domingo, 17 de janeiro de 2016
The House of Saud’s sectarian venom spreads across Middle East / David Gardner
January 14, 2016 11:44 am
The House of Saud’s sectarian venom spreads across Middle East
The ruling family, having incited Sunni-Shia conflict, will not be able to control it
It is hard to see how Saudi Arabia’s New Year execution spree will send the signal it presumably intended: that of an absolute monarchy on which the sun will never set, laying down the law on its own terms with a sanguinary warning to would-be predators at home and abroad. It looks, instead, like a defensive message that injects yet more sectarian venom into the cauldron of the Middle East. That poison is not something the House of Saud or the Wahhabi clerical establishment that legitimises it can control, as the Sunni-Shia conflict they help incite keeps ripping the region apart.
Ever since last year’s nuclear deal between international powers led by the US and Iran, the kingdom’s arch-rival, started to look unstoppable, Saudi leaders appear to have reached three conclusions. Yes, they have been outplayed diplomatically and feel let down by their long-term American ally and patron. To their north — and in good part because of what they see as US bungling and lack of backbone, first in Iraq and then Syria — Tehran has cut a Shia arc through Arab lands from Baghdad to Beirut. They have repeatedly told Washington they regard what they see as Iran’s spearheading of a Shia jihad in the region as a greater threat than the Sunni jihadi menace of Isis.
Thus Riyadh seems determined to ensure any Iran-backed incursion into the Gulf is off limits. The message is that the Arabian peninsula is terra sancta for (Sunni) Islam, which the House of Saud presumes to lead worldwide. There will be no Persian encroachment, and no quarter for local Shia — always abominated as idolaters by Wahhabi bigots but long seen by the Saudi government as fifth columnists for an Iran radicalised by its 1979 Islamic Revolution. The already dim prospect of a negotiated transition out of Syria’s civil war fades in the burning light of rekindled Saudi-Iranian enmity.
King Salman, who succeeded to the throne last year, underlined the message by launching a war in March in neighbouring Yemen against insurgent Shia Houthi forces. But, in case there was any ambiguity, Saudi Arabia has now executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken cleric from the kingdom’s oil-rich eastern province, where the Shia are a majority. Nimr had long campaigned for the civil, religious and political rights that the Saudi state systematically denies its Shia. He unequivocally condemned violence yet he was executed as a terrorist. That 43 Sunni jihadis were simultaneously put to death, for bloody crimes of which they were convicted more than a decade ago, is seen by many Saudi Shia — an estimated 3m people — as cover for a political assassination they regard as a declaration of war.
They will be confirmed in this view by mainstream and social media commentary across the Gulf that drips with anti-Shia vitriol. There is, it is true, also contrasting opinion that emphasises conventional wisdom about how Sunni and Shia have rubbed along fine for centuries, intermingled and even intermarried, reached compromises and avoided catastrophes, and so on. Even though this is the standard discourse of Arab tyrants who have failed to build inclusive nations, it is not wrong — just, alas, irrelevant at a time when sectarian demons have been unleashed across the region.
Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi strong man in a power struggle
Joe Cummings illustration
After recent executions, the interior minister might be losing his grip, writes Simeon Kerr
The ruling House of Saud and its Wahhabi backers have been primary disseminators of a puritan brand of muscular and exclusivist Sunni Islam, not just in Arab countries but across the Islamic world. Killing Nimr opens another compartment of this Pandora’s box — and at a time of their vulnerability rather than strength.
The ruling family has shown extraordinary resilience over the past four decades: in the face of dislocating transformation at home from a desert kingdom forged by the sword to an oil titan and regional power; and against challenges whether from pan-Arab nationalists or rival brands of Islamism.
But three of the things they relied on — slow but steady decision-making, family cohesion and limitless cash — now seem in short supply. The oil price has crashed and reserves are being drawn down. Policy is in the hands of Mohammed bin Salman, the dynamic but untried deputy crown prince and favourite son of the ailing king, who even supporters say risks challenge from his royal peers. He is also embarking on an overhaul of the kingdom’s clientelist and paternalist economic management — by slashing energy subsidies, for example.
Such reform is long overdue. But it is a narrative that speaks of limited reform as a technocratic bypass for intractable political and social problems. These problems will not go away. And the new leadership has not only gone on an expensive offensive abroad — from Yemen to Syria, and in billions of dollars of support for its Sunni allies from Egypt to Bahrain — but opened a new front at home.
Underlying it all, the bloody example the Saudis have made of Nimr, and their alarmed and bellicose response to Iranian swaggering across the Arab world, continue to give the impression that the House of Saud and the Wahhabis are competing with the radical jihadis of Isis as to who is best placed to keep down the Shia.