"Who will rid me of this
meddlesome priest?" spoke King
Henry II sometime in November 1170, about Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of
Canterbury. Becket was a deeply religious and ascetic person as well as someone
who refused to endorse the King's religious desires. At one time the King's childhood
mentor and close friend, but now arch foe, he was murdered in December 1170, by
the King's henchmen.
Such type of thinking most likely
prevailed in the corridors of the Saudi leadership and power structures of
recent years as a means to rid them of "their meddlesome priest”, Shaikh
Nimr Baqr al-Nimr.
Sentenced to death in October 2014 on
charges of "sedition, seeking foreign meddling, disobeying Saudi
rulers and taking up arms against the security forces", a
murder most foul was committed on 2nd January 2016 when Shaikh Nimr was
executed by Saudi authorities.
Why would Saudi Arabia take such a
step, especially now, and risk the ire of both friend and foe? An action which
was certain to weaken the already strained relations with Iran which have since
collapsed. An action that has and will henceforth significantly rachet up
the level of geo-sectarian armed conflict ravaging the region. Geo-sectarianism,
a phrase coined by Kamran Bokhari, the eminent authority on jihad and political
Islam, very aptly describes how religion and geo-politics have merged in the
battle for regional dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
While the phrase is, thanks to Kamran,
fairly new, the phenomenon itself isn’t. History and Christianity, who had their heyday of mass scale murder in the name of God, is replete with such examples.
The most famous being the terribly destructive "30 Years Christian sectarian War" in
Central Europe from 1618 to 1648 primarily between the Christian Catholic Austrian Habsburgs
and the Christian Protestant King Gustav of Sweden, each supported by their respective sectarian allies.
The causes were many. Following
the Peace of Augsburg in 1566 to end the Protestant / Catholic based sectarian
conflicts plaguing Europe, the principle of "Cuis regio, euic
religio" was adopted. Literally this meant that a realm would
adopt the religion of its ruler. However the Holy Roman Emperor, a Habsburg,
wanted to restore the power of Catholicism in the region and started to break
away from this principle. The Protestant power structures revolted, entering
the fray under the garb of sectarianism to acquire more power thus signaling
the start of a conflict which converted Europe into a wasteland. Europe
was a free for all during these thirty years. Mercenaries, brigands, criminals
- in fact anyone with a weapon and/or a horse - joined this blood laden saga of
terrible pillage, plunder and unspeakable violence, committed by
both Catholics and Protestants, resulting in the mass slaughter
of millions. All in the name of God and Christian Europe’s sectarian
The estimated casualties of this
conflict are horrifying. 8 million were killed in the name of God. The
population of Germany, then divided into 224 states, was reduced by 40%! Males
by 50%! The Czech population was reduced by a third or 33%. And all for
geo-sectarianism. The desire to extend power and influence by using sectarian
religious sentiments. Strangely, it also resulted in some peculiar bedfellows
where geo-politics overcame sectarian biases. For example, Catholic France,
which had earlier sided with the Catholic Habsburgs, jumped ship and joined
Protestant King Gustav fearing Habsburg domination in Europe.
The result was the rout of the House
of Habsburg as the dominant world power.
So are we headed for a geo-sectarian,
Shia – Sunni war?
The answer lies in the actions of the
Al Saud. Why did Saudi Arabia, (and when one says Saudi Arabia, we really mean
the Al Saud ruling family, as others don't really have a say and don't matter)
resort to this highly nuclear fissionable act in the form of executing Shaikh
Nimr? Is this the foolhardy and desperate act of a dying regime leading
to a "tipping
point", the "beginning
of the end", an "imperial
over reach" or a "murder too far"?
Or is this a cold, calculated move to create favourable circumstances for
While it is clearly a complex issue
with many dimensions, one reason clearly stands out. To win the hearts
and minds of their own people in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are virulently anti
#Shia and also silent supporters of Daesh. Furthermore, to ingratiate themselves with
the other Salafi / Wahabi terror outfits fighting in Syria and Iraq such
as the Al Qaeda militant group, Jubhat Al Nusra, Jaish Al Islam, Jaish Al Fatah
and Ahrar Al Shams who can at a future date fight alongside the Saudis against DAESH when that time comes. Little do they know that these same proxy's will be fighting them as all proxy's do. The Tehrik e Taliban is a most recent example of how a splinter group of a Pakistan sponsored proxy turned against the State.
