Saudi Arabia’s execution last week of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, for peacefully protesting the kingdom’s discriminatory anti-Shiite policies has escalated sectarian tensions in the Middle East and plunged Saudi-Iranian relations to a new low. The rupture in diplomatic ties between the two countries could worsen the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and complicate efforts to end them; it could also undercut the U.S.-led campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
The execution of Nimr is the latest episode in a broader pattern of Saudi foreign and domestic policies that has caused serious rifts in a once close partnership and raises profound questions about its future.
At home, the Saudi government is a serial abuser of human rights, and its treatment of women and the kingdom’s large Shiite minority is sharply at odds with U.S. values and global norms. Its intolerance has become more troubling since the succession in early 2015 from King Abdullah to King Salman. Salman seems more inclined than his predecessor to appease the ultraconservative and puritanical Wahhabi clerical establishment and other conservative Islamist forces in the country. His 30-year-old son, Mohammad, the deputy crown prince, second deputy prime minister, and minister of defense, also seems to be a major impetus for the harsher, more irresponsible Saudi policies, in part because of his competition for power with Muhammad bin Nayef, the crown prince and minister of the interior, which creates incentives for the king’s son to curry favor with conservatives.
Abroad, the Saudis have been a wellspring of extremism. The kingdom bears a historic responsibility for the spread of Salafi jihad in the region. The theology propagated abroad by Wahhabi clerics, with the full support of Saudi rulers, is one of the major influences behind ISIS’ odious religious doctrine. To be sure, Riyadh has made significant progress curbing private Saudi financing of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Nonetheless, private Saudi
Loading, please wait...