Saudi Arabia is an ally of dubious worth. In addition to an appalling human rights record, it has proven itself far more interested in the export of its radical Wahhabi belief system and inflaming Iran than it is in reigning in al Qaeda or behaving in a predictable fashion.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are truly two sides of the same coin: radical Islamist, authoritarian at home, and weak but meddlesome abroad. Their mutually opposing winner-take-all totalitarian regimes echo the Nazi-Soviet divide of the 1930s.
This week the Saudis executed a Shia cleric, Nimr al Nimr, along with 46 other Shias, who are a restive religious minority in Saudi Arabia, but who are a majority in Iran and Iraq. Iran is furious, as is Iraq and Shias in other Gulf nations, and the two groups risk a serious war. Such a war, while undoubtedly harmful to the region and its elusive stability, would have the countervailing benefit of taking the Muslim world’s eyes off Europe and America. Unfortunately, the US is seen as very chummy with the House of Saud, and this means that the Iranians are just as likely to retaliate against the US, its interests, its allies, or some combination of the same in order to show their solidarity with their Shia coreligionists. Saudi Arabia, like Israel, cannot do anything without having the US held responsible, and thus any benefit we obtain from this alliance is mostly undone or put into negative territory.
The US has no patience, apparent ability, or real interest in policing Sunni-Shia infighting. In fact, other things being equal, such infighting probably benefits the US, in the same way internal turmoil of one’s enemies allows one to conserve one’s strength while they exhaust themselves. But this happy side effect of other nations’ wars is totally absent when the US is selling arms, stationing forces, and advising the military of Saudi Arabia in its proxy war with Iran in Yemen, among other help we are offering that is narrowly directed to the Shia-Sunni conflict.
A Saudi civil war, like the Syrian Civil War would likely be unpredictable and to our detriment. Thus, we should not be trying to take the lid off, as we did with disastrous results in Libya and Iraq. But, at the very least, we should keep a safe distance from this entire tar pit of disorder, sectarian fighting, and intrigue. Whoever wins will need to sell its oil, and the upside of our interventions to date have been almost entirely nonexistent. Saudi Arabia’s provocative killing of several dozen Shias is a perfectly good time to create that distance, as it was done over our protest and clearly works against our national interests. We need have no illustions about Iran and its intentions to also recognize that there is no reason to let them obtain a cassus belli in the form of short-sighted Saudi oppression of its religious minorities.