Global Independent Analytics
Navid Nasr
Navid Nasr

Location: Croatia

Specialization: Global security, Politics

The Execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the Decline of the House of Saud

On July 8, 2012, Saudi police arrested a Shi'ite religious leader in the town of Al-Awamiyah in that country's Eastern Province, wounding him and killing two others...

...after what it described as a "gun battle" and "an exchange of fire," but which looks to have been anything but that. The Sheikh's name was Nimr Baqir al-Nimr and his life, his struggle against the Saudi state, and his arrest and execution three-and-a-half years later, would come to symbolize not only the struggle of the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia for basic rights and human dignity but also the regional and global waning of Saudi power and influence.

Before coming back to the case of Sheikh al-Nimr, let's take a look at some of the most prominent examples of the Saudis throwing their weight around in recent years and let's see exactly what they have gotten in return for their investment in each case.

Bahrain

The Bahraini uprising which began in February 2011, initially called for greater political freedom, and inclusion in all segments of society, for the 70% Shi'ite majority in the island nation. As each of the initial protests was met with ever increasing bloodshed and brutality, the tactics and demands of the protesters and the leading activists behind the movement became more militant and "revolutionary."

By March it had become obvious that the Khalifa regime was not going to be able to quash the rebellion on its own (despite the fact that the protesters were armed with nothing more sophisticated or hardcore than molotov cocktails and homemade slingshots, dart guns and zip guns). Here are some key facts from an article in the Guardian published in that month:

...The US has long viewed Bahrain as an important strategic ally, and bases its Fifth Fleet near Manama, viewing the kingdom as a buffer amid tensions between the US and Iran.

Bahrain's crown prince, Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, late last month announced a dialogue with opposition parties aimed at giving the disenchanted Shia majority a greater role in the affairs of state. The talks, however, appear to have stalled, with opposition groups at odds over key demands.

Some opposition members are insisting on the overthrowing of the monarchy, while al-Wefaq has limited its calls to making the Sunni ruling family's clan-like regime more accountable in law. Shias account for 70% of Bahrain's population, but are not allowed to serve in large parts of the country's establishment, such as the military and the police. The regime has long-believed that its Shia population is susceptible to Iranian influence.

Bahrain's security forces are almost exclusively Sunni, many invited from neighbouring states and given Bahraini citizenship.

What the Saudi invasion of Bahrain accomplished was:

...the imposition of martial law and a brutal crackdown on protesters by a combined GCC-Bahraini force, which killed scores of civilians, injured hundreds, and jailed 1,600 people.

"Instead of rights, every family got a political prisoner," said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. "After almost three months of military rule, the crisis has deepened because every family suffered when the army was sent in to solve a political problem."

Hundreds of protesters and professionals such as doctors, nurses, lawyers, and even soccer players have been arrested and tried in a special security court. Official use of torture has become widespread. According to Rajab, up to 98% of the people detained by state security forces were abused. “No one was immune,” said Rajab. “Very rarely will you find someone who was arrested but not abused.”

Particularly reprehensible have been the security forces’ attacks on doctors and nurses for treating protesters injured by the army and security forces. A recent report issued by Human Rights Watch details “attacks on health care providers; denial of medical access to protesters injured by security forces; the siege of hospitals and health centers; and the detention, ill-treatment, torture, and prosecution of medics and patients with protest-related injuries.”

So far all their efforts, for all their time, money, arms, soldiers and tanks, and for all the resulting, bloodshed, mass arrests, disappearances and torture, they must at least have a victory of sorts that they can hang their hat on, right? A cowed and beaten populace, both in Bahrain and in their own Eastern Peninsula -- surely that, at least. Not only have they not beaten the people of Bahrain into silence and compliance, but the protest movement is as strong as ever, albeit with hardly any attention or coverage given from the international media. Demographic trends in Bahrain also do not favor the Saudis nor the Bahraini rulers, although they have tried their best to turn this tide, going so far as to import Sunni Muslims from Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan. The final chapter has yet to be written for the Al-Saud and the Al-Khalifa clans in Bahrain, but it is only a matter of time.

