Saudi Arabia Lights Another Fire in the Middle East
January 4, 2016 6:50 AM   Subscribe

Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people of "terrorism-related offenses", including Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shi'ite cleric who supported protests against the Sunni government. In response, protestors in Tehran set the Saudi embassy on fire, and the Saudi and Bahraini governments cut diplomatic ties to Iran, ejecting Iranian diplomats and closing their embassies in Tehran. The United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassador to Iran as well.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are two of the major power brokers in the Middle East, funding proxy wars for decades via Sunni- and Shi'ite-aligned groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and more or less everywhere else that Islamic governments hold sway.
posted by Etrigan (58 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
the context for this is a slow moving succession fight within the house of Harkonnen Saud.. traditionally the throne had been passed within the same generation between brothers. this generation is now in their 80s. the 30yr old son of the current king is defense minister and is making a play for power. he is likely behind the insane and criminal war in Yemen and is likely behind this execution as part of a plan to create an emergency wherein he can become king.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:03 AM on January 4, 2016 [23 favorites]


Related: A helpful article for anyone who might be confused about the various sects mentioned in this article. I know that I myself had to do a bit of googling to brush up on the various parties involved in this issue/story.

Sunni and Shia: Islam's 1,400-year-old divide explained. [Independent]
The Sunni-Shia conflict is 1,400 years in the making, dating back to the years immediately after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632. The Prophet died without having appointed a successor leading to a massive split over the future of the rapidly growing religion – chiefly whether the religion’s next leader should be chosen by a kind of democratic consensus, or whether only Mohammed’s blood relations should reign.

The arguments are complicated but essentially boil down to the fact that Sunni’s believe the Prophets’ trusted friend and advisor Abu Bakr was the first rightful leader of Muslims or “caliph”, while Shias believe that Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law Ali was chosen by Allah to hold the title.
posted by Fizz at 7:04 AM on January 4, 2016


I'm so happy that we have such high quality allies who share our values and goals.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:13 AM on January 4, 2016 [15 favorites]




The KSA found it neccessary to spend the cash to show me sponsored tweets with a handy infographic on why they beheaded this guy, complete with a little noose (maybe he was hanged?) Anyway, I'm flattered.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:16 AM on January 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm so happy that we have such high quality allies financial investments who share our values and goals.

Fixed.
posted by Fizz at 7:24 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Oh, and Saudi Arabia's economy is tanking because of its oil price war with the west and spending could come to a head shortly with the coming austerity budget
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:25 AM on January 4, 2016


Interesting how the BBC link repeatedly describes these executions politely as 'put to death,' when most of these guys were actually beheaded, their headless corpses were crucified, and finally left hanging in public. Is the BBC so coy about IS beheadings?
posted by colie at 7:29 AM on January 4, 2016 [22 favorites]


This is gonna get way worse before it gets better isn't it?
posted by Twain Device at 7:33 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is gonna get way worse before it gets better isn't it?
posted by Behemoth at 7:41 AM on January 4, 2016 [12 favorites]


Here's hoping fracking/Tesla/solar/nuclear will stop us having to bankroll them.
posted by Damienmce at 7:43 AM on January 4, 2016 [9 favorites]




This is gonna get way worse before it gets better isn't it?

The big question: For whom? It's already bad enough for the parties directly involved. How many others will be compelled to stick their nose into this shit show, determined to spread this wealth around?
posted by 2N2222 at 7:45 AM on January 4, 2016


I'm so happy that we have such high quality allies who share our values and goals.

We have a lot of "allies" that are really just enemies of our enemies. Beyond that they have their own agendas don't need us as much as we need them.
posted by tommasz at 7:53 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


ennui.bz: he is likely behind the insane and criminal war in Yemen and is likely behind this execution as part of a plan to create an emergency wherein he can become king.

I know that it makes me sound ridiculously naive, but…do people really think like this? Like "my kingdom can take their lands after a victorious ground war" -- as if it's Game of Thrones or something? Jesus…
posted by wenestvedt at 7:55 AM on January 4, 2016


I know that it makes me sound ridiculously naive, but…do people really think like this? Like "my kingdom can take their lands after a victorious ground war" -- as if it's Game of Thrones or something? Jesus…

Ask Ukraine.
posted by adept256 at 7:59 AM on January 4, 2016 [24 favorites]


I know that it makes me sound ridiculously naive, but…do people really think like this? Like "my kingdom can take their lands after a victorious ground war"

The 2003 invasion of Iraq is proof that yes, Yes people really think like this.
posted by Karaage at 8:01 AM on January 4, 2016 [8 favorites]


Wenestvedt -- more people should think like that. That's what war is for: taking lands for yourself, or keeping them from being taken from, you or your allies. Wars fought for other reasons are probably interfering in other people's business or engaging in deeply unsound ideological and strategic thinking. The 2003 Iraq war, where Bush took it with the express intent to give it back, is case in point for bad thinking -- if you don't have the justification or will to hold the land you probably should think twice before conquering it.
posted by MattD at 8:07 AM on January 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


Here's hoping fracking/Tesla/solar/nuclear will stop us having to bankroll them.

