Toby Craig Jones in The New York Times:
WHEN Saudi Arabia executed the Shiite cleric and political dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, the country’s leaders were aware that doing so would upset their longtime rivals in Iran. In fact, the royal court in Riyadh was probably counting on it. It got what it wanted. The deterioration of relations has been precipitous: Protesters in Tehran sacked Saudi Arabia’s embassy; in retaliation, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties. More severe fallout could follow — possibly even war. 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 royals in Riyadh most likely believe that it will allow them to stop dissent at home, shore up support among the Sunni majority and bring regional allies to their side. In the short term, they may be right. But eventually, stoking sectarianism will only empower extremists and further destabilize an already explosive region.
Over the past decade, Saudi rulers have turned to Iran and Shiites every time they needed an easy scapegoat. Anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite sentiments have long existed among religious extremists in the kingdom, but today they are at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s national identity. This development is dangerous for Saudi Arabia’s Shiite community, estimated at 10 to 15 percent of the population, and for the entire Middle East. This is hardly the first time Saudi Arabia’s Shiites have come under fire. Sectarianism under Saudi rule dates back to the early 20th century. But until recently, the kingdom’s leaders have balanced strong-armed tactics with efforts to accommodate community leaders, seeking to minimize the dangers of sectarianism.