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The Middle East is on the brink of a major Sunni-Shia conflict, and only Russia (and China) seems to have a clear and coherent political direction.

 

Saudi Arabia is probably the most important local player, and the only Arab country in the G20. Since King Abdullah passed away a year ago, however, the House of Saud seems to have lost its political compass. King Salman is 80 of age and sometimes rumoured to be in poor health. The Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Nayef, former Minister of Interior, is seen as a hard-liner. His deputy, Mohammad bin Salman, is just 30 years old and his lack of experience can be seen in the direction of the war in Yemen, which he is leading as Minister of Defence. A prominent role is also played by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, a professional diplomat with important connections in the US establishment.

 

Riyadh’s power fragmentation seems then to play into the hands of the radical Wahhabi religious authorities, who still wield enormous power. Saudi’s 47 executions on 2 January (including that of the Shia cleric, Al-Nimr) have reminded many of ISIS’s beheadings. What is the political meaning, if any, of such tremendous bloodshed? If the key explanation is radicalism, what is then the difference with ISIS? Why doesn’t the West strongly intervene and condemn what happened? Britain’s PM David Cameron condemned the executions late and in a rather ‘diplomatic’ way (see http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/conservative-prime-minister-david-cameron-condemns-saudi-arabia-mass-killing-47-prisoners-1537064), and nobody, especially in Europe, seems to be ready and willing to criticise OPEC’s leading country.

 

To be frank, Saudi economic policy looks flawed as well. Although Riyadh has vast oil and foreign currency reserves, the current price levels ($ 30 per barrel and potentially less) are too low also for the House of Saud, and the state budget deficit in 2015 reached $ 98 Billion, about 15% of the country’s GDP. How long can Riyadh’s autocracy resist with these figures? The question is legitimate also because Saudi foreign policy is clearly overstretched, with massive use of economic, military and human resources in Syria, Libya, and of course Yemen. Saudi Arabia is trying to hegemonise the region but honestly cannot do it under the name of Wahhabism in the 21st century.

 

Of course not all problems are on the Saudi side. At the moment Iran remains not fully reliable, and its leaders oscillate between more moderate (Rouhani) and radical (the Ayatollah) positions. Iran was lost by the West during the Shah’s brutal autocracy and has never fully recovered. No surprise that Tehran is likely still funding radical groups such as Hezbollah. This is a great shame, also in the light of Iran’s significant economic and political potential.

 

The West should reflect on its many mistakes. The USA keeps staying away, but for how long will this ‘isolation’ be possible? Interestingly, countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are now pursuing their own policies, which are often in contrast with Washington’s. The US was not particularly enthusiastic about Saudi intervention in Yemen, but it kept half-heartedly supporting it. As to Turkey, Erdoğan’s irresponsible domestic and international behaviours (see the rocket incident) make people wonder what Turkey’s role in NATO is. Even more: what is NATO’s purpose in the 21st century? Wouldn’t a global security alliance (including East Asia as well) make more sense? Together with NATO, the EU shows few signs of life. Its involvement in the Middle East has been little more than few communiques, despite the fact that Europe is shouldering the burden of migrations and refugees from the region. The main positive note, however, is that most Western media have taken a clear stance against Saudi executions and rights violations. This means that at least in the ‘big business’ world, which mainly controls the media, something is moving. Or is this just a way to induce the House of Saud to continue its plans to sell a part of the oil giant, Saudi Aramco? Such possible move was revealed by Prince Mohammad in a recent interview with The Economist (see http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21685475-possible-ipo-saudi-aramco-could-mark-end-post-war-oil-order-sale), and might certainly bring more cash to the Kingdom and opportunities to Western companies (banks, in particular). The West should, however, choose a clear and consistent direction, and in this sense learn from China and Russia.

 

Russia is in fact the only state fighting ISIS without ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. ISIS has to be eradicated, in what will be a long and tough fight, as recent attacks in Istanbul and Indonesia further demonstrate. In addition, Russia has understood that the USA has left a dangerous vacuum in the Middle East, and in the long term the only way out is negotiation. Iran and Saudi Arabia have to sit at the same table and talk. Radical Islam can easily spread to other world regions (see Indonesia, Afghanistan, possibly Central Asia) and now has to be stopped.

 

In the 1990s we became familiar with the idea that the world was moving towards a wonderful age of free markets, peace, and democracy. Now we are realising how unpredictable markets can be, and how big the risks for world peace are. New powers are emerging, and becoming more autonomous and assertive: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and of course China are examples. Global and regional institutions (the UN, once again a ‘dead man walking’, the EU, and others) should re-gain power; and democracy should be understood as something more than an application to politics of market principles. We all deserve better.

 

Photo: REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

A Shi'ite Muslim girl holds a picture of Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed along with others in Saudi Arabia, as she takes part in a protest rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, January 8, 2016

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