When is the behavior of an ally so inappropriate that we should no longer consider them an ally? A lot of people are considering this question after Saudi Arabia recently executed 47 people. Of course, Saudi Arabia is not the only nation still using the death penalty. But their justice system is anything but just. Many of the people executed were outspoken against the Saudi government, including Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. According to Ben Hubbard, writing for The New York Times, Nimr "served as a spiritual leader for protesters from the kingdom's Shiite minority."
Both the United Nations and the European Union expressed their unhappiness with the Saudi government's execution of Sheikh Nimr and the other men after what the United Nations called "trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process." The European Union also cited the lack of "freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights" in Saudi Arabia.
The timing of the executions was interesting. As if there isn't enough tension and violence in the Middle East right now, the Saudi government threw gasoline on the fire by executing Nimr. This made a poor relationship between Saudi Arabia, with a majority Sunni population, and Iran, with a majority Shiite population, worse.
It is important that Saudi Arabia and Iran work together if peace agreements in Syria and Yemen are to be reached. The two nations support opposite sides of these civil wars and talks on peace agreements have been difficult to start. After the executions, the response by Iranian protesters against the Saudi embassy in Tehran lead to a cut in diplomatic ties between the two nations and a closing of embassies. Now, getting the two nations to reach an agreement is now more difficult than ever.
Michael Stephens, a foreign policy analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, stated that "the tensions between the two sides are going to mean that instability across the region will continue." And this may be exactly what Saudi Arabia was aiming for.
Some believe that the Saudi government was trying to distract their population from a dismal economy due to low oil prices. Also, the Saudi government is upset about the nuclear deal with Iran which will mean more oil flooding the world markets. Anything the Saudi government can do to diminish Iran's ability to sell oil benefits the Saudi monarchy.
The Obama administration stated that the men were executed with "an apparent absence of due process." Secretary of State John Kerry's work to bring the Iranian and Saudi governments to the same table for peace talks in Geneva on Jan. 25 is now in question. Some wonder if the Saudi government used these executions as a way to incite violence in Iran, thus giving them a reason to break off diplomatic relations and terminate the peace talks.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, a nation of 30 million people, established full diplomatic relations with each other in 1933. We have been allies in the fight against Communism, in getting the Russians out of Afghanistan, and in liberating Kuwait from Iraq. But Saudi Arabia was, to their credit, opposed to our invasion of Iraq in 2003, and opposed the Iranian nuclear deal with the U.S. for reasons outlined above.
The Saudi government is an absolute monarchy allowing few rights for women and other minorities.
So why do we continue to support the Saudi government and send them about $1.5 billion in aid and military assistance each year? Their influence on the world oil market, however, has kept them close to the U.S. In addition, their government, regardless of what you think of their human rights record, is one of the few stable governments in the Middle East.
Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is a professor and coordinator of the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at email@example.com.