Saudi Arabia started 2016 shamefully by carrying out its largest mass execution since 1980, putting 47 men to death on Jan. 2. Among them were at least four prominent Shia activists, including a leader of the kingdom’s Shia minority, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The killings have spurred a new round of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two regional powers.
The senseless executions were enough to provoke a group of Iranian protesters to storm the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Shia Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted there would be ‘divine vengeance’ for the execution of al-Nimr. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani declared that ‘one does not respond to criticism by cutting off heads.’ However, in a letter to Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, Rouhani called for the urgent punishment of the Saudi Embassy attackers.
After the attack on the Saudi Embassy, Saudi Arabia, along with Sudan, Bahrain and Djibouti broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. The U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning the embassy attack and urged all sides to take steps to reduce tensions in the region. Unfortunately, it made no mention of the event that set off the crisis — Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr, a peaceful cleric whose death sparked widespread protests not just in Iran but around the world.
It is clear that world powers fear that the rising tension between the two powerhouses in the Middle East will increase sectarian divisions, escalate proxy wars and have disastrous repercussions across the region. It is important, however, to understand the root causes of Saudi Arabia’s recently more aggressive regional policies. I believe that the shortcomings and failures of Saudi Arabia in the past four decades play a fundamental role in guiding Saudi policies today, which are aimed at compensating for perceived losses and a fear of total regime collapse. Let’s review some of these failures:
1. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states fully supported Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, during his invasion of Iran (1980-1988), including financial support amounting to billions of dollars aimed at disintegrating Iran. They all failed. Saddam is gone, and Iran is more powerful than ever.
2. Saudi Arabia supported Wahhabi Salafist groups in Afghanistan in the form of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, dolling out $4 billion in official aid between 1980 and 1990. Iran, on the other hand, invested on the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek groups in Afghanistan. Immediately after 9/11, the world witnessed the ‘the most significant cooperation’ between Iran and America since the 1979 revolution, as leaders from Tehran assisted Washington in its mission to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda and form a new Afghan government.
3. Since the establishment of the Iraqi state in the 1920s, all of the country’s leaders have been from its Sunni Arab minority. For a long time, the majority Shia Muslims were discriminated by the Sunni-dominated regimes. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, Shia Muslims came into power through democratic elections. Saudi Arabia maintains that the United States ‘delivered’ Iraq to Iran.
4. Since 2005, Saudi Arabia has pushed the United States to ‘cut off the head of the snake’ by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to WikiLeaks. However, the U.S. declined to do so.
5. The House of Saud was instrumental in sustaining the corrupt dictatorship of Tunisia headed by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled Tunisia in the midst of a revolution after 23 years in power. He was the first Arab head of state in recent history to be removed by a popular uprising.
6. Saudi Arabia supported another corrupt dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for almost 30 years. Mubarak was toppled in just 18 days during the 2011 Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings.
7. After the collapse of the dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, in March 2011 Saudi Arabian troops crossed into Bahrain to support continued iron-fisted Sunni minority rule in that country. Bahrain’s pro-democracy protesters descended upon the center of the capital, Manama, marched on government buildings and palaces and called for free elections and equal rights. Even after five years of military occupation, Saudi Arabia has failed to manage the crisis in Bahrain.
8. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Saudi Arabia has pushed the United States to intervene more in the country beyond just sending arms. It has failedto convince the United States to militarily attack Syria.
9. Saudi Arabia’s insistence on ‘Assad must go’ has failed. Assad still is in power and world powers, including the United States, are convinced that Assad must be a part of the solution to the Syria conflict. ‘Rather than forcing the regime to the table — essentially to negotiate its own demise — it has led only to a military stalemate that is benefiting the extreme elements of the opposition, including the Islamic State. The result has been a growing, open-ended conflict, with devastating humanitarian, strategic, and geopolitical consequences,’ wrotePhilip Gordon, a former Obama administration official and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
10. The 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani created a new opportunity for Iranian-American engagement and resulted in the nuclear deal signed in July 2015 after almost two years of intensive negotiations. If the final nuclear agreement is fully implemented, the two sides may negotiate and cooperate on the other issues, notably Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has even said it would try to get nuclear weapons from Pakistan.
11. Since early 2015, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen, its southern neighbor, hoping to force the retreat of the Houthis. It has killed thousands of innocent civilians in the process and has little to show for it in terms of any actual achievements. ‘Further evidence #Yemen becoming Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam; blowback may well weaken stability of #Saudiarabia itself,’ recently tweetedRichard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
12. Saudi Arabia played a key role in dropping the price of oil from $120 to $30 a barrel today in order to hurt Iran. However, Riyadh has confirmed it would itself suffer a $98 billion budget deficit and would have to implementunprecedented austerity measures.
13. Saudi Arabia faces huge domestic challenges due to corruption, poor services, lack of democracy, discriminating its Shia minority and political fights within the House of Saud with one of the world’s worst human rights offenders.
14. And last but not least, today, the world is convinced that the self-proclaimed Islamic State is the most important threat to international peace and security. According to a recent New York Times op-ed, ISIS ‘has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex.’ Furthermore, many policymakers and politicians in the United States have become convinced of the fact that Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest source of funds for Sunni terrorist militants.
What is the end state? Riyadh needs to understand that these real problems need real solutions. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia’s top geopolitical goal has been to maximize its power at Iran’s expense. To address all of its self-created problems, the House of Saud has pursued one solution: blaming Iran. But the reality is that Saudi Arabia has overstretched itself in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, supporting terrorist groups and totally breaking down its ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia needs substantial reforms in its domestic and foreign policies. The fact is that Saudi Arabia is a failed regional power, and if it continues with its traditional policies, sooner or later it will collapse.