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Why Saudi Arabia escalated the Middle East’s sectarian conflict

- January 4, 2016

The Jan. 2, 2016,  execution of Saudi Shiite cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr has escalated sectarian hostilities in the Middle East to dangerous new levels. Following the sacking of a Saudi embassy in Iran, Saudi Arabia has severed ties with Iran and expelled its diplomats. Tensions are running high, with apocalyptic rhetoric on all sides.

However, for all the fireworks, this escalation will probably not change much. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in a proxy war at various temperatures over regional order for many years. The Syrian peace process may be derailed, and even more weapons pour into its horrifyingly destructive stalemate, but few really believed in its prospects anyway. The war in Yemen will likely continue on the same current destructive course as before, where even the coming and going of a cease-fire affected fighting on the ground little. The campaign against the Islamic State may become a bit more complicated, but the Gulf states long ago shifted most of their military attention toward Yemen. The United States has not become any more likely to walk away from its painstakingly negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran.

Still, the fallout from Nimr’s execution has clearly roiled regional politics. There seems little question that this was an intentional escalation by the Saudi leadership, which could not have been surprised by the regional and international backlash. The most surprising result of the execution was that it shattered the red lines that had governed Saudi management of Shiite dissent for decades. As Toby Matthiesen has described in depth, Shiite activists such as Nimr would routinely be harassed, imprisoned, and subjected to legal and extra-legal pressures but eventually released when politics dictated outreach and reconciliation. No Shiite cleric of comparable stature has been executed in many years.

Why escalate now, then? Sectarianism itself does not explain very much. Little has changed since the winter of 2013, when I analyzed growing sectarianism in terms of the cynical manipulation of identity politics by regimes seeking to advance their domestic and foreign policy interests. The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict. Sectarianism today is intense, but that is because of politics. The continuing reverberations of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and the Iranian nuclear deal have far more to do with the current spike in sectarianism than some timeless essence of religious difference.

Saudi use of sectarianism in its domestic and regional policies is the subject of a robust political science literature. As influentially described by Gregory Gause, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regimes tend to balance against both domestic and foreign threats. Anti-Shiite mobilization has long been viewed as an effective way of blunting Iran’s appeal to Sunnis, while serving as a currency in intra-Sunni competition for influence. Recent books by Matthiesen and Fred Wehrey effectively demonstrate how sectarian foreign policy also maintains domestic regime stability. Mobilizing sectarian tension abroad should be understood both as a gambit within the region’s power politics as well as a way to maintain domestic control.

From this perspective, the new sectarian escalation is driven by Riyadh’s curious, and dangerous, mixture of perceived threat and opportunity, strength and weakness. Saudi Arabia is uniquely strong within Arab politics at the moment. It can rely on the momentary close partnership of the United Arab Emirates and the temporary weakness of traditional powers such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Saudi’s primary intra-Sunni state rivals, Turkey and Qatar, have been chastened by multiple setbacks, and each has sought to rebuild relations with Riyadh. And, for the moment, it has defeated the challenge of the Arab uprising.

But Saudi Arabia clearly feels vulnerable as well. Its floundering wars in Syria and Yemen, the rise of the Islamic State and the Iran nuclear deal have left it feeling profoundly vulnerable. This combination of strength and vulnerability has made for erratic foreign policy — especially with an aggressive new leadership eager to make its mark.

This is not to minimize domestic political challenges, including the battle to succeed King Salman, ramifications of cheap oil and unprecedented budget deficits. But it appears that the Saudi regime, as Gause would predict, is responding to the greatest perceived threat to its survival, which, in this case, means primarily foreign rather than domestic challenges. Foreign policy also seems to offer a cheaper and easier way to address domestic challenges. At least three major reasons have led Saudi Arabia to escalate the sectarian regional cold war now:

The Iran nuclear deal

The Saudi escalation is above all driven by its fear of the potential success of the U.S. deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Saudi Arabia views Iran’s reintegration into the international order and its evolving relationship with Washington as a profound threat to its own regional position. Mobilizing anti-Shiite sectarianism is a familiar move in its effort to sustain Iranian containment and isolation. The Saudis have been opposed to virtually every major American policy initiative in the Middle East over the last five years — not only the Iran deal, but also American support for Egyptian democracy and Obama’s resistance to intervening in Syria. The sectarian escalation likely is meant to undermine America’s primary strategic objectives in the region such as the Iran deal and a negotiated end to the Syria war by inflaming tensions in ways that make diplomatic progress impossible.

