By Atul Singh
This was first published on Fair Observer.
In Act I, Scene 4 of Hamlet, the cold air “bites shrewdly” and the ghost of the dead king bursts upon the stage “horridly to shake our disposition.” These days, the long buried ghost of theSunni-Shia schism is in the midst of a cosmic dance of destruction. The Saudis have begun 2016 by executing 47 people in a single day.
Some of those sentenced were juveniles as young as 15. The prosecution most kindly requested the death by crucifixion of 17-year-old Dawood al-Marhoon while refusing him a lawyer. His crime was participating in an anti-government protest, for which he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that miraculously turned into his confession.
In 2015, beheadings soared in Saudi Arabia. As per many human rights groups, at least 157 people were killed last year. To be fair to the Saudis, Iran killed more than 1,000, Pakistan exceeded 315 and the Chinese probably take the gold medal in the number of executions. It is not the executions themselves, but the grisly manner in which the Saudis carry them out that evokes disgust in most parts of the world.
In 2003, the BBC interviewed the leading executioner of this terrifying kingdom, who recounted in grim detail how he chopped off heads and limbs with precision and poise. That those sentenced go through arbitrary proceedings, no due process and often torture before meeting their maker is an open secret. Marcellus’ words in that iconic ghost scene from Hamlet can be borrowed here: Something is rotten in the state of Saudi Arabia.
Horrific though the 47 executions may be, they would not have made headline news. They have made the news and caused a ruckus because of one of those killed was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shia cleric from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province who opposed the House of Saud and its Bahraini ally. In 2011, Nimr interviewed with the BBC and declared that he was in favor of “the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons … the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets.”
Unsurprisingly, he was arrested in 2012 after protests broke out in the long marginalized oil-rich Shia areas of the Eastern Province. During his arrest, Nimr was shot four times in the leg. As per reports, he was denied proper medical attention and tortured while awaiting a sham trial. Prosecutors called for Nimr’s execution by crucifixion, a punishment that according to the BBC involves beheading followed by public display of the decapitated body.
Saudi actions have been almost universally condemned and evoked fierce reactions among Shias. Protests have broken out in Kashmir, Bahrain and Pakistan against Nimr’s execution. Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shia-led government are unsurprisingly furious.
The most extreme reaction has occurred in Tehran. Shia Iran, the Saudi kingdom’s regional and religious rival, is seething with rage. Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in scenes reminiscent of 1979 when the US embassy suffered a similar fate. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that Saudi Arabia faced “divine revenge” and the latter retaliated by accusing Iran of “blind sectarianism” as well as support of terrorism. Riyadh has since severed diplomatic ties with Tehran. The roiling waters of the Middle East are now boiling.
Some take the point of view that the House of Saud is tottering. The rather prolific Ibn Saud and his sons have left behind plenty of progeny who constantly jostle for power, influence and wealth. Although the Saudi royals are formally beholden to Wahhabism, a puritanical and reactionary form of Islam, they are reputed to have a taste for the fine things in life. WikiLeaks revealed “a world of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll behind the official pieties of Saudi Arabian royalty.”
It is an open secret that maids from South and Southeast Asia are exploited, treated inhumanly and often raped. In a farcical case, a court ordered 200 lashes for a 19-year-old Shia woman who was raped by seven men. She was also duly packed off to prison, and her lawyer’s license was confiscated for apparently speaking to the media about the incident.
This author has heard horrific tales of Saudi brutality from poor Indians who go to the kingdom as cheap labor. In fact, the Saudis have a reputation of doing little except living off the proceeds of their oil money. When Saudi princes are not cavorting with prostitutes or snorting cocaine as reported in the BAE scandal, they fund radical Islamists who provide them legitimacy.
Diplomats, intelligence officials and journalists in many countries speak of the toxic influence of Saudi money. A few days ago, a young Bangladeshi student declared in this author’s class that Saudi Arabia was destroying her country. The Saudi-funded radicalization of Pakistan is now well-chronicled even in the US. It is little surprise that Sunni Pakistan, a nation founded by a pork-eating Shia lawyer, is now a tough country for minorities.
The Saudi regime is increasingly running out of places to hide. It has very few friends left. In Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthis are causing the Saudis constant trouble. In Syria, the Russians, the French and even the Americans are weakening the Islamic State, an organization that the Saudis have long been suspected of sympathizing with if not supporting. The nuclear deal between Iran and the US weakens the Saudi position in the Middle East. The Saudis have been softened by years of oil money and rely on mercenaries that might be turning more ambitious with time.
Most importantly, the oil-fueled party has ended abruptly and left everything in disarray. The Saudis decided to go nuclear in the oil-war to push out weaker rivals elsewhere. As per The Economist, the Saudis need oil to be around $85 a barrel to finance public spending and about $60 to keep the current account in balance. The International Monetary Fund predicted 20% deficits when the price hovered around the $50 mark, and today it hovers around $37.
The Saudis have ruled their people with a simple social contract. They give them generous subsidies from the kingdom’s oil revenues. In return, the people support them. On December 29, the Saudis cut subsidies in an effort to reign in the deficit. This means higher prices for fuel, water and electricity as well as the gas used by industry. These economic reforms are painful and politically sensitive.
So, this is an excellent time for the House of Saud to stir the Sunni-Shia schism to gain public support. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uses the same trick to fight rebels who belong to another tribe or religious denomination. The Islamic State has made inhuman religious radicalism its hallmark and Shia militias in Iraq emulate it. Five years ago, the Arab Uprisings broke out because Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit seller, immolated himself. Today, corruption, inflation, unemployment, sectarian strife and repression continue to be a daily feature of life in much of the Middle East and North Africa.
Many are questioning if the Arab Uprisings were worth it. They could do well to remember that the French Revolution led to the Reign of Terror and much war, but in the end, France is a more egalitarian and democratic place because of 1789. At some point, Assad, the Islamic State and the House of Saud will run out of steam, and the blood-dimmed tide shall recede in this long-suffering region.