Dwindling cash reserves, a stalemate in Yemen, the Hajj Stampede and increased scrutiny of Wahabism made 2015 a bad year for the petromonarchy. By starting 2016 with the execution of a prominent pro-democracy cleric, they have signaled both an irreversible decline and a determination to take the rest of the Muslim world down with them.
Saudi Arabia, recently appointed Chair of the UN Human Rights Council, ushered in the New Year with mass executions. Among the assortment of alleged Al-Qaeda operatives (including the man held responsible for the 2003 shooting of BBC cameraman Simon Cumber in 2004) and dissidents swept up by the regime’s notorious anti-expression laws, was a man who stood out from the rest: 56 year old Shi’ite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr, a native Saudi who rose to prominence during the Arab Spring with his calls for civil rights and democracy in the Kingdom, particularly for it’s marginalised Shi’ite minority which makes up 15 per cent of the country and is concentrated in the oil-rich east. That he was killed along with criminals and terrorists is a ploy that will be familiar to those that have read the New Testament.
Amongst heightened sectarian tension in the wake of the Arab Spring, Nimr was an unusual figure. He resolutely avoided both partiality and violence,instead supporting those resisting oppression wherever they might be and whatever source their oppression may come from. Like Martin Luther King, Nimr (whose name means tiger in Arabic) believed that the “roar of the word” was the most potent tool for the oppressed.
Here is the man in his own words:
“The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors, instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors. The Khalifa family [in Bahrain] are oppressors, and Sunnis are not responsible for their actions. These are not Sunnis, they are tyrants. The Assad family in Syria are oppressors, and Shiism is not responsible for their actions. Never defend an oppressor. It is never justified for someone who is oppressed to defend [another’s] oppressor.”
And again in response to post-Arab spring crackdowns by the Saudi regime:
“Not by violence, but by our determination, by our belief, and by our steadfastness shall your power be defeated.”
And once more, in case the point hasn’t come across:
“The weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons.”
The charges against Nimr, in Saudi Arabia’s notoriously unaccountable and draconian justice system included “disobeying the ruler” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations.” Among those calling for his release in the months leading up to his election were Ban Ki Moon, Reprieve, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International whose regional director stated: “The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,”
In the wake of his death, Nimr’s family called for his followers to “respect the methodology of our martyr” by “continuing to demand their rights peacefully.” This despite Nimr’s nephew 17 at the time of his arrest, sitting in a condemned cell awaiting the executioner’s sword. That is a measure not just of Nimr but of the liberation movement he represented.
A land without spring
Saudi Arabia and Gulf Monarchies avoided the convulsions of the Arab Spring with a combination of token reforms and increased oil-funded subsidies to their populations. In Bahrain, a Shia majority country with a Sunni ruling family, they crushed dissent with the aid of Pakistani mercenaries while the world looked the other way.
To the Gulf Kingdoms, the Syrian civil war was a Godsend. It allowed them to reclaim legitimacy in the Sunni world and distract from their own failings by supporting the freedom of the Syrian people against the tyrant Assad while (entirely coincidentally) rolling back some of the strategic losses they suffered during the Arab Spring. Since then, two things have become clear, the first is that Assad is not going anywhere; the other is that even the “moderate” forces ranged against him are violently sectarian, fundamentalist and – in the case of ISIS – less interested in claiming the nation of Syria than creating their own. In that war, nobody looks good.
Both sides have supported and created monsters, meaning that flag-waving for the Syrian rebels no longer attracts the kudos it once did and so the Saudis and the other GCC nations have struggled to find new causes to deflect attention away from the conspicuous lack of accountability or democracy in their countries. Evoking the “Safavid threat” of Iran is, of course, the simplest, but there is also intervention in the Yemeni civil war in which long marginalised Houthi tribesmen belonging to the Zaydi sect of Shi’ism have swept out of the mountainous north to lay claim to large portions of the country.
Rolling back the Houthis was supposed to be a swift and painless victory, but despite more than 150,000 air strikes, all the intervention there has generated are horrific daily images of mass casualties from the deliberate bombing of civilians, documented in (grisly and deeply upsetting) detail and collated by Jamila Hanan.
The Yemen conflict is, if not turning turning public opinion in the Arab and Muslim world, certainly complicating the picture. And even aside from the horrifying pictures making their way out of Yemen, the fact that a bunch of ill-equipped tribesmen have fought to a standstill the world’s third largest military spender is not good for either Saudi prestige or the blood pressure of its rulers.
