Saudi Game of Thrones: What Lies Beneath Saudi Decision to Behead Nimr?

© AFP 2023 / ALAIN JOCARD Saudi Defence Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud
Saudi Defence Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud - Sputnik International
What lay beneath the execution of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia? The beheading of the peaceful cleric has sent multiple signals: to Tehran, Saudi Shiite opposition and Riyadh's Wahhabi co-religionists, experts say.

The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a message sent by the King of Saudi Arabia both to his supporters and adversaries.

"The Kingdom has not had its Islamic revolution, a transition from a largely secular rule to a theocratic one, as in Iran in 1979… Saudi has also not seen the unpredictable upheaval of an Arab Spring. It instead has been ruled by the al-Saud family for decades," Peter Van Buren, American author and 24-year veteran of the US State Department, notes in his article for his site.

The American author adds that it is fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabi clerics who provide "religious legitimacy" for the al-Saud family.

Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, on January 2, 2016 - Sputnik International
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There is "something rotten" in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On the one hand Riyadh is feeling "betrayed" by Washington who is moving toward new diplomatic relationship with Tehran. Ironically, Iran has rapidly emerged as a leading power after the US invasion destroyed the Iraqi state, Tehran's longstanding nemesis. Unsurprisingly Tehran is now regarded as a rival, a competitor and substantial threat by Saudi Arabia. To add insult to injury, plummeting oil prices have affected the economy of the Gulf monarchy.

"But perhaps most significantly, the al-Saud family's rule is facing succession issues in the form of the deceased King Salman's newly empowered 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman," Van Buren emphasizes, pointing to rumors of a possible coup against the ruling branch circulating among Saudi royalties.

In this light Riyadh needed to make a "tough" step to demonstrate its strength.

"Saudi Arabia is exhibiting the psychology of a state that risks losing its dominant position and whose losing hand is growing weaker and weaker. This explains why an otherwise rational actor begins making seemingly panicky and incomprehensible moves," US-based award winning author and president of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi writes in his op-ed for Al-Jazeera.

​Parsi notes that it is not rising states that tend to be reckless, but declining ones. "Rising states have time on their side," he points out, adding that Tehran has demonstrated a more mature and prudent foreign policy approach, than Riyadh. The Iranian leadership has openly condemned an angry mob for attacking the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran after the beheading of the Shiite cleric, he adds.

​By executing al-Nimr Riyadh has evidently made an attempt to provoke Tehran into making erroneous emotional moves. Furthermore, the Saudi leadership has also tried to divert public opinion from serious domestic challenges.

"Saudi Arabia is faced with a range of serious challenges, such as monarchical succession and generational shifts in royal leadership, Salafi radicalism, issues of social stability, economic shortcomings (including the expenditure of billions in foreign reserves) and questions regarding the status of the Shia minority," Inaugural Director of the Belfer Center's Iran Project Payam Mohseni emphasizes in his recent article for The National Interest.

"The Saudis see escalation with Iran, in parts, as a way to overcome these daunting challenges," Mohseni stresses, adding that Saudi leaders are determined to forge political order inside the country and beyond. However, it seems the only options they could use to achieve their ambitious objectives are Wahhabi sectarianism and bellicosity.

Iranian security protect Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran, Iran, while a group of demonstrators gathered to protest execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016 - Sputnik International
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​The expert doubts that Riyadh is really willing to escalate Saudi-Iranian confrontation into an all-out military conflict:

"Sinking oil prices (crude dipped below $32 this week) further diminish the costs for risky behavior and mute international repercussions," Mohseni notes.

Still, according to Peter Van Buren "events set in motion are difficult to control."

"But for the time being, it appears Salman has moved ahead a few spaces in a real-life Game of Thrones," the State Department veteran remarks.

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