The brutality of state “justice,” the boycott of a compromise on Syria and throwing gasoline on a burning Middle East are all symptoms of Saudi Arabia’s structural weakness. The Saudi dominance is in its declining phase, as global attention lingers on Saturday’s mass execution of 47 people. Among them was Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite religious leader who led protests in Qatif. He was imprisoned for three years and then beheaded over the weekend for political and economic reasons: The areas with majority Shiites have the richest oil. By killing al-Nimr, Riyadh is sending a message to Iran, to the West and to the Shiite minority.
Ali al-Ahmed is a well-known Saudi analyst based in Washington, D.C.; a consultant for CNN, the Associated Press and The Washington Post; founder of the Institute for Gulf Affairs and vocal critic of the policies of Saudi Arabia. He spoke to il manifesto by phone.
Why did Riyadh proceed now with the killing of Shiite cleric al-Nimr?
Saudi Arabia is in trouble. It needed to score some points to recover from the severe economic crisis it’s going through. A few days before the executions Riyadh made public one of the worst budgets in its history. The economic crisis is due to several factors: The drop in oil prices. Structural corruption among the oil powers that’s growing like mushrooms. The stalemate in the Yemeni war for 10 months [that] has burned between $80 and $100 billion. The setback in the fight against ISIS. The advance of Iran. Earmarked funding. By taking the lives of those people and in particular a figure such as Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Saudis hoped to send a message: We are still powerful; we are still a player.
The perception is that they’re trying to do this by exacerbating the regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. But it seems to be artificially created by Middle East governments rather than by the base communities.
The confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites, these days described as “historic,” is only in small part the result of an inclination of the base. On the contrary, it was created and rooted by regional powers. From Iran, with the birth of the Islamic Republic, and from Saudi Arabia, which has always taken advantage, since the start of the war between Iraq and Iran, to divide the region. Today they use it for strategic reasons. The economy is bad, the war in Yemen has not found a resolution, the role of Syria is getting weaker. The Saudis are experts at diverting attention from structural problems to minor issues. They scoop up consensus by creating a Shiite threat and persuading the Sunnis of a fictitious danger.
At 20 days of Syrian negotiations, will this mass execution harm the dialogue?
It damages the Saudi role. Today everyone is looking for a compromise, except the Saudis who boycott it. But they are alone. The U.S. does not intend to follow them in this radicalization, nor does the European Union nor Russia. They have created a losing battle.
This loss of dominance, due to the economic crisis and the revival of Iran, is it irreparable?
Riyadh has built itself on the basis of personal and economic relations with Western powers. This allowed it to enjoy impunity necessary to pursue certain policies, in and out of the country. It has spent billions of dollars to take control of both private Western companies and individuals. It does business directly with the authorities of these countries, by funding the Clinton Foundation, the Carter Foundation, members of the Bush family. There are direct and tight with those driving the West. But the crisis will change everything: The Saudis will not be able to pay everyone, but maybe it could do something with Iran, shifting the balance in their direction. The Arabian star is fading; Riyadh has lost the influence it has had for decades. Its power is based on the checkbook but no longer has a monopoly. Its ability to influence the region has steadily decreased, and it is difficult to rise again in the short term.
Just about a month ago, Saudi Arabia seemed to show a new face: Women voted for the first time in municipal elections. What was the significance of that vote?
The municipal elections in December have no political significance, nor has the women’s vote: The vast majority of the population did not go to the polls and many boycotted, so much so that there were only three candidates elected. Why? The reason is the lack of power in the hands of municipal councils. These are sham elections. They voted for institutions without any kind of authority and decision-making power, since this [power] is all concentrated in the hands of the royal family. Why should you waste time and energy to choose from one of the many hens guarding the henhouse? The municipal councils do not affect in any way the daily life of the population. That vote was used only as a matter of image, to clean it in the eyes of the world.
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