You had one job!
The House of Saud has never been popular in the Muslim world. Yes, it has enjoyed esteem as a result of its significant wealth; yes, the Wahabi strain of Islam has grown significantly across the planet as a result of its patronage, but the notorious excesses of the Sheikhs have passed into myth and folklore. Amongst mainstream Sunnis, the hardline ideology it promotes and the debauchery its members indulge in were overlooked because it deployed so much of its oil wealth in supporting Muslim communities and restoring a sense of prestige lost in the process of colonisation.
As far as the wider Muslim world is concerned, the Saudis derive their legitimacy from their role as “Guardians of the Shrines,” maintaining the most sacred sites of Islam in Medina and Mecca and enabling the two million people who go on Hajj each year to complete the journey safely.
This year many of them were not able to do so. Instead they died in a crush apparently caused after crowds were diverted to enable a Saudi royal to complete the ritual of “stoning the devil” from the back of his limousine. Not only that, but the Saudis initially blamed the crowds themselves, saying that they had not followed instructions and have been very disingenuous about the number killed, with some reports suggesting that it reaches well into the thousands. Right down to the fact that the dead were buried in mass graves, the whole Hajj incident was proof, if any were needed, that the House of Saud are failing in their custodianship of the Shrines.
The only things they have left to secure their continued control over those sacred sites, and the legitimacy they bestow upon their rule and the ultra austere, anachronistic and ideologically genocidal creed of Wahabism their ability to protect the “purity of the faith” and of course, those famous bottomless coffers.
The Well Runs Dry, The Blood Runs Thin
Without wishing to get bogged down in economic detail this, this, this, this and this demonstrate that the Saudi economy has resolutely failed to diversify out of oil and that their various foreign adventures are badly sapping their cash reserves.
With the price of crude low and dropping, the Kingdom has already been forced to begin cutting subsidies to its population. There have been some token reforms to sweeten this, the news was full recently of a very carefully placed series of stories about women finally getting the vote in Saudi Arabia (though they still can’t drive themselves to the polls), but overall, the country is not a bastion of freedom.
If you take away the magic black stuff, Saudia Arabia really is like something out of the Arabian Knights – ISIS with a Platinum Card and an account at Harrods. It may be that a larger portion of the population do well out of the Kingdom than the aspirant Caliphate, but those who are not protected by its royal largesse, like Nimr Al-Nimr, can die just as easily as some truth-telling Vizier from a fairytale.
The country’s cash woes are exacerbated by dynastic squabbling. King Fahad, who was de facto ruler from 1975 and King from 1982-2005 was hated by many but was nonetheless a consummate geopolitician who increased Saudi Arabia’s influence immeasurably, making it a world, not just a regional, power. After a stroke in 1995, Fahd’s brother Abdullah continued many of his policies, though to less effect in a changing world. Abdullah himself became King on Fahd’s death in 2005 and ruled until his own passing last year at the age of 90.
The ascension of King Salman and the influence of his hawkish and sectarian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Naif have led to a significant shift in Saudi foreign and domestic policy, described in a German intelligence memo as “a new impulsive policy of intervention” not just by Naif but also by the Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister, 30 year old Muhammed Bin Salman who is accused of destabilising the Middle East and, even in the “Game of Thrones” world of the house of Saud, has a reputation for volatility, arrogance and ruthlessness.
Where Fahd and Abdullah were careful, calculating men, the new generation seem to combine the hubris of those born to power with the insecurity of autocrats that sense they are out of touch with the times. It is a dangerous combination, one that ensures that the Kingdom can add internal strife in the House of Saud to its mounting list of worries.
To see Nimr Al-Nimr’s death as a sincere blow in an actual sectarian war is to mistake it. He was not killed just because he was a Shia, precisely. His crime was speaking truth to a brutally repressive regime on the part of its most marginalised members and organising demonstrations against it. The fact those people happen to be Shia is the product of a combination of 1400 year old repressions and the fact that the sect attracts those who are downtrodden and dispossessed because it is fundamentally a liberation theology.
But the fact of Nimr’s Shi’ism will undoubtedly have sweetened the deed for Al Saud, because with cash rapidly vanishing; wasteful military entanglements on all her borders; and opinion across the world beginning to turn against its preferred brand of ultra-literalist, anti-historic fundamentalism –the sectarian card is the only one the Saudis have left. The tendency has been to paint the current round of sectarianism as just another iteration in an ancient struggle. This is bunk. As the Sunni scholar in this Sky News video remarks. The divide is not Shia/Sunni, it is Shia/Wahabi.
