New Age Islam Edit Bureau
05 Jan 2016
Iran and Saudi Arabia: The art of Islamic tolerance
By Hamid Dabashi
Saudi-Turkish cooperation: Opportunities and challenges
By Raghida Dergham
Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has become one big mess
By Raed Omari
Outrage Over Mass Execution In Saudi Arabia
By Bill Van Auken
Saudi Arabia’s Barbaric Executions
By New York Times
Iran and Saudi Arabia: The art of Islamic tolerance
04 Jan 2016
As fate would have it, precisely at the moment when the false Sunni-Shia, Arab-Persian divide was raging between Iran and Saudi Arabia and hitting dangerous lows, I had occasions to visit the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar: physically located between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and yet emotively as if on another planet.
The execution of 47 people on “terrorism” charges in Saudi Arabia, which included the Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr and the al-Qaeda figure Faris al-Zahrani, prompted an attack and torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, promptly followed by Saudi Arabia cutting its diplomatic ties with Iran completely.
The decades long rivalry between the two regional superpowers had finally come to a boiling point and assumed a false sectarian divide between the Sunni and the Shia Muslims, or even worse between Arabs and Iranians.
Far from the maddening mayhem of these conflicts, and yet smack between the two warring factions, stands one magnificent museum with a hidden, silenced, and overwhelmed message.
Serenity and madness
For those of you who may not have yet visited this magnificent museum, its sublime architecture is designed by the renowned Chinese-American architect IM Pei and its site is the singular grace of a landscape otherwise flooded with the rambunctious debris of the gaudiest specimen of architecture from around the world thrown at Doha.
IM Pei’s exquisite architecture, built with wisdom, humility, and respect for the local environment and homage to Islamic architecture does not simply disregard that cacophony of poor taste and bad design. It actually captures a panorama of it in its central atrium with gentility, generosity, and tolerance, while literally placing a sea between its serenity and that madness.
During my recent visit, the museum was featuring two exhibitions in addition to its own magnificent permanent collection. One of these is called “Qajar Women: Images of Women in 19th Century Iran” and the other “The Hunt” in which the curators had gathered a marvellous collection of artifacts on the theme of royal hunting.
The uncanny experience of visiting the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha at this particular moment is the marked and dramatic difference between the reality of Muslim civilisation as best represented in its priceless artistic gems and the fabricated delusions of the Sunni-Shia or Arab-Persian divide that today are marked by an explosive crescendo in the Saudi-Iranian rivalries.
If you wish to see with your own eyes why this dangerously delusional hostility manufactured and presumed between Arabs and Iranians, or between Shias and Sunnis is categorically alien to the very texture of Islamic civilisation just spend a few hours in this museum.
No sign of prejudice
You go from one floor to the next, from one dignified treasure room of Islamic art to another, and you see not a single sign of anti-Iranian sentiment or pro-Arab prejudice. With an admirable generosity of spirit, works of art from Iran, India, Turkey, and Central Asia sit gracefully next to other works of art from Egypt, Syria, the Levant, North Africa, and the rest of the Arab world.
Not a shred of evidence that those responsible for procuring these masterpieces of Islamic art, caring for and curating them so elegantly had anything but the widest possible embrace for all cosmopolitan aspects of Islamic art regardless of their provenance – marking and crediting the nation that had produced them. In one case, you would see a copy of the Koran from India sitting gently next to a copy of Saadi’s Bustan – marked, dated, located with precision, accuracy, and above all, the absence of any sign of prejudice.
They say (and they say so sarcastically) as Constantinople was about to fall to the Ottomans in 1453, Christian theologians were busy debating how many angels could dance on the point of a needle.
I have much love, admiration, and collegial affinity with those magnificent theologians, and do not consider their exquisite question anything but a miracle of dialectical reasoning. I can only imagine the grace and glory of their company when they debated such sublime issues. I wish I were with them.
Today as the fire of hatred and violence rages from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another, I found myself in the company of those magnificent theologians as I got myself lost in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, wondering how many facets of the most miraculous artistic and scientific achievements of a civilisation could gather and dance in perfect peace and harmony on the point of this space not much larger than the point of a pin in planetary terms.
