History seems to be repeating itself. The Bani Saud's execution of the respected Islamic scholar Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has aroused intense hatred for them and also stoked the already simmering sectarian warfare. Will the Bani Saud survive their latest folly?
Tuesday January 12, 2016, 18:19 EST
"Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Thus spoke King Henry II sometime in November 1170 CE about Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket was a deeply religious and ascetic person as well as someone who refused to endorse the King's religious desires. At one time the King's childhood mentor and close friend, but now arch foe, he was murdered in December 1170, by the King's henchmen.
Such type of thinking most likely prevailed in the corridors of the Saudi leadership and power structures of recent years as a means to rid them of "their meddlesome priest”, Sheikh Nimr Baqer al-Nimr.
Sentenced to death in October 2014 on charges of "sedition, seeking foreign meddling, disobeying Saudi rulers and taking up arms against the security forces", a murder most foul was committed on January 2, 2016 when Sheikh Nimr was executed by Saudi authorities.
Why would Saudi Arabia take such a step, especially now, and risk the ire of both friend and foe? The action was certain to weaken the already strained relations with Iran which have since collapsed. It has and will henceforth significantly rachet up the level of geo-sectarian armed conflict ravaging the region, a new phrase that has come into use recently.
Is this the foolhardy and desperate act of a dying regime leading to a "tipping point", the “beginning of the end", an "imperial over reach" or a "murder too far"? Or is this a cold, calculated move to create favourable circumstances for themselves?
While the phrase is fairly new, the phenomenon itself isn’t. History and Christianity, that had their heyday of mass scale murder in the name of God, is replete with such examples.
The most famous being the terribly destructive "30 Years Christian sectarian War" in Central Europe from 1618 to 1648 CE primarily between the Christian Catholic Austrian Habsburgs and the Christian Protestant King Gustav of Sweden, each supported by their respective sectarian allies.
The causes were many. Following the Peace of Augsburg in 1566 CE to end the Protestant/Catholic-based sectarian conflicts plaguing Europe, the principle of "Cuis regio, euic religio" was adopted. Literally this meant that a realm would adopt the religion of its ruler. However the Holy Roman Emperor, a Habsburg, wanted to restore the power of Catholicism in the region and started to break away from this principle. The Protestant power structures revolted, entering the fray under the garb of sectarianism to acquire more power thus signaling the start of a conflict which turned Europe into a wasteland. Europe was a free for all during these 30 years. Mercenaries, brigands, criminals - in fact anyone with a weapon and/or a horse - joined this blood laden saga of terrible pillage, plunder and unspeakable violence committed by both Catholics and Protestants, resulting in the mass slaughter of millions. This carnage was perpetrated in the name of God and Christian Europe’s sectarian beliefs.
The estimated casualties of this conflict are horrifying. Eight million were killed in the name of God. The population of Germany, then divided into 224 states, was reduced by 40%! Males by 50%! The Czech population was reduced by a third; all for geo-sectarianism and the desire to extend power and influence by using sectarian religious sentiments.
Strangely, it also resulted in some peculiar bedfellows where geo-politics overcame sectarian biases. For example, Catholic France, which had earlier sided with the Catholic Habsburgs, jumped ship and joined Protestant King Gustav fearing Habsburg domination in Europe.
The result was the rout of the House of Habsburg as the dominant world power.
So are we headed for a geo-sectarian, Shia–Sunni war?
The answer lies in the actions of the Bani Saud. Why did Saudi Arabia, (and when one says Saudi Arabia, we really mean the Saud ruling family, as others don't really have a say and don't matter) resort to this highly nuclear fissionable act in the form of executing Sheikh Nimr? Is this the foolhardy and desperate act of a dying regime leading to a "tipping point", the “beginning of the end", an "imperial over reach" or a "murder too far"? Or is this a cold, calculated move to create favourable circumstances for themselves?
While it is clearly a complex issue with many dimensions, one reason clearly stands out: to win the hearts and minds of their own people in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are virulently anti-Shia and also silent supporters of Daesh. Further, to ingratiate themselves with the other Wahhabi terror outfits fighting in Syria and Iraq such as Al Qaeda militant group, Jubhat Al Nusra, Jaish al Islam, Jaish al Fatah and Ahrar al Sham who can at a future date fight alongside the Saudis against DAESH when that time comes. Little do they know that these same proxies will be fighting them as all proxies do. The Tehrik-e Taliban is a most recent example of how a splinter group of a Pakistan-sponsored proxy turned against the State.
Finally, it is an attempt to reach out to the larger Sunni world in general, especially of the Salafi-Wahhabi ilk and be seen as the leader of an Arab Sunni world against a so-called "intemperate" "aggressive" and "demonic" Iran.
But the bigger question is why do they need to ingratiate themselves with their own people who they have ruled with an iron fist for nearly 90 years?
Let us not forget that King Abdul Aziz, father of the present ruler, first declared himself the ruler of the two "Kingdoms of Nejd and Hejaz" in 1925-26 and then renamed it the "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" in 1932 after mercilessly slaughtering (with British provided machine guns) the very people (the Ikhwan) who brought him to power in the infamous Battle of Sabila in 1930.
The answer to this lies in the strategy of their biggest enemy. No, not Iran but Daesh, who has the ideological potential to overthrow them.
Daesh is extremely smart; in fact, very smart. Their each and every move is calculated to do two things. First, to raise their brand internationally so they can recruit more people and gain more funding. Hence, the Paris Attacks which then inspire lone wolf acts like San Bernardino, both trying to achieve the same objective of attracting global supporters.
