The latest executions in Saudi Arabia should make it very clear that the Western powers' "war on terror" has nothing to do with opposition to chopping off heads and sectarian religious fanaticism. Instead of condemning this crime, the US, UK and other Western powers have continued to give the Saudi regime, if not their public political blessing, at least their practical backing – in the name of the necessary alliances they claim flow from that "war on terror".
These crimes were part of the beleaguered Saudi royal family's efforts to defend its rule by wielding state violence and religious authority, both represented by the executioner's sword. The most prominent of those put to death was Nimr al-Nimir, a leading Shia cleric tried in secret and convicted of supporting the protest movement that swept the Shia population in eastern Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Bahrain in 2011, especially among youth influenced by the Arab Spring. Several people accused of participating in political rallies at that time, arrested when they were young teenagers, are set to be executed next.
Nimir's execution, along with that of several other Shias, was a heinous response to legitimate protests against discrimination in employment, education and other fields – proof, if any is needed, that the Saudi regime, rather than moving away from religious fanaticism under the year-old reign of King Salman and his princes, is escalating its use of religiously-justified murder against any political challenge.
Even more, it was a deliberate provocation against Shia political forces internationally, especially the Iranian regime, very likely with the hope of forcing the Iranian ruling clergy – themselves notorious for mass executions – to react in such a way as to complicate the endeavours of those within the Iranian regime seeking agreements with the US and those in the American ruling class who believe that US interests now require such agreements.
It was also meant to put an end to challenges to the legitimacy of the House of Saud coming from Al Qaeda, Daesh and the like, inside as well as outside the kingdom and even among the myriad members of the royal family, seizing the role of leader of all Sunni believers with overtones of a religious showdown.
The executions were a barbaric act but not a deranged one – they served very clear political goals, the same goals behind the Saudi-led war on Yemen and Saudi efforts to confront the Assad regime and its Iranian backers on religious grounds and contend with Daesh sharia by imposing Saudi sharia. These are goals which, in some aspects, converge with thinking among the Western powers about how to shape the chaos in the Middle East to their advantage.
The difference with Daesh is not that the Saudi regime is more "moderate" or in any way less cruel. The monarchy's relationship with the US is complex and potentially volatile – the US has played both sides of the Sunni/Shia divide, including working with the Iranian Shia fundamentalist regime in some places at some times. But the fact is that the US and its allies would not have been able to dominate the Middle East without their alliance with Saudi Arabia, as fraught as that alliance might be for both sides right now.
That's why US President Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande have kept silent in the face of these executions. At first deputies were deployed to click their tongues about the general atmosphere of "sectarian tensions in the region", as if Western intervention itself were not the biggest factor churning the voracious whirlpool of religious conflict in the Middle East. As shock waves mounted, their governments expressed concern solely about the possible political inconveniences arising from the killing and not the injustice of it.
The 4 January editorial in the UK Independent could not have been more explicit: while distancing itself from the Tory Party's shameless enthusiasm for the Saudi regime – noting that PM Cameron recently supported the successful Saudi bid for the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Council – the newspaper concluded that "it is not in our interest to see, let alone provoke, the fall of the House of Saud." This is also, of course, the policy followed by Obama, who a year ago proclaimed "the importance of the US-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond."
The Western imperialists have always known what the Saudi regime is like. It has always practised decapitating alleged apostates (accused of abandoning Islam) – the young Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh is still scheduled to be executed for this "crime". Many of the 153 people executed in 2015 and the total of at least 2,200 people over the last three decades were migrant workers from South Asia and elsewhere, who have constructed the Gulf region's palaces, palatial shopping malls, museums, sports stadiums and other architectural marvels in virtual bondage enforced by the sword.
The Saudi rulers are beholden for their swords, in the broadest sense, to the Western powers. In November, not long before the executions and long after the Saudi government announced its plans to carry them out, Obama's State Department approved a Saudi request to buy $1.29 billion worth of bombs and missiles. The State Department Website gives a chilling itemization of the purchases, the kinds of munitions that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have been raining down on the Yemeni people in a war that has killed at least 5,700 people, half of them civilians, since the air and land invasion began in March 2015. This war of aggression against a country Saudi Arabia has traditionally considered its rightful "back yard" could not be carried out without the logistical support, air refuelling and targeting teams provided by the US – this latter aspect making Washington directly responsible for the bombing of schools and hospitals.
Although the factors are complex, this war, like the executions, is being carried out in the name of the Saudi royal family's religious authority against Shia and other disbelievers. (The Houthi rebels in Yemen, whose Zaydi religious banner makes their faith a cousin of Shiaism, are backed by Iran – which is far from the main factor in the rebellion by Houthis and others against the Saudi-backed regime.) This is another example of how the Saudis are seeking to escalate the religious dimension of the region's conflicts – with concrete US support.
