The execution of 47 prisoners by Saudi Arabia on the second day of 2016 is not just another shocking news item. For the Gulf region, the whole of the Middle East and even beyond, this is a defining moment which will be remembered decades from now, just like the seizure of the Grand Mosque by Wahhabi fundamentalists in November 1979 or the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980. The fallout of this event is yet to be witnessed in its entirety, but within hours, predictable reactions and counter-reactions followed one another in a chain reaction which is making West Asia a far more dangerous place than it already was before the executions.
Among the “terrorists”, whose execution was announced by Saudi Arabia, were at least four Shia opponents, including one influential cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. The rest were al-Qaida militants arrested in the wake of the terrorist wave which shook the kingdom in the early 2000s. By putting to death these jihadis, Saudi Arabia is making it explicitly clear to its subjects that it means business when fighting terrorism at home. The four Shias were added to the list to convince the fiercely anti-Shia religious establishment that the government is not turning soft on those Shia demonstrators who openly advocate the fall of the Wahhabi/Saudi regime. This was indeed the case of Nimr al-Nimr, a respected Shia cleric, who steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the regime, and whose sermons inspired the demonstrators in the Shia neighbourhoods of Qatif and Awamiyya – in the oil-rich Eastern province – where simmering unrest since 2010 has defied all attempts at repression.
Predictably, Shia communities erupted in rage when they discovered what had become of Nimr al-Nimr. It is inconceivable that the Saudi leadership had not foreseen this outcry, including the violent demonstrations which took place in Iran foremost amongst which was the rampage against the Saudi consulate in the city of Mashad and the burning of its embassy in Tehran. In fact, there is every reason to believe this was the intended purpose.
Within hours, the High Islamic Shia council in Lebanon, Iraqi political and religious figures, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and naturally, Iranian leaders, swiftly condemned the Saudi move. While the Iranian spokesman for the ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “Saudi Arabia will pay a heavy price”, the Supreme leader of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ali Khamenei went as far as warning that the Saudis will face “divine revenge” for this killing.
It looks as if the Iranians have fallen into the trap of playing out the script written on their behalf by the Saudi leadership. It’s a potential setback for the Islamic Republic, which had shaken off its pariah status- at least where western powers are concerned–after it signed a nuclear agreement with them on 14 July. From a position of strength and open for business, now that three decades of crippling sanctions are being lifted, Teheran is once again the villain in West Asia. This change of fortunes also plays into the hands of those – notably the Republican dominated American Congress – who wants to impose new economic sanctions on Iran over its tests of ballistic missiles.
The day before the executions, there was a remote possibility of a breakthrough in peace talks on the Syrian conflict, due to take place in Geneva on 25 January. All the ‘godfathers’ of the factions on the ground, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose foreign ministers had even shaken hands at the previous meeting in Vienna, were slated to be there. Not anymore. It is probably no coincidence that on 2 January, the same day as the executions, the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen announced they were terminating the barely respected truce which had been in place since 15 December last year.
Thus, the immediate effect of sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s beheading has been to dash the hopes of those trying to put an end to the wars currently raging in the Middle East. It is no accident that Saudi Arabia was unwilling to sign off on any political solution in either Syria or Yemen which would not mean the crushing defeat of the Houthis in Yemen and Assad’s regime in Syria.
This is why Saudi Arabia is devoting all its energy to muster support from the Islamic world, as it did with its 34 country coalition announced on 15 December. Unsurprisingly, this “anti-terrorist coalition” looks increasingly like an anti-Iranian coalition. 
After Pakistan initially declined to join the Saudi-led coalition, Riyadh stepped up its pressure on Islamabad. The Saudi Foreign minister Adel Jubeir flew to Pakistan on 7th January, followed on the 19th by Saudi Arabia’s strong man, the deputy Crown prince and Defence minister Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) who met with Nawaz Sharif who assured him that “has said Pakistan would stand by Saudi Arabia if any threat [arises] to its territorial integrity.” But Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, whom MBS also met, had stronger words: “any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan”.
In its policy towards West Asia, India prides itself on having good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and some observers have suggested this puts New Delhi in a good position to help iron out the differences between the two countries. This was questionable even before the New Year’s mass executions in Saudi Arabia, but after the sharp deepening of the rift between the Saudi-led Sunni world on the one hand, and Iran and its allies on the other, it is now unthinkable.
India needs to maintain good relations with both countries and cannot afford to alienate either one, but the new situation vastly complicates the prospects for India to play a more significant political role in the Gulf in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to conclude that India should adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude. Delhi must, on the contrary, engage deeper with both Riyadh and Tehran on the basis of its own national interest, while refraining from trying to mediate between the two as at this stage as it would be a futile attempt where India has more to lose than gain.
Olivier Da Lage is editor in chief at Radio France International. He contributes to Gateway House in his personal capacity.
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