A lot has happened in the last few days around the Middle East, all of which news points toward more turmoil in the region and increases risks of turmoil in the oil market.
If you are really interested, follow along with me as I tried to sort things out. Keep in mind I’m blogging as a way to sort out for myself what is happening around me. So here goes…
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people who had been convicted for various charges. One of them was a very visible Shiite cleric. I think the death sentences have been in place for some time so there was no outwardly visible reason why those sentences were carried out over the weekend. That particular cleric has been under sentence since 2014.
Protests quickly broke out in Iran. The Saudi Embassy in Tehran was attacked and part of it set on fire. I didn’t quite understand from press coverage whether the protesters actually got into the building or how much of the building was damaged by fire. One photo shows one fire burning in one part of the building but does not give a larger context.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations in retaliation. Their diplomats were withdrawn from Iran and Iranian diplomats were given 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia. Typically, cutting off diplomatic relations is a prelude to open war. The article linked in this paragraph suggests the executions were carried out for several different domestic reasons.
The fighting in Yemen is generally considered to be a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. On one side is Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. On the other side are the Houthi rebels who are trying to take over the country and did take over the capital last fall. The Houthi group are Shiite Muslims and from press reports I’ve read they are backed by Iran. The Saudis have been attacking the rebels for quite a few months.
Other coverage of the tension
Lots of articles and editorials are pointing out risks of instability in the region have gone up based what happened this weekend.
Don Surber speculates House of Saud about to collapse. He points out, as everyone already knows, this is lining up exactly as a Sunni and Shia split. Bahrain, Sudan, and United Arab Emirates are taking Saudi Arabia’s side.
Article asserts Iran is supporting dissidents in Saudi Arabia is an effort to undercut that government. Article says control over the Holy Sites is one of several points of contention.
Article speculates the risk of actual shooting war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has increased. Also speculates the risk of a civil war inside Saudi Arabia is going up.
One comment I read somewhere (didn’t keep a link) pointed out that authoritarian and totalitarian governments appear stable and solid until they suddenly collapse, apparently overnight.
The Wall Street Journal discusses the risks and players in an editorial, Who Lost the Saudis? Editorial says the protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. That means they did get inside and then trashed the place.
In terms of divisions, the editorial points out the Saudis are backing some of the players fighting the Syrian government. Russia and Iran are aligned with Assad. Editorial asserts both Russia and Iran have motivation to topple the Saudi government.
Low oil prices worldwide are considered to be caused by Saudi Arabia keeping their production wide open. Those low prices are hurting Russia significantly, which needs $100 a barrel price to balance the national budget. Those low prices will severely damage Iran when they finally get to sell oil on the market openly as a part of the US-Iran nuclear deal. It would be quite reasonable for Russia and Iran to blame Saudi Arabia for their financial distress.
Editorial dives into the geopolitics of the region, which is beyond what I discuss on this blog.
A side article at the Wall Street Journal describes 5 Differences Between Sunnis and Shiites.
As an extremely quick, overly condensed summary of the differences discussed in the article are:
- Questions of hereditary succession
- Reverence of Imam Ali and his family
- The Sunni majority (90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunni)
- Styles of prayer
Add to that list the issue of control over the two major Holy sites.
I am a Christian. That means I don’t understand those points of difference.
However, when I look at them I can appreciate those are really big deals. Any one of those items, other than the relative number of people following each of the traditions, would be extremely important for a follower of Islam.
There are divisions in the Christian world that exist for reasons that would appear to an outsider to be of less significance than the items on that list. Yet those divisions in Christian traditions are really big deals. So I can understand why those issues are points of division in the Muslim religion.
Because it fits so well, I will repeat a quote mentioned yesterday from The Million Dollar Way – Retrenchment, Recession, Revolution? Here are the challenges for Saudi Arabia as listed in that article:
Saudi is in the fight of its life:
- ISIS has declared war on Saudi
- huge domestic demand for energy
- domestic subsidies being cut; the poor have been given no leniency
- oil fields probably in trouble
- US now allows direct competition with Saudi Arabia
- Russia’s involvement in the Mideast adds another concern
- burning through cash just when it needs more money for fighting a shooting war
- desalinization plants huge consumers of energy