Photographer: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

A Crisis in Tweets: How Saudi Arabia and Iran Cut Ties in Public

Saudi Arabia's weekend executions were announced with a tweet. What happened next?

On Jan. 2, the official Saudi Press Agency announced the execution of 47 people it described as members of a "deviant" group.

Those executed included leading Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The announcement of his death has triggered the worst crisis between the Sunni kingdom and its chief Middle Eastern foe, Iran, in more than two decades. 

Protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and set the building on fire. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Saudi officials they will face “divine” revenge for their actions. In Riyadh, authorities responded on Sunday by cutting diplomatic ties and giving Iran’s ambassador 48 hours to leave the country.

The Saudi tweet was followed by several others confirming that the executions followed Islamic regulations. Not long after,  analysts began sharing videos and snippets of Nimr's old lectures, and debating the rights and wrongs of his approach.

Shashank Joshi, of London's Royal United Services Institute sounded a note of caution:

Others highlighted the possible consequences of an Iranian-Saudi feud:

Middle East satirist and blogger Karl Sharro drew a vivid portrait of the two states' inflammatory relationship:

On the streets, things escalated quickly, with local reporters posting photos and video showing protesters in Tehran had stormed the Saudi embassy.

Diplomatic Argument

On the evening of Jan. 2, Saudi summoned the Iranian ambassador and handed him a strongly-worded condemnation letter about Iran's "aggressive" statements.

The following morning, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei joined the online debate.

In a series of tweets, Khamenei condemned Nimr's execution, saying that "divine revenge will seize Saudi."

 He said the "oppressed scholar" did not incite violence. Khamenei also commented on Saudi's recent Yemen war, and its involvement in Bahrain.

By Sunday night, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir tweeted that Iran's "policy of aggression" against Saudi was a prime reason behind the severing of diplomatic ties:

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan praised the Saudi decision, saying: "God bless the efforts of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in executing those who tried to spread destruction, terrorism, and extremism." He said that combating terrorism is not just a matter of defending the homeland, and also described it as an Islamic duty.

In the Saudi city of Qatif, the Nimr family urged protesters to keep demanding their rights peacefully:

Saudi's decision to cut ties with Iran prompted a globally trending hashtag, #السعوديه_تقطع_علاقتها_بايران (Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran), while Saudi users also called to boycott Iranian products using the Arabic hashtag #مقاطعة_المنتجات_الإيرانية (boycott Iranian products.)

Saudi citizen AbdulAziz Al Aseemi said that "all that's left is for the ministry of trade to intervene and stop Iranian apples, nuts and saffron from entering the country. We do not want anything from them."

Others played the patriotic card, with this user posting a picture of King Salman, and writing: "Thank God. Thank you to our King Salman, may you live long. May our homeland remain in glory."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.