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What's happening in Saudi Arabia?

A massive diplomatic row has broken out between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

SAUDI ARABIA HAS broken diplomatic ties with Iran as a row between the two nations escalates.

The tensions are making international headlines this morning as the kingdom expels all Iranian diplomats.

Here’s everything you need to know about what is happening.

How did this start?

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There is a long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both powerful in their own rights (Saudi Arabia has oil; Iran has population strength), they have struggled to beat out each other’s influence both politically and religiously.

In terms of the region, Saudi Arabia is the most powerful Sunni country while Iran is the most powerful Shia nation. The already-strained relations – seen in the backing of opposite sides in both the Syrian and Yemen conflicts – have only ever improved in slight increments.

You only need to go back to the 1990s for another example of diplomatic relations being suspended. Between 1988 and 1991, following the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War (Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein), ties were completely cut between the two.

But that’s just the background to the current problem.

This fresh row started with the execution by Saudi Arabia of 47 men convicted of terrorism offences on Saturday. Included in that number was well-known Shia Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Who was Nimr al-Nimr?

Turkey Saudi Execution Protests Source: AP/Press Association Images

Nimr al-Nimr, aged 57, was a vocal Shiite cleric. He consistently spoke out against the ruling royal family of the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

He was a constant figure at anti-government protests and used his sermons to highlight how the Shia minority is marginalised by authorities.

He was critical of all autocrats in the region, even if they happened to be of the same religious order. In 2008, he wanted to distance himself from anti-American statements while meeting with US diplomats, Wikileaks revealed.

In 2012, Saudi forces shot and injured al-Nimr. According to a report by the Saudi Press Agency, the cleric tried to escape after clashes between national security personnel and his supporters. It also claimed that al-Nimr, described as a ‘dubious person’, fired at the forces. He was taken into custody and then brought to hospital.

He was sentenced to death in 2014 and executed on 2 January 2016.

Why do people care so much?

al-Nimr has become somewhat of a martyr for the minority Shia population in Saudi Arabia, and across other Shiite lands.

And where there is a martyr, there is usually protests or other actions.

In the cleric’s hometown of Awamiya, authorities said that police officers came under fire late on Sunday. The Saudi Press Agency said one man was shot dead and a child was taken to hospital for treatment for a gunshot wound. Authorities have said it was a terrorist incident.

However, activists say security forces were firing indiscriminately and that is how the eight-year-old boy was injured.

More demonstrations are planned today in Safwa, a city in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Ibrahim Fraihat, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said that the execution “institutionalised tension” and “created a symbol for Shiite grievances”.

And not only in the Eastern Province, but further afield in Iran.

Mideast Iran Saudi Arabia Police officers try to disperse protestors in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran Source: AP/Press Association Images

Early yesterday morning, protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Iran to show their anger at the execution. They used rocks and firebombs and set fire to parts of the building, according to reports.

Others ransacked offices before being arrested.

Why were the Iranians kicked out of Saudi though?

It wasn’t just the actions at the embassy which annoyed the Saudi rulers. It was also the words emanating from Tehran.

Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei added fuel to the fire, stating that the kingdom would face “divine retribution” for the execution.

Earlier, he had said that al-Nimr “neither invited people to take up arms nor hatched covert plots”.

“The only thing he did was public criticism.”

Mideast Iran Saudi Arabia Protest Source: AP/Press Association Images

Meanwhile, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard said Saudi Arabia’s “medieval act of savagery” in executing the cleric would lead to the “downfall” of the country’s monarchy.

Last night, Saudi Arabia said it was severing diplomatic relations, giving Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said his kingdom would not allow Tehran to undermine its security. He claimed that it was helping to distribute weapons and plant terrorist cells in the region.

Is it dangerous?

Yes. More political instability in the region could mean years more conflict in Syria and Yemen if the most powerful countries can’t help come up with solutions.

It could also force other countries to choose sides in the row.

Protests against al-Nimr’s death have also been seen in London, Bahrain, India, Iraq and Lebanon.

And the US is worried, appealing for calm in the region.

So too is the brother of the martyred cleric who condemned the attack on the embassy.

“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.

As we know, any type of sectarian divide can escalate into war, especially at this level of tension and distrust.

Read: Iran leader warns Saudi Arabia of ‘divine revenge’ over execution of cleric

More: Here are 17 incredible facts about oil-rich Saudi Arabia

Related: Saudi Arabia has executed 47 men, including a prominent cleric, for terror offences

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