Obama personally came to meet with King Salman after his enthroning a year ago, and his reign has been hailed as inaugurating an era of reform by Westerners like the leading American liberal commentator Thomas Friedman (New York Times, 25 November 2015 – written at a time when these executions were already set to take place). The main "reform" so far has been holding elections for insignificant municipal bodies, and allowing women to vote in them, although not to drive to the polling places or anywhere else, or make any decisions without the permission of their male guardian. Over the last year the Saudi regime has stepped up its executions, in some cases crucifying the decapitated victims and leaving their body to rot on public display.
Members of the royal family (which, thanks to polygamy, numbers in the thousands) and high-ranking members of the regime itself have supported Al-Qaeda, and the regime met Al-Qaeda's sharpest criticism of it, the stationing of US troops in Moslem holy lands, with the transfer of those troops to bases elsewhere in the Gulf. In Syria, Saudi Arabia has armed and financed a shifting constellation of Islamist fundamentalist alliances. As for Daesh, which shares the Salafi (fundamentalist) ideology that legitimises the rule of the House of Saud and similarly centres its system of oppressive relations on the extreme oppression of women, the group's name change from ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Levant) to the Islamic State signalled a direct threat to the Saudi regime's claim to hold authority over the world's Sunni Muslims.
The Saudi absolute monarchy calls for obedience as the earthly "protector of the Ummah" (the so-called community of believers) and not on the basis of direct religious rule like Daesh's caliphate, run by a self-proclaimed descendent of Mohammed. This distinction is both a danger to the Saud dynasty's existence, and at the same time not much of a difference at all, especially insofar as the Saudi's respond to Daesh's particular signature, its determination to exterminate Shias as apostates worse than infidels, by putting itself forward as the greatest Shia slayers of all.
The Western imperialist powers knew very well what they were getting in their relationship with the Saudi monarchy. Britain helped establish the monarchy in 1932, after encouraging the rise of Wahhabism (the specific form of Salafism associated with Arabian tribal authorities) in its campaign to absorb the Ottoman empire into its own. In a 1945 treaty signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the US promised to keep the Saudi monarchy in power, a pact renewed by George W. Bush in 2005. Although the US grabbed the country away from Britain, as part of replacing British domination of the Middle East, the UK continues to maintain close financial and military ties with Saudi Arabia. France, under the Socialist president Hollande, is now also forging new political and military links with the regime.
Yet Saudi Arabia's association with imperialism has deeply transformed the country and its ruling class. Like other Gulf states, it has become a major site of capital accumulation in its own right within the globalised capitalist economy dominated by the Western imperialist powers. This has happened both through the exploitation in the Gulf of labourers from the Moslem world and far beyond, on the one hand, and on the other the investment of Saudi and other Gulf capital in much bigger countries like Egypt, whose economy, politics and religious life are conditioned by this relationship.
In many ways, such as political influence and subsidies to regimes like Pakistan, the religious inculcation of the millions of Arabs brought to work in the Gulf and the sponsorship of enormous religious and "charitable" institutions and hundreds of TV preachers and media outlets, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies are the main vectors bringing modern Salafism to the Sunni Moslem world, even as all of these countries are connected ever more tightly to the international market and the global capitalist system, with all its inevitable rivalries among ruling classes that can only accumulate capital in deadly competition with one another.
It is true, as Obama said, that "the US-Saudi relationship" has been invaluable to the US and the West as a "force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond". But at the same time that relationship has played a major role in creating the conditions for today's instability in the region, where the US's continued domination is not secure at all. High stakes require desperate measures.
A great many people, especially in the Middle East, whose people are by far the main targets and victims of Daesh and all forms of Islamic fundamentalism, think that the US deliberately created Daesh and the rest. That's not literally true. Although Washington, London and Tel Aviv encouraged Islamism in opposition to more radical trends in the region, and although the workings of the imperialist system created the conditions from which Islamists arose, today various forms of Islamic fundamentalism are an intractable problem for the US and other Western imperialists. Yet the reality underlying the "war on terror" is not a neat line-up of two sides. Instead, rival imperialists and regional powers are moving to advance their own reactionary interests in collusion and collision with one another on a very complex battleground. At the same time, in a general way, all the contending monsters are feeding religious fundamentalism of every sort, both intentionally and as a by-product of their political and military manoeuvring and the backward economic and social relations they represent.
Imperialist capital now represented by people like Obama and his fellow "Western leaders" needs the rule of people like Saudi King Salman and his murdering princes, who call on ancient ideologies and social systems but would be powerless without modern imperialism. The US and its partners and rivals can't stop making Islamic and other religious fundamentalisms an increasingly major feature of the twenty-first century. The "war on terror" is a fraud – it is a contest over who can impose their interests and the most terror.