Iraq/ISIS

Much has already been written and said about the huge role that the government of Saudi Arabia, individual wealthy Saudis, and Saudi jihadis have played in the creation and expansion of ISIS, right from its very beginning in Iraq under the helm of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi down til the present. Zarqawi's own hostility for the Saudi monarcy doesn't diminish this fact, and the animosity he held for the al-Sauds was far from unique in jihadi circles. Hostility for the kingdom is one thing but, to give just one example, by far the largest contingent of suicide bombers employed by "Al-Qaeda in Iraq," the "Mujahideen Shura Council" and "the Islamic State in Iraq" were from Saudi Arabia (with eastern Libya lagging only slightly behind).

Saudi Arabia has rightly been condemned and pilloried in the world press and in the public eye over its incontrovertible connections with ISIS, but to tackle the full depth and breadth of that relationship is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I'm going to quote from this brilliant piece by Patrick Cockburn for the Independent, on the direct role played by Saudi Arabia in ISIS's blitzkrieg campaign across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014:

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute last week, Dearlove, who headed MI6 from 1999 to 2004, emphasised... he does not doubt that substantial and sustained funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to which the authorities may have turned a blind eye, has played a central role in the Isis surge into Sunni areas of Iraq. He said: "Such things simply do not happen spontaneously." This sounds realistic since the tribal and communal leadership in Sunni majority provinces is much beholden to Saudi and Gulf paymasters, and would be unlikely to cooperate with Isis without their consent.

And how has destabilizing northern Iraq and handing it over to the tender mercies of ISIS gone for the Saudis? Not very well. It didn't take long at all for the supposedly marginalized people of northern Iraq, Saddam's people, to realize what living under the new "Caliphate" is actually like and to long for the good ole' days of being a part of Iraq under the "fire-worshipping" "Safavid" government in Baghdad and the evil, Hitlerian dictator, Nouri al-Maliki.

All of Diyala province has been liberated from the army of the "Iraqi Spring," aka ISIS, as has much of Anbar province. This would never have happened without the help and support of significant segments of the local population. Saudi Arabia now has to contend with the reality of a Sunni population in northern Iraq that is at least as hostile to it as it is to Iran.

Syria

Dealing with Syria in total, or even just with the Saudi role in Syria, is a massive undertaking beyond the scope of this piece. So I will just focus on two aspects of the conflict and Saudi Arabia's invovlement in it. Firstly, their arming and back of the Jaish al-Fateh ("Army of Victory") coalition, comprised primarily of Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, along with the Uighur Salafi jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party, and several other jihadist brigades from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and Dagestan.

Since overrunning Idlib province in early September, the "Army of Conquest" has split apart, with Jabhat al-Nusra going its own way and both JAN and JAF suffering a string of military defeats in the south of the country, in Dara'a province, and the in the northwest province of Latakia along the Turkish border.

Secondly, we can look at the most direct proxy force of Saudi Arabia in Syria, namely Jaish al-Islam. Jaish al-Islam, and Liwa al-Islam before it, was the dominant "rebel" group in Damascus province, particularly in Douma and East Ghouta, and therefore was in the best position to overrun Damascus in the unlikely event of the Syrian government's toppling. What was once a powerful force that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US-led "anti-terror coalition" were all placing a great deal of their hopes on was left decapitated and rudderless when, on December 25, 2015, the very moderate leader of the moderate "Army of Islam," Zahran "Hello Kitty" Alloush, was killed by the Syrian air force in a targeted air strike in Ghouta. The whole, "we're on the doorsteps of the Alawite/Fireworshipping regime" thing seems pretty irrelevant at this moment and Jaish al-Islam has been left flailing in the wind.

Unless the destruction of Syria was a goal in and of itself, five years of proxy military intervention in Syria on the part of the Saudis has yet to produce a single, long-standing victory or the achievement of a single strategic objective.

Yemen

While the Saudi-led coalition has managed to slaughter and mangle thousands of Yemeni civilians in the ten months that it has waged a merciless war on the country by air and by ground (albeit the latter mostly via proxy forces like AQAP, ISIS, UAE and Sudanese troops and mercs from Colombia and Blackwater/Xe/Academi) and destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, the conflict itself has turned into Saudi Arabia's Vietnam, a quagmire which it can't pull itself out of, which has exposed its vulnerabilities on the ground, and in which no victory is in sight. As AI-Monitor stated accurately a couple of months back:

...instead of a swift victory in Yemen, Saudis are now being killed inside their own country while their troops inside Yemen have been targeted in devastating attacks, such as the one in Marib in early September, when 10 Saudi soldiers were killed.