Finally, it is an attempt, to reach out to the larger Sunni world in
general, especially of the Salafi and Wahabi ilk and be seen as the leader of an Arab Sunni world against a so called "intemperate" "aggressive" and "demonic" Iran.
But the bigger question is why do they
need to ingratiate themselves with their own people who they have ruled with an
iron fist for nearly 90 years?
Let us not forget that King Abdul Aziz,
father of the present ruler, first declared himself the ruler of the two
"Kingdoms of Nejd and Hejaz" in 1925-26 and then renamed it as the
"Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" in 1932 after mercilessly slaughtering
(with British provided machine guns) the very people (the Ikhwan) who brought
him to power in the infamous Battle of Sabila in 1930.
The answer to this lies in the
strategy of their biggest enemy. No, not Iran but Daesh, who has the
ideological potential to overthrow them. Daesh is extremely smart. Very
smart. Their each and every move is calculated to do two things. First, to
raise their brand internationally so they can recruit more people and gain more
funding. Hence, the Paris Attacks which then inspire lone wolf acts like San Bernardino,
both trying to achieve the same objective of attracting global supporters.
But secondly and far more sinister from
Daesh’s perspective is to show the people of Saudi Arabia, specifically the
die-hard Salafi/Wahabi who hate the Shia, that the Al Saud are weak and not as
harsh on the "takfiri" Shias as Daesh themselves are. Hence
they must be removed from power and the country ruled by Daesh to create a
truly pure Caliphate. Daesh also aims, as part of this strategy, to widen the
Shia – Sunni schism and exacerbate the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia,
thus bringing about a conflict between the two. A conflict, which will
weaken both countries and certainly bring about the downfall of the Al
So what does Daesh do? It attacks Shia
mosques with suicide bombers in Saudi Arabia. An Ismaili mosque in the
south was not spared either. This puts the Al Saud in a quandary. If
they don't go after the perpetrators of these acts then the
whole world sees them as complicit with the terrorists. If they
do go after them, which they did, then they are seen as being "weak and
supportive" of the "takfiri" Shias and against the interests of
the Salafi/Wahabi Sunnis who are upholding the faith by killing the Shias of
the land. So it’s really damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Brilliant.
So how do the Al Saud handle it? Due
to the fact they have to execute 43 Sunni terrorists, they balance this by
executing 4 Shias with Shaikh Nimr, a highly revered international Shia figure,
being one of them. This “meddlesome priest” who had become a thorn to the Al
Saud, inspired young Shias in the oil-filled heartlands of the Eastern
provinces to rise up for their rights. The Al Saud’s underlying message to
the Wahhabis at large and their own people in particular was that while we
do not support terrorism in our country (Syria being another matter)
we most certainly do not support Shias. “Please continue to support
us and not Daesh!” is the Al Saud motto. So many birds with one stone! Simple.
Will the country, in the hands of a
stripling, clearly unstable, 28 year old, Prince "Reckless" Mohammed bin Salman, the
deputy crown prince and son of the King, slide down a suicidal slippery slope
to their destruction and play into the hands of Daesh? I think
there is a great possibility. As said Prometheus "Whom the gods would
destroy, they first make mad".
Will Iran also play into the hands of
Daesh and escalate its fight with the Al Saud to avenge Shaikh Nimr’s murder? I don’t think so and they should not. The
country has suffered tremendous deprivations and the sanctions have crippled
them. They will and should remain sensible and coherent and watch the Al
Will the “30 years’ war scenario” now
also play out in the Middle East starting a genocidal Shia – Sunni
conflagration? A serious
possibility, if a Daesh like group takes over the Arabian Peninsula.
Will the USA and the Western powers
continue to watch and support the Al Saud’s march of folly and the potentially
horrific consequences of their actions? I don’t have a ready answer. Too much money
and interests are at stake. If the American and Western defence and oil lobbies
can be held at bay and better sense prevails, they should intervene
diplomatically and set in motion actions for regime change. There are
still many sane voices in Saudi Arabia who are appalled at the way their
country is governed. But many, as the Saudi saying goes, are “put behind the sun” never to be seen again. They
must be supported. Pakistan and Turkey can play a very important part in
ensuring the country does not fall into the hands of DAESH or something similar.
They should focus on transforming it into a stable democracy and not a rabid
entity as it is becoming now.
