Saudi Arabia executed 47 prisoners on Jan. 2, including the leading Shiite figure Nimr al-Nimr. The execution polarized opinion across the region, sparking angry protests and galvanizing sectarian discourse. But what do we really know about how the broader public felt about this controversial event? How did the public in neighboring Bahrain, with its majority Shiite population, really feel about the execution of such a prominent Shiite figure?

Scientific public opinion surveys are typically a way to move beyond impressionistic readings of popular attitudes. But no normal public opinion survey could ask Bahrainis their views of the subject. Bahrain, especially since 2011, has been one of the most difficult countries in the region for such sensitive research. Protests are still repressed by the government — just last month, four foreign journalists were arrested, and later released, as they covered the demonstrations of the fifth anniversary of the Arab uprisings.

To respond to such challenges, our team at the University of Toronto ran two innovative surveys with Bahrainis that allowed us to anonymously gauge Bahrainis’ confidence in political institutions, views on controversial issues, and attitudes toward free expression. Our two surveys spanned the execution of al-Nimr: one in the fall and a second in January.

How did we get access to the Bahraini public? Our data were collected in partnership with RIWI, a Toronto-based research technology company, which employs a method that allows it to intercept and survey respondents in every Internet-enabled country and territory in the world. This works by targeting users who are navigating online by typing directly into the URL bar. When mistakes occur, such as mistypes on non-trademarked URLs or typos, users commonly land on sites that deliver ads or on nonexistent sites (e.g. “this page does not exist”). Users are then filtered through a series of proprietary algorithms— including applicable language — and are then connected to an appropriate survey. Participation in the survey is voluntary and anonymous. Other information can be provided, but it is generally not, to avoid potential response bias.

Our sampling frame covers all Internet users in Bahrain, approximately 91 percent of adults. Given the randomized logic of this sampling method, the results below should generalize to the broader adult population in Bahrain.

Our first set of questions asked Bahrainis about their general view of the direction of the country. Sectarian differences were clearly present during the first survey wave in October and November. When we asked respondents whether they believed Bahrain was headed in the wrong direction, 17 percent of Sunni respondents agreed that it was. Half of Shiites (50 percent) felt that way.

Al-Nimr’s execution dramatically, and differently, affected Shiite and Sunni views. The percentage of Shiite respondents following the execution in January indicating that Bahrain was heading in the wrong direction soared to 71 percent, an increase of some 21 percentage points. There was also a smaller increase among Sunnis, which was much smaller, climbing to 27 percent from 17 percent.

The increase in the negative evaluation of Bahrain’s direction appears to be linked to beliefs about the execution of al-Nimr. When we ask respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the execution of al-Nimr (or were unsure), we find that 81 percent of those who disagreed with the Saudi decision to execute al-Nimr also believe that Bahrain is headed in the wrong direction. Just 27 percent of those who agreed with the execution or were unsure shared that view.

Nearly as stark as sectarian differences were those among different age groups. Among both Shiite and Sunni respondents, those who were 35 or younger were substantially more likely to believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction. For Shiites, 53 percent of respondents under the age of 35 believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Among those over age 35, 40 percent believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. For Sunni Bahrainis, 20 percent of those under 35 believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Among older Sunnis, only 12 percent hold this sentiment.

Figure 1: Assessments that Bahrain is heading in the wrong direction increased for both Shiite and Sunni respondents after the execution of Nimr al-Nimr.

The effects of the execution seemed to also have important effects on preferences over broader foreign affairs. Following the execution, we asked respondents whether Bahrain should end its diplomatic engagements with Saudi Arabia and/or Iran. Sectarian differences are clear: Seventy-five percent of Sunni respondents believe Bahrain should break diplomatic relations with Iran. Only 14 percent of Shiite Bahrainis share this view. The opposite is true of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia: Forty-three percent of Shiite respondents believe that Bahrain should break diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. Just 15 percent of Sunni nationals share this view.

A similar division emerges over Bahrain’s engagement in Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. In the fall, a majority of Sunni nationals (63 percent) supported intervention in Yemen, while only 10 percent of Shiites held the same view. For Sunni respondents, those with more negative assessments of Iran and/or more positive assessments of Saudi Arabia were more likely to support the intervention. For Shiites, views on Iran were unrelated to views on the intervention, but negative sentiments toward Saudi Arabia were clearly correlated with opposition to the intervention.

Figure 2: Beliefs that Bahrain should continue working with the Saudi intervention in Yemen are lower among those Bahrainis who believe that the Saudi execution of Nimr al-Nimr was wrong. Data are drawn from a Digital Public Square survey in Bahrain taken in January.

The execution of al-Nimr coincided with an increase in support for the intervention in Yemen. Sunni respondents indicating support for the intervention increased from 63 percent to 90 percent from the fall to January. Support among Shiites also appears to have increased, though not as substantially (10 percent to 22 percent). Once again, we find a link between views on the execution and these preferences. Among those who disagreed with the execution, just 11 percent support helping the Saudis in Operation Decisive Storm. Fully 67 percent of those who did not disagree with the execution endorse Bahrain’s engagement in the mission.

Five years ago, the Arab Spring saw protests spread across North Africa and into the Arabian Peninsula. The protests toppled governments and frightened those governments that survived. They also made clear that events in one country can have important consequences for public opinion in another and can exacerbate sectarian tensions. Anonymous survey technologies can allow us to gauge the degree of these effects, even in information-restricted societies.

Janice Stein is the Berlzberg Professor of Conflict Management at the department of political science and founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Farhaan Ladhani is the director of partnerships and data science at Digital Public Square.

Peter Loewen is an associate professor at the department of political science at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Stein, Ladhani, and Loewen are all involved in the Digital Public Square, a large-scale project incubated at the University of Toronto, which uses innovative tools to better understand sensitive digital space, and to develop platforms that create opportunities for dialogue and engagement.