1. AMY GOODMAN: Protests have erupted across the Middle East after Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia religious leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr—along with 46 others—Saturday in the country’s largest mass execution in decades. The Saudi government accused Nimr of calling for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family. He had been arrested multiple times, including in 2012 after he was involved in protests after the Arab Spring uprising. Sheikh Nimr had also called for the secession of Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, where the majority of the Sunni kingdom’s Shia population live. After his execution Saturday, protesters in the Iranian capital Tehran responded by torching part of the Saudi Embassy. On Sunday, Saudi Arabia responded by severing ties with Iran. This is Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
2. ADEL AL-JUBEIR: [translated] The kingdom, in light of these realities, announces the cutting of diplomatic relations with Iran and requests the departure of delegates of diplomatic missions of the embassy and consulate and offices related to it within 48 hours. The ambassador has been summoned to notify them.
[in English] We are determined not to allow
Iran to undermine our security. We are determined not to let Iran mobilize or
create or establish terrorist cells in our country or in the countries of our
3. AMY GOODMAN: Saudi Arabia has recalled its diplomats from Tehran and given Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia. This is Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI:
[translated] Killing a knowledgeable man, who promoted virtue and prevented
vice and had religious zeal, is certainly a crime, a great crime. [skip] It is
also a mistake, because the spilled blood will undoubtedly bring divine
retribution. Saudi politicians, rulers and policymakers should have no doubt
that there will be divine vengeance for this blood. God almighty will not pardon
those who spill the blood of the innocent.
5. AMY GOODMAN: Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr also led to protests in Iraq, Bahrain and several other countries. Bahrain says it, too, is severing diplomatic ties with Iran. Earlier today, two Sunni mosques about 50 miles south of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, were rocked by bomb blasts thought to be retaliation against al-Nimr’s execution.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has called for dialogue. Analysts are watching closely to see how this will impact regional tensions. Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing groups in Syria and Iraq, and are on opposite sides of the conflict in Yemen.
For more, we turn now to Ali al-Ahmed, the founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, one of Saudi Arabia’s youngest political prisoners when he was detained at the age of 14. [Fucking A.]
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ali al-Ahmed. Can you talk about the significance of first what took place on Saturday, one of the largest mass executions in Saudi history, and the significance of Nimr al-Nimr, the sheikh?
6. ALI AL-AHMED:
Yes. Good morning, Amy.
It’s a pleasure.
The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is really an important development, given the fact this is the first time in Saudi history where a Shia religious leader has been executed. Fifty years ago or so, another leader was sentenced to death, but he was not executed because he was abroad. This really creates a division within the country. In the Shia communities around the world, religious leaders are most revered, because they are the leaders of the community. And they are usually chosen by—people choose them as their leaders. It’s almost a democratic process.
So, for the Saudi government to recklessly execute him and others, including protesters, really is a reckless act that will have repercussions for a long time. I think this will start another chapter in the Saudi history, a chapter that I think we will see come to reality in 2016. And it will not end well for the Saudi monarchy. I think we’ve seen that in different areas where governments who targeted Shia religious leaders end up really with a mess on their hand, from Saddam Hussein to Gaddafi to others, who probably underestimated the will and the determination of the Shia communities to bring repercussions to them. [No, the Godfather killed them.] And I believe the Saudi monarchy committed a huge mistake that is not going to work for them in the short and the long term.
7. AMY GOODMAN: You went to a memorial service for the victims of the mass execution. Can you tell us who Nimr al-Nimr, though, is, exactly what he represents, how he expressed his opposition to the Saudi regime?
8. ALI AL-AHMED: You’re absolutely right. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s name—you know, a month or two months ago, nobody knew who Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was. He was a religious leader from a small town in the eastern shore of Arabia. But since his execution, memorial services have been held for him across the United States, across Europe and different parts of the world. Sheikh Nimr
is a friend of mine—was
a friend of mine. I knew him probably 30 years ago. I met him. I met his
family, his father. I visited their home. His brothers, younger brothers, are
friends. So, I knew him.
Sheikh Nimr’s experience with the Saudi government dates back to his grandfather. His grandfather was also a fiery cleric who stood in the face of the Saudi oppression of the Shia minority 50, 60 years ago. So he inherited this zeal and the resolve to object to this oppression.
If you look at his
speeches, he expresses this strong determination and will. His words really are
amazing words. And we will be translating a selection of his words to show you
that when he speaks, really, as a free man, he said, “We either live free on
this land, or we die inside of the Earth.” So—or he says that “We choose not to
be ruled by the al-Saud. We choose to be free”—these words of freedom and
dignity. And you mentioned the secession. He didn’t
call for secession. He said that “Our dignity is more important than the
geographical borders of Saudi Arabia. Our dignity comes supreme.” And
I think that’s correct. The dignity of man, the dignity of a human being, is
much more important than political unions. And his words really shows you he’s
a rare individual.