While forcing regime change has serious negative fall outs the options are very limited. Kamran Bokhari author of "Jihad and Political Islam" thinks Saudi Arabia has over reached itself in murdering Sheikh Nimr. He says The Al Saud monarchy is beset with many problems all of their own creation.
I think they have finally run their course and also running out of options. Hence taking extremely risky, confused and contradictory decisions and actions with no long term clarity, except survival.
According to Kamran, for example in the early days of the Egyptian Tahir square the Saudis issued a Fatwa on 24th January declaring the uprising and Democracy as "Fithnas" and that it was illegal to rise against Hosni Mubarak. On 28th January sensing the mood they reversed the Fatwa. They then literally created and funded the Nour party of hard line Salafists to take part in the Egyptian elections and become part of Morsi's Government. But then not finding Morsi a willing tool, they actively and generously funded his downfall. At Saudi instructions the Al Nour party turned against their former ally, Morsi and joined General Sisi and the army and very strangely the secularists, in ousting President Morsi.
In Bahrain, they also created and funded the hardline Salafist Al Asalah party to support the Emir of Bahrain against the Shia majority populace, represented by the Al Wefaaq party. Through the Bahraini Emir, they have attempted to dilute the 70% Shia majority of Bahrain by importing tens of thousands of Sunnis from the Region and Pakistan and granting them Bahraini citizenship.
And all the time denying their own people the option of elections and self governance.
Their Yemen adventure is in tatters. In fact the Houthis have captured Saudi land in three places.
Thus their attempt to portray themselves as the leader of the Sunni and Arab world against a "terrorist" Iran has miserably failed. Tiny Bahrain and starving Sudan were all they could muster. No other Gulf country broke off ties with Iran. Even UAE only downgraded ties. Some more like Qatar and Kuwait have followed suit by recalling ambassadors, but falling short of breaking ties. More to show symbolic support in the short term.
The USA and Europe are confused and now wary of Al Saud's actions and do not blindly endorse them as they did before.
In fact they are now looking towards developing a much stronger and positive engagement with Iran. The Obama administration has sent clear signals on Iran. Sanctions lifting will provide Iran with over a 100 Billion Dollars in currently frozen assets. It's oil out put will increase from 1 million to 2.5 million barrels a day, post sanctions. As a result oil prices will continue South adding to Saudi Arabia's economic woes.
So the Saudis entire strategy to keep Iran isolated has also a failure.
On the economic front the picture is pretty bleak. A failed oil policy to reduce oil prices and force closure of Shale oil and hurt Iran has backfired with oil sliding to the mid thirties much below the 90 dollar benchmark they had planned and budgeted for in 2015.
According to Bloomberg, Saudi Arabia may run through its Sovereign Fund in 5 years at current and projected budget deficits. As of today it has reduced from 650 Billion to 520 billion. So either oil prices rise or they cut expenses and spending. The latter laden with serious internal political consequences where a young massively unemployed population is becoming more restive.
And on top of all this misery and pressures are DAESH, baying and barking at their doorsteps, sensing blood and a kill. A 600 long kilometer border with Daesh held Iraqi territory must be giving them nightmares.
Thus the Al Saud are desperate and hence dangerous and their actions fraught with grave consequences.
Will sanity return to them? Will they allow deep reform in their own country and give up much of their power to their own people? Unlikely.
No Dictator or Military strongman or Monarch has willingly given up power in recent times. On the contrary they resort to even greater violence and draconian measures to remain in power. Shah of Iran, Qaddafi. Saddam. Hosni Mubarak. Ben Ali to name a few. Each either fled or tried to flee and or faced the wrath of their people.
So doesn't it make sense to create conditions for a more peaceful and or less violent transfer before the inevitable happens and they have to flee and leave the country in the hands of a DAESH like entity ?
It really is not about whether one is Sunni or Shia, a supporter of the Al Saud or an opponent. It's about what happens after them.
Who will emerge victorious from this
madness? Iran or the Al
Saud. I personally don’t see Iran coming out of this any worse for the
wear. But one does see the very real possibility of the Al Saud going down in
flames taking with them the last vestiges and semblance of Muslim unity,
leaving the world to deal with the nightmarish scenario of a DAESH like
structure replacing them.
Unless, of course, better sense
prevails and the Arabian Peninsula transforms itself from a monarchy into a
democracy before the wolves come in as they did in Syria and Iraq!