The recent execution of Al-Nimr, a Shia cleric leader who was arrested on 8 July 2012 during protests, along with 46 other men, mostly Sunnis, highlights the crisis facing the regime. Increased repression indicates a fear of the rulers at the top of an impending movement from below.
The official charges were seeking "foreign meddling" in the kingdom, "disobeying" its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces. The Saudi authorities, however, failed to give any concrete evidence of any of the accusations.
The execution of Nimr provoked a backlash in a range of Shia communities all over the Muslim world, but most importantly in Iran and inside Saudi Arabia itself. In Iran, the Saudis managed to provoke an attack on the Saudi Embassy, which gave them an excuse to cut their relations with Iran and drag the Gulf States and Sudan with them.
Inside Saudi Arabia there were also protests of the oppressed and marginalised Shia minority, for whom Nimr was viewed as a point of reference. It would be naive to think that the Saudi rulers had not foreseen the backlash that would come. As an article in The Independent shows, they had even prepared for protests in advance. It therefore seems more like a deliberate act of provocation.
Given all these factors, it leads to some questions about the real intentions behind the (unnecessary and avoidable) execution of Al-Nimr. To understand these, we need to look into the regional and internal situation of Saudi Arabia.
This year the Saudi regime closed its budget with a $98bn deficit as a result of the steep fall in the price of oil. Ironically, the refusal of Saudi Arabia to come to an agreement among oil-producing countries - over the reduction in the overall output in the face of falling demand - has exacerbated the problem.
In an attempt to reduce the budget deficit they have plans to liquidate some of their foreign assets, as well as digging into the reserve funds and selling bonds. These measures, however, have put its credit rating at risk (which was already downgraded by S&P in October this year).
Saudi Arabia is in desperate need of maintaining the confidence of the financial markets, due to the highly underdeveloped nature of her economy. To understand the importance of this “maintaining the confidence of the financial markets” for Saudi Arabia we also need to factor in the big political price that the western governments are paying for their friendship with Saudi Arabia. They are willing to pay this political price as long as it is being balanced by the high economic benefits that this friendship brings for them; but if the “financial markets lose confidence” in Saudi Arabia, the international isolation of the regime can escalate very quickly.
Thus, in order to balance their books internally, the House of Saud needs to cut public spending. But this has been the economic pillar on which their power has rested for decades. They have been trying to avoid social unrest - both on the homefront and among their Gulf States neighbours - by using lavish grants on certain sections of the population to safeguard them against the “less fortunate” parts of society.
During the 2011-12 Arab uprising, King Abdullah spent $130bn to appease a certain section of the population in order to buy peace. A part of this money went to pay two months extra salary a year to government workers. In a similar move, King Salman spent about $32bn in his post-coronation giveaway, giving an extra two months salary to all government employees, soldiers, pensioners and students on government stipends at home and abroad.
It needs to be noted, however, that the majority of government workers (about 3 million) are Sunni Saudi nationals and are paid almost double the private sector workers, three-quarters of whom are made up of foreign workers, who also constitute about a quarter of the Saudi population. For the Al-Saud family to hold on to power the policy of literally buying this section of the population is essential. The dilemma they are facing is that the recent budget deficit has put this very same policy at risk.
Therefore, deepening the sectarian divide by whipping up anti-Shia and anti-Iranian sentiment among the more privileged sections of the population to divert attention away from the cuts in public spending appeared to the ruling family as a way out of this dilemma. But this will be a short-lived and dangerous policy.
The budget deficit in Saudi Arabia, however, is not only due to the fall in revenue from oil. Their expensive regional adventures have also been factors. In its 2016 budget, Saudi Arabia allocated around $57 billion to defense and security.
Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of nine Arab states, began carrying out airstrikes in Yemen in March 2015. Since the beginning, the attempt was made to justify the intervention by painting the Houthis as a mere Iranian proxy. That was the only way for the Saudis to present their own intervention as legitimate. They dragged behind them the GCC countries (except for Oman), plus Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Sudan, with the intelligence and logistical support from United States.
The problem is that the intervention didn’t go as they had expected. It did not result in a quick victory. After more than nine months they have failed to achieve their goals. The war proved to be very costly and also resulted in great humanitarian cost, further increasing international criticism of Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis, although they lost some of their territories, still control a great part of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa. After certain advances by the Saudi-led coalition in the south in autumn, the war seems to have reached a standstill and has entered a phase of attrition in which the Saudis’ only chance of success would be through a long term occupation of Yemen, at an enormous financial and political cost
The first round of peace talks between the Houthis and the Hadi supporters took place in December 2015. The next round was scheduled for mid-January this year. Had the Saudis been more astute, they would have used the opportunity offered to them by Oman in their peace plan to further the peace talks and leave the quagmire in Yemen, saving some face (and money).
Instead, one day after the execution of Al-Nimr, king Salman also formally ended the already fragile ceasefire that had been agreed in mid-December to show good faith during the peace talks. By executing Al-Nimr and breaking the ceasefire, king Salman, the main supporter of Hadi, showed his lack of interest in the continuation of peace talks. He had actually blocked the peace talks in Yemen and by doing so further sank into the swamp he had prepared for himself in Yemen. He is acting like a gambler who wants to regain what he has lost by increasing his bet.
