Geo-political shifts follow Saudi Arabia’s mass executions; 47 people put to death

Saudi Arabia's Bandar bin Mohammen Alaiban addressing the UN Human Rights Council in March of 2015. (Photo credit: Violaine Martin via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Saudi Arabia carried out executions en masse Saturday. Forty-seven people were put to death. Saudi state news says all were convicted on terrorism charges, but according to Human Rights Watch at least four were opposition protesters. The executions took place in a dozen cities and towns spread across the country. Leading opposition figure and influential Shia cleric, Sheik Nimr al Nimr, was among those put to death. Al Nimr and three others executed Saturday were arrested during Arab Spring demonstrations. The executions sparked worldwide outrage and exacerbated diplomatic tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. FSRN’s Nell Abram talks with Omer Aziz, a fellow at the Yale Information Society Project who recently published a piece in the Huffington Post called “Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, and Their Gift to Yale.”

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Nell Abram: First, this mass execution was the largest in decades in the country and comes at a time of underlying domestic challenges for the Saudi monarchy. Why now, and why so widespread?

Omer Aziz: I think for two reasons. The Saudis are starting to get very nervous about what’s happening, both at home and in the region. There was, not quite a secession crisis when the previous king died, but there was definitely some tremors and some nervousness within the Saudi royal family.

Early this year, even one of the Saudi princes, or a senior member of the family even, began circulating a letter around. Two members of the family saying that they basically need a regime change, we need to replace the current king, who is old and who is going to die soon. And then, also, in the region as well, what we’ve seen is a level of instability, basically a breaking down of the post-war order in the Middle East that was basically stabilized for 60 or 70 years by authoritarian despots and American funds and American support. That’s basically breaking down now.

We see the civil war in Syria, where, of course, Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposite sides; we see the war in Yemen, which has killed so many people and where, of course, Saudi Arabia and Iran are also on opposite sides. And then there was, of course, the Arab Spring, which just sent shockwaves across the region. And so you basically have the Saudis now, getting very anxious and, probably the sort of icing on top of their cake, that sort of highlighted all of this was the Iran Deal, which they were very worried about and which American diplomats took a lot of time to convince them because the Saudis are worried that the United States would shift away from the Gulf countries and begin some kind of partnership with their mortal enemy. And so I think that this was really, the past couple of years what we’ve seen between the Arab Spring and the wars, and then now with Iran Deal, has been leading up to this.

NA: How do the mass executions serve the interests of the Saudi regime with respect to the issues you just articulated?

OA: Anytime an individual is executed, it’s not only the death of the person as a form of criminal punishment, but there’s an expressive power, there’s a message that the state sends to its people and to the world. And the Saudis sent this message in no unclear and uncertain terms, and that is that we are not going to tolerate any kind of domestic dissidence, we’re not going to tolerate any kind of sort of domestic political participation, we’re not going to uphold the rights of Shia minorities, and also that we are serious about this this war, this rivalry, whatever you want to call it, with Iran.

Sheik al Nimr was a Shiite who was a minority and Iran claims to be, or at least many times claims to be, speaking for the Shia minority in the Middle East. And so, this was basically their way of taking, basically, the first shot in the Sunni-Shia civil war that’s reemerged. And I think that’s going to continue to worsen. And it’s kind of ironic that this is happening now, because the United States was able to get Saudi Arabia and Iran at the same table for the first time for the Syria peace talks, only recently, in October and November. So you would think that there was some good will and there was some diplomatic capital to be spent and to build off of, and yet this is how they started basically the new year, and I think it is portentous and it’s going to highlight the divisions and only exacerbate them, as we’ve seen with the breaking of diplomatic relations or with Bahrain and other Sunni countries with a Shia majority, also reducing its relations with Iran and with Iran sending some very strong rhetoric and in the direction of Riyadh.

NA: The Saudi claim all those executed were convicted of charges related to terrorism, yet Sheik Nimr al Nimr was known to criticize both Sunni and Shia leadership and called for peaceful protests and open democracy in the country. Why him? Why is his execution standing out among the 47?

OA: Well, A) because he was a very influential Shiite. I know Shiites, Shiite Muslims, devout Shiite Muslims who basically have told me and have posted this on social media, where they’ve said – I mean, there’s Shiites living in the West who have basically said that we were waiting for this to happen. Not in the sense that they were welcoming it, but in the sense that they thought it was only a matter of time he was executed because of his platform, because of the things he was calling for, because he had this following. And because his execution, in particular, would stoke outrage. And I think the Saudis actually don’t mind that, right? They completely recognize that they’re in this grand strategic rivalry for the heart and soul of Islam and they’ve taken one side of it, and they see the Iranians are on the other side, and they’re fighting proxy wars across the region. I think the domestic element is very important as well. You know, for this first time in many years, people in America, people in the West, are seriously raising questions about, you know, why is it that we have a partnership with a government and a regime that basically shares the same ideology as ISIS, known as Wahhabism or Salafism. And so, the more that people actually ask those kinds of questions, the more the legitimacy of the Saudi family, the royal family, is questioned. I think they’re going to very anxious, and so this is kind of one way for them to get ahead of the curve in terms of the anxiety domestically, and to send a message to their people, and to Muslims, and to region and the world.