The collapsing price of oil and Saudi Arabia's massive spending on US military hardware have brought the US / Saudi trade deficit down dramatically in the past year, to the point the US has been a net exporter to Saudi Arabia for a few months in 2015.

That's what war is for: taking lands for yourself

Starting a war of aggression is a war crime.
posted by jedicus at 8:13 AM on January 4, 2016 [6 favorites]


wenestvedt: "I know that it makes me sound ridiculously naive, but…do people really think like this? Like "my kingdom can take their lands after a victorious ground war""
My understanding is not that conquest of Yemen is the primary goal, the war is rather a means to cause instability and/or gain personal prestige which the minister of defence can use to fuel his ascent to power. In GoT terms he's playing Littlefinger, not Stannis.
posted by brokkr at 8:13 AM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Hm, economic crisis, protracted war, sclerotic and inflexible ruling class, infighting among the power elite, a young networked population, internal regional instability, local rivals escalating tension...

... smells like trouble for KSA.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:23 AM on January 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


All well and good for some of us to dislike lour ally, Saudi Arabia, but how many of us use oil products coming from that nation or other Middle East countries, with similar rights abuses?
We make allies not because we approve of all they do but more often than not because we get some benefit from them as they get from us.

Iran let that mob destroy the embassy on purpose, it seems. And that is hardly a diplomatic thing to do, not that it much matters since both nations are at odds with each other over the Syria war.
ps: Turkey too is an ally. what say about them?
posted by Postroad at 8:35 AM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Golly, I wonder if regional tensions may cause oil prices to rise?
posted by adept256 at 8:38 AM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Postroad: Iran let that mob destroy the embassy on purpose, it seems.

Iran isn't a monolith or a totalitarian kingdom; weird as it might seem, Iran is a structural hot mess—with a mix of theocracy, a revolutionary front, and a republican democracy existing in a very unstable equilibrium. Since 2012 the revolutionaries and the theocracy have been ascendant, but Iran has a tradition of pro-democracy factions going back to the late 19th century and there are multiple power centers in play with their own competing agendas. (You might as well analyse US foreign policy in terms of what the midwestern state governors want as attribute Iranian actions to any one particular grouping within the state.)

About the only thing they almost all agree on is that Salafi extremists executing Shi'ites on trumped-up charges is baaaad. (Remember, IS and the Salafists think Shi'ites are dirty heretics who are going to hell just as soon as they can be put to death.) Oops.
posted by cstross at 8:39 AM on January 4, 2016 [31 favorites]


I know that it makes me sound ridiculously naive, but…do people really think like this? Like "my kingdom can take their lands after a victorious ground war" -- as if it's Game of Thrones or something? Jesus…

Ask Palestine, oh wait, Palestine doesn't exist, it is just a place where people learn to concentrate.

Somehow in all the vested misery Saudi hasn't even broken a fingernail, but has broken the hands (livelihood,) of the poorest state in the Middle East, Yemen. This is all about crude on every level, it is the crude fractal.
posted by Oyéah at 8:42 AM on January 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm so grateful that the automobile and our hopeless addiction to oil has irrevocably entangled us in this region.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:53 AM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


On the basic macroeconomic level, Saudi Arabia isn't anywhere near in trouble despite the current shortfall due to low crude prices. They have an extremely low debt level -- for all intents, they have no sovereign debt -- and the right answer to a temporary shortfall is to borrow and spend and keep the economy humming. Since, other than oil extraction, there really isn't an economy to spend on, they just have to keep things running until oil climbs in price again, which will certainly happen. Soon? Later? That's a different argument, but it will happen.

To me, this seems to be a play to the Wahabbi clerics for support. By executing someone who is firstly a prominent Shi'a (as opposed to the Sunni Wahabbis) and has spoken out against both how Saudi Shi'a are treated and the action of the Wahabbi in supporting the oppression of the Saudi Shi'a, what that says is "Nope, the deal is still there. We run the country, you run the church, we will support your edicts running the church." Whomever wanted this to happen either has the backing of King Salman, or at least it didn't bother him enough, because any citizen can appeal a sentence of death to the King, this is done as a matter of course once the courts run out of options, so the effective rule is the King approves every execution, if only by indifference.

