Saudi mass execution a cynical ploy

January 6, 2016 4:56 am

 Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Photo / AP

As tensions escalate between and over the Saudi
execution of a Shia cleric, countries such as ours will be reluctant to
take sides. Certainly, Western nations should not automatically side
with the Saudis, who have been the more reliable ally since Iran went
under religious rule. But while Iran’s antagonism to the West has
softened under its latest elected government, helped by United States
diplomacy under President Barack Obama, Saudi Arabia appears to be
fomenting more trouble in the region. Its execution of Shia political
activists at the weekend – one of them prominent cleric Sheikh Nimr
al-Nimr – appears to be calculated to deepen Islam’s sectarian divide.
Saudis must have expected the demonstrations against its embassy in
Tehran, yet it retaliated by recalling its diplomats, expelling Iran’s
representatives and severing diplomatic relations. Bahrain and other
Gulf states have been quick to back the Saudis, as has a Sunni majority
state as far away as Sudan. Russia has been equally quick with an offer
to intercede, though it is hardly in a position to do so having made
itself an ally of Iran in the Syrian war.

Both are supporting the Assad regime against various tribal
and sectarian groups, including the Sunni “Islamic State” of Iraq and
The Saudis’ attitude to Isis has never been clear. Last
month, the kingdom announced it was setting up a 34-nation Islamic
coalition to combat the “disease” of extremism, but nothing has been
done and the initiative has been seen as little more than a claim to
leadership of the region to the exclusion of Iran. The Saudis have not
acted on other counter-terrorism commitments they made last year in a
Jeddah Communique with the US, in which they agreed to stop the flow of
finance to Isis, repudiate its ideology and help reconstruct communities
destroyed by the jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
The mass execution
of 47 people on Saturday – the largest carried out by the Saudi regime
for 35 years – involved beheading in some cases. When Isis carried out
that barbaric practice it is rightly condemned, when Saudi Arabia uses
it, the world has for too long looked away. Capital punishment of any
kind ought not be condoned in diplomacy. As more states of the US slowly
discontinue the practice, and no other Western country kills its own
citizens, states like Saudi Arabia should be confronted with civilised
The West has no interest in the contest between
Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. It is only by staged beheadings and
threats of terrorism that Isis has drawn some Western countries back
into the internecine war. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been the crucial
powers all along. The Saudis were not happy at Iran’s deal with the US
to forego nuclear weapons and would dearly like to drive a wedge through
the agreement. They know conservative opinion in the US dislikes the
deal too.
But the execution of a Shia leader who came to
prominence in the Arab Spring five years ago is no way to win friends in
the West. Iran is looking more respectable by the day.

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