Just like those Christian theologians or their Muslim or Jewish or Hindu counterparts, my musings in that museum were not in willful negligence but in deliberate defiance of those raging fires of hatred and violence, sectarianism and jingoistic nationalism.
What those theologians were in fact debating was how many pure abstractions of our better angels we can manage to mobilise in peace and harmony to dwell on this Earth, which is in fact much smaller and less spacious than the point of a needle in cosmic scale.
In the abstracted space crafted by an ingenious poet of an architect, IM Pie has crafted the simulacrum of that theologians’ gathering, not to escape and run away from the barbarians at the gates of our humanity but to tame that diabolical savagery dwelling in the very fabric of our humanity.
The escalating rivalries and animosities between Iran and Saudi Arabia have nothing to do with the Sunni-Shia divide in the Islamic theology, even less with the common fate and destiny of Iranians and Arabs among other nations in the region. They are the firing fury of two states determined to outmanoeuvre the other at any cost.
The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is the last vestige of the Islamic art of tolerance – standing there not so much despite the terror that is falling around it but in fact as a caring, kind, and gentle observatory of how to cast a redeeming gaze back at it.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
Saudi-Turkish cooperation: Opportunities and challenges
Monday, 4 January 2016
The strategic cooperation council established by Saudi Arabia and Turkey is one step above a bilateral alliance, and its goal goes beyond restoring balance to Sunni forces in Iraq and Syria, and thus requires an in-depth examination of Saudi-Egyptian, Turkish-Russian, and Turkish-Egyptian relations. Meanwhile, Iran and Qatar are both relevant to the developments in Saudi-Turkish relations, as are the U.S., ISIS, and the Syrian opposition.
There are both convergences and divergences in Saudi-Turkish relations, which were upgraded this week to the level of strategic cooperation. The linchpin of this strategic cooperation council will be the mechanisms of activating the alliance should developments in Syria require intervention to counter Russian protection of Bashar al-Assad.
Other challenges include reconciling Turkish hostility to the Kurdish organizations and the aspirations of the Kurds, with Saudi Arabian neutrality in this matter.
Furthermore, there are several grey areas when it comes to the fight against radical Sunni groups Washington and Moscow designate as terrorist groups, despite the fact that Ankara and Riyadh have agreed to fight ISIS and similar groups that pose an existential threat to Saudi Arabia, perhaps more so than to Turkey.
The first country of concern in this context is Egypt. Egypt, an ally of Saudi Arabia, has tense relations with Turkey. The government of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi sees the Turkish government under Recept Tayyip Erdogan to be an incubator of the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus sees any Saudi-Turkey rapprochement as rapprochement over the Muslim Brotherhood, which were designated in the past as a terrorist group by Riyadh. Cairo wants the Muslim Brotherhood to continue to have that designation, and fears that the rapprochement might entail a reversal of that designation. Already, there are liberal as well as Muslim brotherhood voices that believe the kingdom’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood is harmful and unnecessary.
Despite some tension over Cairo’s attitudes vis-à-vis Syria, Yemen, and anti-terrorism Saudi is determined to maintain the alliance with Egypt and preserve the regime there. For its part, Egypt is appreciative of the indispensable Saudi, Emirati, and Kuwaiti support despite its resentment over Gulf expectations and the fact that it has had to take a back seat in Arab leadership in the present time. Ultimately, both Cairo and Riyadh realize that Egypt is vital, pivotal, and irreplaceable in the regional balance of power.
However, with the establishment of a Saudi-Turkish strategic alliance, Egypt must be asking what place it will have in it, and how its position in the Arab strategic weight will be reconciled in the regional balance of power. Saudi’s response is that there is no contradiction between the two, as evidenced by the commitment to the continuation of the alliance. Clearly, there is a need for a profound dialogue between the two Arab heavyweights.
