Saudi Arabia’s Sudeiri-line leadership of the House of Sa’ud began 2016 with a major push to save its position and control of the Kingdom. It was also a bid to solidify regional power as the Kingdom moved well beyond the shadow of the major power relationships which had dominated its existence since the creation of the State in 1932.
Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, 56, on January 2, 2016, along with 46 other political dissidents also sparked a divide between Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and several of its allies on the other.1 It was a salvo in a geopolitical war, which is far more deeply-constructed than the seemingly intra-Muslim sectarian war, which is often characterized by symbolic actions and rallying calls.
That is not to say that there was no religious element — even motivation — to the actions. There clearly was a significant religious aspect, but the actions of the Saudi leaders stemmed mostly from an attempt to preserve their position at the head of the geopolitical entity of the Kingdom as well as through their claim to religious leadership from the position which they seized in 1932 as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
This was a crisis which had been brewing for some months, and the execution merely served — and deliberately so on Riyadh’s part — as a catalyst for more visible divisions. GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Yossef Bodansky said that the execution potentially cast Sheikh Nimr in that catalytic position as “the Archduke Ferdinand of the Middle East”. As Bodansky also reported on May 18, 2009: “The fiery Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr (40+) of Awwamiyah is reported to be the spiritual guide of the new Republic [of Eastern Arabia]” which was declared in the Shi’a areas of Saudi Arabia, reason enough for the Kingdom to want his head: he had called for the break-up of the Kingdom.2 Sheikh Nimr was not the unimportant cleric many Western media reports claimed.
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But, by the beginning of 2016, the Saudi leadership needed to galvanize support for its leadership, even its legitimacy, both within the Kingdom and abroad. Concerns over internal social and political fracturing may, arguably, have been more important than winning additional support from other Sunni states for Riyadh’s primacy in wars against Yemen and Syria.
The ramifications of the symbolism of the executions — which immediately appeared profound within the region — seemed likely to be even more significant than the reactive outcry indicated.
Of significance is that the event once again, as a byproduct, damaged U.S.-Saudi Arabian ties, or served to show that Riyadh had moved beyond the influence of Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had, immediately after the anti-Saudi riots which destroyed Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, telephoned Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the issue. He then telephoned his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, only to be told that the Saudis did not wish to speak to him. This was the worst snub to the U.S. by Saudi Arabia since the late King ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud cut short U.S. Pres. Barack Obama’s State visit to the Kingdom on March 28, 2014.
Thus, the growing rift between the Saudi bloc and Iran now appears to be beyond the scope of the U.S. to influence. This begs the question as to how the Saudi-Iran confrontation may now progress, and who might benefit or suffer from it. It was immediately clear that the event threw into chaos negotiations for a peaceful end to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Continuation of that conflict threatens to exacerbate the Saudi budget crisis, which has already led senior Saudi princes to challenge the wisdom of the current leadership.
This may cost Saudi Arabia dearly, particularly if the U.S. position as a Saudi ally is simultaneously thrown into doubt. What now seems significant is that the only “major power” capable of taking advantage of the situation — given the overall spread of conflict from Syria to Yemen, and even across the Red Sea — is Turkey. The U.S. and European Union (EU) have no influence; Russia is perceived as being in support of Iran; and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is attempting to take no side in the rift.
It also begs the question as to what provoked the Kingdom into the mass executions of dissidents as the “unified symbolic message,” which it was.
Part of it lay in the fact that the Saudi leaders had come under increasing pressure from domestic and regional hard-line Wahhabists to demonstrate their credentials and legitimacy. This included pressure from Islamic State (DI’ISH) supporters as well as domestic radicals and even mainline members of the Royal Family who had become disillusioned with the rash destruction of the Saudi economy by escalating spending on foreign wars.
It is significant that, of the 47 dissidents executed on January 2, 2016, three were indeed Saudi Shi’as, but about a third were al-Qaida-linked Saudis, the majority were Sunni.
