Over the past weekend, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including a prominent Shia cleric that had spoken out against the regime. The Saudi regime has claimed that the cleric was engaged in terrorism, but the general understanding is that his actions were not political and not violent in nature. International human rights groups quickly condemned the executions, and the action sparked outrage throughout the Shia world.
Although it seems relatively clear that Saudi Arabia was in the wrong, it was unclear how Western countries would respond. Saudi Arabia is a major ally of the US, and the ongoing war against Yemen strongly suggests at least the Americans are happy to give them a free pass on other human rights violations. Additionally, this event significantly inflamed tensions with Iran, which has a majority Shia population. Indeed, Tehran experienced violent public protests that ultimately resulted in vandalism and occupation of the Saudi embassy. In response, the Saudis cut off diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran.
Thus, if America condemned Saudi Arabia for these executions, we would appear to be on the same side as Iran, which is something our politicians try to avoid doing whenever possible. But if we failed to do so, this would be an uncomfortably visible form of hypocrisy on the question of human rights. In short, the choice for the US was an awkward one. Defend the Saudi execution of an apparently peaceful political figure to try to preserve the status quo, or condemn the Saudis, inadvertently agreeing with Iran, and call attention to the human rights violations of a country that we are actively arming at this moment.
As it happens, the US has essentially tried to stay on the fence–neither strongly condemning or defending Saudi Arabia. This is unfortunate, but it also fits with our usually mild response to the transgressions of our allies.
On the bright side, however, there are increasing indications that some leading nations in Europe are charting a different course–against Saudi Arabia. This is a positive development. If the Europeans are growing more sympathetic to Iran and less so to Saudi Arabia, it makes all of the following more likely:
- Increased recognition and scrutiny of Saudi’s war against Yemen
- Increased criticism of Saudi Arabia (and/or its citizens’) funding of terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria
- More international resistance if the US tries to delay lifting sanctions or reimpose sanctions on Iran without a legitimate reason.