THE execution in Saudi Arabia of 47 people convicted of terrorism offences, and the subsequent diplomatic rift between the kingdom and Iran, will have huge implications in a region already experiencing unparalleled levels of sectarian bloodshed. The 47 people put to death were mostly Sunni jihadists, but included a leading Saudi Shia preacher and opponent of the government, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This move enraged opinion in Iran, leading to an angry mob’s sacking the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and to the subsequent decision by the kingdom to break diplomatic ties with its Shia neighbour.
The prospect of the two great powers in the Middle East coming to blows — the bulwark of Sunni Islam on the western side of the Gulf, and the flagship of Shia religious and political power on the eastern shore — has triggered alarm far beyond the region. Russia, China, and Germany are among the countries that immediately offered their services as mediators between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Saudi Arabia, for one, is not in the mood to sit in the same room as Iran. The latest diplomatic split must be seen in the context of the kingdom’s long-term strategy of seeking to end what it regards as Iranian (and therefore Shia) meddling in the mainly Sunni Arab world — in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia insists that the West is being duped by Iran into accepting its assurances that it will not develop nuclear weapons. The United States in particular, so Saudi thinking goes, is keen to see Iran resume the part it played under the Shah as a powerful force to work for regional security. Such a position would work against Saudi and Sunni interests.
When King Salman succeeded the late King Abdullah in early 2015, the two young princes he chose as successors, crown prince (Prince Mohammed bin Nayef) and deputy crown prince (the king’s youngest son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman) decided that the kingdom needed to take action of its own to counter Iranian influence as the US began to step back from the Middle East. The result, among other things, was the spectacle of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in his capacity as defence minister, ordering Saudi Arabia to act out of character by conducting a military campaign in Yemen to stop the Shia Houthis (regarded in Riyadh as agents of Iranian interests) from capturing the southern city of Aden. Saudi Arabia remains bogged down in that war, and repeated UN efforts to end it have failed (News, 1 January) .
The developments that resulted in the latest Saudi-Iranian crisis should be seen in the same context. The aim in including Sheikh al-Nimr among those executed appears to have been twofold. First, it was designed to send a message domestically that no dissent of any kind would be permitted, from Sunni jihadists or Shia opposition. This message has been generally well received by the Saudi public and Wahhabi religious establishment — at a time when anti-Shia sentiment is strong. Second, the idea, it seems, was to prompt an Iranian response that would damage the prospects of Iran’s returning to the international community and therefore becoming an accepted major power in the Middle East.
The clear hope in Riyadh is that the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and the highlighting of Iranian interference in the region, will turn international opinion, scuppering the nuclear deal, and preventing Iran’s being party to the Syria talks.
An editorial this week in the daily newspaper al-Riyadh (which reflects court thinking) began: “Iran, after ending its estrangement from the West, or so it would like to think, is now estranged from the Islamic world. . .” The article ended by saying that it was now the duty of the major powers to shoulder their responsibility and decide whether or not to allow Iran back into the international community in the light of recent developments in the region.
Saudi Arabia has been highly critical of the focus of attention in international media on the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr, and the implication that he was included for political reasons, to inflame sectarian hatred. But criticism of the Saudi judicial process has come from outside the media as well. A spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said that Sheikh al-Nimr and “a number of the other prisoners executed had been convicted following trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process.” Amnesty International said that the execution of Sheik al-Nimr, in particular, suggested that the Saudis were “using the death penalty in the name of counter-terror to settle scores and crush dissidents”. Some of those put to death had undergone “grossly unfair trials”.
The Middle East faces many months of rising sectarian tension that look set to leave the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen even further from resolution than they were in 2015, and Islamic State and al-Qaeda among the only likely winners.