Russia is on good terms with Egypt and has interesting relations with Saudi Arabia. One of the aspects of strategic Russian-Egyptian cooperation stems from their combined hostility to Islamist groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood. In turn, this has led to Russian-Egyptian convergence on Syria, at a time when Saudi and Russian attitudes on Syria are diverging while Russian-Turkish attitudes there are clashing outright.
The pragmatism Saudi diplomacy currently adopts led Riyadh to seek a working relation with Moscow, despite profound differences over Syria, which has helped set the Vienna peace process in motion and bring in Iran to the table of discussions surrounding Syria’s fate. It is the same kind of pragmatism that has prompted Riyadh to establish a strategic cooperation council with Ankara, at the height of Russian-Turkish tension, while at the same time voiding any animus with Moscow.
For its part, Moscow pledged not to intervene in Yemen against the Arab coalition. This week, Moscow rejected a request from ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to take action against the Saudi-led coalition.
Yemen is a top Saudi priority, both militarily and diplomatically, including at the UN, where Moscow’s role is extremely important. So no matter how deep Saudi disputes are with Russia over Syria or Iran, Riyadh is keen on maintaining its newfound pragmatic ties with Moscow for both tactical and long-term strategic calculations.
Moscow, for its part, wants to maintain strong relations with Saudi Arabia, as long as Riyadh does not condition this on disengagement with Iran and Syria.
This pragmatism is to thank in part for the Vienna process, which has brought together around twenty nations, led by the U.S., Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, who all followed the plans drafted by Russian diplomacy culminating with the third round in New York that produced an unprecedented U.N. Security resolution on Syria.
Resolution No. 2259 deferred contentious issues, led by the fate of Bashar al-Assad during the transitional process, the question of which opposition figures are acceptable, and the question of which groups in Syria are terror organizations. The Vienna process resolution, midwifed by Russia, bypassed the Geneva Communique, which called for a transitional period during which Assad hands over power to an executive governing body. The new resolution effectively repealed the Geneva Communique and bypassed the “Assad Knot.”
The list of proposals given to Jordan, which has been assigned by the Vienna nations to prepare a list of groups to be listed as terrorist organizations, was also deferred, containing 167 putative groups. The reason is the anger expressed by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the latest meeting of the Vienna process in New York, when he learned the Qods Force and Hezbollah were included in the list. The meeting was then suspended, the list was buried, and work has restarted from scratch on a new list.
Turkey, in turn, has listed the groups it considers to be terror organizations, including the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). For its part, Russia has focused its gaze on the list of Syrian opposition group prepared by Riyadh in the wake of a previous meeting of the Syrian opposition. However, Moscow insisted on merely referring to that effort in the preamble to resolution 2259, and removed it from the operative clauses that were originally meant to endorse the list.
The political battle over the implementation of resolution 2259, which for the first time endorsed a political process in Syria since the conflict there began five years ago, is inevitable. Saudi Arabia and Turkey want to include figures and groups in the terror lists that Russia do not want included. However, Riyadh wants to benefit from Ankara to pressure on Iran not just with regard to the list, but also to curb Iranian meddling in the region, and agree on mechanisms that guarantee the effectiveness of the alliance against terrorism and counter Russian protection of Assad.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had declared the creation of the joint strategic cooperation council in a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart following the summit between King Salman and President Erdogan in Riyadh last week.
Tenser by the day
He said the purpose of the council includes deeper coordination with Turkey in light of the challenges both countries face in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, from terrorism to extremism to Iran’s negative intervention in regional issues.