NA: Omer Aziz, fellow at the Yale Information Society Project, let’s discuss the sectarian divide for a moment. Many articles and analysts describe a bifurcated, Sunni-Shia dynamic. Is that just simplistic shorthand for something far more complex?

OA: Yeah, I mean, I think that the sectarian divide is essentially, it’s a political rivalry, that it’s clothed in religious garb. And what I mean by that is that, you have a Quran, Islam, by the text, by the practice of the religion, doesn’t have sects, it doesn’t mention Sunni, it doesn’t mention Shia. This division comes out of a political rivalry that began after the death of the Prophet over who should govern and lead the Muslim community. And over time, you know, there were some minority sects that died away, and there others that rose up. Iran only became a Shia country in the 16th century. And the Wahhabi sort of ideology in the Saudi royal family comes to power in the 17th-18th century. And so this is, relatively, a modern incarnation of that war, but basically what we’ve seen is that these sort of rival interpretations of political rule on who should lead the Muslim community have been superimposed upon, you know, a grand strategic rivalry between two states.

One of them, at least in the case of Iran, was an empire and historic state with a rich culture and a long history for a very long time. And so, you have this, you have the political rivalry, you have the two states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, competing, and then on top of that you have all the turmoil that’s going on in the Muslim world with ISIS, you have al-Qaeda, you have Syria, you have Syria and Iraq, which aren’t even states anymore, you have Yemen, which is not really a state anymore. You have instability in Lebanon. And so there’s a lot of turmoil, a lot of violence, a lot of bloodshed, on top of that there’s competition between these two states for primacy of the Muslim world.

NA: On that canvas, protests in Iran following the executions turned violent and led to a severing of political ties between the two countries, with Bahrain, Sudan and the UAE joining Saudi Arabia – either cutting or downgrading ties with Tehran. All of this comes as the U.S. is seeking to warm relations with Iran while keeping the kingdom as a top arms client. Your thoughts on where this could go in the short term?

OA: I think in the short term you’re not going to see any major changes. I think there’s still…the first priority of the United States would be to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria and bring some kind of political solution through so that, you know, the world can take on ISIS as a unified front. Whether we can do that still, considering that Saudi Arabia and Iran are basically [with] severed diplomatic relations and that they’re on opposite sides of this war, right or wrong, and Hezbollah supports Assad in Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf allies are supporting some of the rebels. I think it’s an open question. In the long term, however, I think that, you know, it’s clear to me and with most of the diplomats I’ve spoken to about this, that the status quo cannot endure, right? The state order has broken down. It’s clear the Saudi Arabia has a totalitarian and fundamentalist, anti-liberal, anti-women ideology. And that’s the viability that state’s going to be putting to question in the future. And I think that the natural partnership with the United States will be with a modern, moderate, democratic Iran at some point in the future.

And so, the tectonic plates of the Middle East are shifting very, very quickly and the policy’s obviously going to be slow to catch up to that. But I think that it’s really only a matter of time before the United States begins taking its own policy, taking its own rhetoric, on human rights very seriously and begin shifting its policy. At least, maybe not one that’s pro-Iran, but one at least one that is a little bit more neutral between the two parties.

NA: Through their record-breaking weapons purchases and military interventions in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, the Saudi Arabian monarchy seems to be trying to establish itself as somewhat of a superpower in a multicultural region. How are everyday citizens in the region’s countries viewing this?

OA: It depends on whom you ask, whether they’re Sunni, if they’re Shiite they’re almost certainly not going to have a favorable view of Saudi Arabia because the Saudi ideology of Wahhabism basically claims that they, you know Shia and other minorities, aren’t even Muslims. It also depends on where you go, right?

There are parts of, you know, if you’re a devout Sunni conservative Muslim in Yemen and you haven’t been bombed, or in Pakistan, maybe you have a favorable view of the Saudis. But I mean, you know in my conversations with Muslims from a wide variety of countries, in my conversations with Americans who, maybe five or six years ago would have been very pro-regime, pro-Saudi, I think that finally we’re beginning to unmask atrocities hidden behind the oil wealth and this sort of image the regime puts on whenever the President visits or whenever their Foreign Minister speaks to American media. And their ideology is being exposed for what it is, which is a religiously fascistic and totalitarian ideology. And I think that is where ultimately their power comes from.

I mean, they have the oil wealth, they have the arms, but they also, even more powerful than that and more enduring, is the fact that they claim to be the legitimate rulers of the Muslim holy sites, of Mecca and Medina. And they’ve been exporting this ideology around the Muslim world for a very long time, and that’s part of the reason we have ISIS, and why we have al-Qaeda. And I think that, you know, putting a stem to that and getting some kind of counter-narrative will be very, very important. And if, look, if the regime weakens and that means they can’t export their ideology, I think, ultimately, that’ll be better for peace.

The other question that’s going to have to be raised, though, is that if there’s instability in Saudi Arabia, what comes next, right? We’ve seen that when regimes are deposed, or when they crumble, very often what comes afterwards is even uglier. And so that’s a question that is going to have to be raised as these tectonic plates that I mentioned earlier continue to shift and there’s essentially an earthquake.


Omer Aziz is a fellow at the Yale Information Society Project. He recently published a piece in the Huffington Post called “Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, and Their Gift to Yale.”

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