Today the Economist published an interview with Muhammad bin Sulman, Saudi’s deputy Crown Prince. Although a lot of the interview focused on the Saudi economy, or the future, there was some discussion on the recent escalations of regional tension. I just wish to provide a few notes of incredulity on the following sections of the interview.
The Economist: Let’s focus first on the recent executions. Why did they take place now, so many years after the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia? And why did you include a prominent shia cleric?
Muhammad bin Salman: First of all, these were sentenced in a court of law with charges related to terrorism and they went through three layers of judicial proceedings. They had the right to hire an attorney and they had attorneys present throughout each layer of the proceedings. The court doors were also open for any media people and journalists, and all the proceedings and the judicial texts were made public. And the court did not, at all, make any distinction between whether or not a person is Shi’ite or Sunni. They are reviewing a crime, and a procedure, and a trial, and a sentence, and carrying out the sentence.
Firstly, Muhammad bin Sulman does not answer the question. He does not mention why all executions took place at once, a move that one should studiously avoid if you don’t want people to call executions ‘mass killings’. He does not even mention the ‘backlog’ in executions that has been referred to before (On a related note, if anything should not be referred to as a backlog, it’s killing human beings). He also mentions that the the doors were open for the media people and journalists. I am not sure who he is referring to, but I doubt it is Saudi’s famed independent and liberal media (Hint: they don’t exist). The ‘three layers of judicial proceedings’ is about as meaningful as the seven circles of hell in a country with an incredibly draconian legal system. Amnesty International added that the “appalling” trial was “deeply flawed”, calling for the sentence to be quashed. There is absolutely no way that the decision to execute Al-Nimr did not reach the upper echelons of Saudi government.
But these executions have provoked violent reactions in Iran. Your embassy was attacked, you’ve broken off diplomatic relations, as have Bahrain and Sudan. What will be the consequence of this escalation of regional tensions?
We view them as a strange thing, that there are demonstrations against Saudi Arabia in Iran. What is the relationship between a Saudi citizen who committed a crime in Saudi Arabia, and a decision made by a Saudi court. What has this to do with Iran? If this proves anything it proves that Iran is keen on extending its influence over the countries of the region
Muhammad bin Sulman feigns ignorance at the Iranian reaction; ‘We view them as a strange thing’. No, you do not. No astute political leader will be surprised at the Iranian reaction, or the reaction of Shia across the world. It is absurd to think that killing a reputable and venerated religious figure for spurious reasons is not going to create a reaction. If Muhammad bin Sulman is genuinely surprised, then Saudi is clearly in the hands of people with no political radar. Indeed, Muhammad bin Sulman attempts to turn the Iranian reaction as evidence of Iran extending its influence in the region. If you discriminate against the Shia like Saudi and Bahrain do, there is little surprise that Shia everywhere will feel be particularly aggrieved by killing one of their co-religionists.
As for the sentence, ‘What is the relationship between a Saudi citizen who committed a crime in Saudi Arabia, and a decision made by a Saudi court’ – this is blatantly facetious. I wonder if Muhammad bin Sulman will say this to the EU and the US, who are pressuring for a reprieve in the case of Ali Al-Nimr. Indeed, Saudi’s legal system, and its courts, are the understandable object of scrutiny by Human Rights NGOs. Although bin Sulman’s shows feigned disbelief at the very premise of international diplomacy, Saudi have historically intervened in Bahrain to encourage death sentences. Also, how can Saudi show such awareness of militias threatening their borders but be oblivious to the impact of killing Al-Nimr?
Did you not unfairly escalate tensions by breaking off diplomatic relations?
On the contrary, we fear that they will be further escalated. Imagine if any Saudi diplomat, or one of their families or children are attacked in Iran. Iran’s position then will be much more difficult. So we prevented Iran from having to undergo such an embarrassment. The Saudi mission was set ablaze and the Iranian government is watching. If a child, or a diplomat, or their families are attacked, what could happen? Then we will have the real conflict and the real escalation.
Amazingly, Muhammad bin Sulman claims to be doing Iran a favour here. By cutting of diplomatic relations they are avoiding ‘the real conflict and the real escalation’. Apparently, uptil now, the escalation has not been real. Because when Saudi do stuff, it’s kosher. As for Bahrain and Sudan cutting off their relations, I presume Saudi will condemn their behaviour as no Saudi diplomat or their family was in immediate danger. In this case, it’s Bahrain, Sudan, and the UAE (kind of) who are to blame. Bloody satellite states – alway escalating.
Do you consider Iran to be your biggest enemy?
We hope not.
A simple yes or no would have been clearer…