Like other totalitarian regimes that have no legitimacy and no base of support, the Saudis are wrapping themselves in religion. Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and currently Bashar al-Assad – the heads of the Baath party in Iraq and Syria – both played the religious card. However, Baathist doctrine in Iraq and Syria is basically irreligious. The Saudis are using religion as their excuse now, labeling the recent mass executions as preserving their religion when they are actually a message to frighten their citizens into submission.
Early in the Arab Spring of 2011, out of fear of losing its grip on the country’s citizens, the Saudi government allocated $35 billion in open giveaways and services to Saudi citizens. Although this monetary inducement succeeded in tamping down any thoughts of revolution at the time, the Saudis only deferred the day of reckoning. The impulse to fight against the sense of injustice is strong among those who live in that police state, with no democracy, and obscene inequality (many Saudi residents are working residents, with no rights at all).
The Saudis began this new year by executing 47 citizens on January 2, some by the barbaric method of beheading. These executions came after a total of 158 in 2015. Presumably the Saudi government sought to begin the year with a warning that it will not tolerate the crime of opposing the Saudi regime. These executions, some of them for people who merely spoke out against the state, is a slap in the face of all those democracies in the world.
Most of those executed were Sunni, and the executions were designed to frighten the overwhelmingly Sunni population of Saudi Arabia into silence. At the same time, the inclusion of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr sent a similar warning to the Shiite minority. It also served to divert the attention of the world from the cruel executions to the conflict between Shia and Sunni and to drag in Iran as the guilty party. Sheikh Nimr’s crime was to actively oppose the Saudi regime and call for better treatment of the 20% of Shiites in eastern Saudi Arabia.
Sadly, Iranians fell for the Saudi trap and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Although President Hassan Rouhani and many of the political and military leaders in Iran – with the exception of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – condemned the setting of fire of the Saudi Embassy, Saudi Arabia went ahead and closed their embassy in Tehran. Their strong allies Bahrain, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates closed their embassies as well to show support for the Saudi regime.
The Saudi effort to sustain the life of their regime is broad and profound. For decades, Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars for madrasas and mosques that spread their Wahhabi brand of Islam, and has funneled comparable sums to insurgents such as the al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Jubhat al-Nusra directly and indirectly through covert operations. The Saudis support all those who oppose Assad in Syria. They seek to sway the outcome of Sudan’s civil war and install their puppet regime in Yemen.
The Saudis also claimed that the Houthis in Sudan are Iranian proxies, and even though much of the U.S. media accepts this claim at face value the evidence is slim. The Houthis are a different sect than Iranian Shiites. Iran has no troops in Yemen. Moreover, Iran is separated from Yemen by a large Gulf. Furthermore, Iran has not invaded Yemen as the Saudis did with support from the United States by positioning a carrier near Yemen.
The Saudis have contributed a great deal to fueling two civil wars — Syria and Yemen — without any consequences. And neither war has resulted from religious differences but rather because of Saudi efforts to fend off any challenges to their corrupt regime.
Saudi Arabia is on a dangerous path. Its fortunes are receding. The price of oil has dropped to 30 dollars per barrel. The country is spending $1 billion monthly on its reckless invasion of Yemen, while its citizens suffer from an economic downturn. The regime is attempting to bolster its authority by threat of death, rather than the promise of reform.
When President Obama took office in 2008, he correctly rejected the past policy of supporting non-democratic, corrupt, and abusive regimes simply because they are strategic partners of the United States. The Arab Spring of 2011 brought hope that democracy might just have a chance in the Middle East. But the task has proven to be exceedingly difficult, as events and policies in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Yemen have led President Obama to continually retreat from his policy of distancing the United States from these totalitarian regimes.
Saudi Arabia’s recent mass executions represent a significant test to the United States. Our founding principles of freedom and democracy are being torn to shreds in the last throes of the Saudi regime. The United States should not blindly march in lock step with Saudi Arabia to the edge of the cliff of fire and destruction in the Middle East.
Adil E. Shamoo is a senior analyst at Foreign Policy In Focus, and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He writes on ethics and public policy. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.