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Why Stoking Sectarian Fires in the Middle East Could be Saudi Arabia's Biggest Mistake
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Saudi Arabia will be pleased that the furore over its execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr is taking the form of a heightened confrontation with Iran and the Shia world as a whole. Insults and threats are exchanged and diplomatic missions closed. Sunni mosques are blown up in Shia-dominated areas of Iraq. The Saudi rulers are able to strengthen their leadership of a broad Sunni coalition against an Iranian-led Shia axis at home and abroad.

The motive for the mass execution of Sheikh Nimr and 46 others, many Sunni jihadists, was primarily domestic. The threat to the al-Saud family within Saudi Arabia comes from Sunni extremists in al-Qaeda and Isis and not from the Shia, who are only a majority in two provinces in the eastern region of the country. Furious denunciations by Shia communities and countries will do nothing but good to the reputation of the ruling family among the majority of Saudis.

Saudi Arabia and its fundamentalist Wahhabi variant of Sunni Islam has been blamed by many outside the kingdom as the ideological forbearer of Isis, but the real danger for the monarchy is that it should be seen at home as insufficiently zealous as defender of the faith.

Denouncing the recently announced Saudi-led anti-terrorist coalition, the self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said that if it was truly Islamic it would go to war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian masters and make its objective “killing Jews and the liberation of Palestine.” In the face of this there is nothing very surprising about the Saudi government playing the sectarian and patriotic cards for all they are worth.

All the same, there is a growing suspicion in the Middle East and beyond that the Saudi royal family is losing its traditional political touch which enabled it to survive over the past 70 years when other monarchies, along with once-powerful socialist and nationalist regimes, have long ago disappeared.

It seems to have lost its old caution and is plunging into political snake pits without much idea of how it is going to get out of them.

Over the past year the Saudis have overplayed their hand, backing local allies and proxies in Syria and Yemen who are never going to win decisive victories. Part of this may be a Saudi over-reaction to the agreement between the US and Iran on the Iranian nuclear programme. The fall in the price of oil leading to an austerity budget has increased the incentive to beat the patriotic and religious drum in order to promote national solidarity in face of growing challenges.

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Prospects for a more active Saudi role may have looked rosier in the first half of 2015. Along with Turkey, it gave backing to an offensive in northern Syria by the Army of Conquest, a coalition of Sunni rebel groups led by the al-Qaeda affiliate the al-Nusra Front and the ideologically similar Ahrar al-Sham. This won a series of victories against the Syrian army, but ended up by provoking Russian military intervention on 30 September, which makes it unlikely that Saudi Arabia will achieve its aim of overthrowing President Assad.

The Saudis most powerful ally among the armed opposition, Zahran Alloush of Jaysh al-Islam, was killed by a missile on 25 December. The increasing strength of other players, such as Russia and the Syrian Kurds, is reducing Saudi influence, but there is no sign of its policy being redirected.

At about the same moment, the Saudis started their air campaign against the Houthi movement in Yemen, which is still going on 10 months later with no sign of the war ending.

The Saudis claimed that the Houthis were Iranian stooges, an accusation that was always exaggerated, but may be self-fulfilling as Yemen becomes increasingly split along Shia-Sunni lines. As with Afghanistan, Yemen is easy to invade but difficult to get out of as the Houthi leadership shows no sign of giving up. With no peace in sight, Riyadh faces the prospect of the Yemen war becoming a permanent running sore.

Saudi Arabia’s entanglement in the conflict in Yemen limits its ability to exert influence elsewhere. Even Saudi resources are under strain given the low price of oil with this year’s budget totalling $137bn (£93bn) and spending $224bn (£152bn). “Thanks to the over-confidence and under-competence of the Saudi royal family,” writes Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the online newsletter Syria Comment. “Syrian rebels may turn out to be among the biggest losers of the Yemeni war.”

Saudi rulers have faced serious challenges before, but they have never been faced with the degree of instability in states surrounding or close to the kingdom. There are wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, a guerrilla conflict in Sinai and street protests in Bahrain that could always become more serious. It should be much in Saudi Arabia’s interest to mitigate these crises but instead it stokes them but without any real plan on how to bring them to an end.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Saudi Arabia, Shias and Sunnis, Yemen 
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  1. If the Saudis are expecting the US to come running, then they may find themselves rather disappointed. Obama is not above letting them twist in the wind if he thinks they are subverting his “strategy” for the ME. It would be best for them to assume they are on their own and not depend on the US.

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  2. Rehmat says:

    The embedded journalists have no shame in showing their bigotry when comes to Muslims and Islam.

    No Sunni mosques is burned in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan or India is reported burned by Shias after Saudi ‘royals’ killed 47 Saudi nationals.

    Riyadh has expelled Iranian diplomats – but no such decision has been taken by Iranian president Sheikh Rouhani.

