DUBAI • Saudi Arabia's execution of a leading Shi'ite cleric reflects an assertive but risky new approach that threatens to escalate its proxy wars with arch-rival Iran in Syria and Yemen, experts said.
Hours after the Sunni-ruled kingdom announced last Saturday's execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a driving force behind anti-government protests in 2011, angry demonstrators set fire to its embassy in Shi'ite-dominated Iran.
Nimr had been on death row since 2014, but his execution, rather than leaving him behind bars indefinitely, was still surprising given the likelihood it would further inflame Sunni-Shi'ite tensions.
"Iran betted in the past on a hesitant foreign and domestic Saudi policy, but over the past year, things have completely changed and Riyadh has assumed a position that is rather provocative towards Teheran," said Dr Mahjoob al-Zweiri, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Qatar University.
Nearly a year ago, King Salman succeeded his half-brother Abdullah as the monarch of the region's Sunni heavyweight.
He brought along his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef as Crown Prince and Interior Minister, and his own young and ambitious son Mohammed as Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister.
In March, Saudi Arabia took the unforeseen step of leading an Arab military intervention in neighbouring Yemen, launching an air campaign against Iran-backed Shi'ite Houthi rebels in support of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Last month, Riyadh brought Syrian political and armed opposition factions together for unprecedented talks, reflecting its rising profile in efforts to end the war.
Shortly after - and completely unexpectedly - the Defence Minister, Prince Mohammed, announced the formation of a 34-nation coalition against Islamic "terrorism".
"Riyadh presses ahead with its actions without giving much thought to reactions," said Dr Zweiri. "It seems that there is a belief now that proactive and determined policies by Saudi Arabia could achieve results, including responding to Iran and its policies in the region."
But for Mr Francois Heisbourg, an adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, Sheikh Nimr's execution is part of Saudi Arabia's "headlong rush combined with an element of rationality".
If the Saudis "think that the confrontation with Iran is inevitable, they might as well provoke it now when (their allies) the Americans are still around and Iran is still in a relatively weak economic and military state", he said.
Ms Jane Kinninmont, of the Chatham House think-tank in London, said the execution "reflects a hard line on internal criticism and is not simply a reflection of regional politics", as Nimr was a "vocal and passionate critic of the royal family". But she expected that his execution would "add to Saudi-Iranian polarisation".
"Iran is increasingly seeking to position itself as the defender of Shi'ite interests globally, and has a growing constituency as many Shi'ites feel beleaguered and victimised, especially with the rise of ISIS," she said, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group.
Dr Zweiri said he expected tensions over the execution to have far-reaching consequences.
"This tension might push Teheran towards more coordination with Russia to complicate the situation further in Syria," he said, referring to Moscow's military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Teheran "might also aim to prolong the conflict in Yemen where it would aim to exhaust Saudi Arabia, particularly with the sharp drop in oil prices", he said.