Iraqi Shiite protesters chant slogans against the Saudi government as they hold posters showing Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in Saudi Arabia last week, during a demonstration in Najaf, Iraq on Jan. 4, 2016. (Karim Kadim/AP)

Had Saudi Arabia not sentenced Sheik Nimr Baqr al-Nimr to death, it is unlikely his name would have resonated much beyond the Shiite communities of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where he helped inspire anti-government protests by disgruntled Shiites in 2011.

As it was, his name became synonymous among Shiites across the region with the oppression of Shiite minorities in the Sunni Arab Gulf, and his execution on Saturday put him at the heart of the most dangerous rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran in decades.

Forgotten in the furor over the trashing of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent rupture of diplomatic relations by ­Riyadh is Nimr himself, an enigmatic figure onto whom both sides in the regional conflict have projected their dueling visions.

“He would not have reached this level of prominence if the Saudis hadn’t turned him into a martyr by executing him,” said Mohamad Bazzi, a professor at New York University who is writing a book about the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Exactly who Nimr was and what he stood for remain something of a mystery, Bazzi said.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have held long-running suspicions and outright hostility towards each other. Here's why. (The Washington Post)

To the Saudis, he was as much a terrorist as any of the al-Qaeda operatives executed the same day, a traitor who had incited violence and called repeatedly for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family.

His execution was every bit as justified as the killing by U.S. Navy SEALs of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi citizen, said Abdullah al-Shammari, a Saudi political analyst. “Osama bin Laden didn’t kill Americans with his own hand, but his role was to incite people to commit terrorism,” he said.

Iran has cast Nimr as a martyr who died for his faith at the hands of a tyrannical and illegitimate Sunni regime, an heir to the legacy of a long line of martyrs to the Shiite cause.

To his followers, he was an inspiration, a man who articulated their demands for a fairer society and in some instances marched alongside them in their protests. He insulted the royal family in language few Saudis would dare to use, saying in one sermon that he hoped that a Saudi prince who had recently died “will be eaten by worms and suffer the torment of hell in his grave.”

In his own words, according to the available records of his sermons and the few interviews he gave, he was an ardent and uncompromising advocate of the rights of the downtrodden, ­wherever they might be. Defying the sectarian straitjacket into which he has been cast by the uproar that followed his death,
he identified Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s ally, as being among the tyrants worthy of being overthrown. He favored peaceful protests — “the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons,” according to an interview he gave to the BBC in 2011 — but did not explicitly rule out violence as a means of defeating tyranny.

He also defined Shiites as intrinsically more peaceful than Sunnis, telling U.S. diplomats in Riyadh that Shiites, “even more than Sunnis, are natural allies for America,” according to a 2008 diplomatic cable on the WikiLeaks website.

In contrast, he said, “Sunni sheiks regularly issue fatwas calling for violence and defending murder in the name of God.”

Born in 1959 in the village of Awamiya in the majority-Shiite province of Qatif, he studied in Iran and spent time in exile there during a crackdown against a surge of Shiite militancy in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s.

It was only in the middle of the last decade that he began to earn a reputation for his outspoken remarks. His detention by Saudi authorities on at least two occasions drew the interest of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, which summoned him to a meeting in 2008, according to the cable leaked by WikiLeaks.

The cable referred to him as “a second-tier political player” with no known affiliation with any of the main political movements driving activism in the restive ­majority-Shiite regions of eastern Saudi Arabia. Despite Saudi allegations that he belonged to Hezbollah al-Hejaz, the militant Shiite Saudi movement responsible for the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in which 19 American servicemen were killed, the U.S. diplomats gave no indication that was true.

They concluded, however, that his views were difficult to discern, pointing out that his stated opinions in the meeting did not match some of his more fiery sermons.

“Arguing that he is portrayed publicly as much more radical than the true content of his words and beliefs, the Sheikh also espoused other conciliatory ideas such as fair political decision-making over identity-based politics, the positive impact of elections, and strong ‘American ideals’ such as liberty and justice,” the cable said.

“Despite this more moderate tone, Al-Nimr reasserted his ardent opposition to what he described as the authoritarianism of the reactionary al-Saud regime, stating he would always support ‘the people’ in any conflict with the government. He also continued to argue for the right of the Saudi Shi’a community to seek external assistance if it were to become embroiled in a conflict.”

Though Nimr did not specify which country he meant, that and other similar comments he made in public addresses were assumed to refer to Iran. The charge that he had advocated Iranian intervention in Saudi Arabia was one of the main reasons Saudi authorities regarded him as so dangerous, said Salman al-Ansari, a Saudi political analyst based in Riyadh.

“Saudi Arabia does not distinguish between Shiite terrorism and Sunni terrorism,” he said. “This guy has been busying himself inciting violence and asking people to change the regime, and if this is not enough reason to execute him, then there is an issue with the perception of terrorism.”

There is no record of Nimr inciting terrorism or violent acts, however, according to Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist and co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, who is living in Denmark.

“This made him very difficult for the regime to deal with, because they tried to brand him a terrorist, but he wasn’t,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Maryam al-Khawaja as a political activist. She is a human rights activist.