Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

Analyst: Worsening Crisis in Saudi-Iranian Relations Further Destabilizes the Middle East

January 28, 2015

The escalating crisis in Saudi Arabian-Iranian relations is going to impact many countries in numerous ways. For years Saudi Arabia and Iran’s geopolitical rivalry has fuelled bloodshed in many corners of the Islamic world from Lebanon to Afghanistan. However, Riyadh’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr at the start of this month, the Iranian response, and the political fallout have raised the Middle East’s sectarian temperatures to the highest level since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Knowing that al-Nimr’s killing would meet an angry response from Iran and Shi’ite communities in several continents, what drove Saudi Arabia to carry out his execution? Why have numerous Sunni-ruled states in Africa and the Middle East sided with Riyadh and what are their stakes in this crisis? How may this escalating tension impact the prospects for peace in Syria and Yemen? Which actors in the region have the most to gain or lose from the political and social fallout? Earlier this month, Gulf State Analytics sat down with Middle East expert Cinzia Bianco to discuss these complicated issues.

Below is the interview.

Gulf State Analytics: For many years, human rights organizations have strongly condemned Saudi Arabia’s high execution rate, particularly with respect to grossly unfair trials and public beheadings. Yet, no execution in Saudi Arabia has ever exacerbated sectarian strife and geopolitical tension across the Middle East to the extent that the killing of Sheikh Nimr Biqr al-Nimr did. Why did this execution foment so much rage within Shi’ite communities from New York City to Kashmir? What is the significance of al-Nimr’s killing?

Cinzia Bianco: Executions play an integral in role Saudi Arabia’s penal code. Many in the kingdom regard them as an acceptable form of punishment for grave crimes. However, the execution of 47 convicts, which Saudi officials announced on January 2, was unique for two reasons.

First, it was the largest number of people executed by Saudi Arabia in a single day since 1980. Second, 43 of them were Sunni terrorists, mostly linked with al-Qaeda, but the other four were Shi’ite dissidents, including the prominent cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. Riyadh officials thereby equated al-Qaeda militants with Shi’ite dissidents. Many Shi’ite communities across the world view being linked to their most despised enemy, Sunni jihadists, as extremely offensive.

Additionally, many considered al-Nimr to be the moral leader of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite opposition movement based in the restive Eastern Province, home to the vast majority of the kingdom’s Shi’ites. Therefore, the cleric’s execution was intended to send a message to the kingdom’s Shi’ite minority that subversive dissenters will receive the harshest punishments. To many Shi’ites, this execution symbolizes oppression by Sunni rulers, and it recalls their sect’s founding myths and the Shi’ite narrative of being a persecuted group.

Finally, many Iranians deeply respected al-Nimr. Riding this public sentiment, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei immediately responded to the cleric’s execution, declaring al-Nimr a shahid (martyr). This declaration significantly fuelled outrage from many Iranians, including the hundreds who stormed Riyadh’s diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad in response to the cleric’s beheading.

It is important to note that over the years, Saudi authorities have usually arrested clerics of al-Nimr’s standing in Saudi Arabia and sought to pressure them into abandoning their political activism, rather than killing them. Thus, the decision to execute al-Nimr was considered highly provocative. The Saudis had already arrested the cleric in 2012 and sentenced him to death in October 2014. But because the authorities suspended his death sentence then, many hoped that the sentence would be commuted this time as well.

Gulf State Analytics: The crisis in Saudi-Iranian relations has quickly spread to numerous African and Arab nations. Four of Saudi Arabia’s fellow GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE), plus Comoros, Djibouti, Jordan, Somalia, and Sudan, took diplomatic actions against Iran. We have also heard pro-Riyadh rhetoric from Egypt and Turkey. What incentives do these Sunni-ruled states have to side with Saudi Arabia rather than to remain neutral?