As a "bonus," this action would clearly inflame all Shi'a, and it has. I don't know if Saudi Arabia expected how badly it would inflame all Shi'a, but the end result, so far, is somewhat of a shitstorm. Even Iranian Sunnis are denouncing this, and about the only country standing with Saudi Arabia is Bahrain.
posted by eriko at 9:04 AM on January 4, 2016 [5 favorites]


I'm so grateful that the automobile and our hopeless addiction to oil has irrevocably entangled us in this region.

No, no no - fracking will save us.
Until it doesn't.
posted by eclectist at 9:08 AM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Drinking water, schminking water! We need cheap oil, amirite?
posted by entropicamericana at 9:13 AM on January 4, 2016 [5 favorites]


Even Iranian Sunnis are denouncing this [...]

If so, they probably don't have much choice, any more than Iranian Jews have a choice about denouncing Israel. Iran is a repressive theocracy and its large Sunni minority is barely tolerated. For instance, there are reportedly no Sunni mosques in Teheran. I did a bit of Googling to check my recollection, and came across an Iranian press release saying that (a) there are lots! (b) they were closed because they didn't have permits and were run by foreign extremists; and (c) why can't Sunnis come to our Shi'ite mosques, aren't we all Muslims.

What I'm saying is, it wasn't much of a denial and when it comes to religious oppression, Iran is only somewhat better than Saudi Arabia.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:24 AM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


I, too, sometimes engage in fantasies about no longer needing the oil that keeps us entangled with problematic nations. Then I think about the absolute hellscape the region will become if there isn't any oil money coming in and the fantasy becomes a nightmare. Not that things are great now, though. About the only thing I've heard that even remotely seems like it might help was talk of a "Marshall Plan for the Mid-East".
posted by charred husk at 9:25 AM on January 4, 2016


Starting a war of aggression is a war crime.

Yeah, but no one's enforcing that. You can just frame it as a "preemptive defense", or flat-out deny you're even there, for some recent-ish examples.
posted by Hoopo at 10:07 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sunni and Shia: Islam's 1,400-year-old divide explained. [Independent]
posted by Fizz


I found this "InfoGuide Presentation" from the Council on Foreign Relations pretty good - it has some interesting graphics etc. and also a 10 minute Youtube overview video: The Sunni-Shia Divide
posted by rosswald at 10:08 AM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


We have a lot of "allies" that are really just enemies of our enemies.

Given Saudi support for everyone from Al Qaida to ISIS, Saudi Arabia might better be described as a friend of our enemies.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:13 AM on January 4, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm so happy that we have such high quality allies who share our values and goals.

Wait, was this snark? Because executing people is something we do and we strive to do it in quantity, although the Saudis are a little bit better at it.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:43 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


You might execute people, but we don't. We do sell lots and lots of arms to Saudi, though, and love the GoT-style cosplay between princes and closing down our own regulatory efforts to investigate corruption if there's any danger (read, absolute certainty) they'll find some (read, an absolute shit-ton). But we don't execute people, at least not as part of our judicial process.

Not that this is a big thing. We're both friends with China, world leader in citizencide.

The most depressing thing about this whole tangled mess is that I have never read any proposals, no matter how fanciful, for a way to defuse things. The international political and economic system has failed utterly, and there is no conceivable tweak that can even start to begin to map out a path to sanity and humanity. It'd take a massive revolution in popular thinking across the globe to create a political environment where such things could even be considered, akin to the rise of communism, and we have no latter-day Marx.

I'm praying to the aliens.
posted by Devonian at 11:15 AM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


Wait, was this snark? Because executing people is something we do and we strive to do it in quantity, although the Saudis are a little bit better at it.

A little better? On a per capita basis the Saudi state murders its own citizens 29x more than the United States. This doesn't even begin to touch on who the Saudi state decides to murder. I don't agree with capital punishment, and there are flaws in its application in the United States, but what we have going on is vastly preferable to State sanctioned murdering of adulterers and apostates.

