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Saudi Arabia's act of strategic defiance

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Monday, 11 January 2016

The Saudi decision to execute Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr at this particular juncture was a strategic act of defiance meant to challenge Iran and the United States in particular. The Saudis wanted to send a blatant and carefully calculated message that the Kingdom is capable of standing on its own, and it will not be deterred by either the already destabilized region or by the repercussions of its act.

To understand, however, why the Saudis chose to go on the offensive now, a brief review of the development of events between Tehran and Riyadh, and Riyadh and Washington, is warranted. This will also explain why the deliberate execution of the Shiite cleric provided the spark that led to the dangerously heightened tensions between the two countries.

To begin with, there was no love lost between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite ‪‎Iran, as their bilateral relations have always seesawed between fragile normalcy and open animosity. The loathing between the two countries is rooted in the historical Sunni-Shiite conflict, which goes back to the conflict over the Prophet Muhammad's succession in the 8th century. In recent times, it was the 1979 Iranian revolution that intensified the rivalry between them.


Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war (from 1980-1988) that claimed over one million causalities between the two sides and only deepened the hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The 2003 Iraq War brought a revolutionary shift that ended the decades-long US policy of mutual containment of the two countries and allowed Iran to become the dominant player in Iraq.

The subsequent bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, with Iran's direct support of its Shiite brethren, destroyed any remnant of diplomatic normalcy between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Following the eruption of the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria brought both sides into open confrontation as Syria became the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Similarly, the conflict in ‪Yemen became yet another battleground between the two countries, with Iran supporting the Shiite-affiliated Houthis both financially and militarily, and the Saudis supporting the Sunni regime led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in order to prevent Iran from establishing a strategic foothold in the Arabian Peninsula.

Finally, Iran's ambition to acquire nuclear weapons fueled the Saudis' legitimate concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran will make it the de facto regional hegemon; in that case, Iran would have the ability to intimidate its neighbors and impose its own political agenda throughout the Gulf.

As a country that has primarily relied on the US for protection, with which it has developed close and binding relations, Saudi Arabia felt all along that it could count on the US to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Although the US has made every effort, including the imposition of crippling sanctions, to prevent Iran from realizing its nuclear ambition, the Saudis felt betrayed by the secret nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran. In addition, Riyadh viewed the Iran deal as a bad deal for having multiple loopholes, which the Saudis believe Iran will exploit since it is determined to acquire nuclear weapons at any cost.


The Saudis became gradually convinced that the Obama administration is tilting increasingly in support of Iran for a number of reasons: a) President Obama does not want to jeopardize the Iran deal, on which much of his legacy hangs; b) the administration concluded that without Iran's participation in the peace talks there will be no diplomatic solution to end Syria's civil war; c) the US views the Iran deal as stabilizing and thus it gives relations with Iran priority in the current diplomatic tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia; and d) the US' failure to impose sanctions on Iran for testing ballistic missiles has deeply irked the Saudis, who decided to take matters into their hands.

Knowing full well what the repercussions of executing Sheikh al-Nimr would be, Saudi Arabia went ahead with its plans because the potential gains, from the Saudi perspective, far outweighed the prospective fallout.

To demonstrate its resolve, Saudi Arabia carried out the execution of the cleric deliberately at a time when regional rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites is at its peak. The execution was also carried out to appease the Sunni Saudi clerics who are concerned about Iran's growing regional influence, and at the same time deter sympathizers of ISIS, which regards Saudi Arabia as an enemy.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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