Iran is no paragon of democracy.
And when its leaders denounce the “criminal workings” of the “vile” Saudi regime and its links to terrorism, the pot is calling the kettle black.
Yet what occurred this past weekend in Saudi Arabia is worrisome for several reasons.
Executing 47 people in a single day, first of all, is a strange way to begin the year.
Except if the goal is to beat the kingdom’s record of 153 in 2015 (and 87 the year before), in which case they have made a good start.
And when those put to death by sword or automatic weapons are added to the list of decapitated apostates, bloggers who have been tortured or who wait on death row, and the thief of an ATM card who was crucified in the north of the country, it is appropriate to accord to King Salman, as to his predecessor and those aspiring to succeed him (none of whom has yet shown the slightest sign of protest or regret), the macabre but fitting title of world champions in the category of state crime.
But on top of that, beyond the flouting of the most basic principles of human dignity lie other ominous signals.
The unusually macabre staging of these killings – all carried out on the same day in cities across the country – bespeaks the intention not to hide the matter, but to display it in such a way that no one, not the Saudi people and not the diplomats of allied or enemy powers, could fail to notice it.
In other words, what we saw was a show of force by a regime that has been in power for more than a century but that all observers agree is tired, losing steam and increasingly unable to ensure its own survival.
This sort of desperate action, from a country that is a key player in every major geopolitical issue of the day, is never a good sign.
Moreover, the act of placing on the same level, and in the same tumbrel, the likely henchmen of al-Qaida and Islamic State (who made up the majority of those executed on Saturday) and four Shi’ite opponents, including the very charismatic Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, whose only crime was to have defended a vision of Islam other than Sunnism, and more specifically Wahhabism, clears the way for a cycle of reprisals that already has set this part of the world aflame: Yemen, Bahrain and, of course, the other great regional power, Iran, Shi’ite by vocation and destiny.
Under this scorching of consciences and hearts may even lie an element of calculation, which, however risky and futile it may be, would hardly be surprising coming from a regime that the slow but steady decline in world oil prices will plunge into an abyss if it keeps up. Little surprise, then, that it should seek to wriggle out of its trap (one that it had a hand in setting).
When you are the world’s top producer of crude and 80 percent of your resources depend on it, turning yourself into the epicenter of a new storm zone, rendering the future suddenly uncertain and threatening unpredictable convulsions could be seen as a means of pushing prices up, at least in the short term.
And finally there is the anti-Islamic State coalition, a coalition in which Saudi Arabia seemed to want to play a leading role only two weeks ago when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman floated the kingdom’s idea for an anti-Islamist Muslim force that would gather under a single banner 34 countries as different as Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan and Lebanon. With the revival of the war to the death between Sunnis and Shi’ites, more aggravated now than it has been in a long time; with the reigniting of the old quarrel between the Arab and Persian empires and their contradictory narratives, to the detriment of mobilization against the common enemy; with the wind of anger and revenge blowing through Baghdad and pushing the pro-Iran government of Haider al-Abadi to break with its brother-turned-enemy, Saudi Arabia, it is hard to see that coalition forming. And as for the retaking of Mosul, which would mark the real turning point of the anti-Islamic State offensive but which presumes a joint operation on the part of Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites, that which had appeared imminent has now suddenly been put off indefinitely.
In the face of this disaster the international community is doing precisely nothing.
The democracies, in particular and as usual, have daintily averted their gaze.
No one even seems to want to recall, for example, that a representative of this country gone mad chairs a key panel of the UN Human Rights Council. What a cruel irony! No one has the power to change the nature of the Saudi regime. But it should not be so difficult for the country’s partners, those that sell it fighter planes and buy its black gold, to curb its homicidal enthusiasm by telling it that in addition to oppressing its people it is threatening the peace of the region and the world.
“It’s the oil, stupid!” – a knock-off of the signature slogan of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against Bush senior – works in both directions. In this fool’s game writ large where each takes the other hostage, the one who has the greatest interest in coming to terms and who will, therefore, be the first to yield, is not necessarily the one we think.