America’s ally in barbarism strikes again

January 6, 2016

Nicole Colson examines impact of the execution of a dissident cleric in Saudi Arabia--and the hypocrisy of the U.S. government's support for Saudi Arabia's executioners.

THE CRUEL violence of one of the U.S. government's staunchest Middle East allies was on full display at the start of the month when the government of Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 47 prisoners on January 2. At least some of the state killings were carried out by beheading--the same method that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is reviled for using.

While most of the executed were accused of links to al-Qaeda or taking part in violent crimes from more than 10 years ago, the most prominent of those put to death was Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who agitated for greater rights for the country's Shia minority community.

Shiites, who makes up 10-15 percent of the country's population and mainly reside in the eastern province of al-Ahsa, are systematically disenfranchised, impoverished and oppressed by the Saudi state. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, it's estimated that Saudi rulers have jailed, exiled and executed hundreds of Shia.

While the Saudi government claims al-Nimr engaged in "terrorism," the country's anti-terrorism law allows the regime to execute those who simply criticize the monarchy or the government. Saudi Arabia claimed that al-Nimr advocated violence and a "military option" against the Saudi government in pressing for Shia rights--but al-Nimr publicly disavowed violence, while speaking out against the unfair distribution of Saudi Arabia's oil wealth and pressing for greater religious freedom for Shiites.

Secretary of State John Kerry escorts Saudi King Salman on a visit to the U.S.
Secretary of State John Kerry escorts Saudi King Salman on a visit to the U.S.

The dissident cleric wasn't a secular advocate for democracy. He was trained during a decade of studies in Tehran in the religious and political doctrines favored by the Shia-dominated Iranian government--arch-rivals to the Saudi regime in the battle for regional power.

But it is a fact, as the Intercept's Lee Fang and Zaid Jilani wrote in their examination of the U.S. media's regurgitation of Saudi propaganda about the killings, that "Nimr advocated nonviolence and encouraged his followers to protest peacefully." The claim that al-Nimr advocated violence is refuted by none other than U.S. diplomatic cables based on al-Nimr's conversations with a State Department official that were later published by WikiLeaks.

After his arrest in July 2012, during which police claimed he fired a gun at them, al-Nimr was convicted in 2014 of charges of "disobeying the ruler," "inciting sectarian strife" and "encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations," during a trial that Amnesty International referred to as "deeply flawed," and which included the use of "testimony" from witnesses not present in court.

Al-Nimr was likely marked for death because of the threat he represented to Saudi rulers--particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, when al-Nimr gave a series of speeches in which he spoke out against the Saudi monarchy, called for free elections and supported protests by Shias within Saudi Arabia and in neighboring Bahrain.

THE IMMEDIATE effect of al-Nimr's execution was to increase regional protest and turmoil.

Demonstrations against the state killings in Saudi Arabia spread to Bahrain and Lebanon, as well in Yemen, among Houthi rebels who have been the targets of a Saudi bombing campaign that has become another front in the Sunni-Shia conflict, with regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran looming behind all of them.

In Iran, protesters firebombed and then sacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. In response, Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran and gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the country. Bahrain and Sudan followed suit. This marks a major diplomatic crisis between two major powers already fighting proxy wars in Yemen and Syria.

Mainstream commentators speculated that the Saudi action may have been a deliberate provocation. As Rutgers University historian Toby Craig Jones wrote in a New York Times op-ed article:

[T]he country's leaders were aware that doing so would upset their longtime rivals in Iran. In fact, the royal court in Riyadh was probably counting on it. It got what it wanted...

Why did Saudi Arabia want this now? Because the kingdom is under pressure: Oil prices, on which the economy depends almost entirely, are plummeting; a thaw in Iranian-American relations threatens to diminish Riyadh's special place in regional politics; the Saudi military is failing in its war in Yemen. In this context, a row with Iran is not a problem so much as an opportunity. The royals in Riyadh most likely believe that it will allow them to stop dissent at home, shore up support among the Sunni majority and bring regional allies to their side.

With sectarian divisions heightened by years of civil war and violence--with their roots lying in the U.S. empire's invasions and occupations, particularly in Iraq--ordinary Sunnis and Shias will pay a price for the escalation of the sectarian conflict set off by Saudi Arabia and matched by other governments.

For example, in central Iraq, two Sunni mosques were bombed on January 4 by groups of men wearing uniforms of the Shia-dominated Iraqi military. A muezzin--the person responsible for sounding the Muslim call to prayer--was also gunned down in Baghdad. According to Agence France Press:

Thousands of supporters of prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr demonstrated near the foreign ministry [in Baghdad on January 4], demanding all ties with Saudi Arabia be broken off.

The protesters threatened to storm the so-called "Green Zone" where the newly reopened Saudi embassy is located, but they were held back by organizers and riot police.

THIS LATEST escalation also raises the possibility of further intervention by imperialist powers--the U.S. above all, but also Russia and China--as each empire scrambles to shore up various sides in the proxy conflicts playing out across the region.

For its part, the Obama administration is so far staying quiet about the human rights atrocities of the Saudi government.

The hypocrisy couldn't be more obvious: While decrying the reactionary fundamentalism and grotesque violence carried out by ISIS, the Obama administration can't seem to find the same level of concern for human rights when the executioners are its allies in the Saudi state.

The best the administration could muster following al-Nimr's execution was a cautiously worded statement by the U.S. State Department that urged "the Government of Saudi Arabia to permit peaceful expression of dissent and to work together with all community leaders to defuse tensions in the wake of these executions"--and that reiterated "the need for leaders throughout the region to redouble efforts aimed at de-escalating regional tensions."

Tame rhetoric won't have any effect at all--but then again, the U.S. government bears responsibility for inflaming the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, starting in Iraq and spreading around the region.

As for Saudi Arabia, "[t]he U.S. government is obviously not eager to alienate a government that President Obama has wooed with warm words and over $90 billion in arms sales," wrote the Intercept's Fang and Jilani.

According to Democracy Now!, the Obama administration has committed to a record $50 billion in new arms sales to Saudi Arabia. As William Hartung, of the Security Assistance Monitor and the Center for International Policy, said in an interview. "If the Obama administration wants to show its displeasure with this execution and try to bring an end to the war in Yemen, there's got to be a distancing from Saudi Arabia, beginning with cutting off some of these arms supplies."

If the history of America's twisted relationship with one of the foulest tyrannies of the Middle East is any indication, no one should count on that happening any time soon.

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