The shocking news that Saudi Arabia executed 47 people over the weekend, including Shiite cleric and opposition figure Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, got the new year off to a tense start in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The executions have already caused a worsening of Saudi-Iran relations and foreshadow heightened sectarian-driven tensions across the region. But there are other consequences as well.
Forty-seven convicted criminals, most of them charged with terrorism by a special court created in 2008, were executed by beheading and firing squad on Jan. 2 in multiple locations in the kingdom. Most were Sunni radicals, affiliated with al-Qaida and committed to overthrowing the Saudi regime and freeing the region of the Saudis’ Western security partners. They were convicted of crimes dating back a decade or more, including attacks on American and other Western facilities.
But that was lost in the spontaneous outrage in the Shiite world over the fact that four of the executed prisoners were Shiite. Most prominent among them was Nimr, a critic of the regime who was arrested in 2012 and charged with sedition and terrorism for his activism in the kingdom’s eastern provinces, where Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority principally resides.
Iran’s leaders invoked religious principles in vowing to avenge the Shiite deaths. The Saudi Embassy in Tehran was attacked the next day, and some minor damage was inflicted on the Saudi consulate in Mashad. Iran officially expressed regret for the attacks and vowed to hold accountable those responsible for them, but the Saudis quickly announced that they were severing diplomatic ties to Iran, the third such rupture in the modern period.
So the first casualty of the events is any prospect for an improved dynamic between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That in turn will have a chilling effect on recent efforts to get the Saudis and Iranians in the same room in the reinvigorated negotiations to end the Syrian civil war. In deploring the executions, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, made the link to the Syria talks. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon also expressed his deep worries about triggering further sectarian tensions in the region, which could cause instability in Bahrain, Lebanon and other Arab states with large and even majority Shiite populations, as well as in South Asia, where sectarianism is also a toxic driver of domestic unrest.
The second consequence of the executions is to deepen the rift between the West and Saudi Arabia over core values. As Saudi Arabia has ratcheted up its counterterrorism efforts, it has increased its use of the death penalty. Last year, according to Amnesty International, the Saudis executed over 150 people, the largest number in 20 years. The use of the death penalty puts the Saudis in conflict with a global norm that is particularly important to the Europeans.
The U.S. ability to address the deep values gap is more constrained for several reasons. The Annual Human Rights report of the U.S. State Department, for instance, addresses in agonizingly cautious language Washington’s concerns about the Saudi judicial system. This is in part because the Saudi system’s main source of legitimacy is Sharia, making it difficult to compare with Western institutions. In any case, the report ranks lack of freedom of expression and lack of means to reform or change the government as the most important human rights concerns, more than lack of due process or prison conditions.
More importantly, the U.S. cannot condemn the Saudis for using capital punishment, since the U.S. remains one of 37 countries that retain its use in law and practice, having executed 35 inmates in 2014. That puts it in the category of states that carry out the largest numbers of executions according to a database maintained by Cornell University Law School, alongside China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Iran, it bears mentioning, outstrips Saudi Arabia by a ratio of 4-to-1 when it comes to the use of capital punishment.
Nonetheless, this weekend’s executions underscored the “otherness” of the Saudi system and its deeply Islamic cultural norms. The fact that the Saudis use beheading as the main method of capital punishment also sends shivers up the spine, evoking the West’s repugnance at the way the Islamic State has used beheadings to terrorize, and underscoring a subliminal link between the behavior of a nation-state that is a close security partner and a loathed terrorist enemy.
So how should we understand these executions in the Saudi context? The Saudis surely see them as part of a tough counterterrorism policy, and therefore consistent with the country’s cooperation with the international community in containing the terrorist scourge. King Salman, who is trying to improve intra-Sunni solidarity by softening his stand on nonviolent Islamists, is clear when it comes to defending a red line against the use of violence by Islamic extremists in the kingdom. For the Saudis, the focus was less on the Shiite cleric Nimr, and more on the Sunni al-Qaida ideologue, Faris al-Shuwail al-Zahrani, also executed over the weekend. Zahrani, who has been in jail since 2004, was reportedly the mastermind behind a series of lethal attacks on Western residential compounds in the early 2000s. His execution is intended to be a strong signal about how the kingdom responds to Sunni extremism and to violence against Western guests.
Though some have suggested that the Saudi decision to carry out the executions was driven by fear, it in fact signals Salman’s determination to show a kingdom with a more decisive, activist command of its environment. The message, however, was mainly aimed at Saudi Arabia’s own Sunni extremists, rather than at the Shiite world in general.
But Riyadh’s failure to anticipate the reaction to Nimr’s death was a sign, like the Yemen war, that the Saudis’ newfound confidence can lead them to miscalculate the short-term costs of their activism. For now, the Saudis are trying to change the subject by lashing out at the Iranian reaction to the executions. That does not seem a sustainable or effective policy in the long run.
Ellen Laipson served as president and chief executive officer of the Stimson Center from 2002 to October 2015. She now is president emeritus and distinguished fellow. Her WPR column, Measured Response, appears every Tuesday.
This piece originally ran in World Politics Review on January 5th, 2015
Photo credit: zbigphotography via flickr