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Saudi Arabia Raises Stakes in Shi’a Showdown

Walter Russell Mead

Sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia may be about to get a whole lot worse. The Guardian reports:

Saudi Arabia’s supreme court has rejected an appeal against the death sentence passed earlier this year on on the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who had called for pro-democracy demonstrations and whose arrest in 2012 sparked protests in which three people died.

Nimr’s brother Mohammed said the sentence had been upheld after hearings that took place without his lawyers or family members being given prior notice. His fate now rests with King Salman, who is empowered to issue a pardon.

Nimr and six other Saudi Shias, including his nephew Ali, have been sentenced to death and then to have their bodies put on public display in the most severe penalty available to judges in the Sunni majority kingdom.

It’s hard to say from the outside what is happening here. One explanation is that the Saudis have decided to crack down with everything they have got in an effort to kill dissent and intimidate the Shi’a minority once and for all. Another is that King Salman now has a bargaining chip with Iran. If Iran comes forward with concessions Salman likes, the defendants can be spared. Otherwise, the hammer comes down.

Either way, it’s yet another sign of the severe stress under which the Saudi system is currently operating. Facing an Iran-Russia alliance in the region and a restive religious minority at home, the Saudis are looking hard at their options.

And finally, it also looks as if this is yet another sign of lack of confidence in the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit, and another set of U.S. promises to work with the Saudis to build the “moderate opposition” to Assad don’t seem to have induced the Saudis to moderate their stance.

There is not a single country in the Middle East where the U.S. retains as much influence as it had before the Arab Spring, or before President Obama began to signal his long retreat from the region. The result isn’t, as some might have hoped, a more peaceful Arab-Muslim world. From Saudi Arabia on down, it is as anti-American as ever, more torn by violence than ever, democracy is on the run almost everywhere, and human rights are held in even less regard.

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