Shi’sm is an obvious target for several reasons. The link with Iran is one, it is easy to paint Shia communities as a fifth column, the tip of an Iranian spear. Further, suspicion of Iran is so ingrained in many western journalists and analysts that they will happily look the other way, letting their own political partialities obscure their commitment so supposedly universal values.
By executing Nimr alongside Al-Qaeda prisoners, Saudi Arabia is attempting to legitimise the crushing of internal dissent as part of the same war that is being waged against Al-Qaeda and ISIS . In fact, as the statements of other Gulf Monarchies show, the execution has nothing to do with ISIS or terrorism and everything to do with mediaeval dynasties struggling to justify their existence in the modern world. The response of the UAE to Nimr’s execution is perhaps the most illuminating, eliding terrorism (which one might in this context associate with Al-Qaeda or ISIS) and “sedition” which is coded language for demanding democracy and civil rights.
The Gulf States are gearing up for a war with their own people, a second Arab Spring. Saudi, the UAE Bahrain and Qatar are putting in place all the instruments needed for sustained repression of the majority by a small ruling class. They are doing so because the low oil price is making it very clear what a Gulf future without the exceptionalising power of oil would look like.
Alongside Nimr were 46 others. Some are accused of horrible crimes, but all their convictions are unsafe because the country that chairs the UN Human Right Council has the least accountable justice system of any recognised state in the world. However, they have come for the Shias simply for being Shias. This is not because of any threat Shias pose; it is because it helps Al-Saud keep the Wahabi base onside. Any blowback from Iran, they see as worth the price of keeping their internal populations from rising against them.
So far so geopolitical. But there is another dimension. The one that brought down the twin towers, that has made Bataclan and San Bernadino household names.
The Post-Modern Kharijites and the roots of “Militant Islam”
The rise of Daesh and attacks on Western soil facilitated or inspired by its ideology have further damaged the Kingdom’s status. Saudi Arabia came into being through an 18th Century alliance between the tribal chiefs of Al-Saud and the desert-riding Ikhwan of Ibn Al-Wahab. The partnership has always been a tricky one, with the worldly Saudis struggling to control the fanaticism of their militant wing.
For years, the Saudis balanced this by exporting Wahhabism and the violent fanatics it generates. Wahhabism has grown across the Muslim world because of Saudi cash but also because it claims to return to the fundamentals of the faith- an appealing prospect to Muslims who feel that the onslaught of colonialism and modernity has robbed them of true Islam. But if Wahhabism does have any roots in early Islamic History, it is not with the Companions of the Prophet, but rather the Kharijites, the first group who split from the entire Muslim community during the wars of succession that followed the death of the Prophet.
The Kharijites (literally “those who went out”) rejected what they saw as dynastic squabbling in favour of a “pure” form of Islam; rigid in its application, austere in its aesthetic and utterly devoid of the “rahma” or “mercy” which Muslims invoke every time they pray, engage in a new task or read the Quran. They also violently excommunicated all those who disagreed with them (“takfir”) and saw women, children and non-combatants as fair game for slaughter.
The parallels with Wahbism are clear. Additionally the status given to its sponsors as the Guardians of the Shrines and the fact that Wahhabism appropriates so many of the symbols of Sunni Islam has made it tricky for mainstream Sunnism to repudiate, particularly in an age when so many have access to online propaganda shorn of the centuries of nuanced debate amongst scholars who have dedicated their whole lives to the task. A Hadith (traditional narration) of the Prophet appears to forewarn of this threat:
“They will recite the Quran but it will not go beyond their throats. They will pass through the religion as an arrow passes through a game animal. One could then look at the arrowhead and not see a thing remaining on it.”
This is the religion of our allies in the war on terror. It is the very terror they claim to fight.
The Shia Genocide
It is often said that “most of those killed by ISIS and Al-Qaeda are Muslims” what is not said is that wherever the ideology of takfir finds safe haven Shias are more at risk than other Muslims. In Pakistan, militants funded by Saudi Arabia and supported by elements within the government have killed at least 10,000, splitting their efforts between targeted killings of prominent Shias, and mass attacks. In Afghanistan, the Hazara have faced a campaign of extermination. In Iraq, much has been made of Shi’ite sectarian militias who are guilty of some horrible crimes. Less is made of the fact that before the formation of these militias, the then AQ in Iraq Leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was so extreme in his attacks on Shias that even Osama Bin Laden asked him to show restraint. In Nigeria, just a few weeks ago, the country’s small community of Shias, led by Sheikh Zakzaky was attacked by the military, leaving hundreds dead.
