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Toby Craig Jones says Saudi Arabia is beholden to sectarian violence and it is not a stabilizing force in the Middle East

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, faced condemnations from human rights groups for executing 47 people, including a prominent Shiia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a vocal critic of the Saudi regime. In Tehran, protests against his execution led to the burning of the Saudi embassy. The fundamental reason the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia is that the U.S. believes that Saudis have a stabilizing effect in the region, so much so that since 2010 the U.S. has agreed to provide over $90 billion worth of military equipment to them. But with these kinds of ISIS-type tactics, executions, gross human rights violations, beheadings, and flogging of women, is this the appropriate response on the part of the U.S. to consider Saudis a stabilizing force. Our next guest, Toby Craig Jones, wrote an article in the New York Times titled Saudi Arabia’s Dangerous Sectarian Game. He writes the real problem is not just that Saudis are willing to live with the violent sectarianism. They are now beholden to it, too. The fact that the kingdom’s leaders have embraced sectarianism so recklessly suggests that they have little other choice. This should be frightening, considering considering more is likely to be in store. But it should also be clarifying for those who believe that Saudi Arabia is a force for stability in the Middle East. It is not. Now joining us to discuss this is Toby Craig Jones. He’s an associate professor of history at Rutgers University. Toby, this particular paragraph you wrote, that the Saudis are beholden to sectarianism, is very revealing. Explain it. TOBY JONES: Well, the Saudis have a reputation for being ideological. Analysts and others often talk about Wahhabism and kind of orthodox Sunni version of Islam that’s embraced widely in the kingdom, and they assume that this means that the kingdom has always been a place where intolerance is the official [line of the] state, and that especially the state encourages violence or enmity to be directed towards minority groups like Shiites and Sufis and others. This hasn’t historically been true. The Saudis have often sought to manage and balance competing forces, because they’ve been practical and pragmatic. That changed shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 which saw the fall of Saddam, but more worrisome to the Saudis the rise of Shia power in Iraq, and especially the perception that Iran was becoming a serious player and an important neighboring state to Saudi Arabia’s north. Ever since, the Saudis have, have exploited sectarianism periodically. Within the last five years we’ve seen it become much more explosive, first with respect to the Arab uprisings, the Saudis intervened in a popular uprising in Bahrain and called [it] the Iranian-backed sectarian event that justified their backing of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to take on President Al-Assad in Syria, because they deem Assad to be an instrument of Shiite Iran. And they’ve justified the war in Yemen partly around the issue of sectarianism. So we’ve seen an escalation of sectarianism in the Saudi approach to both geopolitics and domestic political challenges. At a certain point we have to argue, and I think it’s time to conclude, that the Saudis are stuck. They’ve chosen a certain pathway. It is a terribly dangerous one. It puts them in the same company as groups like Daesh, ISIS, and others who are sectarian and who are murderous with sectarianism in mind. I haven’t seen any indication that the Saudis are willing to back away from this, or to talk in alternative ways or to seek resolutions that would help the region escape from a kind of growing Shia-Sunni menace or danger, patterns of violence [and others]. And so we have to conclude that the Saudis are committed to this path, and it doesn’t bode well for the region’s future. PERIES: Toby, in the New York Times article you cite the plummeting oil prices, on which the Saudi economy is almost dependent on, the thawing of Iranian-American relations, which threatens diminishing Riyadh’s special place in the region, and of course the Saudi military failure in Yemen, and let me add, the Saudi entrenched position on Assad in Syria, are all now falling apart. So then what did they achieve by killing the cleric? JONES: Well, let me, let me answer this in, in a couple of ways. [We’re going] to take a certain, a certain approach to it. One way to, one way to kind of evaluate what the Saudis have done in executing al-Nimr and now playing themselves off as the victim as a result of the storming of the embassy in Tehran might be interpreted as a kind of arrogance. Along with Israel, Saudi Arabia is often not held accountable, certainly not from the US. There’s no global pressure. There’s certainly no regional pressure that calls on the Saudis to rethink their approach to these kinds of things. And this sort of escalation by, by murdering al-Nimr, executing him, and then celebrating it may be read as a sign of arrogance or strength. A kind of position that Saudi Arabia hovers above, tension and [inaud.] the basis of political pressure. What I suggested in the New York Times piece and have argued elsewhere, that the reality is that the Saudis face tremendous, a tremendous series of pressures. Some of them are regional. The Yemen war is failing. They’ve not seen their efforts to topple Assad succeed. Iraq is emboldened and antagonistic towards Saudi Arabia. But perhaps the most important one is the domestic political-economic one that you just, that you just asked about. Saudi Arabia has historically, but especially since the 1970s, been almost entirely beholden to oil revenues for the functioning, the basic functioning, of the state. Society has come to expect, partly because they have no political rights, they’ve come to expect that the state will redistribute oil revenue in various forms. Everything from social welfare services like healthcare, education, employment, the maintenance of roads, subsidizing water, keeping gas prices very low at home, all of those things are taken care of by a state that takes oil wealth and kind of slices off part of it for the service to, in the interest of the royal family, but then uses the rest of it as patronage. As oil prices decline, however, and they’ve been low in the past, historically, and the Saudis have kind of muddled through. But as oil prices decline, now it puts the system under pressure. It means there’s less of the pie to go around, and how the Saudis redistribute all of this becomes a fundamental challenge. And it’s when there’s not as much patronage that’s available that the Saudis have seen challenges to the political order before. The most recent one and the most serious one came in the 1990s following the U.S.