    Religious sectarian wars are usual political ploy used by Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and even so-called “atheist” politicians around the world. Shia-Sunni political divide goes back centuries, but it were the Western colonialists who used it to divide the Muslim communities for their political agenda.

    Saudi ‘royals’ with Jewish family roots were brought into power by the British colonial in the beginning of 20th century. It was not for oil (because oil was found in late 1930s), but to control the religious center of Islam. In 1948 they did the same to Jerusalem city.

    The Saudi ‘royals’ have more things in common with the US and Israel than the Muslim world. In some way, latest executions could educate Muslim leaders about the anti-Islam Saudi agenda.

    Tehran has no reason to lose its sleep over Riyadh’s diplomatic fart because since 1979 Islamic Revolution, the relations between the two countries has continued to slide down the drain due to Tehran’s support for Islamic resistance against the US and Israel. Iran not only carry more strategic importance to Russia and China – it has far more Oil/gas reserves than Saudi Arabia. Iran has more stable economy than Saudi Arabia which faces over 40% unemployment and has spent $80 billion on its military to maintain its dictatorial regime. Iran’s annual military budget is less than $7 billion even though it is surrounded by over two dozen US and NATO military bases in seven neighboring countries.

    Western Jewish media (WSJ, CNBC, etc.) has claimed that since Riyadh’s decision, the oil prices has already jumped 3% – A good news for Iranian economy.

    http://rehmat1.com/2016/01/04/riyadh-severs-diplomatic-ties-with-tehran/

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  3. MEexpert says:

    Patrick Cockburn continues to be a mouthpiece for ISIS.

    No Sunni mosque has been burned anywhere. Burning and desecrating the mosques is the trademark of Wahabis. Furthermore, by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s is reasoning the “Islamic State” is not Islamic because they have neither killed any Jews nor have they made any move towards liberating Palestine.

    Both Saudi Arabia and the “Islamic state” are Israeli proxies. Everyone knows that Israel is supporting ISIS. The recent actions of Saudi Arabia were instigated by Israel. This way they killed two birds with one stone. They riled up Shias and rubbed the nose of Obama (USA) hoping to scuttle the nuclear treaty.

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  4. Duglarri says:

    The Independent reported in September that there’s a power struggle under way in Saudi. The new king is suffering from advanced alzheimers, and the real power is being wielded by his 30-year-old son, who shows every sign of being the product of less than selective breeding. The lashing out in all directions may be simply an indication that a spoiled imbecile is at the wheel.

    He may yet drive the Kingdom off a cliff.

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  5. Kiza says:

    Only Patrick Cockburn, the MI-6 asset could type such stupidity:

    The threat to the al-Saud family within Saudi Arabia comes from Sunni extremists in al-Qaeda and Isis and not from the Shia

    ISIS was created with the seed capital provided by David Petraeus to pacify Sunni resistance to the US occupation of Iraq. But it is al-Sauds who finance the Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria now. Whilst Turkey purchases ISIS oil, Saudis directly maintain the the Sunni mercenaires’ payroll.

    After Israel, Saudis have the second highest impunity in the World for their horrible crimes and here is an example why:

    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-01-05/wallstrom-affair-how-saudi-arabia-reacts-when-politicians-expose-truth-about-kingdom

    Without US, neither Israel, nor the Saudis could be doing such crimes, and Cockburn could not be typing such crap. As I wrote before, I read this Cockburn only to remain up-to-date with the regime propaganda, because I do not peruse the idiot box.

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  6. It will not happen, but there need to be an arms embargo and economic sanction applied to Saudi Arabia. A UN sponsored export fee on oil might do the trick nicely. It would have the added benefit of raising the price of oil on the global market, thereby encouraging the development of renewable energy sources.

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  7. anonymous says: • Disclaimer

    The Saudi’s great strength is their willingness to generously ladle out large amounts of money to nearly everyone. They’ve purchased US protection by making ridiculously large arms and other purchases as well as cooperating with the US on many other matters, wisely making themselves indispensable. Their army is reportedly recruited mostly from Yemeni tribes who are aligned with the Saudis and the grunt domestic work like labor and domestic servants are done by a large foreign labor force; the Saudis themselves don’t care to do these sorts of things as it’s beneath them. As the guardians of the holy places they have to be publicly seen as defenders of the faith and can’t let themselves be outflanked by more radical sounding types.
    The US has no choice but to ride the tiger. SA is the home of Wahhabism and in their mosques everyone gets the hardline version preached to them. Were the Saudi dynasty to be somehow deposed by internal opposition the ones to replace them would likely be virulently anti-American, anti-western. The US can’t chance all that oil and money being lost and in the hands of people hostile to it. Same goes for countries that might try to interfere in SA. The US has done bang-up business with SA and considers it a great asset. Pesky things like human rights can’t be allowed to interfere with what’s really important.

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  8. Donna says:

    So, it turns out that the Saudis aren’t any smarter than the Americans — both barge into war with no defensible reason and no exit strategy. And millions die.

