Q: It was reported that most of those executed on January 2 in Saudi Arabia’s decapitation frenzy were Sunnis involved in the al-Qaeda attacks that killed Saudi and foreign citizens in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006. Has the Saudi government genuinely waged a war against al-Qaeda, even as it has apparently united with AQAP in Yemen to crush the Houthi uprising?
A: The Saudi regime has a contentious relationship with Islamism in general and radical groups such as al-Qaeda. Let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia, together with the U.S. and other Western countries, contributed to the global jihad starting in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The real involvement of Saudi Arabia after that episode is a story that has yet to be told with great evidence and documentation. In brief, the relationship between the regime and radical jihadist groups oscillates between sponsorship, containment, cooptation and conflict. So on January 2, the beheadings reflect a tense moment in the relationship. Jihadis should have understood that the regime prefers them to do jihad abroad but remain quiet at home. When jihadis violated this rule, they got in trouble with the regime.
Q: The sense is that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is deteriorating, and international condemnations haven’t deterred Riyadh from handing down routine death sentences and torturing the prisoners. What’s your viewpoint on the situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia, especially under King Salman?
A: King Salman did even more damage to human rights than King Abdullah. Both monarchs augmented violations as they became anxious after the Arab uprisings in 2011. I remember in January – February 2011, many Saudi activists and human right defenders such as Abdullah al-Hamid, Muhamamd al-Qahtani and Salman al-Rushoudi, who were all part of a new civil society initiative, were rounded and put in prison. Also, new anti-terrorism laws were introduced and peaceful activists became target of arrest under these laws, for example lawyer Walid Abo al-Khayr. Tweets and blogs became dangerous as many young activists went to prison after [sending] critical tweets or short comments on social media. It is often the case that new kings pardon some peaceful prisoners but King Salman has not done that yet. This reflects the anxiety of the regime at the moment and erratic regional policies, not to mention its inability to deal with the future when low oil prices are a real threat to regime stability.
Q: The execution of Sheikh Nimr triggered a new wave of tensions in the Persian Gulf and escalated Iran-Saudi rivalry to dangerous new levels. Couldn’t the Saudi authorities predict that enforcing the death sentence for the dissident cleric would enrage Iran and undermine stability in the region? Prof. Marc Lynch of the George Washington University considers the execution an intentional provocation by the Saudis. Do you agree with him?
A: Saudi Arabia knew exactly what it was doing when it executed Nimr al-Nimr. It wanted a reaction from both the international community and Iran, both focused on the Sheikh. Saudi local audiences were appeased by the execution of al-Nimr so that they would not think that the regime is lenient with Shiite activists and hard with the Sunni radicals. So the regime wants to send a message that it is just in executing both Sunnis and Shiites. But there is a difference between someone who calls for peaceful protest and civil disobedience, and someone who kills people or instructs others to do so. The execution of Nimr al-Nimr is terrible but he became a victim of the Saudi regime’s domestic policy of appeasing the Sunni majority.
Q: What’s your perspective on the Iran-Saudi fallout following the mass executions of January 2 and the attack on the Saudi diplomatic compounds in Tehran? Was Riyadh’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Iran a discreet and prudent one? Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has recently indicated that Iran is ready to diffuse tensions with Saudi Arabia. Can Iran and Saudi Arabia work together in areas where they have a determining role to play, including Syria, Iraq and Yemen?
A: The attack of the Saudi embassy was so beneficial to the regime in Riyadh. It just proved to the world that Iran cannot be trusted and its regime cannot protect foreign diplomatic missions. Suddenly Riyadh moved from being an aggressor on the Shiite to being a victim of Shiite aggression. The severing of diplomatic relations is symbolic as Saudi Arabia wanted to mobilize other Muslim countries to support it against its arch-enemy, Iran. Some countries did but not all were ready to take such a drastic measure. It seems to me that the regime in Riyadh is suffering from detachment anxiety as the U.S. is seen to favor diplomacy over war with Iran. The tension between Riyadh and Tehran is so detrimental to the Arab world, and without discussion between the two countries, no solutions to the urgent conflicts are on the horizon. Saudi Arabia and Iran should get together to discuss. The tension is poisoning religious and political relations, not to mention the rise of sectarianism and hatred, both of which are related to the conflict between the two countries.
Q: While Saudi Arabia obviously doesn’t represent the liberal values which the West symbolizes, the monarchy and the Western powers continue to have a very unshakable, close partnership. Why is it so?
A: The West is pragmatic rather than idealistic when it comes to its foreign policy. The U.S. regards Saudi Arabia as an ally for several reasons: strategic location, oil and investment, especially arms purchase. The regime has become a client state for the West since its creation in 1932. Occasionally, there is a certain tension in the relationship, but Saudi Arabia cannot offend the West because it is dependent on mainly the U.S. for its security. Saudi Arabia tries to orient itself towards the East especially Asia but this cannot be truly successful as it is dependent on the U.S.
Q: How do you see Saudi Arabia’s role in the Syrian civil war and the fight against ISIS? The monarchy’s diplomatic apparatus is involved in the multilateral talks on the future of Syria and is part of the International Syria Support Group. Additionally, it’s one of the 13 countries of the U.S.-led coalition launching airstrikes against the ISIS strongholds. However, the ideological links between the Saudis and ISIS and their shared fierce anti-Shiite worldview and Wahabbi creed can hardly be denied. Has Saudi Arabia contributed to the rise of ISIS and the escalation of conflicts in Syria to this point?
A: Unfortunate for the Syrian people that Saudi Arabia is now part of the countries who decide their future. The Syrian conflict is now a regional conflict fought between militia groups, the Syrian regime and many international players and regional powers. We must not forget that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are all involved in this conflict. Europe and the U.S. on one side and Russia on the other side are also involved. They all claim to fight for one reason or another but they cannot agree on who the enemy is. Turkey’s enemy is the Kurds, Saudi Arabia’s enemy is Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s enemy is ISIS. Russia is fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, the U.S. claims to fight IS. What a real mess. I cannot see an end to this conflict either by force or by diplomacy without all the interested parties agreeing to end the violence. Unfortunately the Syrian people are paying a high price for this regional and global war. Saudi Arabia can only contribute to fueling the war and adding to the misery. It is time to end this saga as it threatens territories beyond Syria, in the heart of Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. Even Saudi Arabia can be affected with a spillover of violence. So it should be in the interest of all parties to come to negotiate an exit from Syria rather than more involvement. The focus should turn to the humanitarian crisis.
Q: Upon his accession to the throne, King Salman appointed both the Crown Prince and Deputy Crown Prince to ensure the smooth continuity of the succession and consolidate the royal power in a country considered by the United States a stable ally in a region encircled by unsteady monarchies. Given King Salman’s health issues, which the Saudis authorities deny, do you foresee any looming power struggle within the imperial family and among the sons and grandsons of King Ibn Saud in the likely event that the 80-year-old monarch dies?
A: I don’t see that this rivalry will become open in the near future as the regime ensured that both royalty and Saudis are busy with other conflicts. From Yemen to Damascus, the regime and King Salman and his son are keeping Saudis under control as they always remind them that they are targeted by the intrigues of Iran. The regime needs Iran as an enemy to frighten the princes and the population and extract submission from them at least at the moment. As long as these wars are raging outside Saudi Arabia, the princes are frightened to rock the boat. But we cannot rule out future intrigues as the concentration of power in the hands of a young prince, Mohammad, must be resented by more senior princes.