Cinzia Bianco: Several factors drove the formation of this de facto Sunni alignment against the Islamic Republic. Among all the states which sided with Riyadh, Bahrain is the only one which completely severed relations with Tehran. Manama’s decision did not surprise the experts. Bahrain’s Sunni leadership has faced continuous turmoil since 2011, when many of the island kingdom’s Shi’ite citizens, who comprise the majority of Bahrain’s population, took to the streets to protest Al Khalifa’s rule. In countering such opposition, Bahrain’s leadership has become increasingly reliant on Riyadh’s strategic and financial support. Not only has Riyadh pledged USD one billion in aid per year for the next ten years, but Saudi ARAMCO also manages the Abu Safa oilfield, the largest Bahraini field. Such support from Saudi is crucial as Bahrain undergoes economic stagnation, and the government relies on oil revenues for at least 80 percent of the state budget.

On the other hand, the moves which Qatar and the UAE undertook were primarily gestures of solidarity with Saudi Arabia, their ‘frenemy’ and tactical ally in several regional conflicts. Likewise, Turkey is aligned with Riyadh in Syria and Djibouti is backing the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Jordan and Egypt are both strategic allies and protégés of Saudi Arabia. In addition to the billions already provided since Mohammed Morsi’s July 2013 ouster, last month Riyadh agreed to invest USD 8 billion in Egypt through its public and sovereign funds. In 2015 alone, Saudi Arabia pledged a sum of USD 1.219 billion to support infrastructural projects in Jordan with a particular focus on strengthening the distressed management of Syrian refugees in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Sudan’s case is unique. The Gulf Arab monarchies, with their long-standing problems of food security, have long explored the African continent for the purposes of agricultural investment. Alongside a number of water and electricity projects and the cultivation of a new area of one million acres in Eastern Sudan, Saudi Arabia agreed last November to build three dams in the country, which is said to have 208 million acres of arable land.

Gulf State Analytics: How may this rising geopolitical tension impact the conflicts in Syria and Yemen?

Cinzia Bianco: Both the Syrian and Yemeni crises have sectarian characteristics, with Iran and Saudi Arabia backing opposing sides. The Saudi-Iranian spat has implications for both civil wars.

Despite Riyadh’s assurance that the escalation of the Saudi-Iranian crisis will not impact the international diplomatic process under way in Vienna, it would be naïve to reach this conclusion. Evidence of this tension already impacting such fragile peace initiatives surfaced when the United Nations Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, travelled to Saudi Arabia and Iran for consultations after the severance of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran. The future of Bashar al-Assad, a staunch ally of Tehran and an enemy of Riyadh, has long been the main obstacle to any political settlement in Syria. Last month, a compromise seemed somewhat possible. However, at this juncture, even agreeing to sit down for the new round of talks is again a major issue, especially for the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main Syrian opposition coalition. The talks, which were scheduled to resume on January 25, are now even unsure to take place at all. At the same time, it is likely that the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is heavily involved and the international community is not, will escalate.

Gulf State Analytics: Oman was the only GCC member to maintain diplomatic relations with Iran. Shortly after Riyadh’s announcement, Muscat’s ambassador to Tehran and Oman’s Foreign Minister travelled to Iran for talks. What is Muscat’s agenda? What are the stakes for Oman as this diplomatic crisis ensues?

Cinzia Bianco: Oman’s geopolitical stakes are high. For decades the Sultanate has managed to retain a neutral position in conflicts fuelled by the two giants of the Gulf. In the past, Riyadh accepted this because Iran was a so-called pariah in the international community and the Islamic Republic was in a weaker economic and geopolitical position to compete with Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh’s position has changed, however, as a consequence of the P5+1 and Iran signing the historical nuclear deal last July and King Salman, who has a more hawkish posture vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic, inheriting the throne in January 2015. After learning that Muscat had secretly mediated nuclear talks between Washington and Tehran as early as 2012, Riyadh officials became furious. Oman’s opposition to Saudi efforts to establish a Gulf Union, which was implicitly intended to serve as a political bloc against Tehran’s future position in the regional chessboard, also contributed to this growing resentment.

