While we wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s possible to find a “silver lining” in the San Bernardino massacre, the fact that Tashfeen Malik’s connection to Saudi Arabia has focused the world’s attention on Riyadh’s role in promoting Sunni extremism means the tragedy will at least serve a kind of utilitarian purpose.
As we and others have documented extensively, Saudi Arabia’s promotion of Wahhabism makes the kingdom the number one state sponsor of terror almost by default (Erdogan’s support for ISIS notwithstanding). Despite the best efforts of quite a few commentators and analysts who this year have drawn attention to the fact that the ideology espoused and promulgated by the Saudis is really no different than that promoted by ISIS, the Western public is still largely in the dark - we know this because if the US electorate were truly in tune to what’s going on, voters would stage a popular revolt before they’d allow King Salman to parade into Washington in a fleet of Mercedes on the way to commandeering the entire Four Seasons for a two day stay.
As Kamel Daoud, a columnist for Quotidien d’Oran, and the author of “The Meursault Investigation” put it in a New York Times op-ed in November, Saudi Arabia is simply “an ISIS that made it.” Here’s an excerpt from that piece:
Black Daesh, white Daesh. The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity’s common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things. The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia. In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other. This is a mechanism of denial, and denial has a price: preserving the famous strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia at the risk of forgetting that the kingdom also relies on an alliance with a religious clergy that produces, legitimizes, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on.
Of course the kingdom’s support for radical Islam isn’t confined to the promotion of a poisonous ideology. The Saudis have a history of arming and funding Sunni extremist groups when those groups are thought to be advancing Riyadh’s geopolitical interests. Syria is the latest example but there are others including, for instance, the Saudis’ support for the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war. At the risk of generalizing, those fighters went on to become al-Qaeda.
We bring that up because today, Saudi Arabia (that bastion of human rights) executed 47 people, many of whom were al-Qaeda members. “Most of the 47 executed in the kingdom's biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago,” Reuters reports, adding that “the executions took place in 12 cities in Saudi Arabia, four prisons using firing squads and the others beheading.” Here’s more:
The simultaneous execution of 47 people - 45 saudis, one Egytian and a man from Chad - was the biggest mass execution for security offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 jihadist rebels who seized Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979.
The 43 Sunni jihadists executed on Saturday included several prominent al Qaeda figures, including those convicted for attacks on Western compounds, government buildings and diplomatic missions that killed hundreds from 2003-06.
Obviously, there's something terribly absurd about this. The Saudis are executing Sunni extremists with one hand, and promoting Sunni extremism with the other. While they're busy beheading al-Qaeda members in Saudi Arabia, they're effectively creating a Hydra by funneling arms and funds to al-Nusra in Syria and promulgating the "dark" (to quote Bashar al-Assad) ideology that inspires the group.
But that's not all. Among those executed on Saturday was prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. As BBC notes, "Sheikh Nimr was a vocal supporter of the mass anti-government protests that erupted in Eastern Province in 2011, where a Shia majority have long complained of marginalisation."
Here are some fast facts about the Sheikh, again, courtesy of BBC:
- In his 50s when he was executed, he has been a persistent critic of Saudi Arabia's Sunni royal family
- Arrested several times over the past decade, alleging he was beaten by Saudi secret police during one detention
- Met US officials in 2008, Wikileaks revealed, seeking to distance himself from anti-American and pro-Iranian statements
- Emerged as a figurehead in the protests that began in 2011 inspired by the Arab Spring
- Said to have a particularly strong following among Saudi Shia youth
Ultimately, the Saudis killed (literally) two birds with one stone here: they silenced a dissident political voice and they dealt a slap in the face to Iran by killing a prominent member of the Shiite community.
The Sheikh's death sparked protests in the Eastern Province, the site of the 2011 uprising in which Nimr played a key role. "Scores of Shi'ite Muslims marched through the Qatif district of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province in protest at the execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimra," Reuters says, citing an eyewitness. "They chanted 'down with the Al Saud', the name of the ruling Saudi royal family." Here's more, from al-Jazeera:
Scores of Shias in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province marched through Nimr's home district of Qatif to protest against the execution. Dozens of protesters also took to the streets in neighbouring Bahrain, where police fired tear gas to disperse them.
Nimr had called for the oil-rich Eastern Province, where about two million Shia live, to be separated from the rest of Saudi Arabia.
He also criticised the government for what he said was the marginalisation of the Shia minority in the country.
Lebanon's Shia Hezbollah movement condemned the execution, calling it an "assassination".
The "real reason" for the execution was "that Sheikh Nimr ... demanded the squandered rights of an oppressed people," the group said in a statement.
They're also protesting at the Saudi embassy in Tehran:
protest at Saudi embassy in Tehran over al-Nimr execution Bigger protest planned for tomorrow pic.twitter.com/UG2lSnzufv— Sobhan Hassanvand (@Hassanvand) January 2, 2016
Officially, Nimr's crime was sedition, disobedience and bearing arms. Oh, and "foreign meddling." Speaking of "foreigners," Iran isn't happy, and neither is Hezbollah. "Saudi Arabia is executing the opponents of terrorism," Tehran said. Even the Houthis jumped into the fray. Here's Reuters again:
Riyadh's main regional rival Iran and its Shi'ite allies immediately reacted with vigorous condemnation of the execution of Nimr, and Saudi police raised security in a district where the sect is a majority in case of protests, residents said.
But a top Iranian cleric said the kingdom's Al Saud ruling family would be "wiped from the pages of history", Yemen's Houthi group described Nimr as a "holy warrior" and Lebanese militia Hezbollah said Riyadh had made "a grave mistake".
"The (royal) Al Saud family executed today the holy warrior, the grand cleric Nimr Baqr al-Nimr after a mock trial ... a flagrant violation of human rights," an obituary on the Houthis' official Al Maseera website said.
This comes on the heels of a banner year for beheadings in the kingdom. As AP reports, "Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in the kingdom in two decades, according to several advocacy groups that monitor the death penalty worldwide."
The Saudis would be wise to exercise caution in 2016. Now that Riyadh has been forced to rollback subsidies and overhaul the welfare state in order to buy itself some budget breathing room, the conditions are ripe for social unrest. Inflaming sectarian tensions by killing prominent Shiite opposition leaders isn't exactly conducive to the promotion of stability.
Additionally, it's not clear that this is an opportune time to poke Iran in the eye. Between Yemen and Iraq, Tehran's influence is expanding and thanks to Russia, it doesn't appear likely that Damascus will fall to Saudi-backed rebels. In short, Iran's Shiite cresent is waxing while the House of Saud is waning. Throw in the fact that Iran is set to shed the "pariah state" label with the lifting of international sanctions and the fact that Islamic State's meteoric rise has served to increase public awareness of just how dangerous the ideology espoused by the Saudis truly is, and you have a truly precarious situation for Washington's favorite oil-rich monarchy.