Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his regime may posture as steely guardians of Mideast stability, after their mass execution of “inciters of violence and terrorism.” But sheer fear, not considered resolve, is the driving force behind a state bloodbath that has fanned tension across the region.
Salman has confounded allies including the United States and Canada, infuriated Iran and dampened prospects for settling wars in Syria and Yemen with his brutal recklessness. The execution of 43 mostly Saudi Sunni jihadists and four Shias — including the popular cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr — has also cast a shadow over efforts to combat Islamic State and other terror groups.
Yet it is Saudi weakness not strength that has brought the Mideast to this ugly juncture. A regime that was truly secure wouldn’t have to resort to such barbarity, the largest mass execution in decades.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has rightly joined the international chorus decrying the executions, the tensions they have provoked and the problems they have caused for allies.
As Ottawa proceeds with a controversial $15 billion, 10-year sale of armoured fighting vehicles to the Saudis approved by Stephen Harper’s government, the Liberals will have to answer for it if the regime turns the weapons against its own people. This sale bears close watching. The Liberals should be bolder than the Conservatives were in challenging Saudi violations of human rights.
Salman, who was installed this past year, is sending an age-old message that there’s a new sheriff in town, one who won’t brook any trouble.
The executions, by beheading and shooting, were timed to rally the House of Saud’s ultraconservative base behind the government, to crush domestic Sunni support for militant groups after a wave of bombings and shootings that have shaken the kingdom, and to warn the country’s unhappy Shia minority not to get out of line.
The regime has reason to fear for its legitimacy.
The Arab Spring’s push for democracy threatened the monarchy. And Saudi Arabia’s revenues have plunged because of low oil prices. The government has announced budget cuts that trim the generous social spending that has helped stifle political discontent. The execution of scores of Al Qaeda ideologues and attackers was meant to drive home to the kingdom’s Sunni majority the message that no “breaking allegiance with the ruler” will be tolerated.
Similarly, the killing of al-Nimr and others from the country’s restive Shia minority sends a blunt warning that even influential clerics won’t be spared if they dare to openly oppose the monarchy or “incite sectarian strife.” While al-Nimr was a fierce critic of the regime and voice of Shia disaffection, he didn’t advocate violence. Even so, his death also served to reassure the Sunni majority that the regime is looking out for their interests.
Predictably, this provoked a crisis with Iran’s Shia authorities, who have been vying with the Saudis for influence in the Middle East. The Saudi embassy in Tehran has been attacked, prompting Saudi Arabia, and Sunni-led Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan to sever or downgrade ties with Iran. The Sunni-Shia sectarian enmity that has been fanned now threatens to further destabilize the region.
And to no real purpose. Saudia Arabia’s unhappiness with America’s rapprochement with Iran won’t deter Washington from trying to contain Iran’s nuclear threat, and enlisting Tehran’s help against Islamic State and other extremists.
Diplomats are left scrambling to salvage American- and Russian-brokered talks to end Syria’s civil war (where Iran supports Bashar Assad and the Saudis support some of his foes), and efforts to revive a shaky ceasefire in Yemen (where the Saudis have been fighting Iran-allied Shiite Houthi rebels). They also worry about the impact this may have on the loose co-operation that’s needed to fight Islamic State and Al Qaeda effectively.
King Salman couldn’t have chosen a worse time to set a match to old hatreds and trample human rights. Far from being a guardian of Mideast stability, he has become an enabler of sectarian strife.