Fire in the Desert: Nimr al-Nimr and the Future of Saudi Arabia

The death of one man in Saudi Arabia last Saturday has poured petrol on the sectarian fire currently engulfing the Middle East. The Saudi Interior Ministry announced last weekend that it had executed 47 people on charges of terrorism and incitement. Among them was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric from the restive Eastern Province who had spoken out against anti-Shia discrimination in the kingdom.

Portrait of Nimr, in BahrainA woman holds a portrait of Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr at a demonstration in Bahrain (image: The Guardian)

In response to his death, mob-style attacks ensued against the Saudi embassy in Tehran, leading Saudi Arabia (and its Sunni allies in Bahrain and Sudan) to sever diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic. There are a number of things that Riyadh stands to gain from al-Nimr’s death and the resulting escalation in tensions between the kingdom and Iran.

Firstly, the Saudi government surely sought to placate the more conservative elements of the Wahhabi religious establishment who have traditionally provided the largest source of domestic pressure.

Here, the regime has played a deft hand: Most of the 47 men put to death were Sunni extremists, many of them hailing from powerful Saudi tribes. By executing al-Nimr alongside them, the regime likely sought to appease the more conservative hard-liners who would sympathise with these fanatics. However, the execution of these extremists was also likely intended to distract the attention of Western governments from the obvious human rights violations associated with al-Nimr’s sentence.

Nimr al-Nimr2Nimr al-Nimr was one of Saudi Arabia’s most outspoken Shia clerics (image: ibtimes.co.uk)

The move marks a shift in Saudi policy, demonstrating a more hard-line approach to dealing with Iran, the kingdom’s Shia regional nemesis. This approach – often associated with the rise to power of King Salman in 2015 – holds far-reaching implications for the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is facing domestic pressure to react from more conservative elements within the Islamic Republic, particularly in the wake of the nuclear deal reached in 2015 with the P5+1, which more than ruffled the feathers of anti-American hard-liners in Iran. Perhaps Riyadh – which recently announced the formation of a new Muslim ‘anti-terror’ coalition – seeks to exploit this pressure to further polarise the region along sectarian lines.

This might benefit the Saudi regime in the short-term, sending a menacing message to restive Shia populations in the Eastern Province and justifying potential crackdowns on anti-government demonstrators. Meanwhile, increased clashes with Iran distract citizens and international observers from the internal problems facing the Saudi monarchy.

QatifAnti-government protests in Qateef, the Shia-majority Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia (image: Politico)

Just days before Sheikh Nimr’s execution, the Saudi government announced that its 2016 national budget was facing a deficit of almost $100 billion, largely due to falling oil prices. This will eventually force the kingdom to cut spending on subsidies, social welfare and public sector employment – all of which are central to the social contract that keeps the fate of individual Saudis inextricably bound to that of their rulers. The unravelling of this contract would therefore be disastrous for the survival of the regime.

The escalation in tensions with Iran has inevitably twisted the linchpin in this contract – oil. Prices rose earlier this week as tensions between the two countries threatened to further destabilise the wider region – an outcome that the Saudi regime would surely welcome. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly refused to cut oil production in the wake of tumbling prices in an attempt to maintain its share of the market. If oil prices rose as a result of increased tensions with Iran, this would help reduce the kingdom’s deficit, if only slightly.

Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, this benefit was short-lived; oil prices plummeted once again on Thursday to $33 a barrel as a result of China’s weakening currency and subsequent fears for the world economy. The spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran will also inevitably cause friction within the OPEC cartel (of which the two countries are the most powerful members), as regional members start to take sides.

oilDeclining oil prices threaten the very social contract that guarantees the survival of the House of Saud (image: WSJ)

While this move might be seen as a quick fix, it is also a dangerous gamble for the Saudi regime. Increased conflict with Iran risks destabilising the already extremely volatile sectarian balance in the Gulf, potentially causing rifts that extremist groups like ISIS will inevitably exploit.

It also ups the ante in the sectarian proxy wars taking place in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; Two Sunni mosques in Baghdad were attacked in response to the execution – a win for ISIS, which thrives off Sunni-Shia mistrust using such attacks to aid recruitment. The effects of the spat have also been felt in Sanaa, where Iran accused Saudi Arabia of attacking its embassy this week.

The execution of Sheikh Nimr might provide the House of Saud with short-term relief to some of its problems. However, in the long run, the risks of fanning the fire of sectarianism and further destabilising the region far outweigh the potential benefits.

From Riyadh, a cry of desperation rings clear.

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