9. AMY GOODMAN: Ali al-Ahmed, his nephew remains on death row, or threatened with execution, who was, what, 17 when he went out to a protest, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, and also the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh. What will happen with them? They were not part of the 47, is that right, who were executed?
10. ALI AL-AHMED: Yes, yes. The Saudi government now is trying to make these executions—although the majority of the executed people are Sunnis, they are trying to make this, frame this into a Sunni-Shia tension. It’s not. It is really an attempt by the Saudi monarchy to silence their opposition and to label anybody who spoke against them as terrorists.
there is a plan to execute more people. The Saudis spread their executions
across the country to—really, to spread terror in the heart of the population. The
Saudi monarchy fear is that the population will rise against them. And the
best way they think that they can silence this opposition and the aspiration of
the young people in that country for people’s power is to execute people and
to—publicly, by the way—and behead them, so the people will not rise.
11. AMY GOODMAN: Ali al-Ahmed, we’re going to break and then come back, and we’ll also be joined by professor Toby Jones and arms expert Bill Hartung to talk about the U.S. relationship with their very close ally, Saudi Arabia. Stay with us.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others, which could have major repercussions in the region. We’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Ali al-Ahmed, the founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, one of Saudi Arabia’s youngest political prisoners, detained when he was 14. Also joining us from Rutgers College—Rutgers University in New Jersey, Toby Jones, an associate professor of history and director of Middle East studies there. He’s author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia. And here in New York, Bill Hartung is with us, senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor, also director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy; his latest book, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.
I want to bring Toby Jones into this discussion. Talk about the significance of this mass execution, this leading opposition figure in Iran, as well as 46 others, and what it means for the United States, a close ally of the Saudi regime.
12. TOBY JONES:
Good morning, Amy. Thanks.
I’m going to say two things about this, very broadly. One is that reading this through the lens of geopolitics and the regional sort of relationship, Saudi Arabia and Iran, is, of course, critical, and it’s important, especially as relations sour and things tend to fall out. But this was also about domestic politics in Saudi Arabia. Last week, Saudi Arabia announced a new budget, in which it forecast a significant budget shortfall as a result of declining oil revenues. When revenues start to fall like that in Saudi Arabia, there’s pressure on the social welfare state, and Saudi Arabia anticipates that there might be pushback and opposition from within society, as Ali al-Ahmed’s suggested earlier. Killing a Shiite cleric goes a long way in deflecting attention away from political, economic pressures. Sectarianism is at an all-time high, and has been over the last decade or so. And so the Saudis are seeking to capitalize, I believe, symbolically, on the killing of al-Nimr as a way to buy a little bit of time to figure out how to negotiate its way through an economic crisis. And, of course, there’s also the war in Yemen and justifying a continued failing project there. Using sectarianism as a way to achieve goals there is important, too.
With respect to the U.S. relationship and how all of this figures in—and I think the U.S. is probably caught a little bit off guard here. Al-Nimr has been on death row for quite a long time. I don’t think any of us really expected that the Saudis would carry through with this. It raises all kinds of questions about timing: Why now? Why kill al-Nimr alongside a bunch of al-Qaeda terrorists, as well as some of those other young Shiite men who were executed on Saturday, as well? So the U.S. is caught off guard. It’s called for calm. It’s called for dialogue. These are odd expressions and demands from the United States. I mean, the U.S. knows that the Saudis are not interested in dialogue with Iran. Saudi Arabia sees itself as in a tense and fraught relationship with its neighbors across the Gulf. And the U.S. also understands very well that it’s precisely crisis and it’s escalation of tension between Tehran and Riyadh that plays into Saudi Arabia’s ways that they talk about insecurity, their regional phobias and fears. They frame everything around escalating series of crises. The U.S. understands this very well. I mean, the Saudis are masters at manipulating that kind of language in order to keep the Americans in a certain geostrategic position. But, to be clear, it’s also a position that I think the United States is happy to play.
13. AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, if you can talk about the U.S.-Saudi arms relationship? I mean, hasn’t, in the last year, the U.S. been involved with the largest arms sales in their history, this to the Saudi regime?
14. WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, throughout the Obama administration, we’ve seen $50 billion in new arms sales agreements with the Saudis, which is a record for any kind of period like that.
they’re all in behind the Saudi military. They’re providing logistical support,
for the war in Yemen, U.S. companies training the Saudi National Guard, which
is their internal security force. We’ve trained 10,000 Saudi military
personnel in the last 10 years—five years, rather. So, you know, my belief
is if the Obama administration wants to show displeasure with this execution,
try to bring an end to the war in Yemen and so forth, there’s got to be a
distancing from Saudi Arabia, beginning with cutting off some of these arms
15. AMY GOODMAN: Aren’t U.S. weapons manufacturers in their heyday right now, making record profits?
16. WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, and this is a huge boon to them, the Saudi market. They just announced a major combat ship sale, which will benefit Lockheed Martin. Boeing fighter planes are in the mix, Boeing helicopters. General Dynamics is keeping a whole tank line open through sales to Saudi Arabia.
both a dependency on the U.S. arms industry on Saudi sales and also huge
financial benefits keeping this—you know, this gravy train running for them.
17. AMY GOODMAN: And how Saudi Arabia is using these weapons in Yemen?
18. WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, there’s been a humanitarian catastrophe of the highest order there.
been bombing markets, hospitals, refugee camps—more than 2,000 civilian
casualties, most of them from the Saudi bombing. Basically, the Saudis, many
believe, are engaging in war crimes in Yemen. And the U.S. logistical and arms
support is facilitating that.
19. AMY GOODMAN: Ali al-Ahmed, what could the U.S. do? And what—how do you assess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia?
20. ALI AL-AHMED: This is a complex relationship that really is led and dominated by the Saudi ability to buy silence and support.
you look at the reaction of presidential candidates, for example, you don’t see
any of them speaking out against these executions. It’s
odd that, for example, Mr. Ben Carson would say that the Saudi government is an
ally of us and we should support it, at the same time that the Saudi monarchy
prevents black people from becoming diplomats or judges because they view
blacks as slaves. So, really, here you see a contradiction of the—what
we know as American values, is that the Saudis have been able to buy their way
by giving money to a lot of politicians, to their foundations, like the Clinton
Foundation, the Carter foundation, and shaping their opinion. And,
unfortunately, because in America politics works on money, the Saudi monarchy
has really broken that code and understood how to use it.
The United States can do a few things, really, right now. They can first, for example, stop the U.S. taxpayers spending money on protecting the Saudi monarchy and Gulf monarchies. Professor Roger Stern of Princeton has a study that says that the United States has been spending over $200 billion a year in military expenditure in the Gulf. That is the largest military expenditure abroad. It is to—the effect is—the default effect is, it’s protecting these monarchies. The U.S. should not be spending that money. The monarchies can spend their own money defending themselves.
Secondly is, for example, I would urge the U.S. government to intervene to ensure that the Saudi monarchy will return the body of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to his family, because they refused to do so after the execution. I think that would be a great example of how the U.S. can use its power to bring some healing to this process, because the Middle East might implode, Saudi Arabia itself might implode, because of this. So, I think they should take some, you know, serious steps.
And I really met with the State Department over the past few weeks, and I told them—and I wrote an article about it—says, “You must take steps now. Don’t wait until the executions take place,” because we knew that these executions were happening. It’s important to prevent any ignition in the region before it happened. But unfortunately—
21. AMY GOODMAN: And do you feel that the State Department took your advice?
22. ALI AL-AHMED: No, they didn’t. They didn’t. I mean, this—
23. AMY GOODMAN: So, Toby Jones, we have 30 seconds. Why is the U.S. not being more vocal in its criticism of Saudi Arabia?
24. TOBY JONES: Well, the U.S. is stuck. I mean, aside from questions of profit, the U.S. is also beholden—you know, and it’s partly the product of its own making. I mean, this is a generational commitment to Saudi Arabia, in which for over three decades we’ve committed ourselves. Now, whether this is true or not, we’ve committed ourselves to protecting the flow of energy out of the Persian Gulf. It’s the largest producer of oil on the planet in this one area. And the United States has tied its military fortunes, in many ways the pocketbooks of its gunmakers, as well as the Pentagon, to what comes in and goes out of the Persian Gulf. If you think about it critically, that’s what needs to change, but it’s also the hardest thing to re-engineer, this breaking away not only from oil dependency, but also from the massive financial and military investment that the U.S. has made in the region.
25. AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have—
26. TOBY JONES: But the bottom line is, it’s not stabilizing. It’s destabilizing.
27. AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Rutgers University professor Toby Jones, arms expert Bill Hartung and Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, thanks for joining us.
When we come back, an exclusive extended interview with the jailed American activist, just recently back from Peru after 20 years, Lori Berenson.