Angry Iranian protesters outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran. AFP photo
Reading the news coverage of Saudi Arabia’s execution of the popular Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr one could be forgiven for getting the impression that this has backfired on Riyadh. The ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran last weekend has led to increased tensions between Iran and the kingdom which has severed relations. Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbours have also followed their lead: Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar have also cut their relations with their neighbor from across the Gulf, further widening the chasm which exists between them.
Fears have abound that this could jeopardize the upcoming talks on Syria (in which Saudi and Iranian output is important since they are both major regional players in that conflict) and further inflame more general Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence elsewhere in the region. All of which seem to be the result of a reckless act on the part of Riyadh which should really have known that executing such a prominent cleric would result in a serious backlash.
The thing is they, more likely than not, did know. I’d also wager that they calculated antagonizing the Shiites would be less damaging than antagonizing the more extreme Sunni fundamentalists in the region and within their own borders. Such elements present a much, much greater threat to them and their continued rule. While both outcomes are undesirable the one which has come to pass is much less worse for Riyadh than the alternative.
Nimr’s execution stands out because he was a popular cleric. But remember he was one of 47 beheaded on the same day. An estimated 43 of these 47 were convicted al-Qaeda terrorists. Simply rounding them up and liquidating them would have given a propaganda victory to the likes of ISIS which, while a rival of al-Qaeda, shares their hatred of the House of Saud and perceive it to be a wholly unfit Custodian of the Two Mosques. Killing a Shiite dissident cleric and, predictably, riling up the Shiites and outraging Iran would hinder any attempts by such terrorist groups to garner Salafi Sunni recruits, sympathizers within the kingdom as it gives their propagandistic claims that Saudi Arabia is a sympathizer of, or in collaboration/league with, those the Salafis believe to be heretical far less credence and credibility.
From Riyadh’s perspective further angering a power they are rivals with anyway and generating further discontent and dissent in their outlying eastern Shiite-majority province is a much smaller price to pay, and risk to take, than possibly giving any credence to some of al-Qaeda and ISIS’s conspiratorial and propagandistic claims against the kingdom, that could well enable them to win over and recruit Saudi Salafi sympathizers to use against it, which could in turn prove to be a much graver security threat than risking a Shiite revolt.
Also claims that Riyadh is surrendering to an Iranian-backed Shiite alliance across the region will ring increasingly hollow considering the ongoing Saudi-led bombing of Shiite Houthi tribesmen in Yemen and Riyadh’s continued backing and support of Islamist groups fighting the Iranian-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Antagonizing Iran openly and then negotiating a compromise over Syria in the near future will incur less seemingly credible accusations, in the eyes of Salafi Sunnis, that Saudi Arabia is caving in to the demands of its regional rival. Instead it will appear to be negotiating from a position of strength (outspoken hawks are usually better at bringing peace or a meaningful compromise with their enemies) which is possibly why Saudi Arabia’s seemingly reckless execution of Sheikh Nimr actually appears to have been quite shrewdly and carefully calculated.
It’s important to understand such calculus and the sectarian considerations many Middle Eastern leaders have to take into account. Take Turkey for example: When Ankara refused to open its air bases to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in September 2014 and join that coalition it earned the consternation and criticism of many. Ankara did however express its willingness to help out, to open bases and bomb ISIS itself, but only if and when the coalition also started targeting the Assad regime. It didn’t and hasn’t. Ankara accordingly did not wish to be seen as only bombing Sunnis while a regime, whose roots stem from Syria’s Alawite minority, it had long condemned beforehand for killing tens-of-thousands of Sunnis was left alone.
Turkey did not do anything until July 2015 after ISIS killed one of its border guards. But even then it simply focused its efforts on bombing the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militarily after that war reignited the same month. Ankara likely calculated that fighting a renewed protracted war with the PKK wouldn’t be as risky as antagonizing Sunnis who, while they certainly do not sympathize with ISIS, are deeply angered and frustrated by the fact none of the powers bombing ISIS have taken on Assad.
When such calculus’s are factored into account seemingly reckless and short-sighted actions on the part of these states seem to be all the more shrewd and calculating than they otherwise appear to be on the surface.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.