Miami–Saudi Arabia’s break with Iran is widely seen as a symptom of the Saudi fear of an aggressive Tehran and the construction of a “Shiite Crescent” in the Arab Middle East that is encircling the Sunni Muslim-dominated kingdom. But there’s a strong domestic element as well: A desperate desire by the Saudi ruling group to shift attention from domestic troubles to foreign threats.
The Saudi government, led by nearly octogenarian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is under pressure from numerous home-grown threats: opposition to the king himself and his son, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, recently appointed Deputy Crown Prince and to other top jobs, placinghim in the running for eventual kingship; reduction of gasoline subsidies that hit hard at the poor; continued sectarian strife especially stemming from the disaffection of Shiite Muslim second-class citizens; and fierce and sometimes violent opposition from younger Saudis who think the royal family is a bunch of corrupt degenerates. Large numbers of disaffected Saudi citizens have gone to fight alongside the Islamic State in Syria. ISIS is an avowed enemy of the Saudi monarchy.
So in some ways, tension with Iran is merely a diversion from an internal crackdown. King Salman sent a tough message to opponents with the execution-by-beheading of 47 people he alleged were terrorists; Forty six were Sunni Saudis. The Saudi Foreign ministry issued a statement about this housecleaning, which it said was “based on clear and undisputed physical evidence” of terrorism.” Some of the charges dated back more than a decade. The show of brutal domestic sabre-rattling displayed just who is in charge.
Despite the clear internal motive for the executions, foreign attention was mostly drawn toward the killing of a Shiite cleric, Nimer al-Nimer. Iran, a Shiite Islamic which has set itself up as protector of Shiites everywhere, protested. A mob in Tehran trashed and torched the Saudi embassy. The Saudis responded by cutting off diplomatic relations and got its allies, Kuwait, Bahrain and Sudan to do the same. The United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations. The Saudi foreign ministry note accused Iran of harboring terrorists and of “blatant intervention” in “Iraq,, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, where it has directly interfered through the revolutionary guard and the Shiite militias from Lebanon and other countries of the world, resulting in the killing of more than 250,000 Syrians.”
Other external factors alarm the Saudis: the steep decline of oil prices and the feeling that the United States, its main post-World War II ally, has abandoned it. Exhibit A is President Obama’s willingness to cut a nuclear deal with Iran without trying to curb Tehran’s interventions in the Arab world.
At the least, these numerous and tangled internal and external crises represent a major existential crisis for a country once considered a lynchpin to Middle East stability.
Business Insider sees Saudi Arabia as trying to shift attention from domestic problems to Iran.
The Independent looks at the power struggle among the decrepit royals.