Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

The Saudis executed a political dissident this week, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Sheikh Nimr was a Shiite from the Gulf region, an area where Shiites are the majority. During the Arab Spring there were many protests in that area for Shiite rights, and even more on the nearby island of Bahrain. Sheikh Nimr was a leader of those protests, and he preached at least one Friday sermon full of angry denunciations of the Sunni leadership of both kingdoms. He suggested that the Shiite region secede from Saudi Arabia:
Our dignity has been pawned away, and if it is not ... restored, we will call for secession. Our dignity is more precious than the unity of this land.
However, he also explicitly rejected violence. From wikipedia:
The [Saudi] authorities depend on bullets ... and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice. We do not accept [the use of firearms]. This is not our practice. We will lose it. It is not in our favour. This is our approach [use of words]. We welcome those who follow such [an] attitude. Nonetheless, we cannot enforce our methodology on those who want to pursue different approaches [and] do not commit to ours. The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of lead.
The Saudis arrest Sheikh Nimr in 2012, and he was tried and sentenced to death in 2014.

The response to Sheikh Nimr's execution has been protests across the Shiite world, especially in Bahrain. The Iranian foreign minister said,
It is clear that this barren and irresponsible policy will have consequences for those endorsing it and the Saudi government will have to pay for pursuing this policy.
But when a mob attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the police moved in and made many arrests. So Iran doesn't seem interested in escalating the conflict at this time.

I find this very discouraging. The Saudis not only believe that the real defining conflict of their time is a Sunni-Shiite struggle for power in the Middle East, they are working hard to make that struggle real.

Sometimes I think we have the wrong friends in the Middle East. The government of Iran is nasty and thuggish in many ways, but it is more democratic than those of our Arab allies.


G. Verloren said...

Putting aside everything else, we back the Saudi's because they have the oil and they run their country well enough to keep it flowing at prices we like.

Maybe in a few decades, if we've transitioned well onto renewable energy sources, we'll be more willing to cut ties with the Saudis. But currently we rely too much on their oil.

David said...

It might be pointed out that the Iranian government and a large portion of its electorate share the Saudi belief that the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict is the defining one.

Sometimes I too think we are too close to the Saudis and their Persian Gulf allies, and especially too tolerant of rich Saudis' support for spreading Salafism. But there are real reasons for keeping the Saudi alliance. Oil is one of them, and the age and institutional depth of the ties is another. A third is simply that US backing for Saudi Arabia seems to help maintain the regional balance of power, such as it is. There isn't much sign of an emerging Sunni coalition that could materially hurt Iran, but it's not hard to imagine that Iran could materially hurt the Persian Gulf states, with the consequent dangerous shift in the balance of power.

Also, the quest to find some power among Middle Eastern Islamic states that "shares our values" and might value our backing on this basis hasn't yielded great dividends.

It's not clear to me that withdrawing our support from Saudi Arabia would do much good for anyone.