Countering challenges will not be easy however. Turkey is not an effective participant in the war with ISIS and similar groups in Syria, and its main concern is the Kurds as the regime is weakened. Turkey is opposed to secular groups, including Kurdish groups, which reveals its keenness on empowering Islamist groups. In Iraq, Turkey is at odds with Saudi Arabia in a way; Saudi has normalized relations with Baghdad after 25 years of estrangement, while Turkish-Iraqi relations grow tenser by the day. True, both countries have reservations with regard to the government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, but they have different reasons. While Turkey’s reasons have Kurdish dimensions, Saudi’s have Iranian dimensions. Yet both are pursuing the restoration of the Sunni element in the balance of power after ISIS fled from Ramadi.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are both crucial for the quest to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Saudi-Turkish cooperation council is an important event, but it is no alternative to the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain. Nor is it an alternative to the regional security system that Iran is seeking to build, to include it, Iraq and the countries of the GCC after the latter is dismantled. It is an important event that requires profound analysis and follow-up.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 1, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham
Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has become one big mess
Monday, 4 January 2016
It would be no exaggeration to say that Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood is perishing. Given the widening cracks within the long-established group, which led to hundreds of leaders recently submitting their mass resignation, the kingdom’s Islamist movement is now as fragmented and weak as leftist powers. In other words, the dispute-plagued movement is no longer Jordan’s largest opposition force.
Over the past year, the Muslim Brotherhood’s prominent leaders have been jumping overboard, mostly for being fed up with the totalitarian attitude of the group’s ‘hawkish’ leadership. Last week’s mass resignation of 400 leaders and founding members of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, was the most recent manifestation of fierce disputes within the group which, for decades, was well-known for being in harmony and having a solid structure.
One of the Islamist leaders whose membership in the Brotherhood was previously terminated by an internal tribunal, professor and columnist Rheil al-Gharaibeh, has founded Zamzam, a reform-oriented initiative which has been gaining ground and attracting conservative statesmen who long-opposed the Islamist movement. Zamzam is now a licensed body in Jordan with moderate socio-political tendencies and is highly expected to participate in the upcoming parliamentary election, expected in January 2017. This will definitely strike a big blow to the Brotherhood’s trend of boycotting elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan was licensed in 1946 as a charity affiliated with the mother group in Egypt and relicensed in 1953 as an Islamic society. Probably the strongest rift in the Jordanian Brotherhood happened when a group of prominent “dovish” leaders recently walked out of the organization, severing affiliations with the Egyptian mother group, with the intention to form an offshoot group. Many political observers now believe that the Brotherhood’s hawkish leader Hammam Said has been putting the group at the disposal of Hamas member and Egypt’s Brotherhood, thus depriving the Jordanian group of its national distinctiveness and pushing it to become embroiled in the troubling politics of Gaza and Egypt.
Each of the two offshoots and the original Brotherhood in Jordan is claiming to be the authentic and legitimate heir of the Brotherhood movement. The 400 resigned members had gathered in a group dubbed the “Group of Elders” with an aim being to reform the Brotherhood and restore its allure which, they said, has had been damaged by the hawkish camp. Zamzam founders also say they are still Muslim Brotherhood members, announcing that their initiative’s aim is also centered on rescuing the old group.
We also have a newly-established, licensed Muslim Brotherhood– named the Muslim Brotherhood Society – and the old group, which is unlicensed but not outlawed. There has even been a court ruling obliging the old group to transfer all assets to the new licensed Muslim Brotherhood Society. The new group is claiming to be the legitimate successor of the Brotherhood while the old movement has repeatedly charged that the establishment of the new Brotherhood society is a “government conspiracy” against the Islamists.
In a bid to contain the growing crisis, the old, unlicensed Islamist movement is nowadays calling for dialogue, saying the mass resignations have not yet been accepted. But those who have resigned say their decision is irreversible and that they will move ahead with their reformist endeavor. The IAF, or again Said’s movement, is claiming that the resignations are not affecting the group’s popular base which, it said has been seeing a rise in the number of subscribers and branches across the kingdom.
But this is all such a mess. Even in terms of terminology and phrases – the old group, Zamzam, the licensed group, the unlicensed one, the IAF, the mother movement, the Group of Elders, the Muslim Brotherhood Society. This is the current frayed state of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood. No matter what comes from their efforts to resolve the growing crisis, what is indisputable is that the Jordanian Islamist movement is no longer cohesive and influential.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via email@example.com, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2
Outrage Over Mass Execution In Saudi Arabia
By Bill Van Auken
04 January, 2016
Washington’s closest ally in the Arab world, the dictatorial monarchy of Saudi Arabia, ushered in the New Year with a torrent of blood, simultaneously executing 47 prisoners.
