Relations between Sunni and Shia countries in the Middle East have deteriorated dramatically after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia Muslim cleric on Saturday.

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was executed alongside 46 others in Saudi Arabia after being convicted of terror-related offences.

Sheikh Nimr was popular amongst Shia youth, and was arrested criticising Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Shia Muslims within its border and calling for the secession of Saudi Arabia’s eastern province to protect Shia Muslim’s rights.

The sheikh’s execution caused outrage and protests in Tehran and Mashhad, with some demonstrators storming the Saudi embassy in the capital. The protesters set fire to the building before being driven out by police.

Saudi officials said that no members of embassy staff were injured in the incident, but Riyadh still ordered the expulsion of all Iranian diplomats from Saudi Arabia and said that it is recalling its diplomats from Tehran.

On Monday, Saudi regional allies Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Sudan, also cut off diplomatic ties with Iran over the incident.

Following the unrest, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned both the execution and Sheikh Nimr and the violent protests it sparked – calling for the arrest of those involved in storming the embassy.

On Twitter, he said:

“I hereby condemn Sheikh Nimr’s execution and send my condolences to his family and Muslim world. This act violates human rights & Islamic values.

“This act is in line with sectarian policies which have destabilized the region in recent years, and only exacerbates terrorism and extremism.

“But the Iranian people should not allow this to become an excuse for rogue individuals and groups to commit illegal acts and damage Iran’s image.

“The acts committed by extremist individuals in Tehran and Mashhad last night have resulted in damage to Saudi embassy and consulate.

“In no way is this justifiable and foremost disrespects Iran. All Iranian officials are fully committed to confront these illegal acts.

“I request Iran’s Interior Minister – with the cooperation of Judiciary and Intelligence Ministry – to identify the attackers and present them to judicial system so justice can be served, such ugly acts stopped and full security of political missions assured in Iran.”

The incident is the latest episode to affect a deterioration in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with both countries positioning for dominance in the Middle East and supporting opposing sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

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