Syria and Iraq wars and the isolation of the Saudis
The Yemen war is, however, not the only regional conflict the Saudis are involved in. The far more important regional conflict is in Iraq and Syria. Riyadh foreign policy in Iraq and Syria has, however, been consistent with their policy in Yemen: they are intentionally trying to stall the peace talks. The reasons are also not dissimilar. After years of supporting Isis and other rebel groups against the Assad regime, now they see themselves on the losing side of the negotiations, so they are trying to flip the table.
Isis and the rebel groups backed by the Saudis and Turkey are retreating, both in Syria and in Iraq. In fact, in this regard, the intentions behind the provocative execution of Al-Nimr by the Saudis reminds us of the downing of the Russian jet by Turkey which we have analysed elsewhere, and here.
The Saudis’ wanted to drive a wedge between converging Iranian and American interest in the region. However, in a news conference, U.S. State Department spokesman. John Kirby highlighted America’s intention to move forward with the peace talks in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
“... [T]hat it’s important to work through that tension, work through those disagreements, so that we can all work harder together on other issues which are affecting the Middle East writ large: the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, which Brett just briefed you on; the continuing strife in Yemen; and of course, the need to really keep moving the political process in Syria forward. There’s a lot on the agenda in the Middle East, and the Secretary wants to make sure that we’re all – all of us are still pulling on the rows – pulling on the oars to get at those objectives.”
This reveals the Saudis’ failure. In the same news conference, Kirby also emphasized that the US has no intention of mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This in reality means leaving the Saudis to themselves. Their manoeuvres have produced the opposite result to what they intended.
Also to the question that “...could [the Saudi embassy] have been attacked, burned, besieged over a significant period of time without some measure of Iranian Government acquiescence?”
Kirby’s answer was very mild:
“I don’t know the answer to that question. We talked about this a little bit yesterday. Iran has expressed regret. They’ve done that in a letter to the UN. I think that’s an encouraging sign. The tick-tock of what happened – who did what when, who didn’t do things they were supposed to do – I think that’s for the Iranian Government to speak to and to look at themselves and to review, not for us. We’re not doing an independent investigation here on what happened. It was obviously an act of violence, or multiple acts of violence, depending on how you look at it that we condemned very publicly. We take very seriously the safety and security of diplomatic property, as you might expect we would. And we respect that property of other nations here in the United States. So obviously, it was very troubling and disconcerting, and we didn’t – we don’t ever want to see that. But it’s just happened. I think it’s too soon for anybody to know exactly how it transpired or whether there was any lack of effort or alacrity in trying to stop it or stem it once it started. But really, that’s really – that’s for Iranian authorities to speak to.” (Our emphasis)
Compare this reaction to the one on the attack on the British Embassy in 2011, which resulted in increased sanctions against Iran, not only by the UK but also by the US and Canada. Obama back then said that all are “deeply disturbed” by the assault. “That kind of behavior is not acceptable, and I strongly urge the Iranian government to hold those who are responsible to task. They have a responsibility to protect diplomatic outposts. That is a basic international obligation that all countries need to observe, and for rioters, essentially, to be able to overrun the embassy and set it on fire is an indication that the Iranian government is not taking its international obligations seriously.”
The then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also said the attack on the British embassy in Tehran was “an affront, not only to the British people but to the international community. And we stand ready to help in any way that we can to make the point, as strongly as possible, that governments owe a duty to the diplomatic community to protect life and property, and we expect the Government of Iran to do so.”
Russia on the other hand has offered to act as a mediator between Tehran and Riyadh. It is yet another sign of declining American influence in the region to the benefit of the Russians - a fact that doesn’t please the Saudi leaders either.
It is not hard to see here the divergence of interest between Riyadh and Washington. The Americans, after a series of unsuccessful wars and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen - into which they were dragged by the Saudis - are no longer able and willing to play the same role in the region. This is opposite to the interests of the Al-Saud family, who want the US to intervene to stop a rising Iran.
Seeing their internal support corroded, hated by much of their own population, seeing their proxies retreat in regional conflicts, and now realising that the Americans are not very keen to support them, King Salman and the Al-Saud family are resorting to very desperate and short sighted measures.
They are trying to further the sectarian divisions in the region so as to appear as the “saviors of the Sunnis”. This kind of manoeuvring is dangerous and short-sighted. In this particular instance, neither the Saudi ruling family, the major world powers, or the Iranian regime seem content with not pushing the pushing matters any further. However in the medium and long term, propelled by the crisis of the Saudi regime, tensions within the country and between it and Iran will only rise.
Thus, although this latest provocation by Saudis will create some disturbance in the Middle East, just like the downing of the Russian jet by Erdogan, it won’t cause any major shift in the balance of forces or the general course of events.
What it does reveal, more than anything else, is the desperate situation the regime finds itself in. With revenues massively falling, it can no longer buy social peace as in the past. And as it is such a repressive regime, they cannot measure to what extent social discontent has prepared movements of opposition and protest. It is a desperate regime that senses its own downfall coming.