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  9. Sean says:

    One of the greatest sources of complaints by Saudi Arabia about Iran is the treatment of the Arab minority in Iran. Yet this minority is overwhelmingly Shia.

    Fracking technology advances has greatly reduced the value of the Saudi and Iranian oil reserves so they would be in trouble anyway. The uprising in Syria was partly sparked by reductions on fuel subsidies, and the 80% Alawite officers order the troops to open fire on the peaceful demonstrations. Saudi help came after Assad started killing to keep his dictator’s grip on power. The subsequent backing of the rebels by Saudi Arabia has been extremely modest compared to what the Russians and Iranians have given Assad.

    Ultimately the most sectarian side is Assad, his Alawites, and their backers such as Russia and Iran , because the Alawites are far more of a sect than the Sunnis are in Syria. It is a bit much to call the majority sectarian extremists for getting so fed up with unending rule by a small minority. But there should be a settlement now as no one can win and Europe is going to be inundated with immigrants (they are not refugees because they have no intention of returning to Syria whatever happens).

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  10. Svigor says:

    ISIS was created with the seed capital provided by David Petraeus to pacify Sunni resistance

    Wait, what now?

    The Saudi’s great strength is their willingness to generously ladle out large amounts of money to nearly everyone. They’ve purchased US protection by making ridiculously large arms and other purchases as well as cooperating with the US on many other matters, wisely making themselves indispensable. Their army is reportedly recruited mostly from Yemeni tribes who are aligned with the Saudis and the grunt domestic work like labor and domestic servants are done by a large foreign labor force; the Saudis themselves don’t care to do these sorts of things as it’s beneath them. As the guardians of the holy places they have to be publicly seen as defenders of the faith and can’t let themselves be outflanked by more radical sounding types.

    Yes, SA is ripe for civil war as soon as the oil revenue starts to peter out. There will be much Arabian gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes when their rich lifestyle goes kaput.

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    • Replies: @Kiza
    It would be great to see al-Sauds end up like Gaddafi, that would be elementary cosmic justice except that they are much, much worse than Gaddafi was. For one, directly and indirectly, they have killed millions of people worldwide with their military interventions and their financial support for terrorism, and are chopping off heads of opponents just like their ISIS employees do.
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  11. Kiza says:
    @Svigor

    ISIS was created with the seed capital provided by David Petraeus to pacify Sunni resistance
     
    Wait, what now?

    The Saudi’s great strength is their willingness to generously ladle out large amounts of money to nearly everyone. They’ve purchased US protection by making ridiculously large arms and other purchases as well as cooperating with the US on many other matters, wisely making themselves indispensable. Their army is reportedly recruited mostly from Yemeni tribes who are aligned with the Saudis and the grunt domestic work like labor and domestic servants are done by a large foreign labor force; the Saudis themselves don’t care to do these sorts of things as it’s beneath them. As the guardians of the holy places they have to be publicly seen as defenders of the faith and can’t let themselves be outflanked by more radical sounding types.
     
    Yes, SA is ripe for civil war as soon as the oil revenue starts to peter out. There will be much Arabian gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes when their rich lifestyle goes kaput.

    It would be great to see al-Sauds end up like Gaddafi, that would be elementary cosmic justice except that they are much, much worse than Gaddafi was. For one, directly and indirectly, they have killed millions of people worldwide with their military interventions and their financial support for terrorism, and are chopping off heads of opponents just like their ISIS employees do.

    Read More
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  12. Svigor says:

    Ultimately the most sectarian side is Assad, his Alawites, and their backers such as Russia and Iran , because the Alawites are far more of a sect than the Sunnis are in Syria. It is a bit much to call the majority sectarian extremists for getting so fed up with unending rule by a small minority. But there should be a settlement now as no one can win and Europe is going to be inundated with immigrants (they are not refugees because they have no intention of returning to Syria whatever happens).

    Yes, Assad heads a minority coalition of Shiites, Druze, Christians, etc. On the other hand, if Islamic State or ANF (Al-Qaeda) get their way, they’re going to make the place “less sectarian” by enslaving, converting, ethnically cleansing, or slaughtering all non-Wahhabi-Sunni groups.

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  13. Svigor says:

    Kiza: Saud’s going to need to go Full Solar to outlast the oil. Insolation seems to be SWANA’s major renewable resource.

    Personally, I don’t go as far as you do in wishing the Saudis’ downfall. What comes after downfalls in that part of the world has a habit of being far worse than the thing that fell.

    Really, Saudi Arabia is little different from the rest of SWANA, apart from oil. All SWANA peoples are like that – they just don’t typically have enough money to live the dream.

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  14. Svigor says:

    Also, when I read about the Saudis supporting jihadist movements in Afghanistan, Philippines, and anywhere else Muslims are found, I can’t help wondering how that’s much different from all the meddling the Americans (and Soviets) have done all over the world. If you’re a Muslim, isn’t it natural to want to see some counterweight to western interference and encroachment?

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