DUBAI: Saudi Arabia rallied regional allies to its side in a growing diplomatic row with Iran on Monday, deepening a split across the Middle East following the execution of a Shia scholar in Riyadh.

Bahrain and Sudan cut all ties with Iran, following Riyadh’s example.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir said on Monday his country would also halt air traffic and commercial relations with Iran.

He blamed Iran’s “aggressive policies” for the diplomatic action.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), home to hundreds of thousands of Iranians, partially downgraded its relations with Iran.

Manama, Khartoum sever ties with Tehran

Tehran accused Riyadh of using an attack on its embassy as an “excuse” to sever ties and increase sectarian tensions, as protesters in Iran and Iraq marched for a third day to denounce the execution of Nimr al Nimr.

Stock markets across the Gulf dropped sharply, led by Qatar which fell more than 2.5 per cent, with geopolitical jitters outweighing any benefit from stronger oil.

China declared it was “highly concerned” with the developments, in a rare foray into Middle East diplomacy. The United States and Germany called for restraint, while Russia offered to mediate an end to the dispute.

The row threatened to derail efforts to end Syria’s five-year-old civil war, where Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers support rebel groups against Iran-backed President Bashar al Assad.

In neighbouring Lebanon, newspapers said the spat had clouded hopes of filling the vacant presidency that had been raised last month after Iran and Saudi Arabia both voiced support for a power-sharing deal.

Nevertheless, analysts said fears of a sectarian rupture across the Middle East were premature, and the break in relations could be more a symptom of existing strains than evidence of new ones.

After a furious response in Shia communities worldwide to the cleric’s execution, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir alleged that Iran was creating “terrorist cells” among his country’s Shias.

Al Azhar, the Cairo-based seat of learning, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemned the attacks on Saudi missions and stressed Iran’s obligation to respect the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain accused Iran of “blatant and dangerous interference” in the affairs of Arab countries, in a statement announcing the severing of diplomatic ties.

Western powers, many of which supply billions of dollars worth of weaponry to Gulf Arab powers, tried to tamp down the tensions with Iran, but also deplored the executions. Human rights groups criticised Saudi Arabia’s judicial process and protesters gathered outside Saudi embassies.

Accusing Saudi Arabia of stoking regional tension, the Iranian foreign ministry’s spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said: “Saudi Arabia sees not only its interests but also its existence in pursuing crises and confrontations and attempts to resolve its internal problems by exporting them to the outside.

“What happened in regard to diplomatic missions, it is not the first time such a thing happens worldwide.”

By severing diplomatic relations, Saudi Arabia was “continuing the policy of increasing tension and clashes in the region”, he said.

Mr Ansari, who said that Iranian diplomats had not yet left Riyadh, insisted that Iran had always protected diplomatic missions to ensure the safety of diplomats and dealt with transgressions.

Saudi Foreign Minister Jubeir said in an interview that Iran was responsible for the rising tensions.

Insisting that Saudi Arabia would react to “Iranian aggression”, he accused Iran of despatching fighters to Arab countries and plotting attacks inside the kingdom and its Gulf neighbours.

“There is no escalation on the part of Saudi Arabia. Our moves are all reactive. It is the Iranians who went into Lebanon. It is the Iranians who sent their Quds Force and their Revolutionary Guards into Syria,” he said.

Iranian pilgrims would still be welcome for Haj and Umrah, the minister added.

He said Saudi Arabia had been right to execute Nimr al Nimr, whom he accused of “agitating, organising cells, providing them with weapons and money”.

After listing the crimes of 43 Al Qaeda members also put to death on Saturday alongside four Shias, Mr Jubeir said of the executions: “We should be applauded for this, not criticised.”

A man was shot dead in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province late on Sunday when security officers came under fire in the executed cleric’s hometown. Citing a police spokesman, the SPA news agency said an eight-year-old child was taken to hospital for treatment for a gunshot wound in the incident in Awamiya town.

SPA said authorities were hunting the perpetrators of a “terrorist” act. The security officers were seeking to recover stolen heavy equipment at the time of the shooting, the SPA reported.

Awamiya is in the oil-producing province’s Qatif district. Qatif has been the focal point of unrest among Saudi Arabia’s Shias since protests in early 2011 calling for democratic reforms.

Residents of Qatif have also staged angry protests since al Nimr’s execution.

Meanwhile, Mohammed al Nimr, brother of the executed cleric, condemned retaliatory attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, insisting: “We love our country”.

“We appreciate your love towards the martyr #Sheikh_AlNimr who lives in our hearts, but we refuse attacks on #Saudi embassies in #Iran or others,” he tweeted.

The body of 56-year-old Nimr was not given to his family for burial, according to another post on Twitter by his brother, who said the authorities informed the family that the cleric had been buried.

Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2016


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