Blame Saudi Arabia for the Middle Eastern Dissension

by FT

Hope is never a safe bet in the Middle East. One week into the new year, and here is what we have: relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran had escalated into a full-blown diplomatic crisis after Riyadh executed a Shia cleric who was a strident critic of the ruling family.

Forget a president for Lebanon. Forget peace in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is at war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels; the ceasefire was called off a few days ago.

There will be little traction in the talks on Syria, where Iran fights alongside the regime of Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia has funded and armed rebel groups. The odds on finding a resolution to the five-year civil war in Syria through US and Russian-sponsored negotiations were never good. Now they are virtually non-existent.

The international fight against Isis in Iraq and Syria will be pursued, probably with more vigour, in 2016. Isis will be degraded; it will certainly lose more territory. But without political solutions sectarianism will thrive in Iraq as in Syria. Neither Muslim majorities nor the scattered minorities will be spared.

Riyadh’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was designed to achieve short-term political gains at home but at the expense of a dangerous fallout in the region.

The killing of the Shia cleric was part of a wave of executions that included dozens of jailed Sunni extremists from al-Qaeda, the Isis rival. His death carried a message of appeasement to radical Sunni sympathisers at risk of being swayed by Isis: that despite the executions, Saudi Arabia remains the protector of the Sunni at a time of intense rivalry with Shia Iran.

Predictably, Shia communities in the region were enraged. Hardliners in Tehran ransacked and torched the Saudi embassy. These actions were also driven by domestic considerations: Iranian hardliners are determined to undermine the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani ahead of February parliamentary elections and destroy his drive to rehabilitate the Islamic Republic.

Instead of a thaw in Iranian-Saudi relations, this year looks set for greater polarisation. The Saudi-Iranian clash will not spark a direct military confrontation but by inflaming religious passions it may produce as menacing an outcome.

Middle East is facing  more ruin this year and the next few years to come.



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