And the battle is not purely one of blood and bullets. Al-Azhar, the most respected university in the Muslim world recently set up an essay prize for students calling for ideas papers on “the spread of Shia Islam in Sunni society, its causes, dangers and how to combat it”. There are estimated to be between 800,000 and 2 million Shias in Egypt, despite the grand Imam of Al-Azhar stating that calls for a Shia seat in the parliament (which has a quota system) were absurd because “there were no Shia in Egypt except for a couple of peddlers of religion and sectarian strife.”
In many ways, Iranian influence has not helped the cause of the Shias. Hostility to Iran, ingrained since the Islamic Revolution, is one of the main tactics used by Al-Saud to deflect attention away from their own, much more potent support for terrorism and extremism. Iran has often been criticised for painting itself as the protector of the world’s Shias, to further an expansionist agenda. This may well be the case, but to condemn Iran for taking the role of protector ignores what it is that Shias need protecting from. Because these attacks take place sporadically and all over the world, it is possible to paint each as an isolated incident. However, there is a common denominator: the creed that demands the deaths of Shias is the institutional religion of the House of Saud and it has been spread across the Muslim world using their petrodollars. It is also the same creed and the same cash that enables ISIS in its attacks on Shias, Sunnis, Yazdis, Kurds and the victims of 9/11, 7/7, Paris, and San Bernadino.
The deliberate targeting of the world’s Shia is one of the great unremarked upon crimes of our time. It is a genocide, plain and simple and the fact that the world looks the other way, refusing to make the connection between the deaths of Shias all over the world and the ideology of ISIS and the House of Saud shames the international community. While it goes on continued arms sales to Saudi, continued diplomatic and political normalization of their ways is a blight on the record of many nations, including America and the UK.
The Roar of the Word
While this article was being written, Saudi Arabia has responded to the torching of its embassy in Tehran by cutting diplomatic ties with Iran. Other nations including Sudan and Bahrain have followed suit and the UAE has downgraded ties. The embassy burning was almost certainly enabled by hardliners in Iran’s state apparatus and is a clear miscalculation, but calling for its condemnation without reference to the execution that catalysed is like condemning the black lives matter riots without reference to police killings, just as saying that Nimr was not killed because he was Shia is like saying that Tamir Rice was killed for being tall and carrying a BB gun.
The Iranians are guilty of many things, but there is only one genocidal ideology in the Middle East today. It is not Shi’ism, it is not mainstream Sunnism; it is the vile perversion that keeps the House of Saud in power and that drives the murderers of Da’esh.
It has been killing people with impunity for the last 40 years and where it cannot murder, depriving them of free worship and basic political participation. It has inspired Jihadi Johns and the sick parading of a 4 year old boy dubbed “Jihadi Junior.” If the West is to tackle homegrown militancy and the Muslim world is to overcome sectarian divisions, we must all unite against it. If we fail to, it will not just be Shias that suffer, but everyone who refuses to fall in line under the black flag of the post-modern Kharijites.
The tide of opinion is beginning to turn against the Saudi regime but its formidable PR and lobbying machine is doing its best to blame the West’s old enemy of Iran. Nimr Al-Nimr has been smeared as a terrorist, which he was not and an Iranian, which he was not. Instead he was a representative of the peaceful, pro-democracy Arab Spring. The hopes of Tahirir square may have bled out bled out in the sectarian killing grounds of Syria and the counter-revolution in Egypt but it was the House of Saud that extinguished one of its final sparks. To allow his death to become just another blow in the tit for tat between Saudi and Iran would be a travesty.
The best way to keep his memory alive, and the memory of all the others who have suffered for freedom in the Arab and Muslim worlds is to uphold his example; the example of civil rights activists that went before him like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. It is to use the “Roar of the Word” against tyrants and oppressors, wherever they may be. We can start with a very specific case. Ali Al-Nimr, the executed Sheikh’s nephew currently sits awaiting beheading for attending a demonstration when he was just 17. It is too late for Nimr Al-Nimr, but the fight to free his nephew must be the first step in holding the House of Al-Saud to the basic values of humanity.
If you have read to the end of this article, I hope you have gained from it. Please share so that the legacy of Nimr Al-Nimr and the many others who have given their lives for democracy and equality in the Muslim world lives on.