This wave of state murders unfolded at 12 separate prisons across the kingdom. At eight of them, the condemned were beheaded, while at four others they were cut down by firing squads. The headless corpses were then crucified and left hanging in public as a hideous warning to any who would even contemplate opposing the absolute power of the ruling royal family.
The most prominent of those put to death was Nimr al-Nimr, a Muslim cleric and leading spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s oppressed Shiite minority. Nimr, who was interrogated under torture and then brought before a kangaroo court, was convicted on charges that included “disobeying the ruler” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations.”
These “crimes” stemmed from the mass protests that swept Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shiite Eastern Province in 2011, expressing popular demands for democratic reforms and an end to the Sunni monarchy’s discrimination and oppression of the Shiite population.
Three other Shiite prisoners were executed alongside Nimr, including one who was a minor at the time of his alleged offense. The rest of those put to death were Sunnis accused of involvement in Al Qaeda attacks that took place in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006.
The barbaric killing spree carried out by the regime in Riyadh was a calculated political act driven by both domestic and international objectives. The Saudi monarchy joined the execution of Nimr with those of the alleged Al Qaeda members to drive home its identification of any opposition to its rule as an act of terrorism. In the first instance, its aim is to intimidate the Shiite minority, which constitutes approximately 15 percent of the population and is concentrated in the Eastern Province, a key oil-producing region.
At the same time, the House of Saud was sending a bloody signal that it will ruthlessly suppress any attempt to bring home the kind of Islamist terrorism it has fomented, funded and ideologically inspired elsewhere, with particularly horrific effect in Syria. The monarchy is increasingly fearful that it could fall prey to the Frankenstein monster it has unleashed in the form of groups such as ISIS and the Al Nusra Front, whose Wahabi religious ideology and mass beheadings are modeled after the state terror imposed in Saudi Arabia itself.
More generally, the whore-masters and parasites who make up Saudi Arabia’s ruling family fear that conditions are building up for a social explosion that could land them in the same spot as previous royal houses, with their own heads on the chopping block. The plummeting of oil prices, itself a product of the decision, backed by Washington, to reject any reduction in output—with the aim of undermining the economies of both Russia and Iran—is beginning to take its toll on the Saudi economy itself.
At the end of last year, the Saudi regime revealed that it had run a $98 billion budget deficit in 2015 and was anticipating a similar shortfall this year. In a desperate attempt to raise revenue, it has imposed a 50 percent increase on gas prices and is embarking on further cuts in public spending, particularly the economic subsidies that have allowed the large impoverished layers of Saudi society to eke out a living. The Financial Times described the new budget as an exercise in “radical austerity.”
Under these conditions, the sharp rise in beheadings—at least 158 people were killed in this manner in 2015—is intended to serve as a means of mass intimidation.
On the international front, the state murder of Sheikh Nimr represents a calculated provocation, designed to radically intensify sectarian strife throughout the region. It is aimed at provoking Iran, whose Shiite Muslim leadership responded with warnings of “divine vengeance.” The execution triggered demonstrations that included firebomb attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consular facility in the Iranian city of Mashhad. Riyadh has responded by severing diplomatic relations.
The Saudi monarchy is determined to blow up any attempt to end the civil war in Syria without first achieving the original aim of it and its Western allies—regime-change. By exacerbating tensions with Iran, the principal ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Saudis hope to prevent any such settlement and to create the conditions for war with Iran itself.
In what is hardly a coincidence, on the same day as the mass executions, Riyadh announced an end to a supposed cease-fire in Yemen, where the Saudi military has led an illegal and deadly intervention aimed at suppressing a revolt by the Houthis, an insurgent movement whose members are drawn from the Shia population.
The execution of the Saudi Shiite cleric is designed to widen an already spiraling regional conflict in the Middle East. Like the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, it is an event with the potential of ultimately drawing the major powers into a far bloodier global conflagration.