-led Gulf War, in which there were networks of political dissent. Saudi Arabia’s per capita income plummeted over the course of the decade between the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. One of the consequences was growing domestic pressure. When oil prices began to rise shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Saudis were enjoying quite a bit of additional comfort. They tucked away extra money. They’re now drawing that down. Their 2016 national budget forecast predicts a $100 billion shortfall that has not yet been met with reduced spending, but it’s likely that reduced spending will come in the works, and that it’s, that it will be in the order sometime in the next 12-18 months. I think the Saudis probably anticipate that this is a real potential problem. So how did the flak, political pressure or uncertainty that would come along with the kind of cutting or chipping away of the social welfare state, [is] something the Saudis want to try to manage. And one thing that I’ve argued is that sectarianism, assassinating Shiites and murdering Shiites, executing them, whatever we want to call it, pursuing foreign military [adventures] framed around Shiism, provoking a crisis with Iran, is one way to deflect attention. There’s a kind of fundamental kind of variable at work here that I think we’re all familiar with, and that is that in times of political pressure and domestic uncertainty citizens will rally around the flag when there’s a foreign war. And they’ll look away from the erosion of civil liberties or a poor-performing economy. [I think] Saudis are banking on using sectarianism to accomplish something similar. PERIES: Toby, abut 10 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia’s 30 million people are Shia. Now, the cleric was also Shia and he had been living and working there. So what relationship exists between the two sects, or communities? JONES: Yeah. This is an incredibly complicated–and it implies an incredibly complicated set of things to sort through. You know, I’m part of a group of academics and scholars and others who observe the region and who have in many ways staked our careers and our scholarly arguments on, on the notion that sectarianism, what we’re seeing today, the kind of Sunni-Shia dynamic is relatively new. This isn’t an ancient hatred. It hasn’t been around forever, and kind of shorthand invocation of this as a forever conflict that we can never wrap our minds around is just simply not the case. Especially in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. And it is true that Shiites have been singled out by extremists and even by the state in Arabia and the Middle East more generally. Wahhabi militias in the 19th century, [name inaudible] and Wahhabi militias aligned with the [inaud.] in the early part of the 20th century would have liked nothing more than to wipe out the Shia community on the Eastern shores of Arabia. But your question, and I mean, it’s an important one in the sense that the reality for most of the 20th century is that both the Saudi state and the vast majority of Saudi citizens did not primarily see themselves through the lens of Sunni or Shia. This wasn’t a kind of, this wasn’t a dynamic that characterized relationships. And when they did come into contact with one another, whether it was in the oil fields working for Aramco, or as the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia developed, which happens to be where all of Saudi Arabia’s oil is, as well as where most of its Shiites life, well, they pursued similar ends oftentimes through the [lens] of labor. They worked together, they agitated against Aramco, or what they perceived to be U.S. imperialism together. The age of Nasser, they saw themselves sharing interests around Arab socialism. And even in the 1970s, revolutionary politics, whether through the lens of Baathism or other things, became common points of interest, and sort of a shared vocabulary. Things changed in the 1980s, though, and you saw a kind of rise of a revolutionary Shiism. That dissipated in the 1990s and saw more of an accommodationist [trend.] I think the most recent and the most interesting intersection of interests actually came after 9/11, especially in Saudi Arabia, following the terrorist attacks, the revelation that there were Saudis involved in all of this, a group of Saudis banded together across sectarian lines, Sunni and Shiite academic and otherwise professionals, and began calling for political reform. They submitted petitions, they worked together, they did all kinds of things. And they set aside the perception or the possibility of sectarian difference. With the outbreak of the Iraq war this was undone. When the Saudi state cracked down on them, began framing issues in sectarian terms. And it’s really been the Saudi regime, along with its allies in Bahrain, to a less extent but still evident in Kuwait and elsewhere, that have used the sectarianism as a wedge to break apart their citizens. This is a 15-year-old project, maybe 10 years that it’s been most intense. But I think the idea that we need to struggle with is that this hasn’t been a permanent condition. It is the product and consequence of deliberate manipulation on the part of political authorities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. PERIES: All right. We thank you so much for joining us in this segment, and we’re going to take up another segment in terms of the regional implications of all of this. Thank you.


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Toby Jones is a historian of the modern Middle East. His interests are varied. Jones' scholarship focuses primarily on the political intersections between science, technology, the environment, knowledge production, and the state formation, war, and Islamism. Before joining the history department at Rutgers University, Jones taught at Swarthmore College. During the 2008-2009 he was a fellow at Princeton University's Oil, Energy and the Middle East project. From 2004 to early 2006 he worked as the political analyst of the Persian Gulf for the International Crisis Group where he wrote about political reform and sectarianism.