Many believe that one of the original motivations for forming the GCC in the early 1980s was to form a unified Gulf Arab bloc vis-à-vis Iran. But Oman saw everything differently. Muscat has long sought to mediate disputes between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An example was during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), when Oman maintained neutrality and brokered ceasefires between Tehran and Baghdad. As the ongoing spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran will inevitably impact Oman, Riyadh may attempt to pressure Muscat into picking sides. However, given that Oman is a small country situated between the two Gulf powers and that Muscat has vested interests in maintaining good relations with both nations, the Omani leadership cannot afford to do so.

True to Omani style, Muscat seeks to reassert its neutrality. But this could become a major challenge. For example, the Iranian press was quick to publish statements made by the Omani ambassador to Tehran, who stated that Saudi Arabia is “pressuring Iran and overshadowing the nuclear agreement”. Although it seems natural for Oman to defend the nuclear agreement, which Muscat played a pivotal role in mediating, these are sensitive times and every statement carries different weight. If Oman were to lose its neutrality, the Sultanate’s capacity to mediate conflicts in Syria and Yemen, which can be pivotal, would be compromised.

Gulf State Analytics: Since 2011, sectarian violence has plagued Bahrain. How might al-Nimr’s execution impact the tension between the island kingdom’s Sunni rulers and the Shi’ite opposition?

Cinzia Bianco: Bahrain, the only Shi’ite-majority country in the GCC, represents one the Gulf’s sectarian flashpoints. Now the island kingdom finds itself in a delicate position as tension escalates throughout the country. Shortly after Saudi Arabia announced al-Nimr’s execution, hundreds of Bahraini Shi’ites took to the streets and lashed out at the Sunni leadership in Riyadh. Peaceful protesters held images of al-Nimr and rioters set fire to cars. Bahraini security guards fired at those demonstrators with tear gas.

This is troublesome because such violence recalls the first days of the 2011 protests, when hundreds of Shi’ite, who accused the political establishment in Manama of systemic discrimination, clashed with security forces. With the support of Saudi and Emirati security forces, Bahraini authorities shut down those demonstrators. Since 2011, however, smaller scale protests have sporadically erupted in villages near Manama.

Locked in economic stagnation – itself a contributing factor to kingdom’s problems – Bahrain’s budget deficit is expected to reach nearly USD 4 billion this year. To address this challenge, Bahraini officials recently announced subsidy cuts. Though arguably beneficial for the economy, such cuts risk increasing discontent within the society’s poorest segments.

This delicate situation may push the Bahraini leadership to take a harsher stance against the nation’s Shi’ite opposition movements. Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior recently stated that officials in Manama will pursue all necessary legal procedures against Bahrainis who criticize court verdicts in Saudi Arabia, or its legal system. Such a declaration appears to be aimed at both discouraging Shi’ite dissent and reinforcing the alliance between Al Khalifa and Al Saud, which stands on solid ground.

One must ask whether this approach will bring about the desired effect, or instead fuel anti-Sunni sentiment among Bahraini Shi’ites. Ultimately, this will likely depend on the extent to which Manama officials can successfully convince Bahraini citizens that Iran is attempting to destabilize the island kingdom via terrorist proxies. For years, Bahrain’s authorities have claimed to have foiled several Iran-linked terrorist plots. Several days after al-Nimr’s killing, Bahrain’s official news agency reported on the arrest of several members of a terrorist organization called “Basta”, which allegedly received financial support from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, including USD 20,000 from the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Although the timing of this announcement is suspicious, there seems reason to conclude that fringes of young Shi’ite dissidents are turning to external support to overthrow the Al Khalifa family.

Gulf State Analytics: In recent months, events throughout the Middle East have brought sectarian tensions in Kuwait to the surface, as evidenced by sectarian rhetoric on the part of the nation’s lawmakers. Geographically situated between Saudi Arabia and Iran, how may Kuwait’s decision to side with Riyadh impact Kuwait’s domestic politics and its own sectarian landscape?