For comparison, there are 15x more homicides by firearms in the United States than in Switzerland.
posted by Dalby at 11:15 AM on January 4, 2016 [7 favorites]


Wasn't this how WW3 started?
posted by ryoshu at 11:23 AM on January 4, 2016


Democracy Now has a segment in this in which one of the experts emphasizes the weakness of the economy of Saudi Arabia as a backdrop for this, essentially an attempt to deflect the population away from revolt against the regime as the economy tanks.
posted by bluesky43 at 11:32 AM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Why Saudi Arabia escalated the Middle East’s sectarian conflict
This is not to minimize domestic political challenges, including the battle to succeed King Salman, ramifications of cheap oil and unprecedented budget deficits. But it appears that the Saudi regime, as Gause would predict, is responding to the greatest perceived threat to its survival, which, in this case, means primarily foreign rather than domestic challenges. Foreign policy also seems to offer a cheaper and easier way to address domestic challenges. At least three major reasons have led Saudi Arabia to escalate the sectarian regional cold war now:
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:35 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


They can't risk Iran gaining traction in the world as a respectable world power. The Saudis are trying to taunt Iran into wrecking the restraints on its behavior according to the nuclear accord.
posted by quillbreaker at 6:59 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


They can't risk Iran gaining traction in the world as a respectable world power.

How could it possibly become a respectable world power while remaining the sort of state is today? It's an evangelistic supporter of terror and conflict as a means of promoting its brand of revolutionary Shiite theocracy. Abandoning this program would be inconsistent with the government's very raison d'être.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:42 PM on January 4, 2016


How could it possibly become a respectable world power while remaining the sort of state is today? It's an evangelistic supporter of terror and conflict as a means of promoting its brand of revolutionary Shiite theocracy. Abandoning this program would be inconsistent with the government's very raison d'être.

Replace Shiite with Wahhabi and you're asking the same question of Saudi Arabia. Western governments have proven time and again that they're willing to overlook if not outright tolerate wealthy high level officials funding terrorism on the side as personal projects. There's no reason they wouldn't tolerate this with Iran so long as they stopped publicly boasting about funding terrorists trying to destroy Israel.
posted by Talez at 7:55 PM on January 4, 2016 [4 favorites]


I was going to say that each country is loathsome in its own way, but now that may no longer be true. The popular consensus is that ISIS et al are being funded by pro-establishment Saudis for fun, out of piety, or to make nice with Wahhabi clerics. I don't know whether that still makes sense: ISIS portrays itself as the one true government of all Muslims and Muslim lands, which certainly includes the KSA. Maybe we're looking at the Sunni equivalent of the Iranian Revolution, and we're dismissing it as a sort of Saudi vanity project when it's really laying the groundwork for an attack on the House of Saud itself.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:17 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


The popular consensus is that ISIS et al are being funded by pro-establishment Saudis for fun, out of piety, or to make nice with Wahhabi clerics. I don't know whether that still makes sense: ISIS portrays itself as the one true government of all Muslims and Muslim lands, which certainly includes the KSA.

This would be true if the Saudi family were an integral part of the Wahhabi structure. They aren't. The Wahhabi clerics and the KSA tolerate each other in mutual disdain knowing. The Sauds may loot the country to a certain degree while the Wahhabis maintain an ironclad hold on the culture. The king pays lip service, dumps cash into maintaining the two holy mosques, and the dominance of Wahhabism in the country and in return the Wahhabis don't openly call for an insurrection.

That being said, there are rich and influential Wahhabists that would be only too glad to see the end of the Saud family and the shitstain that the royal family are on Islam. They also are only to happy to see Iranians and other Shiites wiped out in the Syrian civil war. Those are the ones who will be covertly financing ISIS.
posted by Talez at 10:49 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wenestvedt -- more people should think like that. That's what war is for: taking lands for yourself, or keeping them from being taken from, you or your allies. Wars fought for other reasons are probably interfering in other people's business or engaging in deeply unsound ideological and strategic thinking. The 2003 Iraq war, where Bush took it with the express intent to give it back, is case in point for bad thinking -- if you don't have the justification or will to hold the land you probably should think twice before conquering it.

Land conquered in war can also be useful as a buffer zone between you and a country you don't like, or as a bargaining chip in negotiations if you intend to give it back in exchange for concessions. Of course neither of these apply when the conquered land is 6000 miles away.
posted by kersplunk at 2:09 AM on January 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


'About the only thing I've heard that even remotely seems like it might help was talk of a "Marshall Plan for the Mid-East".'

Which brings about disturbing thoughts about how such a plan could come into being. China/Saudi/Iran conflicting over oil resources leading to a general ground war in the area, destroying all infrastructure and leaving a wasteland behind? Civil war between DAESH and various local governments causing general catastrophy?

