When Saudi Arabia executed the Shiite cleric and political dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, the country’s leaders were aware that doing so would upset their longtime rivals in Iran. In fact, the royal court in Riyadh was probably counting on it. It got what it wanted. The deterioration of relations has been precipitous: Protesters in Tehran sacked Saudi Arabia’s embassy; in retaliation, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties. More severe fallout could follow — possibly even war.This makes sense to me, although I also think that the Saudi leadership believes it must lead the Sunnis in a struggle for power against the Shiites all across the Middle East. I doubt this will lead to a major war any time soon, especially given how badly the Saudi military is doing in Yemen. But I think the conflict colors just about everything the Saudis do. Jones again:
Why did Saudi Arabia want this now? Because the kingdom is under pressure: Oil prices, on which the economy depends almost entirely, are plummeting; a thaw in Iranian-American relations threatens to diminish Riyadh’s special place in regional politics; the Saudi military is failing in its war in Yemen.
In this context, a row with Iran is not a problem so much as an opportunity. The royals in Riyadh most likely believe that it will allow them to stop dissent at home, shore up support among the Sunni majority and bring regional allies to their side. In the short term, they may be right. But eventually, stoking sectarianism will only empower extremists and further destabilize an already explosive region.
The real problem is not just that Saudis are willing to live with violent sectarianism. They are now beholden to it, too. That the kingdom’s leaders have embraced sectarianism so recklessly suggests that they have little other choice. This should be frightening, considering more is likely to be in store. But it should also be clarifying for those who believe that Saudi Arabia is a force for stability in the Middle East. It is not.