After Saudi Arabia executed the Shiite cleric and political dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, Iranian protesters burned the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and the diplomatic fallout between the two nations sent ripples across the region, the immediate and facile take attributed the events to sectarian enmity. Historian Toby Craig Jones, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, has been attempting to complicate that framing. In a New York Times op-ed and in a conversation with NPR’s All Things Considered, Jones has helped to foster an understanding of this latest surge in tension as something more and different than a Sunni-Shia rift.
To begin with, Jones shows the importance of understanding that even when conflict can be mapped onto sects it’s often a modern political dispute merely passing for a centuries-old religious one, sometimes having been manipulatively positioned as such. As Jones explains in Desert Kingdom, the Saudi royal family’s claim to power has always been buttressed by a social and political contract with Sunni leaders:
Since early in the twentieth century, when Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, stormed Riyadh with a small band of warriors, wrestled power away from his family’s rivals, and launched his quest for suzerainty, the legitimacy of his rule has been based on a grand bargain. In exchange for their blessing of his right to worldly power, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud granted central Arabia’s conservative clergy, the legatees of the eighteenth-century founder of Wahhabism, the power to oversee and police the social and cultural life of those the new polity came to rule. Islam and its Wahhabi interpreters played a key role in sanctioning the legitimacy of the new regime and have done so ever since.
Now, with the depositions of the Arab Spring in recent memory, the Saudis have as much reason as ever to fear challenges to their rule. Here’s Jones in his NYT piece:
Why did Saudi Arabia want this now? Because the kingdom is under pressure: Oil prices, on which the economy depends almost entirely, are plummeting; a thaw in Iranian-American relations threatens to diminish Riyadh’s special place in regional politics; the Saudi military is failing in its war in Yemen. In this context, a row with Iran is not a problem so much as an opportunity.
The Saudi authorities have good reason to be concerned about new calls for reform. About a week before Sheikh Nimr’s execution, the kingdom announced that it was facing an almost $100 billion deficit for its 2016 national budget. Declining oil revenues may soon force the kingdom to slash spending on social welfare programs, subsidized water, gasoline and jobs — the very social contract that informally binds ruler and ruled in Saudi Arabia. The killing of a prominent member of a loathed religious minority deflects attention from impending economic pressure.
But, as he discussed with NPR, the most prominent reformers from among that “loathed religious minority” would likely characterize their agitation as a push for democracy, human rights, and inclusion, rather than for sectarian concern. The Sunni Saudi Arabia versus Shiite Iran narrative, he says, is merely the way the Saudis and their allies in the Arab world have framed the conflict, choosing Shiites as a scapegoat in their efforts to address the threats they see from below and from across the region.
Saudi Arabian aggression is of course a particularly awkward challenge for the United States, which has always allowed oil to outweigh the anti-democratic actions of Saudi rulers. But even against that backdrop, with surging domestic energy production seemingly threatening American dependence on Saudi Arabian crude, Saudi leaders may see threats to their global political standing. As Jones writes, the prospect of an insecure Saudi leadership should be frightening but also clarifying, dispelling the notion that Saudi Arabia is “a force for stability in the Middle East.”