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In the meantime, although the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) called for an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis, it was clear that the GCC itself was not in harmony, and nor could it represent a balanced view of the situation. Iran, for example, is not represented in the GCC. But within the GCC there is strong antagonism between Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman because the Saudis felt that Oman had acquiesced to Iranian delivery of weapons and combatants to Yemen, overflying Omani airspace to skirt Saudi Arabia and possible U.S. Navy interdiction. Those flights — by Iranian Air Force Ilyushin Il-76MD and Boeing 747 transports — had transported major weapons systems, such as the Iskander-E (NATO codename SS-26) battlefield ballistic missile, and HizbAllah combatants to the Zaidi Shi’a Houthi forces fighting the Saudi coalition.
Oman had, in November 2015 (and later), played a role in bringing the Houthis into the Geneva Peace Talks on Yemen. Talks between the Yemeni Government of Pres. Abd al-Rab Mansour al-Hadi and the Houthis began in Geneva, under United Nations auspices, and on December 15, 2015, both sides called for an immediate ceasefire for seven days. [A previous ceasefire, in June 2015, collapsed before the parties met.] Breaches of the ceasefire began almost immediately, and the talks again broke down and ended by December 20, 2015.
Significantly, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen had been addressing more than merely the Zaidi Houthis; various Sunni al-Qaida groups were also been in conflict with the coalition. On January 1, 2016, pro-Hadi Government fighters killed al-Qaida judge Ali Abed al-Rab bin Talab (aka Abu Anwar) and three others in Abyan province of southern Yemen. Abu Anwar was the chief al-Qaida judge in neighboring Hadramaut Province, which also abuts the southern Omani border.
The Saudi coalition forces were making a major push in late December 2015 against Houthi forces in areas just outside the capital, Sana’a, and the coalition was pushing additional forces into the area. Qatar, at odds with Saudi Arabia on several key issues, was supportive of the Kingdom on this front. In September 2015, Qatar committed 1,000 troops, supported by 200 armored vehicles and 30 Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships, to support the Saudi operation. More Qatari forces were expected to follow to help the coalition take the Jawf Governorate of Yemen. Coalition casualties on the ground have been heavy, and several combat aircraft have been lost to surface-to-air missile fire and accidents: the Royal Moroccan Air Force lost one F-16 in May 2015, and the Bahraini Air Force lost an F-16 in Jazan region, near the Saudi-Yemen border “due to a technical error” in December 2015.
Broader Ramifications: The polarizing of what was portrayed as a “Sunni-Shi’a rift” — in reality a geostrategic rivalry — had a range of other attendant issues:
1. Domestic Security: The attempt by the Saudi leadership, acting in the name of King Salman bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud, but particularly galvanizing around his son, Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 30, to suppress the growing dissent over within the extended Royal Family over the conduct of national affairs and the growing decline in the economy and economic outlook. This known dissidence has reinforced other, non-Royal, dissidents, and all opposition was now being treated as “terrorism”.
2. Regional Fears: There is no doubt that there has been concern within the Government, as well as regionally, that the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict has taken the initiative away from the collection of often mutually-opposing “Sunni forces”, and restored the initiative to the Government of Bashar al-Assad and, therefore, to his ally, Iran. Moreover, successful actions by the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi Government against Islamic State (DI’ISH) forces in recent months had also reduced the impetus of Sunni forces in Iraq, which could be influenced by Saudi Arabia, and given momentum to Iran. Iran, too, was gaining in strength by its ability to shape the conduct of the war in Yemen, by ensuring no quick victory for Saudi-led forces. This was compounded by the reality that Iran would only gain in economic and military strength (and regional influence) as the international sanctions against it were lessened as a result of the 2015 deal which Iran struck with the G5+1 team, led by the U.S., ostensibly to end Iranian nuclear weapons programs. Little wonder that the Saudi leadership viewed the U.S. as no friend.
