number 2.6 million in a population of about four million.
The ruling ideology in Saudi Arabia is “Salafism”, a belief-system that demands that all Muslim faith and practice be founded on Islam’s two basic texts, the Koran and the Hadith, the “traditions” of the Prophet. This literalist and restrictive approach sees as kufr (disbelief) all beliefs and practices that are not drawn from these basic texts. Animosity for the Shia and the conviction that they are not Muslim lies at the heart of Salafist doctrine.