It is difficult to imagine what exactly the Saudi authorities were thinking when they decided to put Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr to the sword on January 2, alongside 46 other men, while simultaneously announcing an end to the barely heeded ceasefire in Yemen.
It’s not just Iran that had warned of repercussions in the event of al-Nimr’s execution, after he was sentenced to death in 2014. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pitched in with a plea for clemency and Amnesty International declared the trial that led to his conviction to have been a farce.
This wasn’t a grievous error, though. It was a deliberate provocation. The Saudis were mightily miffed, just like Israel, by the West’s nuclear deal with Iran. Any effort to prove that it was deeply flawed would therefore make strategic sense. What would be more appropriate, in the context, than stirring it up into a lather of fury?
That’s not the only context, though. The Saudis are displeased by the way things are going in Syria, with Russia pitching in on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and the West seemingly inclined to think this might be its best bet in combating the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The fact that Nimr vehemently opposed Assad appears not to have been taken into consideration.
Or at least it wasn’t enough to vindicate his ostensibly pro-democracy stance, which put him on a collision course with Riyadh — specifically in the context of Bahrain, where an intervention by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies was required to put down a revolt by the predominantly Shia populace against the Sunni monarchy.
A Syrian diplomatic settlement at the moment would likely favour Assad in some ways. That would be anathema to Turkey, as well as to the Saudis, Qatar and the rest. The reinvigorated tensions between Riyadh and Tehran more or less put paid to that prospect.
They also put on the back burner any prospect of a negotiated deal vis-à-vis Yemen, where a ceasefire was officially disrupted at more or less the same time as the announcement of Nimr’s execution.
It is extremely interesting, though, that Yemen has been cited among the nations — including Iraq, Lebanon and Syria — that responded vehemently in criticising the killing.
Yemen has ostensibly been targeted because the Houthi rebels are supposedly proxies for Iran, an assumption based largely on the fact that they adhere to the Zaidi Shia sect. There was little evidence of Iranian interest before the Saudis and the UAE barged in with their version of shock and awe — with the Emiratis eventually deploying their army of mostly Colombian mercenaries after the usual suspects, such as Pakistan, opted out of the dubious mission — but that may well change now.
The relentless bombardment of West Asia’s poorest nation appears to have mostly targeted civilians, yet the nations that have been all too thrilled to fulfil Saudi and Emirati military orders have barely flinched, if they have noted at all the use to which their weapons of widespread destruction are being put.
Likewise, the regrets expressed over the Nimr provocation have been mealy-mouthed and mild. There has thus far been no indication that Saudi Arabia — whose “defence” expenditure, at more than $56 billion, is almost 10 times that of Iran — will cease anytime soon to be a recipient of the latest technology in the West’s conventional arsenal of lethal weaponry.
Meanwhile, the unfortunate but not entirely surprising attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran — strongly criticised as a distraction by large segments of the Iranian press as well as President Hassan Rouhani — has led to the severing of diplomatic relations, with Bahrain and Sudan following the Saudi lead, Kuwait recalling its ambassador, and the UAE downgrading its ties without cutting off trade.
The heightened tensions between West Asia’s main theocratic states are indubitably a bad omen for 2016, but there can be little question that this is almost exactly what the Saudi hierarchy bargained for.
The extent to which this may relate to a power struggle within the House of Saud — where there is said to be little love lost between Crown Prince and interior minister Muhammad bin Nayef (whose father evoked hatred from Nimr, notwithstanding the latter’s general advocacy of peaceful opposition to tyranny) and Mohammad bin Salman, the world’s youngest defence minister, who happens to be not just the monarch’s son but also the architect of the Yemen war as well as the ersatz 34-nation “alliance against terrorism”, whose announcement took many of its components by surprise.
Given Iran’s predilection for incarcerating, torturing and executing opponents of the regime, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s outrage over Nimr can legitimately be considered hypocritical. But Saudi Arabia, the West’s closest ally in the region after Israel, could easily be construed at the moment as the most potent destabilising force in West Asia alongside ISIS.
By arrangement with Dawn
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