How EU might have neutral role in easing old enmities
Published 09/01/2016 | 02:30
The clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the execution of a Saudi cleric of Shia Muslim faith, Nimr al-Nimr, and the occupation of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in retaliation for that, is deeply worrying for many reasons.
The two countries are supporting opposite sides in the Syrian Civil War, and the participation of both countries would be vital to any chance of the brokering of a truce in that long-running and deeply destructive war.
If the two states now have no diplomatic relations with one another, it is hard to see how they can contribute to the talks in Vienna aimed at ending the war. That is tragic.
The two countries are also supporting opposite sides in another civil war, in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, which can least afford a regional power struggle being staged on its territory.
Many of the people executed in Saudi Arabia were on death row for a long time. The Shia cleric was condemned to death in 2014, so the timing of his and the other executions on the one day is significant. It may have been designed for domestic Saudi opinion, to send a message internationally, or both.
Some have suggested that the Saudis are raising the temperature in the region because they are worried about the Iran nuclear deal, and the fact that this may end Iran's economic isolation, which might change the balance of power in the region. Iran has the much bigger population, and greater unrealised economic potential.
Also executed on the same day as the Shia cleric, were a number of Sunni opponents of the Saudi government, who have been on death row for some time too. A sort of sectarian balance of pain may have been sought by the Saudi authorities, by having all the executions at the same time.
Given the chronic underdevelopment of the entire region, and the high levels of unemployment, the diversion of scarce resources to proxy wars is not in the interest of the people of the region.
Low oil prices are reducing the revenues of both countries, and one would think they could both ill afford the support they are giving to opposite sides in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. Oil provides more than 70pc of Saudi government revenues, the country has a budget deficit, and is already having to cut back on subsidies to its own people.
If the increased friction between the two states prolongs, or intensifies, the Syrian Civil War, this will add to the refugee flow to Europe and to the suffering and the political instability flowing from that.
It will export to Europe the sectarian tensions now dividing the Middle East. But it is interesting to note that, in Athens last week, Shia and Sunni refugees demonstrated together against the Saudi executions, which, of course, affected both communities.
Europe has an obligation to take refugees, but so also have all the other countries of the world. So far there is little sign of help coming from any continent other than Europe.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia practise the death penalty on a wide scale, which emphasises the large gap in values between both of them and the European Union, where the death penalty is banned.
European countries have strong common interests and values, but they are having increasing difficulty in giving effect to these values in a coordinated way.
Europe should avoid taking sides and instead seek to provide a neutral contact point between the two sides.
Europe's overwhelming interest is in de-escalating the Saudi-Iranian conflict as quickly as possible.