3. Economic Pressures: Both Iran (freed from oil sanctions) and Saudi Arabia committed to increasing crude oil production in early 2016. Saudi Arabia was counting on the fact that falling international oil prices were helping to drive U.S. shale oil producers out of business. Although the U.S. shale production technologies have proven to have evolved more rapidly towards low-cost viability than expected, the decline in oil prices by more than 60 percent since June 2014 has driven the number of U.S. oil rigs from a peak of 1,609 rigs in October 2014 to a low of 524 on December 11, 2015.
Some Saudi analysts would argue that the gamble to continue strong oil production in the face of low prices was paying off. But the continued high budget deficits which the Saudi Government is incurring threaten to exhaust its $700-billion of financial reserves within five or so years. And Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas reserves have been estimated to last — at the current rates of depletion — for only another 18 or so years. Saudi Arabia’s policies, however, are a gamble that the low price of oil has been determined largely by the increased supplies made available by U.S. shale exploitation. This is not the case: current and anticipated global economic malaise has also limited demand. Moreover, a rise in global economic fortunes (and therefore energy demand) would also trigger a resumption of the rise in U.S. production, quite apart from the reality that a future U.S. administration would at some stage approve a widening of the exploitation of the larger U.S. oil and gas reserves which currently have been ruled out of bounds. But for the Saudi leadership the existential nature of short-term survival outweighs long-term considerations.
4. Rash Actions: Saudi Arabia’s very real concerns that the Yemen war was dragging on far longer than it could realistically sustain has made it undertake rash actions, such as the steps, in concert with the United Arab Emirates, in 2015 to cut relations with Djibouti and bolster Eritrea and potentially Somaliland.5 The way in which this occurred de facto caused a threat to Ethiopia, which depends vitally on Djibouti for its exports. Despite Saudi Arabia’s feelings of distrust for the U.S. at present, the U.S. had, in fact, supported Saudi Arabia and the UAE over its rift with Djibouti, at potentially significant strategic cost to the United States’ ability to sustain power projection in the Red Sea. This, too, jeopardizes Ethiopia’s security, and the polarization of Saudi-Ethiopian feelings seems likely to impact on Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s military support for Eritrea, reviving the belief by Pres. Isayas Afewerke in Asmara that he could (with help from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi) resume his proxy war against Ethiopia.
It was not insignificant that Ethiopia was jarred on January 2, 2015, to learn that the U.S. had unilaterally withdrawn from its use of the Ethiopian Air Base at Arba Minch, from where it had conducted UAV strike and reconnaissance operations against Somalia’s al-Shabaab and other jihadist rebel groups. The Ethiopian leadership had pinned all its strategic hopes on the protective umbrella of the U.S., but that was now being gradually eroded. Rash Saudi actions have continued elsewhere, and the least obvious of these, the construction of Wahhabist mosques around the world, may finally face opposition, not just in Western countries, but even in Pakistan and Ethiopia. But Saudi Arabia’s financial support for anti-Chinese jihadist groups, such as the “East Turkistan Independence Movement” has alienated PRC support for Saudi Arabia. Russia, by September 2015, had become the primary oil supplier to the PRC, a situation which seemed likely to continue. There is little doubt that, as U.S./Western strategies persist, and Saudi-Qatari-Turkish support for jihadism continues, Russia and the PRC have found growing identity of strategic interests.
