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Saudi Arabia’s decision to kill a Shiite cleric wasn’t only about Iran

The execution of 47 prisoners — including that of Shiite cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr — was aimed as much at Sunni Muslims inside Saudi Arabia as Shiite Iran.

Iranian protesters chanting slogans and holding pictures of Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration against the execution of Nimr in Saudi Arabia, outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran on Sunday.
REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Being king of Saudi Arabia is usually a pretty good gig. You’re sitting on top of more oil than you can possibly pump, and for decades you’ve been able to take advantage of the global market to earn however much you wanted whenever you needed it.

Your friends in Washington lecture you constantly that your harsh brand of Sunni Islam fosters human rights abuses and makes some of your subjects easy prey for terror recruiters. But they don’t put too much pressure on you, and they’ve conveniently kept your main regional rival, Shiite Iran, isolated.

A lot of that is changing. Even in the middle of a vast desert surrounded by unimaginable wealth, you can’t keep the rest of the world from creeping in.

It’s convenient — and certainly true, as far as it goes — to look at the dispute playing out now between Iran and Saudi Arabia primarily as another twist in the great rivalry between the two main branches of Islam that is unsettling the entire Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2 and an attack by protesters on the Saudi embassy in Tehran has led to a break in relations between the two countries, a diplomatic conflict that is drawing in neighboring countries. Among other things, it is likely to complicate efforts later this month to launch peace talks aimed at ending the conflict in Syria

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However, it also may be useful for a moment to view the world the way it probably appears to King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Salman turned 80 on New Year’s Eve — but has been the monarch for just short of a year.

You fear that last year’s nuclear deal means the Americans are open to switching their allegiance to Iran. With Washington less obviously tipping the balance in your favor, you feel an added responsibility as the major Sunni power in the region. You worry about internal unrest, particularly among those susceptible to the extremists’ message. (The Islamic State and al Qaeda before it have made no secret of their desire to topple the Saudi monarchy). Your economy is heading for trouble because of prolonged low oil prices.

So you need to project strength and stability. Your subjects must understand that challenging the monarchy will not be tolerated. Many of those beheaded or shot by firing squad in the largest mass execution in decades are accused of ties to Sunni extremist groups. On the other hand, Nimr spoke up for Saudi Arabia’s restive Shiite minority. If a handful of Shiites you’ve accused of fomenting unrest are executed too, it shows your Sunni subjects that you’re serious about clamping down, and you’re not playing favorites.

That’s the gist of the argument made by several analysts. If they’re right, the executions were a message aimed primarily at Sunni Muslims inside of Saudi Arabia.

And perhaps you’ve bought yourself a little time to find a way through several sticky problems. 

Although al Qaeda has been better known for actions such as the September 11 attacks (in which 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis), Osama bin Laden was intent on overthrowing the Saudi dynasty. The Islamic State has picked up the mantle. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has urged attacks on the kingdom. Followers have launched several in recent months. So far, most of them have been small, but the Islamic State’s goal appears to be igniting a conflict that could bring down the monarchy.

It mocked the Saudis last month for putting together what they said was a 34-nation coalition to fight the extremists.   

Organizing an effort to fight the Islamic State is one way Saudi Arabia under Salman has become more assertive as the Obama administration has stepped back from the U.S. practice of trying to manage nearly everything in the Middle East. Another is the fighting that has wracked neighboring Yemen for most of the past year, an effort led by Salman’s 30-year-old son, who is defense minister and deputy crown prince.

The Saudis intervened against Shiite tribesmen they accuse of being loyal to Iran. The U.S. has restricted its role to refueling warplanes and providing intelligence. But the campaign has not gone well. The fighting has bogged down; some analysts are using the ‘q’ word – quagmire. Civilians have suffered greatly. A truce aimed at creating some breathing room for peace negotiations has just come to an end.

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Then, there’s the Saudi economy. The Saudis have continued to pump oil as global prices have fallen, thinking they could force out competitors who have higher costs of production. But that strategy hasn’t worked.

Instead, the kingdom finished 2015 with a huge 15 percent budget deficit, and it has had to rein in the generous benefits that are crucial to ensuring political stability. It announced last week that it was cutting fuel subsidies, raising electric and water rates, and that it would privatize some industries. Even then, it’s not clear the Saudis have found a workable economic formula.

With the U.S. exporting oil again for the first time in 40 years, and Iran likely to join the world market if sanctions are lifted this year, oil prices probably will remain low for some time to come. 

Salman and the Saudi royal family already have their hands full. Given their problems, further antagonizing Iran may not seem like such a big deal.