Saudi Arabia’s dangerous games
While the recent mass executions in Saudi Arabia might have been conceived, though for public consumption only, in terms of conveying the world a message about Riyadh’s ‘seriousness’ in fighting the menace of ‘terrorism’, these acts were far from serving this purpose. Diametrically opposite as it looks, these executions were meant to serve Saudi Arabia’s interests against a resurgent Iran.
By deliberately provoking Iran, the House of Saud seems to have calculated they might be able to revamp the increasingly falling Western support for them and their grand plans of unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East—a plan that is increasingly coming under pressure due to the bright prospects of Iran coming to its own once sanctions are lifted and its oil starts to torrent the global market.
The hard truth for Saudi Arabia and its allies is that contrary to years of planning and maneuvering, Tehran’s influence in the Middle East in recent years has considerably strengthened, be it in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Libya, or Bahrain’s Shia community.
The Gulf monarchies are terrified by the strengthening “Shia arc” in the region, so they have been reluctant to share power or resources with Shia minorities. The greatest irritation among all for the Wahhabi regimes is their inability to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or suppress the Houthi uprising in Yemen. That is why, despite the formal claims that they are fighting international terrorism, the Gulf monarchies continue supporting radical Islamist groups in the region. For them, the policy of breeding proxy groups continues to make the best sense.
In this context, it is difficult to see that Saudi Arabia did not know that its decision to execute Nimr would not cause uproar in the region and would not put additional strains on its already tense relations with Iran. On the other hand, this is something exactly the House of Saud seems to have calculated to invoke the West’s increasingly falling support for them vis-à-vis their erstwhile positions in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
That is to say, execution of Shia cleric was part of a larger plan of the House of Saud aimed at ending a sort of isolation it has been facing for last few months, especially since the beginning of the Russian military campaign. Where the Russian military presence has forced the U.S. into taking a dominant military position relative to its allies, it has also directly resulted in proportionately reduced role of regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia and its close Gulf allies.
The 47 executions, however, did not take place all of sudden. It was actually the House of Saud’s plan B. The plan A to end its isolation was the formation of the 34-State “grand coalition” which ended, like a melodrama, just a few hours after it began in the last month of 2015. So much for the House of Saud’s vanity for leadership!
A farce as it was, failure of the “grand coalition” did force the House of Saud into carrying out executions of even those who had been in jail for more than a decade. This was perhaps the high time for them to die.
As such, by executing an important Shia cleric, by triggering fresh crisis and by cutting off diplomatic ties with Iran, the House of Saud is, besides invoking Western support for itself, also trying to slow down, if not completely end, Syria peace process — a U.S.-Russia plan that may, if agreed and implemented, put the House of Saud’s and those of its allies’ interests in considerable jeopardy.
“This is a dangerous game [the Saudis] are playing,” as an unnamed U.S. official told the Washington Post. “There are larger repercussions than just the reaction to these executions,” including damage to “counter-IS initiatives as well as the Syrian peace process.”
On the other hand, the Saudis were also reported to have made it clear that its concerns about U.S. dismay over the weekend’s events were minor compared with its belief that the West was kowtowing to Shiite Iran on a range of issues.
“Enough is enough,” said a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to convey Saudi thinking. “Tehran has thumbed its nose at the West again and again, continuing to sponsor terrorism and launch ballistic missiles, and no one is doing anything about it.”
In this context and given the ‘demise’ of the House of Saud’s plans in the Middle East, it does not seem to be too much to say that Saudi Arabia’ calculation with the deliberate provocation of executing Nimr seems to have been to manufacture a crisis — perhaps even a limited war with Iran— that it hopes can change the geopolitical trajectory of the region back to its advantage.
By hitting at the West’s ‘soft attitude’ towards Iran, the Saudis are clearly trying to force the U.S. into taking a clear position vis-à-vis Iran—a position that the U.S. President can least afford to take in the final years of his presidency. His plans, contrary to Saudia’s expectations, seem to be to engage with Iran on a much wider scale.
The U.S. policy does no longer seem to be confined to favouring the “Sunni arc” in the region; it is now trying to strike a balance between the Sunni and Shia divide in the Middle East. Neither can Obama afford to support Saudi Arabia’s belligerence against Iran in the last months of his presidency, nor can he afford, due to the same reason, to damage Iran-US nuke deal— a deal which, in the words of Admiral Mike Mullen, “would also more fairly rebalance American influence.”
“We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide”, he argued further in his December 14 article for Politico.
It is, however, this very U.S. act of balancing its relations across sectarian divide in the Middle East that the House of Saud is unable to reconcile itself with.
Although it is difficult to see how far Saudi Arabia would go in its deliberately manufactured confrontation with Iran, it does no longer seem to be possible for it to reverse the geo-political trajectory of the Middle East to its sole advantage.
The Russian presence in the region has certainly tilted the balance and it is going to further tilt to Saudi Arabia’s disadvantage once Iran starts providing the global market with up to 1 million barrels of oil per day.
The House of Saud’s games are, therefore, not going to work to its advantage. These games can only do more damage to the prospects of peace in the region.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org