The Marshall Plan was, in today's money, a $130 billion rebuilding of civilization in cities which had been firebombed and firestormed into rubble, bombed into craters rivaling a moonscape, used as a battleground between tanks, and so on. Governments were removed from power by force, and half a continent given to the Soviets to plunder and spoil as part of the deal.

If it requires destroying the Middle East in order to save it, the world will be a much nastier place to live in, and the required conflict would put all of us at risk. Let's hope a better way is found.
posted by Blackanvil at 9:39 AM on January 5, 2016


The Marshall Plan was, in today's money, a $130 billion rebuilding of civilization in cities which had been firebombed and firestormed into rubble, bombed into craters rivaling a moonscape, used as a battleground between tanks, and so on. Governments were removed from power by force, and half a continent given to the Soviets to plunder and spoil as part of the deal.

The Marshall Plan came about two years after World War II ended and was offered to the Soviets and their client states as well. It wasn't so tied into the destruction of the war, or even into its end, that any "Marshall Plan for X" needs to be unknotted from destruction.
posted by Etrigan at 9:43 AM on January 5, 2016


Looks like Kuwait has joined in.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:36 PM on January 5, 2016






One Map That Explains the Dangerous Saudi-Iranian Conflict

due to a peculiar correlation of religious history and anaerobic decomposition of plankton, almost all the Persian Gulf’s fossil fuels are located underneath Shiites. This is true even in Sunni Saudi Arabia, where the major oil fields are in the Eastern Province, which has a majority Shiite population.
posted by T.D. Strange at 1:37 PM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Apparently a minor pilgrimage has already been suspended:

Will Iran suspend hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia?
After Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran, the chairman of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, Saeed Ohadi, said that the decision to continue or suspend hajj travel to Mecca and Medina would ultimately be up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

I wouldn't say outrageous ...
Iran’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s executions is outrageous hypocrisy
In 2014, Iran admitted to executing 289 people. However, unofficial reports, mostly from bereaved family members, indicate that at least a further 454 were hanged in secret without public acknowledgement. This makes a total of 743 executions, according to Amnesty International.

By comparison, Saudi Arabia executed 90 people in the same year – still a shocking roll call but only 12% of the number put to death by Tehran.

The Iranians condemn the preferred Saudi method of execution, beheading, as barbaric. It is inhuman, bloodthirsty and wrong – but at least it usually kills the victim swiftly.

In contrast, Tehran’s methods are calculated to make death slow and painful. They include stoning to death; stipulating that the stones must not be too big, in order that the person does not die too fast. The regime wants to make sure the victim suffers a prolonged, agonising fate.

posted by Joe in Australia at 2:22 PM on January 7, 2016


Very interesting. Somalia, Djibouti, and Sudan are three of the five nations along the Red Sea's western coast from the Horn of Africa to the Suez canal; the other two are Eritrea and Egypt. Iran reportedly has a military base in Eritrea; Egypt has recently been receptive to Iranian overtures, possibly because of ISIS-related insurrection in the Sinai Peninsula. So what sort of Iranian activity has prompted these moves?

Somalia Cuts Ties With Iran After Accusing Iranians in Mogadishu of ‘Disseminating’ Shiite Doctrine
The government of Somalia cut political ties with Tehran on Thursday and gave Iranian diplomats 72 hours to leave the country after accusing Iran of interfering in the country’s affairs and posing a security threat.

“This step has been taken after careful consideration and in response to the Republic of Iran’s continuous interference in Somalia’s internal affairs,” said the Somali Foreign Ministry in a statement, according to AP.

Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke’s office released a statement on Thursday saying Iran was “directly involved in meddling with internal Somali affairs and have carried out measures that are a threat to our national security,” according to Bloomberg.

Somalia’s move came after Djibouti and Sudan, two other east African nations, joined Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, amid a growing row between Tehran and Riyadh over Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran after its embassy was stormed in Tehran over the execution.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:40 AM on January 9, 2016


The Observer
The Saudi execution of an Iranian cleric has deepened the Sunni-Shia rift. Where does that leave the west.
posted by adamvasco at 8:25 AM on January 10, 2016


A Hospital Bombed in Yemen
At least four people were killed and 10 injured after a strike on a Médecins Sans Frontières-supported facility in Yemen.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:07 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Prince of Araby: The reckless power behind the Saudi throne.
posted by adamvasco at 1:06 PM on January 13, 2016


I have no idea where the good guys are, if they're anywhere, but I'm very prepared to believe this:
Analysis: Sunnis demand international intervention to stop Shi'ite ethnic cleansing in Iraq
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:31 PM on January 18, 2016


« Older “So many books, so little time.”   |   Bigger Luke Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments