The sectarian rivalries the Saudis are trying to ignite in an anti-Iran logic are a direct threat to the whole region, and the Middle East’s near future is now dependent on Teheran’s responses
Too fast have the events of the past two days unfolded before our eyes.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia carried out the execution of 47 prisoners – some of them accused of involvement in the Al-Qaeda-led terror attacks that have hit the country over the past years, others of incitement of violence against the government.
Bearing in mind that in 2015 alone Saudi Arabia executed 175 people, the executions of the 2nd January might look as nothing more than the prosecution of a grim record that ensures Saudi Arabia a place in all the statistics on human rights violations. However, this time it is different and worse, because beyond the human rights dimension there is a political one, that comes to give a particular significance to the executions of Saturday and has the potential of spreading instability and violence across the whole region.
Among the 47 people executed on Saturday, in fact, one individual stands out: Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Arrested in 2012 with the charge of inciting the wave of anti-government protests that in the framework of the Arab Spring did not spare the Saudi Kingdom, Nimr al-Nimr was more than a critic of the House of Saud. He was also more than a Shia expressing his resentment towards a Sunni government that has always relegated the Shia minority of the country in a marginalized position: he was the face of all the Saudi Shias who in 2011-12 took to the streets asking for the end of discrimination. He was expression of the Shia soul of a Wahhabist country that one day though will have to deal with its Shia side in a more inclusive way, if it aspires to be something more than a regional power. He was a man and an icon, and the execution of a figure like him cannot but have consequences in the broader region, there where the axis Sunni-Shia is still the main definer of the individuals’ identity and one of the major driver of the countries’ foreign policies.
Not surprisingly, Nimr al-Nimr’s execution sparked a wave of protests than spread from the Gulf to Indian Kashmir, going through Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.
And it is indeed at Iran that we have to look to understand what lies behind Saudi Arabia’s move.
Putting on the lenses of Realism to look at the region’s reality, it immediately emerges how Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two protagonists of a zero-sum struggle for power. The champion of Sunnism and the exponent of Shiism are indeed involved in a struggle whose price is nothing less than influence on the region, and whose battlefields are Syria as much as Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to carry out Nimr al-Nimr’s execution has the effect of dramatically escalating the tensions between Riyadh and Teheran: on Saturday itself, the Saudi Embassy in the Iranian capital was set on fire and on Sunday Saudi Arabia announced the end of any diplomatic tie with Iran.
Why do so then? Precisely to achieve this result: escalate tensions with the region’s number one rival.
In the bilateral competition for power of which Saudi Arabia and Iran are the players, the former has emerged over the past year as the weakest one. Since Salman became king last January, global economy and international diplomacy have played against Riyadh and given King Salman sleepless nights.
As if the fall of oil prices was not enough to dramatically weaken the influence of a country whose contracting power and strength has since its foundation relied on its black oil, the nuclear agreement reached by the P5+1 with the ayatollah has made Saudis’ position even more staggering.
Iran has indeed emerged over the last months as a growing regional power, whose re-integration in the international economic and political system represents a direct threat to Riyadh’s national interests. If to this we add the increasing possibility of negotiations emerging on the horizon of the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars that would improve Iran’s image worldwide, it emerges the necessity for the Saudis of curbing the rival’s rise.
The execution of Nimr al-Nimr find thus explanation within such framework. It is the last, exasperate card played by a country in economic and political decline trying to preserve what still remains of its traditional role of major regional actor. A role the Saudis are trying to preserve igniting the sectarian conflict in the Middle East; pushing Iran to react harshly and thus lose the possibility of a full (re)integration in the international system; strengthening Sunnis’ anti-Shia feeling in the whole region; protracting the wars in Yemen and Syria to prevent Iran exploiting the benefits of diplomatic negotiation.
As of now, Iran has reacted verbally only and the ayatollah – though obviously condemning Nimr al-Nimr’s execution – has also avoided leaving unpunished those who attacked the Saudi embassy in Teheran.
By so doing, Iran is following not only a positive path that might succeed in keeping the sectarian tensions under check, but also a strategic one. It is playing the Saudis’ card against the Saudis themselves. It is presenting itself as a reasonable regional power who reacts by words without inciting violence as the Saudis hoped, and it is making all the responsibility of sectarian clashes fall on Riyadh, thus impairing even more their international image, when not even legitimacy.
A route of action that, if maintained with coherence and avoidance of any reprisal, will confirm even more Iran’s rise – despite the dangerous game the Saudis have initiated and that could turn into an added element to their recent weakness.