The war of words set off by Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr on Jan. 2 ratchets up tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia just at a time when cooperation between the two is urgently needed to end the civil war in Syria. It's an ill wind for the upcoming peace conference that begins Jan. 25 in Geneva and for the future of the region that Saudi Arabia, a key player, seems so indifferent to the consequences of its action in sowing sectarian division.
The execution of Al-Nimr, along with 46 others, most but not all Sunni citizens convicted of terrorism, may have been intended to divert domestic attention from the kingdom’s economic woes as much as to provoke Iran. Declining oil revenues have created a budget deficit of close to $100 billion for the Saudi kingdom, which is planning to impose unpopular austerity measures.
But whatever the mix of motives for Al-Nimr’s execution, whether to shore up the kingdom’s conservative credentials at home or to incite a crisis with Iran abroad, the execution was a rash, inflammatory act with little apparent justification. Sheik Al-Nimr was a critic of the Saudi monarchy, but not one who had preached violence; his execution exacerbates sectarian feeling in a region already awash in it and sends a message that efforts at political reform will not be tolerated, particular if they come from Saudi Arabia’s oppressed Shia minority.
Most of Saudi Arabia’s Arab allies are predictably rallying to its side as the kingdom and Iran exchange tit-for-tat gestures of hostility. Yesterday the Arab League condemned Iran’s failure to protect Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran when protesters attacked it following the news of Sheik Al-Nimr’s death.
His execution and that of three other Shia pro-democracy activists took place just days after the U.S. government approved millions of dollars in new arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This comes on top of $1.29 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia the United States approved in November. The kingdom is one of the world’s largest arms buyers, with a military budget 10 times that of Iran. Amnesty International has accused the United States of violating the Arms Trade Treaty, which prohibits arms sales to any country if it is believed those arms will be used to kill civilians. The International Red Cross has documented almost a hundred instances of the Saudi-led coalition targeting hospitals and clinics in its war against Houthi rebels there.
As of late September, the United Nations had documented 2,355 civilians killed in Yemen, which the United Nations describes as a “humanitarian catastrophe.” According to a report of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “more civilian deaths and injuries were recorded in Yemen during the first seven months of 2015 than in any other country in the world.” More than 2.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes to other parts of Yemen, the OCHA reports. Explosive weapons are being widely used in towns and cities, with the result that 93 percent of deaths and injuries in Yemen are said to be to civilians.
Like the U.S.-backed war in Yemen, the Jan. 2 mass executions raises awkward and important questions about the United States’ long-standing alliance with Saudi Arabia, an autocracy with a dismal record on human rights and a reputation for seeding Sunni extremism around the region. Though Sunni extremism has come back to haunt Saudi Arabia, the kingdom still seems more obsessed by its rivalry with Iran for power and influence in the region than with the graver dangers it faces from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Now that Iran is getting out of the box, facing relief from the punishing sanctions imposed on it by the international community, Saudi paranoia seems to know no bounds. Under King Salmon, who became king a year ago, Saudi Arabia seems to be pursuing increasingly provocative policies, not only in its proxy war in Syria, where it has intensified its support for Syrian rebels, but in its reckless, ill-advised war in Yemen.
By providing diplomatic cover to its so-called “moderate” ally and an unlimited flow of weapons, the United States is supporting Saudi Arabia in a dangerous game that will benefit no one, only consume its players and many, many innocent victims.