Sunday, January 3, 2016

Saudi Duty Too

There’s a growing discomfort throughout the West over it cozy relationship with mega-oil-producer Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy with thousands of princes and princesses. As oil prices have plunged (to the ultimate benefit of the Saudis as noted below), the Saudis have readjusted their financial relationship with their own people, but they continue to battle furiously (and expensively) against their most hated foes: Shiites, whom they consider apostates against Islam, believers in a mystical interpretation of their Holy Book and not, as Sunnis believe, the literal word of God in the Qur’an. As the keeper of Mecca, the site of the mandatory Haj (holy journey) required of all Muslims, Saudis are forced to keep that pathway open even to their hated Shiites.
Their oil money plays hob with their deeply conservative Wahhabi beliefs, a an extreme form of Sunni Islam born of 18th century cleric and nomadic tribalism, a pain often assuaged by massive guilt money from wealthy Saudi sources funding madrassa (schools teaching extreme Sunni fundamentalism) and even groups that the United States has placed at the top of the terrorists list. So frequently, the leadership of such groups is Saudi born and bred.
Even as ISIS challenges the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy, rather directly stating that the Saudi royal family is in their sights, Saudi leaders are loath to get involved in the war against ISIS because of so much local support for their mission. But they are obsessed, along with several major regional Sunni oil producing nations, with containing Shiites. Even as some of Saudi Arabia’s own foreign oil workers are Shiites, the Saudis are terrified of that religious faction that represents only 15% of Islam (albeit heavily concentrated in Iran and Iraq). Iran is the devil, and its surrogates – ranging from Hezbollah to Yemeni Houthis – are to be crushed wherever they are found.
That the Houthis are attempting to purge Sunni leadership in the nation on the southern Saudi border – Yemen – has moved the Saudis and their allies to fight a rather direct and concentrated war against them. Fighting such direct wars is not Saudi style. Even as they announced a coalition of 34 Islamic nations to counter terrorism, it was clear that the only “terrorism” they really cared about was Iran’s Shiite-led forces. The Saudis are accused of war crimes for allegedly indiscriminate bombings of purely civilian targets in Yemen, resulting in the death of thousands of innocents. The United States has rather directly participated in this effort, not just by training Saudi pilots or selling state-of-the-art weapons/aircraft to the Saudis, but in providing satellite imagery to the Saudi military to enable their bombing efforts in Yemen.
But what really lit the Shiite community ablaze was Saudi mass execution of “terrorists” on January 2nd. Human rights activist, Brian Dooley wrote in the January 2nd Huffington Post: “47 prisoners, including [leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al Nimr and his 21 year-old nephew Ali Mohamed Al Nimr], were executed. Most were killed by beheading, and the rest by firing squad. It’s the killing of Shiekh Nimr that has triggered protests and threatened violence across the region. He was an important voice during the 2011 demonstrations against repressive regimes in the region. He notably criticized Sunni autocracies such as Bahrain, as well as the Syrian dictatorship of Alawite Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by the Shia hierarchy in Iran.
“Nimr's execution is a dangerous move by the Saudi authorities, but not a surprising one. Although some western politicians and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had called for his release, the United States government has been predictably and disappointingly muted about criticizing its rich Gulf ally.
“When asked about Nimr’s imminent execution on September 23 2015, the White House response was typically platitudinous  ‘...the United States, under the leadership of this president, regularly raises our concerns about the human rights situation inside of Saudi Arabia.’ In fact, there’s little to suggest that President Obama uses his meetings with senior members of Saudi’s ruling family to press for human rights.
“Even worse, a few months ago the State Department gave an enthusiastic welcome to news that Saudi had managed to secure a leading position on a UN human rights body.
“Washington’s muted response to mounting Saudi violations - 2015 saw at least 157 executions after unfair trials, the most for two decades, and a continuing clamp down on non-violent critics of the government - only enables the repression.” Even as the United States has developed its own oil production capacity to unprecedented levels, our support of oil-producer Saudi Arabia remains unwavering, even as the newly-appointed (January 2015) King Salman (pictured above) has adopted an never-before-seen level of Saudi militarism, primarily directed against Shiites. Salman also seems determined to make petroleum so cheap so as to bankrupt the North American frackers… so it can then resume pushing the price of their oil through the stratosphere.
What’s in it for the West? A powerful counterforce against an aggressive Iran. A major supplier of oil to Europe. One of the few Islamic countries where the United States is even welcome, without which we really would have no serious allied forces in the region of the Middle East where the biggest problems seem to be the most explosive. ISIS and its affiliates are ranging across northern Africa, from Libya, Mali, Tunisia and Egypt, to points south (like northern Nigeria). So having a launching pad near ISIS’ heart remains a U.S. priority.
But rage roiled after these Saudi executions. Iran’s leadership decried Nimr’s death. The Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked. Tensions have risen between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a factor likely to produce more Iranian surrogate militarism against Sunni targets, well beyond ISIS. That the Saudi control Mecca is not lost on the Iranian leadership, which has repeatedly blamed the Saudis, particularly after the deaths of thousands of pilgrims from mass tramplings and construction mishaps. Oh, and on January 3rd, to make matters worse, Saudi Arabia finally and formally broke its fraying diplomatic ties with Iran.
But the big picture is over Saudi Arabia’s role in supporting terrorist groups, supporting the extreme teachings of children for future jihadist efforts… and the West’s support of a nation that has not yet, even with recent local elections won by a few women, elevated women even to second class citizenship. They must walk covered under the direct control of their male relatives and are unable even to drive a car. It is their faith, their culture, but our support of those efforts aimed at obsessive violence against Shiites appears to border on unconscionable. Tensions have reached new highs.
Saudi Arabia is among the greatest current sources of destabilization in the region. It’s time for the United States and the West to reexamine their priorities. The new Saudi King is not advancing our best interests… and is making a bad situation worse. While the anti-Muslim tone of too many American presidential candidates most certainly is not giving Middle Eastern Muslim nations much reason to accept U.S. influence, we at least should neither support nor contribute to Saudi efforts further to destabilize the region.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if there is to be a continued alliance with Saudi Arabia, it is now time that regional stability must become the dominating priority.

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