SAUDI ARABIA’S King Salman has dedicated his first year on the throne to bold and sometimes reckless moves to shore up the royal family’s power both at home and abroad. Now he has taken a step that was as risky and ruthless as it was unjustified: the execution of a leading Shiite cleric who had spoken out for the kingdom’s repressed minority sect. It was an act that appears bound — and maybe was intended — to further inflame conflict between Shiites and Sunnis across the Middle East.
Sheik Nimr Baqr al-Nimr was one of 47 men put to death on Saturday, marking the most executions carried out by the kingdom in one day since 1980. But the popular cleric was unlike most of those killed, who were Sunni militants associated with al-Qaeda. Sheik Nimr excoriated the Saudi regime with biting rhetoric — he once exulted that Prince Nayef, the former interior minister and father of the current crown prince, would “be eaten by worms and suffer the torments of hell” following his death — but he was not an advocate either of violence or militant sectarianism. He favored elections as a means to reform Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states and denounced the Shiite-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
By executing him, the Saudi regime managed to unite most of the world in condemnation, from Iran’s supreme leader to the State Department and the myriad Western and Arab human rights groups that had reported that Sheik Nimr’s 2014 trial on sedition and rebellion charges was unfair. The potential for further violence was quickly evident in attacks on the Saudi Embassy and a consulate in Iran, though Iranian authorities appeared to be moving Sunday to rein in militants.
Iran, a world leader in executions, political imprisonments and sponsorship of terrorism, has little standing to protest Saudi violations of human rights. But the royal families’ allies, beginning with the United States, should be asking whether the Salman court is consolidating control and checking Iran’s expansionism, as it contends, or sowing chaos in an already-stricken region while undermining itself. Led by Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, the 80-year-old king’s 30-year-old son, the regime has already plunged into a bloody and unwinnable war in Yemen while cracking down on domestic dissidents of all kinds — including those seeking peaceful and liberal reforms.
Some of this aggressiveness probably stems from Saudi perceptions that the United States is no longer willing or able to stop Iran’s drive for Middle Eastern hegemony, forcing Sunni regimes to act in their own defense. The Obama administration, for its part, has sought to buy the kingdom’s acquiescence to the nuclear deal with Iran by heaping it with new weapons, including an $11 billion sale of ships in October and $1.3 billion in bombs and munitions in November.
President Obama has spoken up about the regime’s self-defeating tendencies. In April he said “the biggest threats that [Sunni states] face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.” He went on to promise “a tough conversation” with rulers, but King Salman clearly is not listening. For the sake of U.S. interests in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia’s own future, the White House needs a better strategy to get his attention.