Saudi Shiite protesters take part in a demonstration against the death sentence on prominent Saudi Shiite cleric and anti-government protest leader Nimr al-Nimr in the village of Awamiyah, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 24. (STRSTR/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 15, Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi Arabian Shiite cleric, was sentenced to death by the Special Criminal Court in Riyadh. Since 2011, Nimr has become the figurehead of a protest movement centered in eastern Saudi Arabia that has been largely denied coverage by mainstream media. The sentencing has implications far beyond Nimr’s personal fate. The Saudi crackdown is important because it has set a precedent for how the kingdom deals with political dissent and not just because it is another example of Saudi anti-Shiism.

The timing of the sentence is puzzling. Saudi decision-making works in myriad ways. Some observers feel that Nimr’s death sentence is intended to show the Sunni population that alongside a number of long prison sentences issued against Sunnis who had supported Islamic State militants or al-Qaeda, the government is also being tough on Shiites. But this sectarian logic only further entrenches divisions and hostilities that have fueled the rise of extremist Islamic groups and the regional sectarian war.

The Saudi-sponsored doctrinal and strategic anti-Shiism has recently backfired at home, too. On Nov. 3, one day before Ashura, one of the holiest days in the Shiite Muslim calendar, Sunni militants opened fire on a crowd leaving a Shiite prayer hall in the al-Ahsa oasis in eastern Saudi Arabia. Several Shiites were killed, including a number of minors, and scores wounded. While the Shiites in Saudi Arabia experience institutional and religious discrimination, the state’s security forces had hitherto protected them against attacks by Sunni militants. Al-Qaeda and its various offshoots had for years planned attacks on Shiites in the Eastern Province, aiming to increase sectarian tensions in the kingdom and possibly provoke armed retaliation from the Shiites. Several such plots, including one believed to have been targeting senior Shiite cleric Hassan al-Saffar, were foiled in the past.

All official organs of the state, including the official clergy, were quick to denounce the Nov. 3 attack, and within a few days the security forces had hunted down the perpetrators, killing several of them while suffering casualties themselves. This was seen as a sign that the state would not tolerate sectarian violence within its borders. Many Sunnis also declared their support for Sunni-Shiite coexistence in al-Ahsa on social media and attended the funeral for those killed during the attack.

However, the Saudi state and the religious establishment have for decades fueled sectarian animosities across the region. Saudi recruits for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group are often motivated by a desire to contain Shiism and stem Iranian influence in the region – strategic objectives that Saudi media perpetuates ad infinitum. Anti-Shiite (and anti-Christian and anti-Jewish) incitement is spread across the region by Saudi-based television channels. It was encouraging that immediately after the attacks the long-standing Saudi Minister of Information Abdel Aziz Khoja announced the closure of perhaps the worst of those TV stations, Wisal. But in a sign that factions within the Saudi regime are divided over how to deal with the Shiites and with Sunni extremism in the kingdom, the minister was dismissed the next day, and Wisal, which retains some popularity in Saudi Arabia and the wider region, is still up and running.

Nimr’s political role is rooted in a long tradition of Shiite activism, which goes back to the foundation of the Saudi kingdom, and which has led to the establishment of Shiite Islamist movements since the 1970s. He hails from a prominent family from Awamiya, a relatively poor Shiite village surrounded by date farms outside of Qatif, the largest Shiite city in Saudi Arabia. Awamiya has a long history of resistance to the Saudi monarchy. Indeed, Nimr’s grandfather led an armed revolt in 1929-1930 against Saudi tax collectors and Wahhabi missionaries, who were sent to the Eastern Province after the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz bin Saud, conquered it in 1913.

Awamiya was also one of the centers of the Shiite uprising in 1979 that was inspired by the Iranian Revolution. Nimr became politicized during these events and joined the Shirazi movement, which had started the uprising. The Shirazi movement was a transnational Shiite political organization led by the Iraqi-Iranian cleric Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi, but the bulk of its supporters were Shiite Muslims from the Persian Gulf states (mainly Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia). Nimr enrolled in the movement’s religious school (hawza) in Iran and then became a teacher in the movement’s hawza in Sayyida Zeinab, the suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus that became a key transnational hub for Shiite pilgrims, students and activists.

By the early 1990s, the Saudi members of the Shirazi movement negotiated a political settlement with the Saudi government and accepted a general amnesty offered by then-King Fahd in return for the halt of their oppositional activities. A number of opposition activists, however, and particularly a group of religious clerics led by Nimr, opposed the amnesty agreement because they thought that the Saudi state was not  fundamentally altering the subaltern status of the Shiites. And while Nimr returned to Saudi Arabia together with the other activists after 1993, his rejection of the 1993 agreement came to define his rivalry with the more accommodationist group in the Shirazi movement, represented by al-Saffar.

