The Political Economy of Sectarianism

The recent execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, among others, and the ‘predictable’ regional reaction risks enforcing ideas of primordial battle between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shi’i dominated Iran. While the executions cannot be excused, condemnation without understanding the rationale behind the executions is ‘futile’. If we restrict our understanding of the executions to sectarian narratives we risk stereotyping a more complex political reality.

In order to understand why Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was executed in early January – a move which Saudi policy-makers must have known would aggravate regional tensions – analysts should try to understand Saudi Arabia’s behaviour in its wider and deeper context. Others have written of the wider context; of Saudi anxiety regarding terrorism, US withdrawal and Iranian re-integration into the international system. The deeper context, which seeks to understand the domestic policy pressures on foreign policy, has been less explored.

The Political Economy of Sectarianism

Over the past two weeks, the UK press has been increasingly interested with Saudi Arabia’s so-called National Transformation Plan. Driven by the Deputy Crown Prince, this is designed to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from over-reliance on the oil sector. Indeed, the Deputy Crown Prince was reported to have said that the recent IPO of ARAMCO (the Kingdom’s formerly nationally-owned oil company) was undertaken in order to encourage foreign investment and private sector development. This is needed; Saudi Arabia, like many other countries in the region, is struggling with a bloated public sector, mass youth unemployment and limited foreign investment. The centre-piece of the reforms is the reduction of subsidies on fuel and water, which have both been heavily subsidised in the past. As the government seeks to balance the budget and develop a sustainable economy, it has to increase its citizens’ expenses.

Without analysing (problematic) theories “rentier state mentalities”, it should be clear that removing subsidies and enacting sweeping economic reforms is difficult in the best of times. Given the recent memory of the 2011 protests in the Kingdom and further afield, the transition begins to look even more worrisome. Added to this, the pace of the reforms already undertaken is staggering. Some of the Prince’s critics (of which there are many) have labelled him ‘reckless’.

This ‘reckless’ Prince – a man the German foreign intelligence agency BND labelled as impulsive and overly-ambitious – is similarly linked to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Intriguingly, the link between his position as a driver of economic reform and as a defender against “Iranian meddling” has often been overlooked.

Analysts overlook this connection at our peril. It is possible that the Deputy Crown Prince has stoked sectarian tensions to ease the passage of his own reforms. Saudi elites have built on a narrative of “security” in recent years. They have tried to provide security in a tumultuous region. Saudi citizens, in turn, are supposed to be grateful for this security, which, the logic goes, limits calls for popular protest against the ruling family. By executing a Shi’i cleric (who was relatively obscure before his execution), Saudi policy-makers sought to revive the Saudi-Iran rivalry as a way to enact economic reforms somewhat “under the radar”. Of course, the executions also served to send a message to any “would-be” dissidents that rebellion, in whatever guise, will not be tolerated. It is certainly a dangerous game to play.

The Danger of Sectarian Narratives

However, if we accept that the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr – alongside Sunni dissidents, it should be remembered – was not driven by sectarian hatred, then perhaps we can move past overbearing religious narratives. The danger of these narratives is that they suggest that tensions in the Middle East are “primordial” and that there is no role for the international community in mediating humanitarian disasters and war.

This narrative should be challenged. Indeed, the current Saudi-Iran situation presents an opportunity for international – and perhaps EU – mediation between these two regional hegemons, both of which will be required at any diplomatic meeting over Syria or Yemen. By understanding Sheikh Nimr’s execution as part of a wider and deeper political context, policy-makers can create a non-sectarian space in which the UK can engage critically – but constructively – with Saudi Arabia and Iran.