CHARLOTTE, N.C., January 4, 2016 — The Middle East often becomes so enmeshed in its internal bickering that major events in the region go unnoticed. It does not help that the Obama Administration has little interest in resolving such issues.
New Year’s hangovers were still throbbing when Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran after protests over Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday.
The details are such a muddle that sorting them out is virtually impossible. Placing blame is an exercise in frustration because there is more than enough of that to go around. But the basic implications of Nimr’s execution and the events that have followed are not hard to comprehend.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a prominent Shia cleric. He was executed along with 46 others in Saudi Arabia after being convicted of terrorism. Saudi Arabia is primarily Sunni, and neither faction regards the other as being “true” Muslims. A Shia is basically an infidel where Sunnis are concerned, and vice-versa.
Al-Nimr was a harsh critic of the royal family in Saudi Arabia, which was practically a guarantee of a death sentence. In 2015, the Saudis carried out the highest number of executions in two decades, with more than 150.
The Shia power in the region, Iran, closely monitors activities involving Shia minorities. Only one outcome was possible after the execution: an inevitable clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Tehran warned the Saudis there would be retaliation for carrying out the death sentence o al-Nimr, but the primary concern for the Saudis is Iran’s growing influence in Syria, Iraq and other places where the Islamic State is gaining power.
The mass executions, which were carried out simultaneously at 12 sites across Saudi Arabia, set off a firestorm of protest in Iran with angry slogans in the streets calling for “The fall of the regime” and “Down with the al-Saud family.”
With that as the background of the situation, here is where the events over the weekend become further muddied for the United States, and where the weakness of the Obama Administration becomes increasingly dangerous. Neither side in this Middle Eastern drama is without blame, and each holds the other in contempt. Thus the United States is stuck in a diplomatic quagmire which can have no positive outcome.
Thanks to the ineptitude of Secretary of State John Kerry and a Western alliance of negotiators, there is now a worrisome and fragile deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons program.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia has been a longtime United States ally (whatever “ally” means), a tenuous relationship at best. At any given time there are degrees of stability with the Saudis, but never is there what could be termed a “strong” relationship.
Historically, Saudi Arabia gave birth to Islam. It is Saudi Arabia which is responsible for Wahhabism, the most fundamentalist form of puritanical Islam there is and the foundation for the beliefs of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other jihadist organizations.
Take your pick, Saudi Arabia or Iran: There is no good choice. Either option is a losing proposition.
Both countries use Sharia law as their legal system. Both enforce strict dress codes for women and both use “mutaween”—morality police who roam about looking for Sharia violations—to make certain those codes are observed.
Both countries execute citizens who do not adhere to the most basic tenets of Islamic belief: gays, apostates, blasphemers and adulterers. Both are proponents of spreading extremist ideologies throughout the world. Saudi Arabia and Iran provide financial support to terrorist groups that have the same goal, to defeat non-believers and to gain control for Islam.
Besides the fact that Iran is Shiite and Saudi Arabia is Sunni, there is an ethnic aspect which comes into play: Saudis are Arabs and Iranians are not.
The West could simply sit back and wait for one side to destroy the other, but, their differences have already existed for seven centuries, so there is little prospect of that.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are bad customers, yet the United States and the West are entangled in a diplomatic nightmare that seems impossible to solve.
Combined with the additional elements of worldwide terror threats at any time, plus a lack of understanding of the Muslim world in general, the West faces an overwhelming challenge to preserve global peace.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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