Nimr nonetheless remained a rather marginal figure throughout the 2000s, as King Abdullah tried to reach out to the Shiites and included some in the representative institutions of the Saudi state. But as regional sectarian tensions and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry intensified, and with renewed Shiite protests in the Eastern Province in 2009, many young Saudi Shiites came to admire Nimr’s fiery sermons because of his direct criticism of the state’s anti-democratic and anti-Shiite foundations. In one of his most famous sermons, he seemed to argue that the Shiites might one day secede if they could not realize their political demands within the borders of the Saudi state. Shortly afterward, Nimr went into hiding to avoid arrest and only reemerged in 2011 as the uprisings in neighboring Bahrain and in the Saudi Eastern Province gained pace.

Nimr was the only Saudi Shiite cleric to unanimously support both the protests in Bahrain and the protests that had erupted across the Eastern Province. His former colleagues in the Shirazi movement, such as al-Saffar, were much more cautious and at times even urged the youth to stay at home to not further inflame the situation (all forms of public protest are banned in Saudi Arabia).

Therefore, Nimr became the main figurehead of the protest movement centered on Awamiya and Qatif. But given the harsh repression leashed out against the demonstrators (more than 20 young men have been killed by security forces in the Eastern Province since 2011) and the lack of support from other regions of Saudi Arabia, the protests eventually fizzled out. Though, in July 2012, police shot Nimr in the leg and arrested him, sparking renewed mass protests. Since 2013, however, the protests have again become smaller, and it is therefore a surprise to many that the Saudi judiciary would now issue a death sentence against Nimr, a move that has reinvigorated the protest movement and further inflamed sectarian tensions in the region and beyond.

While the sentence can be rejected by King Abdullah, or commuted into a lengthy prison sentence, it is not certain that this will happen. Human rights organizations point out that the evidence that led to this judgment is mainly based on Nimr’s sermons, and he therefore has to be considered a prisoner of conscience. Nimr supported the right of the people to choose their own government and called for the downfall of the Saudi ruling family. In a highly unusual move for a Shiite cleric, he also supported the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And while Nimr repeatedly called upon the local youth to be ready to die as martyrs, he urged them not to “return bullets with bullets” but to instead use peaceful means such as demonstrations and civil disobedience instead.

The verdict also mentions Nimr’s association with “wanted terrorists,” a reference to a list of 23 men who are wanted for their roles in the protests since 2011 and for allegedly attacking security forces. Several of those men have been killed in the last two years in shootouts that activists say resemble government-approved assassinations. His death sentence is just one of a number of extremely harsh sentences against people involved in the protest movement. Several other Saudi Shiites were also sentenced to death, among them a nephew of Nimr, who was 17 years old at the time of his arrest.

While Nimr had already been an iconic figure for Shiite Muslims in the Gulf, and protests in solidarity with him had repeatedly been held in Bahrain, after the last verdict he has become a household name among Shiites across the world. If he is executed, the Gulf Shiites will have a martyr that symbolizes their struggle against oppression, and some of his supporters will want revenge. Indeed, Shiite hardliners, from Lebanese Hezbollah to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have said that Saudi Arabia would cross a red line if Nimr is executed, and most major Ayatollahs have called for his release.

The bottom line remains that within a few weeks, a key Saudi Shiite cleric has been sentenced to death in an unfair trial and a group of Sunni militants were able to kill Shiites in a house of worship on the eve of Ashura. It is hard to see how Shiite Muslims should feel safe and accepted in a state where anti-Shiism is perpetuated in schooling and public discourse and such atrocities are allowed to happen. The recent killings have confirmed the truism that Gulf Arab support for sectarian hate speech and militias abroad would one day backfire, and they have set a worrying precedent. Parts of the Saudi ruling family may finally feel that their long-standing association with the Wahhabi religious establishment and radical anti-Shiite groups in the region may have been a strategic mistake. But these ties are ties that bind, and they are difficult to undo. After decades of using anti-Shiism as a strategic tool at home and abroad it will be virtually impossible to backtrack without alienating the core constituencies of the Saudi regime. And so the contradictions within the Saudi political system, and the regional sectarian war, are likely to get worse rather than better in the foreseeable future.

Toby Matthiesen is a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism,” which outlines the history of political movements among the Shiites of Saudi Arabia and their relationship with the Saudi state. It will be published by Cambridge University Press in January 2015.