- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Sarah Kaiser-Cross
Best Defense guest columnist
Saudi Arabia had a difficult year. Despite Saudi Arabia’s best efforts at restoring order in neighboring Yemen, the Kingdom’s efforts to pummel its way to peace have largely failed. Near Saudi Arabia’s northern borders, Syria and Iraq continue to struggle through maddening states of chaos and civil war. Internally, Saudi Arabia is battling domestic terror cells, ISIS recruiters, and Shiite protesters. Finally, its American partner, in Saudi Arabia’s eyes, all but abandoned the Kingdom by signing the nuclear deal that resulted in greater economic and political power for its long time rival, Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s recent executions and the subsequent tension with its rival, Iran, were calculated moves, designed to send a clear message to opponents at home and abroad that Saudi Arabia remains in control. Simultaneously, the executions forced Iran to engage in a no longer subtle political battle for regional dominance.
The 47 executions carried out last Saturday in Saudi Arabia came as a surprise. After Saudi Arabia’s year of difficulties, its controversial decision left many puzzled as to why the Saudis would exacerbate existing sectarian tensions. It was the largest round of executions in Saudi Arabia since 1980, though received worldwide attention because Saudi Arabia’s prominent Shiite cleric, and accused Iranian sympathizer, Nimr al-Nimr was among those executed.
For Saudi Arabia, the executions served a dual purpose. First, Saudi Arabia sent a strong message to all opposition within the Kingdom. It does not matter who you are or where you come from if you are compromising national security. Among those convicted were dozens of Sunnis, four Shiites, an Al Qaeda ideologue, an Egyptian, and a Chadian, among others. The Saudis’ bold move was likely offensive, determined to quell any notions of a weak government, with ISIS attacking Shiites, recruiting conservatives in the Kingdom, and trying to delegitimize the Al-Saud monarchy while Shiite protesters demonstrated in the Eastern Provinces. Coupled with sagging oil prices and a newly shuffled, and younger, redistribution of power in the government, the Saudis needed to send a clear signal to resistance movements within the Kingdom: opposition to the royal family will not stand. Saudi Arabia’s primary goal remains protecting the regime.
Second, Saudi Arabia’s decision signaled to Iran that Saudi Arabia would challenge any increase in Iranian influence, despite its new deal with the United States. As Saudi Arabia likely predicted, the U.S. security relationship with Saudi Arabia remained unchanged after the executions, with weapons sales moving forward and intelligence cooperation in full swing. Saudi Arabia recognizes its unique, critical role in assisting U.S. military efforts in the region. Saudi Arabia’s decision also emphasized the widening political crevice between the U.S. and the Kingdom, with Saudi authorities blatantly pursuing their national security interests without regard to U.S. interests, regional repercussions, or human rights. While the political divide has undoubtedly widened in the years after 9/11, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the U.S. pivot to Asia, Saudi Arabia was particularly unnerved by the U.S. deal with Iran, leaving the Saudis doubting the loyalty of its longtime partner. The Saudis hoped a bold statement would force the U.S. to show its support for the Kingdom or risk Saudi opposition.
What the House of Saud underestimated was the strength of Shiite backlash. Incensed by al-Nimr’s death, Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashad. In Bahrain, a minority Sunni-led nation, Shiite activists protested by burning tires and hurling petrol bombs. In Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, Shiites demonstrated nightly. Pakistani and Indian Shiites, too, protested in the streets of Karachi and Srinagar. Widespread Shiite outrage left sectarian tensions simmering and governments scrambling to restore peace. Intentionally provoking the Shiite community in Saudi Arabia indicates either a warning about repercussions for opposition leaders or an attempt to identify remaining opposition cells.
In contrast, to protest the storming of the Saudi embassies, the Sunni-led nations of Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, recalled their ambassadors from Tehran, while Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan cut diplomatic ties with Iran. The clearly divided sectarian lines in the region today are neither eternal nor inherent to Islam, but rather a result of strategic political maneuvering created by power vacuums in the last few decades. Iran and more recently Saudi Arabia have risen as the strongest leaders of the two political, albeit sectarian camps.
Saudi Arabia’s short-term strategy of provoking Iran before it becomes economically stronger, post sanctions, aids its long-term strategy of regional dominance. After nearly a decade of proxy wars and funding rebel groups and regimes in Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia accelerated its competition for regional dominance. The recent chain of events and resulting tension can only be viewed in the context of a regional power dispute. For the first time since the early 2000s, Iran is on a path to economic resurgence, while Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy is struggling. Saudi Arabia’s message and the strong show of Sunni Arab support suggests the nascent formation of a Sunni coalition responding to growing Iranian influence. The Saudis are striking while Iran attempts to rise. How Iran and its Shiite partners respond will determine whether the ripples caused by Saudi Arabia’s executions become a regional tidal wave.
The U.S. has remained relatively neutral, evidenced by Secretary Kerry’s calls to leaders from both nations. This is not the United States’ fight. However, the repercussions of a widening rift between Sunni and Shiite-led nations may significantly affect efforts for peace in Syria and Iraq. U.S. leaders should continue to push for diplomatic engagement, as there are few if any candidates from the Middle East who are able to act as a neutral mediator in a political conflict divided by sectarian lines. Withholding arms or defense cooperation from Saudi Arabia would only cause further withdrawal from the Saudis. Reneging on the Iran deal is not a politically viable option. Appealing to Iran’s desire to rejoin the international community is the best option available: a UN-led call for peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the best way for Iran to save face, gain goodwill, and achieve its short-term goals of economic reintegration into the global economy. The U.S. should focus its efforts on building a diverse coalition committed to reinstating a tenuous peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Sarah Kaiser-Cross is the Senior Research Manager at The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), where she tracks political violence in developing states. She has lived and worked throughout the Middle East. Sarah has an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. in Global Policy Studies from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, where she received the Emmette S. Redford award for her analysis of Chinese influence on U.S. interests in the Arabian Gulf.
Photo credit: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images