Foreign policy failure

The Saudi escalation likely aims to distract regional and domestic audiences from the manifest failures of its signature policies. It failed to block the Iran deal despite its widely aired public opposition and generally has seen its vital alliance with the United States shaken. Its policy of backing insurgency in Syria has failed to remove the Assad regime despite massive human suffering, while the insurgency has radicalized and the Islamic State has emerged. The intervention in Yemen is now widely recognized as a strategic failure that has failed to accomplish its goals, grinding on at enormous human cost. A public dispute with Iran helps to distract from all of that and return attention to a familiar enemy.

Sunni leadership

Iran may be less the target of the escalation than other Sunni rivals. Saudi diplomacy has focused intently on efforts to consolidate its leadership of a reconstituted “Sunni” regional order. Riyadh recently announced with much fanfare an “Islamic Coalition” against terrorism and has presented its Yemen war coalition as a model for Arab collective action. Its influence has limits, though. Despite the superficial unity of the Riyadh conference for the Syrian opposition and the joint support for new rebel formations, Qatar and Turkey continue to compete with Saudi Arabia for influence with the insurgency. Beyond Bahrain, it seems unlikely that the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council will follow its lead in severing ties with Iran. Even the UAE only agreed to downgrade relations with Tehran.

Meanwhile, Sunni Islamist networks continue to challenge key Saudi policies. The domination of the Syrian insurgency by sectarian jihadist factions has created powerful groups with their own agendas. Long time Saudi nemesis al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has gained significantly from Yemen’s chaos. The push to repress and criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood remains extremely unpopular with many influential Saudi Islamists. Executing Nimr and provoking confrontation with Iran has been far more popular with these Islamist elements, helping to keep them on board for a time.

So is this just more of the same? Not quite. Other structural changes in the region now make unleashed sectarian passions much harder to control than they might have been in the past. Young Arabs coming of political age since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 have never known anything besides daily images or the lived reality of violent sectarian conflict. The sectarian texture of the region’s current wars, above all in Syria, has deeply permeated the identity politics and public discourse following the failure of the Arab uprising.

As Bassel Salloukh has argued, the Arab uprising of 2011 revealed the profound weakness behind the fierce façade of the region’s states. Autocratic regimes may have beaten back, reversed or co-opted popular demands for democratic change, but domination lacking effective governance or broad-based legitimacy remains thin and unsteady. Most regimes have muddled along, surviving and adapting but keenly aware of their vulnerability. Sectarianism has always been a useful card for such weak but violent regimes to play in order to divide potential opponents and generate enthusiasm among supporters.

Then there are the states that have collapsed into civil war, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya. State failure, civil war and a hyperpartisan media create ideal conditions for sectarianism to take hold among frightened, angry, polarized communities. Syria’s war has been the greatest incubator of sectarianism, with massive public and private campaigns across the Gulf mobilizing in support of a Sunni jihad against the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah backers. Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias have similarly mobilized around identity and sect in support of the Assad regime.

Regional media has energetically promoted sectarian narratives to build support for wars in Syria and Yemen. Meanwhile, social media — with its propensity to push people into closed communities of the likeminded and its ability to rapidly circulate inflammatory videos and ideas — makes this polarization worse. Media and social media will only grow more influential as the information technology revolution continues to unfold; and, as of now, there are few forces in the current Arab public sphere pushing back against sectarian divisions.

The implications of the Saudi sectarian escalation for the region’s high politics are likely overstated. The challenge to Iran and the mobilization of sectarian passions are part of the standard playbook for Riyadh when faced with regional and domestic challenges. But the new forces unleashed by the Arab uprising, from state weakness and civil wars to potent new media platforms, make this sectarian game much more dangerous than in the past. It will be far more difficult to deescalate these sectarian passions than it has been to inflame them.