Saudi Arabia’s deadly gamble

It would be in Tehran’s interest to stop playing into Riyadh’s plans to ratchet up tensions in the region

January 07, 2016 02:04 am | Updated September 22, 2016 10:28 pm IST

“Iran should have exercised restraint in the wake of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s execution.” Picture shows Iraqi Shiite protesters chanting slogans against the Saudi government as they hold posters of Nimr, in Najaf, Iraq.

“Iran should have exercised restraint in the wake of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s execution.” Picture shows Iraqi Shiite protesters chanting slogans against the Saudi government as they hold posters of Nimr, in Najaf, Iraq.

>Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr , perhaps the most influential leader among the Kingdom’s Shia minority, was clearly a provocative move. Riyadh knew that its action would deteriorate relations with Iran and inflame sectarian tensions in West Asia at a time when the Islamic State is systematically persecuting Shias and other minorities within Islam. Iran, a Shia-majority country and a regional rival of Saudi Arabia, had repeatedly requested the Sunni monarchy to pardon Nimr, who was the driving force behind the Arab Spring model protests in the kingdom’s east in 2011. By executing him, along with 46 others on Saturday, Riyadh has plunged the region, already reeling under terrorism, insurgency and sectarianism, into more chaos.

Stifling dissent Why did Riyadh do this if they knew the consequences would be deadly? A logical explanation is that it’s part of a well-thought-out strategy to whip up tensions so that the Al-Saud ruling family could tighten its grip on power at home and embolden its position in the region by amassing the support of the Sunni regimes. Whether the royals agree or not, Saudi Arabia is facing a major crisis. >Oil prices are plummeting, endangering the kingdom’s economy . In 2015, it ran a deficit of $97.9 billion, and has announced plans to shrink its budget for the current year by $86 billion. This is likely to impact the government’s public spending, and could trigger resentment. The rentier kingdom relies heavily on the government’s welfare policies, besides its religious appeal, to drum up public support. The late King Abdullah’s response to Arab Spring protests is an example of this. When people elsewhere rose up against dictatorships, he announced a special economic package of $70 billion (much of this money was allocated to build 5,00,000 houses to address housing shortage) to quell discontent at home. Additionally, the state injected $4 billion into healthcare. King Salman does not enjoy the luxury of using oil revenues to save his crown due to the economic crisis. Another option the royals have to buttress their position is to resort to extreme majoritarianism.

At least four, including Sheikh Nimr, among the 47 executed on January 2 were political prisoners. By putting them to death, the royal family has sent a clear message to political dissidents at home. At the same time, the execution of the country’s most prominent Shia cleric would bolster the regime’s Wahhabi credentials among the hardliners. This is a tactic dictators have often used in history. They go back to extremism or sectarianism to bolster their hard-line constituency to tide over the economic and social difficulties. The real aim of the monarchy is to close down every window of dissidence; if that can’t be done through economic development and welfarism, do it by other means.

>Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia go back decades . Even when pre-revolutionary Iran and Saudi Arabia were the two pillars of the U.S.’s West Asia policy, Riyadh and Tehran were regional rivals. The latest phase of this cold war begins with the U.S.-led Iraq invasion. When Saddam Hussein was toppled and a Shia-dominated government emerged in Baghdad, Iran was the happiest regional power. Hussein had been a staunch enemy of Tehran. Saudi Arabia was alarmed by the changing political equations in Iraq, and had supported Sunni militancy to prevent the Shias consolidating power in the post-Saddam set-up. This was one reason that Iraq broke apart later. But the Americans had assured full support to the Gulf monarchies and kept pressure on Iran over the nuclear sanctions. When the Barack Obama administration changed its approach towards Iran, engaging with the Islamic Republic through serious negotiations, the Saudis were upset. Though Riyadh publicly accepted the nuclear deal, it was expectedly concerned about Iran’s reintegration with the global economy. That would not only flood the market with cheap oil from Iran, sending oil prices down further, but also help Tehran rise as a legitimate regional power.

This Saudi frustration was evident in its Yemen war. Riyadh started bombing Yemen in March, when the nuclear talks were in the final stages. But after nine months, the Saudis are far from meeting their goals — defeating the Shia Houthi rebels Riyadh calls lackeys of Tehran. On the other side, despite rhetoric from both sides, the U.S. and Iran have expanded cooperation from the nuclear deal to Iraq and Iran. In Iraq, American warplanes provided air cover when the Iraq army and Iran-trained Shia militias fought Islamic State fighters. As regards Syria, the U.S. agreed to let Iran join the peace talks, ending years of opposition. Against this background, the Saudis wanted to escalate tensions with Iran, and further complicate Iran’s re-accommodation in West Asian geopolitical and economic mainstream. >The royals know that the best way is to whip up sectarian tensions.

Iran should have exercised restraint in the wake of Sheikh Nimr’s execution. It could have used the global anger against mass beheadings in Saudi Arabia to its benefit, particularly at a time it’s rebuilding its position in the region. But lack of a cohesive vision, and maybe the high-handedness of the hardliners, led Iran to overreact to the executions. The attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad shifted the world’s attention from the executions to Iran’s hooliganism, providing Riyadh an opportunity to extend the bilateral tensions into a diplomatic crisis. This is exactly what the Saudis wanted. After Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, a Shia-majority nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy, and Sudan, a Sunni-majority country ruled by an alleged war criminal who’s moving increasingly closer to the Gulf monarchs, have cut diplomatic ties with Iran. The United Arab Emirates, another Saudi ally, has withdrawn its envoy from Tehran.

Iran has gained nothing but international condemnation from attacking foreign missions in its land. It’s yet to recover completely from the siege of the U.S. embassy in 1979 by hard-line students. In 2011, students attacked the British embassy in Tehran, forcing London to withdraw its mission. Full diplomatic ties between the two nations were restored only recently, after the nuclear agreement. The latest attack may have far-reaching consequences. It’s also possible that hard-line sections within the Iranian establishment, who are already upset with the moderates over the nuclear deal, might have used the opportunity to embarrass President Hassan Rouhani. It’s also worth noting that the President has condemned the attack, but not the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who warned the Saudis of “divine revenge”. Whatever led to the attack has compromised Iran’s position in the region.

What next One natural victim of these rising tensions will be the Syria peace plan. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and a coalition of rebels are supposed to begin peace talks this month, according to a road map agreed in the UN Security Council a few weeks ago. Iranian and Saudi cooperation is a must for peace in Syria, where the ongoing civil war has killed more than 2,50,000 people. The Saudis back anti-regime rebels and extremists in Syria, while the Iranians support the Assad government.

Worse, it’s not just Syria. >Unless Saudi-Iran tensions are contained , there won’t be an effective strategy to fight the Islamic State, which is a Sunni-Wahhabi extremist group; the war in Yemen will go on, endangering many more lives; and Iraq’s efforts to stabilise itself could be challenged. The Saudis look determined to play a long-term game of sectarian geopolitics to maximise its interests. If the Iranians continue to respond in the same token, West Asia would remain turbulent for many more years.

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