Saudi Arabia’s recent theatrical execution of 47 men, including the Shia cleric and activist, Nimr al-Nimr, speaks volumes about the Saudi regime and sectarian tensions in the Middle East. Saudi policies may look complex, but they are driven by a single impulse: Fear.
Above all, Saudi rulers fear Iranians, Shiites and democrats. Iranians threaten the kingdom’s pretensions to regional hegemony; Shias might be agents of Iran; and democrats challenge the Saudi model of no elections, no rights, and no popular participation. Al-Nimr, who advocated both Shia rights and political liberalisation, represented everything that makes Saudi princes panic.
Consequently, Saudi Arabia wages war on Iran, and Iran on Saudi Arabia, through proxies. The oil behemoths often turn what might have started as manageable local battles into national conflagrations. What look like primordial, unsolvable sectarian conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and even Pakistan, are often fuelled by the Saudi-Iranian conflict.
While geopolitical rivalry undergirds sectarianism, there are real and growing tensions between Sunnism and Shi’ism. Arab nationalism, including its secular variants, has long treated orthodox Sunni Islam as the proper religion of the Arabs and Shi’ism as a Persian corruption of Islam. While this is historically inaccurate, some Sunni Arabs see their Shia brethren as an Iranian fifth column. Some see the ascent of the Shia majority in Iraq following Saddam Hussein’s ouster much like some whites in the US regard Barack Obama’s presidency — an alarming perversion of the natural order.
By executing al-Nimr, Saudi rulers advertise to Sunnis that they will lead the fight against both Iran and the Shia menace. By attacking Saudi Arabia for its treatment of al-Nimr, Iran poses as the defender of the Shias. But al-Nimr didn’t just advocate Shia equality. He also extolled the Arab Spring uprisings, which frightened Saudi rulers even more.
Anything that smacks of popular empowerment spooks Saudi rulers, even if inspired by Muslim religiosity. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Nahda in Tunisia struck the Saudi princes as an existential threat. The result is the spectacle of a regime that pretends to be the sword of the faith backing staunchly secularist regimes against popular Islamists.
Since they fear not only all Shias but also Sunnis who wish to replace the current power structures, the timorous princes are left battling everyone, except militantly secularist dictators and the Israelis. Little wonder, they invest so heavily in fighting Shias — that’s the only claim they can make to political leadership of the faithful.
Memories of the Arab Spring aren’t the only things frightening the princes. A leadership succession looms. Following the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, the helm of state fell to the 80-year-old Salman and his 30-year-old favourite son, Mohammad bin Salman. Like Kim Jung-un, young Mohammad impresses with his youth, lust for lucre, arrogance and belligerence. Last year, he took charge of the effort to put down the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, which promptly degenerated into a quagmire.
Wars, along with plunging oil prices, have cut the kingdom’s capacity to buy popular acquiescence. In 2011, Abdullah responded to the Arab Spring with a $70 billion package for housing and healthcare. With oil at one-third of its 2011 price and the government running a $100 billion annual deficit, the princes cannot afford such sops today. Given their hostility to sharing any power with their subjects and their declining capacity to buy their subjects’ loyalty, playing to popular nationalism and prejudice may be one of the few tools the Saudi rulers have left. Attacking Shias and confronting Iran are crowd-pleasers at home.
Iranian hardliners, such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, make a similar wager. The interests of the hardliners on each side converge. Both Prince Mohammad and Khamenei would delight in derailing Iran’s nuclear deal with the West — which open confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran would do. Both seek to use conflict with the other to whip up support and silence calls for reform.
The interests of ordinary people also converge in certain ways. Each month, Iran shells out $1-2bn to fight Saudi-backed rebels in Syria and Saudi Arabia spends $3-4bn battling Iranian-backed insurgents in Yemen. The people gain nothing from such expenditures. Implementation of the nuclear deal, which 75 per cent of Iranians support, frees up $58bn in frozen assets and enables Iran to boost oil exports by 1.5 million barrels a day.
If Saudi Arabia and Iran seem to be locked in a ludicrous contest to see which side can bankrupt itself first with its efforts to undermine the other, the reason is in the mac-hinations of hardliners, not in the interests of ordinary people. But both regimes are fraying, and their rulers’ tacit game of mutual support against the masses might not last forever.