5. Egypt and Others: Where does the Saudi direction leave Egypt? Saudi Arabia and the UAE were vital economic supporters of Egypt when popular dissent drove then-Pres. Mohammed Morsi from office in mid-2013. They remain the most critical investment partners of incumbent Pres. Abdul Fatah al-Sisi. As a result, Egypt has been compelled to support the Saudi-UAE drive into Yemen, and to remain silent on Saudi actions — in concert, often, with Qatar and Turkey — in Syria, even though Cairo has grave concerns about Saudi actions. The Egyptian Government has also remained notably quiet on issues such as the Saudi and UAE rift with Djibouti and Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s move to create military bases into (and provide military and economic support for) Eritrea. Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s actions with regard to Yemen, Eritrea, and Djibouti profoundly affect Egypt’s most vital trade route: the Suez/Red Sea sea-line of communication (SLOC). But Saudi Arabia’s seemingly messianic war against Shi’ism in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and domestically within the Kingdom has made some of its historical allies, such as Pakistan (where some 20 percent of the population is Shi’a), nervous.
Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s National Assembly voted unanimously on April 10, 2015, to reject Saudi Arabia’s request to join the anti-Houthi military coalition, despite the extremely close ties which Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has had with the Kingdom. Even for Egypt, which has no Shi’a population of any significance, Saudi Arabia’s marriage with intra-Sunni rivals Turkey and Qatar causes concern. Clearly, Egypt is seeking cultural and strategic leadership within the Arabic-speaking world, but has not sought the kind of religious leadership of the Sunni community which has been sought by the Saudis, Qatar, and Turkey. As if to reinforce his secular credentials over the religious, Egyptian Pres. al-Sisi on December 26, 2015, met with Iraqi citizen Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who had been kidnapped and assaulted by DI’ISH fighters when they took control of Sinjar city in August 2014. The Yazidi religion of Sharfadin is pre-Islamic and linked to ancient Mesopotamian religions.
Unspoken in all media reporting is the position of Israel, which has significant, close intelligence ties with Saudi Arabia, but which is concerned over Turkish, Qatari, and Saudi (and U.S.) attempts to replace Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad. The latest Saudi moves seem likely to consolidate consultations between Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, in particular.
Bahrain, committed to the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and yet with a majority Shi’a population, immediately sided with Saudi Arabia in breaking diplomatic relations with Iran. This may have been an attempt to limit any Iranian Embassy-based inspiration of riots against the Government, but even so, Iran’s reach into the Bahraini community is clearly deep and discreet, and Bahrain could soon experience significant unrest. This would impact U.S. and British military deployments based in that Kingdom.
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6. Syria and DI’ISH: The question remains as to whether the significant upsurge in internal security actions, which the January 2, 2016, executions symbolized, would detract from Saudi Arabia’s physical ability to fund and staff military, intelligence, and jihad-related activities against Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad and in tacit support of DI’ISH (Islamic State). Saudi Arabia cannot afford to absent itself from the leadership of the Sunni cause in Syria and Iraq, but neither can it afford the physical cost of a significant military contribution. Thus, the Syria/Iraq intervention would likely continue to be a function of the intelligence services, particularly the General Intelligence Presidency (Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah) and the military intelligence agencies.
In the short term, Saudi Arabia seems likely to continue to escalate its military activities in Yemen to attempt to force a settlement — and a public indication of victory — as quickly as possible. Iran’s function would be to defer, mitigate, or defeat this goal. Saudi Arabia’s next step, already underway, must be to mobilize to the maximum the radical and moderate Sunni Muslim support, galvanized around Wahhabism, to fight its geopolitical war against Iran as a religious war.
In such a war, assertions of moral and dialectical correctness are major weapons of legitimacy, but they are not the underlying cause of the conflict. But by launching a new dynamic, Saudi Arabia has helped further unleash proxy and follow-on (or competing non-governmental militancies) over which it has little or no control. It is true that the Saudi leadership has not thought about second- or third-order effects of its current, expedient actions. But it is also true that the factors actually beyond measurable calculation or control, such as the social motivations within the Muslim world’s various factions, may be the determinants of whether the situation could trigger an irreversible and major conflict, or the collapse of states.
Saudi Arabia could still be one of the major casualties of its own actions. And while the break-up of Yemen, once again, now seems like a foregone conclusion, the break-up of Saudi Arabia could occur with equal speed.