Victory in a regional war fought by airstrikes under a vague coalition, a limited number of ground troops from several countries and local Yemeni militias do not seem to be on the immediate horizon. The international military coalition the Saudis hoped for turned out to be only a mini-consortium of countries willing to participate. The Saudi war turned into a Saudi-Emirati alliance with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries reluctantly supporting it.

[...]

The worst-case scenario for Saudi Arabia is perhaps the possibility of the war turning into a prolonged military engagement that may perpetuate a long Yemeni civil war, backed by selected regional and international players, alongside the one that has been raging in Syria since 2011. This will no doubt drain Saudi resources and undermine the domestic objectives of the war, namely the consolidation of King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s monarchy, the projection of military might, the appeasement of jihadis and Islamists, and the consolidation of a Saudi militarized religious nationalism.

A prolonged war risks damaging the Saudi leadership and unleashing domestic dissidence if the number of Saudi casualties increases. The forces that had supported the war inside the country, such as the Islamists, may lose their patience and return to opposition politics. They may start seeking rewards from the Saudi leadership in return for their enthusiasm for the war and their support for Salman. The king can come under pressure to honor this support with concessions of some kind.

In short the war on Yemen has been, is, and will remain a "success" only when measured on the basis of the amount of death and destruction dished out to the poorest country in the Arab world, but a complete and total disaster by any other metric.

Sheikh Nimr and the Eastern Province

Which brings us back full circle to the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr and its internal implications for the Saudi state.

The Saudis could easily have ended the crisis in the east by merely granting the people there some basic rights, such as the right to assemble in public, the right to seek redress from the government for previous injustices, the right to form their own independent media outlets, the right to the same job opportunities that Sunni citizens of the state have. Instead they chose to brutalize the protesters and execute their leader and thereby turn him into a martyr. And what was it that Sheikh Nimr and the people of Awammiya and Qatif said and did that merited such a response? Sheikh Nimr, even though being outspoken against the oppression of the Shia at the hands of the regime, never once called for a violent insurrection, or directed his followers to attack or disable the infrastructure of the state. The Eastern Province is where virtually all of the oil fields of Saudi Arabia are located. Not once have any of the Shi'ite youth attempted any kind of sabotage at any of those locations. In fact:

In explaining how the movement should operate, Sheikh Nimr repeatedly emphasized that “the roar of the word” is mightier than the sound of bullets. He explained that authorities would want protesters to use weapons, because the security forces know that they have the military advantage. As a result, Sheikh Nimr insists that the protesters rely on their words – they can defeat the government by adhering to their principles, but they have no chance if they choose the path of violence. In another sermon, he stated, “When we see an armed person in a demonstration, we will tell him this is unacceptable. Go home, we don’t need you.” Both morally and strategically, Sheikh Nimr believed that violence was not the way to achieve results.

So now what? Now that they've killed Sheikh Nimr what do they have to show it? A restless, angry population that is now calling for the downfall of the regime is what.

Twilight Nears for the Al-Saud Clan

Each and every one of these policy failures resonate deeply within the kingdom and throughout the region, but combined the picture they paint is that of a power whose apex has come and gone and whose nadir is fast approaching. Or in the words of Trita Parsi:

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. From its decision to give up a seat on the United Nations Security Council — after having campaigned for it for over a year and celebrated its election to the UN body only a day earlier — to its reckless and failing attack on Yemen, to its push against the nuclear deal with Iran, to the deliberate provocation of executing Shia political dissident Nimr al-Nimr, its conduct is that of a sunsetting power.

The US dollar and the black crude that still lays beneath the sands in the Eastern Province will go a long way toward preserving the kingdom even in a weakened and relatively ineffectual state but ultimately it's anyone's guess how long it will be before internal contradictions or an outside power will pull the plug and, even more importantly, who or what will fill the void.

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