The main responsibility for the crimes of the Saudi regime rests with its principal patron, US imperialism. The savage monarchy in Saudi Arabia is not merely some remnant of feudal backwardness. It is rather the direct product of US imperialist intervention in the Middle East, from the concessions secured by Texaco and Standard Oil in the 1930s and 1940s to the current massive arms sales that make the Saudi monarchy today’s number one customer of America’s military-industrial complex.
Washington has responded to the mass beheadings in Saudi Arabia as an event of little consequence, having nothing to do with the policies of the US itself. Both the White House and the State Department issued mealy-mouthed statements “reaffirming” pro forma calls for the Saudi regime to respect human rights but making no direct condemnation of the political murder of Sheikh Nimr.
The Pentagon and the CIA are full partners in the Saudi monarchy’s repression at home, while the US has provided the bombs and targeting information, along with the midair refueling of Saudi bombers, that have made possible the nine-month war in Yemen—a criminal aggression that has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians while turning hundreds of thousands more into homeless refugees.
The blood-soaked Saudi monarchy is a manifestation of the predatory policy pursued by US imperialism in the Middle East. Washington’s defense of and reliance upon this ultra-reactionary regime expose all of the pretexts given for the successive US military interventions in the region, from the so-called “war on terrorism” to the supposed promotion of “democracy” and “human rights.”
In the final analysis, any policy that is predicated on an alliance with the House of Saud is a house of cards that will come crashing down with the revival of the class struggle in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s Barbaric Executions
By New York Editorial
JAN. 4, 2016
The execution of the popular Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other prisoners on Saturday was about the worst way Saudi Arabia could have started what promises to be a grim and tumultuous year in the kingdom and across the Middle East. It is hard to imagine that the Sunni rulers of the kingdom were not aware of the sectarian passions the killings would unleash around the region. They may even have counted on the fierce reaction in Iran and elsewhere as a distraction from economic problems at home and to silence dissenters. America’s longstanding alliance with the House of Saud is no reason for the Obama administration to do anything less than clearly condemn this foolhardy and dangerous course with a more robust response than its call Monday for both sides to exercise restraint.
The immediate consequence of the executions was a burst of hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two rivals are already backing opposite sides in civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Iranians infuriated by the killing of a revered cleric promptly ransacked and set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Though Iranian leaders condemned the action and arrested protesters, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-led allies in Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates were quick to cut or curtail ties with Iran.
That in turn promised to set back international efforts to resolve the wars in Syria and Yemen and to combat the Islamic State and other Islamist terrorist organizations. Just weeks ago, a series of talks led by the United States and Russia and including the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers brought rival powers to the table to discuss a road map for peace in Syria. Then, on Saturday after announcing the executions, the Saudis ended a shaky cease-fire in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s income has sharply declined as a result of the prolonged drop in oil prices — caused, in part, by the regime’s insistence on maintaining production levels — and the government has announced cutbacks in the lavish welfare spending that Saudis have long taken for granted. The executions provided both a sectarian crisis to deflect anger over the cutbacks and a graphic warning of what can befall critics.
But the executions were not out of character for Saudi Arabia. The country has a dismal human rights record with its application of stern Islamic law and its repression of women and practitioners of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam. The regime has become only more repressive in the years since the Arab Spring. According to Human Rights Watch, the mass execution this weekend followed a year in which 158 people were executed, the most in recent history, largely based on vague laws and dubious trials. Sheikh Nimr was a vocal critic of the regime and champion of the rights of the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, but not an advocate of violent action.
The tangled and volatile realities of the Middle East do not give the United States or the European Union the luxury of choosing or rejecting allies on moral criteria. Washington has no choice but to deal with regimes like those in Tehran, which also has an abysmal human rights record, including nearly 700 executions in the first half of last year, or in Riyadh to combat the clear and present danger posed by Islamist terrorists or to search for solutions to massively destabilizing conflicts like the Syrian civil war. But that cannot mean condoning actions that blatantly fan sectarian hatreds, undermine efforts at stabilizing the region and crudely violate human rights.