Saudi Arabia's recent execution of 47 people for terrorism-related offenses, including accused al-Qaeda fighters and prominent Shiite cleric and opposition activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, predictably triggered an international uproar, especially among Shiites in the Middle East. Nimr was sentenced to death in October for his role in protests against the Saudi government, at which point the head of Iran's armed forces warned Riyadh against carrying out the punishment. In retaliation, the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was raided and set ablaze by enraged protestors, prompting King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to sever all diplomatic ties with Iran.
As tensions quickly reverberated across the region, Saudi allies Bahrain, Sudan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates followed suit in either recalling their own ambassadors or downgrading their relations with Iran. Making an already dire situation even worse, on Thursday Iran accused Saudi Arabia of launching an airstrike against the Iranian Embassy in Sana, Yemen, in what Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Jabar Ansari lambasted as "a deliberate attempt by the Saudi government" for which it was fully responsible. Within a week, the United States' key ally in the Middle East has suddenly emerged as a liability.
Aside from the obvious ramifications, there's an equally disquieting undercurrent to this whole episode: The U.S. government had implored Saudi officials not to follow through with Nimr's execution behind closed doors, anticipating the potential impact on both negotiations over Syria and the implementation of last year's nuclear deal with Iran. Just days after the executions, al-Nimr's brother, political activist and businessman Mohammad al-Nimr, criticized the Obama administration for "not offer[ing] to make any efforts on this, although they knew the danger of this action and the repercussions." The al-Nimr family actually has another member facing the same fate: In 2012, Mohammad's 17-year-old son Ali was arrested and charged with joining anti-government protests and possessing illegal firearms. He was sentenced to death by beheading and public crucifixion by the Saudi authorities last year.
The U.S.'s problem with managing Saudi Arabia is largely one of its own making.
The State Department's official statement echoed now-tired refrains about its long-running efforts to work with the Saudis on their legal procedures, the need to "respect and protect human rights," "ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases," and to "permit peaceful expression of dissent." Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record is evidence enough that these calls fall on deaf ears. Given that Saudi authorities executed 158 people in 2015—the largest number in recent years—it doesn't come as a shock that 2016 started with the largest mass execution in almost 30 years.
In a statement, the State Department emphasized its concern about the instability that Saudi Arabia's actions would provoke in the region by "exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced." But as Reza Marashi aptly points out in Foreign Policy, "unless short-term stability is your only concern, the Saudis have rarely been a force for good in the Middle East." This reputation, and the divergence in Saudi-U.S. interests, is not lost on other players in the region, including Iran.
Whether King Salman and Saudi elites were complicit in or indifferent to Nimr's sentence, they perpetuated and sanctioned the legal process that allowed this furor to unfold. And at the same time, thanks to a decades-long relationship with the Saudi regime, America's own hands are hardly clean.
The State Department's muffled response underscores how the U.S.'s problem with managing Saudi Arabia is largely one of its own making. Much of this stems from the amorality America applies to its dealings with Saudi officials. America voices its displeasure with the Saudis for repressing domestic opposition and causing civilian deaths through its coalition airstrikes in Yemen, yet also arms them with multi-billion dollar, high-tech weaponry. This is intended to both act as a show of confidence in the Saudi government and to protect it from nearby threats. But is also contributes to the problem. America welcomes Saudi assistance in combating ISIS, yet quietly overlooks the myriad abuses Saudi Arabia inflicts on its own population and its active promotion of Wahhabist fundamentalism abroad—even though this endangers both Saudi and American interests in the long term.
Though the American and Saudi governments and legal systems are fundamentally different, the U.S. is willing to stomach many unsettling circumstances in its partnership with Saudi Arabia to support American foreign policy aims in the Middle East. But why rely on a partner that would not only ignore American objectives, but actively defy them? The sobering answer is that the U.S. has few other alternatives in the region—and Saudi Arabia is keenly aware of this fact.
The U.S.' compromised position makes it difficult to openly confront King Salman for fear of undermining American interests in resolving the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and negotiating with Iran. In the meantime, the U.S. can do little more than issue statements or call regional leaders while Saudi Arabia adopts a more muscular and incendiary stance.
In the long run, Saudi Arabia's actions last week were less about sectarianism for the sake of sectarianism, and more about competing with Iran for power and influence in the Middle East while exploiting religious divisions. One look at the patchwork of sectarian divides and potential for unrest is enough to demonstrate the extent of Saudi Arabia and Iran's long-term calculus. Furthermore, while Iran is representative of Shiite power for many Shiite groups across the region, the Saudi regime does not have the same appeal among Sunnis, making the prospect of another future misstep by Saudi officials even more concerning.
Compounding this danger is the lurking possibility that Saudi Arabia and Iran are, in fact, toying with forces morphing beyond their control. Saudi Arabia seemingly executed Nimr believing it could show Iran the seriousness of its regional aspirations and demonstrate its ruthless treatment of domestic dissent, whether Sunni or Shiite, without suffering many consequences other than condemnations and angry rhetoric abroad. The assault on the Saudi Embassy provided a striking rebuttal to this confidence.
But this sort of baiting and playing with sectarian fire is exactly what risks dragging other countries, including the U.S., into a scenario where overlapping alliances and obligations can set the stage for far more dangerous confrontation. Already, this frightening prospect erupted in November in the ongoing Syria conflict. As I wrote back in November, Russia's high-profile entry into the Syrian conflict was intended to demonstrate its assertiveness and strength at the expense of the U.S. The Russian campaign also marked Moscow's engagement in a transnational sectarian conflict that it thought it could manage and predict.
Yet just four days after my piece was published, the Turkish military's downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet exposed the shockingly real potential for this maneuvering and boundary-pushing to suddenly spiral out of control. Few would have ever expected a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member like Turkey to use military force against Russia. In doing so, Turkey revealed itself to be far less predictable—and far more dangerous—in its willingness to test the limits of Russia's restraint than the U.S. had previously assumed. Likewise, Saudi Arabia has shown that it can be the opposite of the stabilizing influence in the Middle East that American diplomats want it to be.
Though the Saudi regime at present is both a moral quandary and real political liability, changing conditions within the country, combined with the depressed oil-price environment, provide the U.S. with much-needed leverage in its Saudi relationship. How the U.S. seizes on this opportunity moving forward will determine how well it can ultimately balance this relationship's inherent risks—and rectify a moral stance as well.