Cinzia Bianco: The region’s rising sectarian temperatures have already negatively impacted relations between Kuwaiti Shi’ites and Sunnis. Nonetheless, the leadership’s moves, even within the context of this recent Iran-Saudi spat, appear to be more directed at crushing dissent, regardless of its sectarian element, and closing ranks with Kuwait’s fellow GCC members. Since “Arab Spring” protests erupted back in 2011, authorities have targeted both Sunni and Shi’ites who have criticized other Gulf Arab regimes.

These political arrests were dangerous for Kuwait’s delicate sectarian balance. Indeed, Kuwaiti Shi’ites, who represent 25 to 30 percent of the population, have equal access both to the Parliament (National Assembly), to sensitive positions in high-level political departments, and to the country’s welfare system. Notable Shi’ites families and the ruling Al Sabah have historically maintained close ties.

Therefore, Kuwait’s authorities face grave risks in terms of balancing national unity with GCC solidarity. The June 26 attack, perpetrated by Daesh (“Islamic State”) against the historic Shi’ite Imam Sadiq mosque in Kuwait City, which killed 27 and wounded 227, highlighted this tension. Immediately after the attack, Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah visited the site. The leader stressed the need for national unity to avoid falling into Daesh’s polarizing trap.

Now, by siding with Riyadh over Tehran, such diplomatic moves may embolden Kuwait’s anti-Iranian Salafists. These conservative Sunnis already enjoy substantial popularity in Kuwaiti society and they hold a meaningful number of seats in the National Assembly. In addition, recent events heighten the risk of more Shi’ites distancing themselves from the ruling Al Sabah family, despite their longstanding alliance.

On January 12, a Kuwaiti court sentenced to death a Shi’te Kuwaiti citizen and an Iranian (in absentia)  found guilty of plotting attacks in the country and spying on Iran’s behalf. The accused were convicted of belonging to a 26-member terrorist cell. Three others were acquitted, and the remainder, all Kuwaitis, were handed prison terms  ranging between five years and life imprisonment. In response, on January 13, Kuwait’s nine Shi’ite MPs boycotted a parliamentary session in protest, claiming that Gulf nation’s Shi’te were being unfairly assumed to be Iranian agents. These Shi’ite parliamentarians also questioned the government’s inactivity on the issue of Kuwaiti Sunni fundamentalists joining the ranks of militant groups in Iraq and Syria.

It is hard to see how the Kuwaiti leadership can manage such a situation without making the nation’s Shi’ites feel increasingly threatened.

Gulf State Analytics: Which state- and non-state actors in the Middle East have the most to gain from Saudi Arabia and Iran’s exacerbated geopolitical tension? What do groups like Daesh (“Islamic State”) and other Sunni Islamist militias in Syria have to gain from this crisis?

Cinzia Bianco: The implications for Daesh are difficult to predict. On one hand, Daesh accuses Saudi rulers of doing too little to counter Iran and Saudi Shi’ites, whom they accuse of predatory action across the Middle East. A harsher Saudi stance against Iran and Shi’ite dissent in the Eastern Province weakens this narrative. On the other hand, by fueling anti-Shi’ite sentiments in the region the Saudis are creating a new environment, which could expand fertile ground for Daesh’s highly sectarian and hateful agenda.

Other Sunni Islamist groups fighting the Syrian regime, including Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Shah, may have more to gain than lose if Riyadh boosts support for these militias in an effort to tip the balance against Assad and by extension Iran. However, given Assad’s position of strength, a compromise between Saudi Arabia and Iran could have done the most to weaken the Syrian president’s hold on power. Therefore, the Iranian-backed Ba’athist regime in Damascus may emerge as a major winner from the dangerous escalation of geopolitical tension between Riyadh and Tehran.