But secondly and far more sinister from Daesh’s perspective is to show the people of Saudi Arabia, specifically the die-hard Salafi-Wahhabis who hate the Shia, that Al Saud are weak and not as harsh on the "takfiri" Shias as Daesh are. Hence they must be removed from power and the country ruled by Daesh to create a “pure Caliphate”. Daesh also aims, as part of this strategy, to widen the Shia–Sunni schism and exacerbate the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, thus bringing about a conflict between the two, a conflict that will weaken both countries and certainly bring about the downfall of the Bani Saud regime.
So what does Daesh do? It attacks Shia mosques with suicide bombers in Saudi Arabia. An Ismaili mosque in the south was not spared either. This puts the Bani Saud in a quandary. If they don't go after the perpetrators of these acts then the whole world sees them as complicit with the terrorists. If they do go after them, which they did, then they are seen as being "weak and supportive" of the "takfiri" Shias and against the interests of the Salafi-Wahhabi Sunnis who are upholding the faith by killing the Shias of the land. So it’s really damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Brilliant; just brilliant.
Daesh is extremely smart; in fact, very smart.
So how do the Bani Saud handle it? Due to the fact they have to execute 43 Sunni terrorists, they balance this by executing four Shias with Sheikh Nimr, a highly revered international Shia figure, being one of them. This “meddlesome priest” who had become a thorn in the side of Bani Saud, inspired young Shias in the oil-rich heartlands of the Eastern provinces to rise up for their rights. The Bani Saud’s underlying message to the Wahhabis at large and their own people in particular was that while we do not support terrorism in our country (Syria being another matter) we most certainly do not support Shias. “Please continue to support us and not Daesh!” is the Bani Saud motto. So many birds with one stone! Simple.
So what now?
Will the country, in the hands of a stripling, clearly unstable, 29 year old, Prince "Reckless" Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and son of the King, slide down a suicidal slippery slope to their destruction and play into the hands of Daesh? I think there is a great possibility. As said Prometheus"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad".
Will Iran also play into the hands of Daesh and escalate its fight with the Bani Saud to avenge Sheikh Nimr’s murder? It is highly unlikely and Iran should not. The country has suffered enough as a result of illegal sanctions. They will and should maintain a sensible approach and watch the Bani Saud self-destruct.
Will the “30-year-war scenario” now also play out in the Middle East starting a genocidal Shia–Sunni conflagration? A serious possibility, if a Daesh like group takes over the Arabian Peninsula.
Will the US and Western powers continue to watch and support the Bani Saud march of folly and the potentially horrific consequences of their actions? There is no ready answer. Too much money and interests are at stake. If the American and Western defence and oil lobbies can be held at bay and better sense prevails, they should intervene diplomatically and set in motion actions for regime change. There are still many sane voices in Saudi Arabia who are appalled at the way their country is governed. But many, as the Saudi saying goes, are “put behind the sun” never to be seen again. They must be supported. Pakistan and Turkey can play a vital role in ensuring the country does not fall into the hands of DAESH or other similar entity. They should focus on transforming it into a stable polity that would serve the interests of its people as the Muslims at large and not remain a rabid entity as it currently is.
Will Iran also play into the hands of Daesh and escalate its fight with the Bani Saud to avenge Sheikh Nimr’s murder? It is highly unlikely and Iran should not.
While forcing regime change has serious negative fall outs the options are very limited. The Bani Saud, it seems have finally run their course and are also running out of options, hence their extremely risky, confused and contradictory decisions and actions with no long term clarity, except survival.
In Bahrain, they also created and funded the hardline Salafi supporters of the Emir of Bahrain against the Shia majority population represented by Al Wefaaq party. Through the Bahraini Emir, they have attempted to dilute the 90% Shia majority of Bahrain by importing tens of thousands of Sunnis from Pakistan, Jordan and other places and granting them Bahraini citizenship while denying their own people the option of elections and self governance.
Their Yemen adventure is in tatters. In fact the Houthis have captured Saudi land in three places.
Thus their attempt to portray themselves as the leader of the Sunni and Arab world against a "terrorist" Iran has miserably failed. Tiny Bahrain and starving Sudan were all they could muster. No other Gulf country broke off ties with Iran. Even UAE only downgraded ties. Some more like Qatar and Kuwait have followed suit by recalling ambassadors, but falling short of breaking ties.
The US and Europe are confused and now wary of the Bani Saud's actions and do not blindly endorse them as before.
In fact they are now looking towards developing a much stronger and positive engagement with Iran. TheObama administration has sent clear signals on Iran. Lifting sanctions will provide Iran with over a $100 billion in currently frozen assets. Its oil output will increase from 1 million to 2.5 million barrels a day, post sanctions. As a result oil prices will continue south adding to Saudi Arabia's economic woes.
So the Saudis’ entire strategy to keep Iran isolated has been a huge failure.
The Bani Saud are desperate and hence dangerous and their actions fraught with grave consequences. Will sanity prevail? Will they allow meaningful reform in the country and give up much of their power to the people? Unlikely.
Who will emerge victorious from this madness: Iran or the Bani Saud? Iran is unlikely to come out of this any worse for the wear. But there is real possibility of the Bani Saud going down in flames taking with them the last vestiges and semblance of Muslim unity, leaving the world to deal with the nightmarish scenario of a DAESH like structure replacing them.