By: William Inboden
As the Middle East enters its sixth year of unrelenting turmoil, this past weekend witnessed an ominous escalation of sectarian tensions. It began with Saudi Arabia’s execution on Friday of Shi’ite leader Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, followed by Iran’s retaliatory attacks on Saudi diplomatic properties, and then a war of words and the termination of diplomatic relations between the region’s paramount Sunni and Shi'a nations.
Going back to the Iranian Revolution itself, as Elliott Abrams points out, the regime in Tehran has an ignominious history of disregard for the immunity of diplomatic properties. Its provocations this weekend, including facilitating mob attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities, merits unambiguous condemnation (not rationalization, as French Ambassador to the US Gerard Araud initially did).
Iran remains one of the most malevolent and destabilizing actors in the Middle East, and bears the brunt of responsibility for how it has inflamed Sunni-Shi'a acrimony across the region. Yet Saudi Arabia’s regrettable execution of Sheikh Nimr should not be overlooked or excused.
Saudi Arabia may be one of the United States’ most important allies in the Middle East—a partnership I support—but the House of Saud’s ongoing religious intolerance undermines American interests and further destabilizes a volatile region. For a generation the Saudi ruling class looked the other way (at best) while their own religious establishment’s doctrinaire Wahhabism fueled the radicalization of many Saudis at home and other Muslims abroad. The fact that 15 out of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi citizens served as a partial alarm to the Kingdom’s problem, but it took the May 12, 2003, Al-Qaeda attacks on Western residential compounds in Saudi Arabia to shock the House of Saud into realizing that it had been feeding a dragon in its own backyard. Since then, the Saudis have been reliable and indispensable partners in the war on jihadist terrorism.
Even as it aligns with the United States on many issues, Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the most religiously intolerant nations on the planet. Non-Muslim faiths have long suffered the most, with not a single non-Muslim house of worship being permitted anywhere in the Kingdom, while the literally millions of resident non-Muslim workers (primarily Hindus and Christians) are forced to worship in fear and in secret—in homes, apartment basements, and the occasional diplomatic property.
Muslims who do not follow the official Wahhabi interpretation are also victimized, including dissident Sunnis and especially the Saudi Shi’a, who comprise 10-15 percent of Saudi citizens. Riyadh’s angst about its Shi’a population is heightened by the fact that the Eastern province, home to a majority of Saudi Shi'a, is also the repository of the majority of Saudi petroleum reserves and borders Bahrain with its own disenfranchised Shi’a majority population.
While working for the State Department I visited Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and met with many Saudi Shi’a leaders. They were loyal to the Kingdom and generally of pro-American sentiments, and spoke eloquently of their desire for more tolerance of their faith and religious community. It was evident even then that their restive province was at a crossroads, eager to be more fully welcomed into Saudi society yet also susceptible to unrest, especially if their oppression continued.
No doubt in recent years Iran has sought to exploit this disgruntlement with any manner of covert mischief among the Saudi Shi’a, but this is still a problem fundamentally of Riyadh’s making, and it is fundamentally a religious freedom problem. The Kingdom’s persistent mistreatment of its Shi’a drove a leader like Sheikh Nimr to protest, yet instead of ameliorating its intolerance, Saudi Arabia exacerbated the problem by executing the Sheikh.
American policy to address Saudi Arabia’s intolerance has been largely anemic for generations. In a notable exception to this neglect, in 2004 the George W. Bush Administration designated Saudi Arabia as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its severe violations of religious liberty under the provisions of the International Religious Freedom Act. I happened to be working in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom at the time, and recall vividly the howls of protest among the Near Eastern Affairs bureau and other regional experts that adding the Kingdom to the CPC list (alongside unsavory regimes such as North Korea, Sudan, and Iran) would cause an irrevocable rupture in the US-Saudi relationship and prove counterproductive for improving religious toleration. In fact the designation, which has been renewed annually ever since, has had little effect on the US-Saudi relationship or Saudi conduct, for good or ill.
Sheikh Nimr’s execution also illustrates a failure of American policy. Under the Obama White House, the US-Saudi relationship has deteriorated to its lowest point in four decades. Not since the OPEC oil embargo have there been such high levels of mistrust between Washington and Riyadh. The Saudis see in the Obama Administration a perverse combination of diplomatic ineptitude and benighted Shi'a-philia, exemplified by the nuclear deal with Tehran. This has eroded America’s influence with the House of Saud, so much so that any quiet protests or entreaties Washington may have made to spare Sheikh Nimr’s life were defiantly disregarded. Ironically, the Obama White House seems to have been equally dismissive of Iran’s virulent religious intolerance, even in the midst of its outreach to the Iranian regime.
For decades now, strategic forecasters predicting the House of Saud’s imminent demise have been confounded by the Kingdom’s resilience. It has survived many previous challenges and may well survive this one. Yet this latest crisis is ominous. As John Hannah warned a couple of months ago, the House of Saud is being buffeted by an almost unprecedented maelstrom of threats and challenges, external and internal. Feeling alienated from its American ally and primary great power patron, buffeted by the ongoing trough in global oil prices, and threatened by the resurgence of Iranian power, it is no wonder that the Saudis are feeling cornered and lashing out.
As I have written previously, the Sunni-Shi’a sectarian conflict is just one of several contests convulsing the Middle East, and it is in America’s interest to see this conflict meliorated and tamped down lest it deepen the existing civil wars or convulse the entire region in a religious war. The execution of Sheikh Nimr, and Tehran’s counter-escalation, are major steps backward.
What should be done? To begin, American policymakers need to rediscover the connection between religious freedom, stability, and security. Dismissing religious freedom as a mere idealistic distraction from the “core” issues driving regional conflict is to miss the big picture: Religious intolerance is one of the core issues driving the conflicts and fueling radicalization of a new generation of jihadists.
Maintaining close alliances and advocating for human rights improvements are hardly inimical; the United States did both with numerous authoritarian nations during the Cold War, as we encouraged the eventual democratic transitions of South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Chile, El Salvador, and others. Today, we should reassure the Saudis of our continuing commitment to them even while vigorously pressing them (quietly if we can, publicly if we must) to curb their religious intolerance.
William Inboden is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and executive director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin.
A version of this post appears in Shadow Government at foreignpolicy.com. It was originally published in this form on January 4, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.