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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. We’re speaking with Toby C. Jones. He’s got an op-ed in the New York Times today called Saudi Arabia’s Dangerous Sectarian Game. In segment one we talked about the domestic implications–and of course when you’re talking about the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia you cannot exclude the external forces at play there–but in this segment we’re going to be dealing with the regional relationships, including that of Iran. So let me begin, Toby, by asking you, this particular execution of 47 people, including the cleric, what are the implications it has in the region? JONES: Well, the most obvious implication is that Saudi Arabia has provoked a crisis with Iran. I think deliberately so. And sent a message that it, you know, it sees the situation with respect to the demands for political reforms, the persistence of Shiite demands for political rights and opportunity in places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as significant enough that it, you know, it sort of, it sort of is willing to risk geopolitical conflict and unrest across the Gulf by poking at Iran as a way to, as a way to try to get a handle on this. PERIES: And the rise to sectarianism in the region, how does it divide up in the region? JONES: Well, look. Sectarianism is, you know, as we’ve discussed previously, is often something that’s seen as a kind of timeless facet or element of the Islamic world, that Muslims, you know, following the 7th century split have been divided against one another. It is the case that there has been sectarian violence in places like Pakistan, India, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and now Saudi Arabia and Bahrain for the better part of a decade. We’ve seen the intensification of these kind–what are really just sort of pathological hatreds. They, they certainly are inflamed. But they’re relatively new. They are the consequence of the rise of modern nation-states, the way modern nation-states and very small groups of political elites who have sought to secure power and buffet themselves from domestic pressures have managed internal tensions. And in places like Saudi Arabia in particular, Pakistan too, but, but also elsewhere, that have either formally or informally used Islam as a kind of way to make the case for regime legitimacy. And calling out religious minorities, calling out ethnic groups that don’t fit is an easy way to rally and to build up support. And so we’ve seen this happen in Saudi Arabia most explicitly, and it’s certainly on display with the execution of Nimr. What the Saudis can’t control, of course, is the way that these ideas, stoking anti-Shiism as a way to manage domestic affairs, the way it spills into the region. And that I think is something that’s especially frightening [inaud.]. PERIES: Now, this of course triggers and widens the ongoing relationship between Riyadh and Tehran. Going forward you predict this is only going to get worse. In the article in the New York Times you said, you know, this is going to be ongoing. And what can we expect here? JONES: Well I didn’t mean, and I want to be clear that I’m not predicting the escalation of, of hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia such that, that I think war is inevitable. In fact, I think it’s probably unlikely. I don’t think the Saudis desire a military conflict with Iran. They can’t win it. It’s not something that they’re prepared to handle, and I don’t think the Americans are prepared to to go to war with–to go to war with Iran over Saudi Arabia’s interests and anxieties. What I meant were a couple of things. And I think one of them is, is underway. In the days leading up to the execution of al-Nimr, Saudi Arabia walked away from an attempt to–from a ceasefire from Houthi rebels in Yemen and resumed their military campaign there. The war in Yemen that the Saudis are leading has been devastating. But it’s also been framed primarily in sectarian terms. They’ve claimed Iran has been involved, and it’s been backing this group of rebels out of Yemen’s northern mountains. It’s not true. But the Saudis have gotten a lot of traction out of this. So the Saudis resume their military campaign in Yemen, and I think the execution of al-Nimr and the timing of it in particular has, is related to that directly. But I think there are other things that are, that are dangerous and need to be reckoned with. And that is that ISIS, Daesh, fighting in Syria also uses sectarianism and anti-Shiism, as well as anti-Christian sentiment. They’re, they target other, other Muslims as well as a way to justify their own campaign, and to think about the caliphate that they’d like to build. Tensions in Iraq will be further inflamed as a consequence of this as well. And so I think the Saudis know this very well, that it puts tremendous amount of pressure under groups that are not inclined to violence in those places, because it empowers militants and extremists, that the Saudis have set this up as a credible political path forward from the view of those kinds of groups. This is important, because even though the Saudis may not directly support ISIS, and they don’t, the Saudis are not, they’re not the benefactors of the Islamic State. ISIS will nevertheless draw some support from all this. PERIES: But this type of execution, particularly of the cleric, is sort of signaling to organizations like ISIS that Saudis are capable of doing this sort of thing. And, and add to that sort of what’s happening in Yemen and what’s happening in Syria, do you think this will embolden ISIS in any way, in these two countries? JONES: I don’t think–so, I think it will be indirect. I don’t think it–I mean, I don’t think ISIS needs any emboldening. I mean, I think they are pretty clearly committed to, to whatever it is they think they’re committed to. What I think–what it doesn’t do is it doesn’t send a signal to the region that the Saudis are serious about countering ISIS on ideological grounds. And the Saudis are fundamentally necessary. For the civil war in Syria to come to an end, the Saudis have to be a negotiating partner. They have to be willing to talk to Iran, which is also an important player. If Syria’s going to enjoy a ceasefire, if Assad is going to be maneuvered from power, or if some other compromise is going to be arrived at, both the Saudis and the Iranians are–they have to be involved. And in provoking this particular fight, and in framing it in a certain way, or at least implicitly, the Saudis have made clear that they’re more interested in sustaining or continuing with Iraq relations than they are in resolving them in order to bring security or stability to other parts of the region. PERIES: All right. Toby, this has really opened up a can of worms, this particular act by the Saudis. And I hope to have you back again for some ongoing analysis of the unfolding situation. JONES: Thank you, Sharmini. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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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.