Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to turn their national struggle into a religious conflict. The first is dangerous. The second could be catastrophic.
Yet Riyadh, America’s nominal ally, just demonstrated that it is the more reckless of the two states by executing Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
There is much bad to say about Tehran’s authoritarian and interventionist Islamic regime. But even worse is Saudi Arabia, considered by Washington to be a valued ally.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is essentially a totalitarian state. Last year Human Rights Watch reported that Saudi Arabia continued “to try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities.”
Freedom House rated the kingdom at the bottom in terms of both civil liberties and political rights. Purported “antiterrorism” legislation allowed the “authorities to press terrorism charges against anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent.”
The U.S. State Department devoted 57 pages to the Saudi monarchy’s human rights (mal)practices. Noted State: “The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”
The Saudi royals are, if anything, even more repressive when it comes to matters of faith. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that the regime “remains unique in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam.”
In its latest assessment State noted that citizens are required to be Muslims and that apostasy may be punished by death. Obviously, “freedom of religion is not protected under the law.”
Essentially, Saudi Arabia is an early version of the Islamic State which won social acceptance in the West.
Unfortunately, Riyadh doesn’t limit religious repression to home. The licentious royals propagate fundamentalist Wahhabist Islam abroad. The KSA backed the Taliban regime, which shared Riyadh’s enthusiasm for brutal implementation of 7th century Islam. Some wealthy Saudis supported al-Qaeda before 9/11.
According to Wikileaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that Saudi money continues to flow to terrorists. And the monarchy has generously supported extremist Syrian rebels.
Turning the American military into the Saudi royals’ bodyguard also spurred attacks on Americans The first Gulf War was directed more to safeguard Saudi Arabia than liberate Kuwait; the U.S. garrison left in Saudi Arabia stoked Osama bin-Laden’s anger and was later targeted in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. Finally, attacking Iraq created the murderous al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became a prolific employer of suicide bombers and morphed into the Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia sells the West oil, but out of necessity, not friendship. Any successor regime would do the same. Anyway, the transformation of the international energy marketplace means Washington need not worry about reduced Saudi oil exports.
On foreign policy, Riyadh is as problematic as Iran. Killing a Shiite cleric for standing up to the oppressive Sunni monarchy moved the region closer to multinational sectarian conflict. The royals have made a political settlement in Syria far harder, if not impossible.
Saudi Arabia also is ruthless in suppressing democracy and human rights elsewhere. For instance, Riyadh intervened militarily to back Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy and subsidized Egypt’s brutal al-Sisi dictatorship.
Even worse has been the KSA’s intervention in Yemen. The long-running civil war was tribal more than sectarian, but Saudi Arabia turned it into another sectarian proxy fight. The humanitarian consequences have been horrific.
Instead of being treated as an ally, Saudi Arabia “should be a pariah,” argued Freedom House President Mark Lagon. As I point out in Forbes, “at the very least, U.S. officials should drop the faux intimacy. .”