Brisbane, January 7, 2016 (Alochonaa): When I first heard that Saudi Arabia had executed 47 people in a one day I was surprised only by the fact that it made the leading news and that it had prompted the venerable Hilary Clinton to ask “serious questions” about the Saudi regime (presumably, this was in contrast to her usually light-hearted and amusing questions about the Saudi regime). After all, Sharia law aside, the death penalty is commonly used in the House of Saud to suppress dissent, and without a well-balanced blend of state terror, religious intolerance and oil money, Saudi Arabia would be unrecognizable. Tellingly, the Saudi executions would probably have remained virtually ignored had it not have been for just one man – Nimr al-Nimr.
Al-Nimr was Shia and hated the Sunni-led Saudi dictatorship. The Iranian government is Shia and also hates the Saudis. Predictably, the execution of this one man – not the other 46 – precipitated a diplomatic incident which has culminated in attacks on the Saudi embassy in Iran, the breaking off of what little there was of ‘normalised’ Saudi-Iranian diplomatic contacts, formal protests from other Sunni states, a media offensive by Iran, and words of vague concern from the principal great powers. The Saudi-Iranian stoush is sparking dire warnings of confrontation and instability in the Middle East, and there are fears that the situation may spiral out of control.
For all the hype and harsh rhetoric surrounding the dispute, the situation is unlikely to result in any major shift in policies in the Middle East (I count removing ambassadors as a form of strong complaint rather than a substantive policy). To be clear, Saudi Arabia and Iran are already waging at least two proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, not to mention their respective support for terrorist factions and militias in campaigns across the heartland of the Shia-Sunni split, particularly Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Saudis and Iranians are already as deeply entrenched in proxy wars as they reasonably can be. Both states have poured billions into their proxies over the years, and neither side has anything to gain by moving from proxy war to conventional war. The Saudis cannot defeat Iran militarily, whilst the Iranians will not want to risk their hard won diplomatic gains from the past few years, namely the removal of sanctions and the securing of their nuclear program. Some of these gains will be at risk if Iran pushes any further in this current dispute (the attack on the Saudi embassy scored them no points with anyone outside Iran) and they will not want to appear too threatening to the smaller Gulf states and push them further into the arms of the Saudis.
As I mentioned in a previous post, time is on Iran’s side. Saudi Arabia looks the more frail of the two states, battered by problems of its own making – oil dependency and religious intolerance – and its regime was wobbled by the Arab Spring and other protest movements. Iran, on the other hand, looks set for an economic windfall from the removal of sanctions and has seen its diplomatic leverage enhanced by the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars. Both sides of the Gulf will likely continue their proxy wars and engage in business as usual, meaning cracking down on internal dissent and pursuing all possible adversarial policies short of war itself.
The mindset of permanent proxy war is, of course, why the Saudis ‘had to’ execute al-Nimr in the first place. This is how the Saudi-Iran rivalry has played out from Gaza to Kabul for as long as I have been alive, the only thing that may be exceptional here is that the Saudis appear to be getting a little more desperate and are feeling a little less secure, whilst the Iranians are growing in confidence. Far from pushing these two states on the path to actual war, this dynamic of increasing Saudi insecurity and Iranian confidence will probably not result in any fundamental changes for some years to come. Both sides will be slightly restrained, though perhaps with different rationales in mind.
Al-Nimr’s execution has led to the extraordinary scene of Iranian representatives complaining to Europeans about their respective responsibilities to enforce global human rights norms. This is hard to take seriously considering that states like Iran have long ganged up with dictatorships like China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia to resist European or ‘Western’ interference in other states’ legal systems under the guise of ‘universal’ human rights law. Such cynical uses of legalistic, liberal-sounding language are unedifying but commonplace in international politics, a place where media spin and favourable impressions are important components of domestic support and international legitimacy.
Still, it is pure hypocrisy of Iran to complain about Saudi behaviour in this case. Iran executes more people per capita than anywhere else in the world (about 700 people in the first six months of 2015 alone), and the Iranian regime was founded on a wave of executions that persisted well into the late 1980s. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people were executed by the Iranian government for being terrorists, socialists, communists, the wrong kind of Muslim or just not Muslim enough, and there is no way that Iran would have tolerated a Sunni cleric preaching in Iran the way al-Nimr did in Saudi Arabia. In the strictest sense, al-Nimr is guilty as charged by the Saudis, because he really did preach against the Saudi regime and call for its overthrow. His execution would be mere routine for Saudi Arabia, and every bit as much in Iran and two dozen other dictatorships at least. That doesn’t make his execution right but it does make it normal, and such disturbing normalities are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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