ABU DHABI // Saudi Arabia and its allies moved to further isolate Iran on Monday as anger grew over attacks on Riyadh’s diplomatic missions in the country.
Flights between Saudi Arabia and Iran were suspended, the civil aviation authority said in a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency.
Meanwhile, the UAE recalled its ambassador to Iran on Monday after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan all severed diplomatic ties with Tehran.
The Foreign Ministry had previously summoned Iran’s ambassador in response to attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad by protesters angered by the execution of a leading Shiite cleric.
“Only a charge d’affaires will remain and the number of Iranian diplomats in the UAE was also reduced,” the ministry said. “It is an exceptional step that was taken in light of the continuous Iranian intervention in internal Gulf and Arab affairs and that has reached unprecedented levels in the recent period.”
Saudi Arabia’s actions highlight how the kingdom seeks to maintain an uncompromising approach to regional affairs, despite domestic uncertainty prompted by low oil prices, analysts said. The decision to cut ties is also likely to impact several Middle Eastern conflicts where Riyadh and Tehran are on opposing sides, including in Syria and Yemen
“The severing of diplomatic relations was the culmination of several years of steadily worsening relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington.
The “war of words” escalated in the aftermath of more than 2,000 people being killed in a stampede during the last Haj, Mr Nazer said.
Simmering animosity developed into an open diplomatic crisis after the Saudi Arabian diplomatic missions were attacked and set on fire early on Sunday morning following the kingdom’s execution of several dozen prisoners, mostly Sunni militants linked to Al Qaeda, but including Nimr Al Nimr, a Shiite leader from the east of the country.
Al Nimr was arrested in 2012 and two years later sentenced to death on terrorism charges. Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, along with Shiite leaders across the region, condemned Al Nimr’s execution. Mr Khamenei said Saudi Arabia would face “the divine hand of revenge” for his death. “The stinging criticism levelled by Iran’s most senior religious and political authorities following this weekend’s execution of 47 people who were convicted of terrorism-related crimes was deemed as an unacceptable interference in the domestic affairs of Saudi,” Mr Nazer said.
Jeddah-based analyst Hussein Shobokshi described the storming of the diplomatic missions as a “provocation”.
“For Iran to make this into a regional crisis that affects its well-being is nothing short of ridiculous,” he said. “There is an unbelievable attempt to characterise Nimr Al Nimr as a martyr and a hero. Nimr Al Nimr is not the Dalai Lama or Mahatma Gandhi.”
Executed along with Al Nimr was Faris Al Shuwail, a religious leader for Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Al Shuwail, along with some of the other executed Sunni men, was arrested more than 10 years ago. Mr Shobokshi said Saudi authorities refrained from executing them until now to gain information about Al Qaeda’s network.
Mr Shobokshi said the executions of both the Sunni and Shiite convicts took place at the same time to show that “terrorism has no religion and it surely does not have a sect”.
ISIL militants carried out multiple attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia last year and authorities have sought to clamp down on Sunni extremists.
A man was killed and child wounded on late on Sunday after unknown assailants opened fire on security forces in the Shiite-majority Eastern Province. There have been protests in the province after Al Nimr’s execution.
Saturday’s executions had prompted concerns about unrest among both the Sunni and Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia. The concerns were particularly strong in Eastern Province, but Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry spokesperson said security precautions were normal.
“We don’t have any unusual procedure in Eastern Province or elsewhere,” said Maj Gen Mansour Al Turki.
“It’s a particularly strong signal that the Saudis will invoke their version of legality,” Sir John Jenkins, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies – Middle East and former British ambassador to Riyadh, said of the executions. “They must have known that this would cause a significant international outcry.”
Iran’s foreign ministry said on Monday that it was committed to protecting diplomatic missions, though attacks on embassies have been common in Iran for decades. Previously, Iranian protesters stormed the United States embassy in 1979, the Danish embassy in 2005 and the British embassy in 2011.
That Saudi Arabia’s allies quickly took measures to show their support for Riyadh following the attacks on its diplomatic missions was no surprise, said Ibrahim Fraihat, senior policy fellow at Brookings Doha Centre.
“We have a high level of polarisation in the region,” he said. “Saudi Arabia has made it clear they are expecting support from their neighbours and Arab countries. This is not a Saudi Arabia-Iran crisis. It’s more of an Arab-Iran crisis, as put by Saudi officials.”
Any further direct escalation is unlikely because Iran still wants to be accepted by the international community, following last July’s historic nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, Mr Fraihat said.
However, the crisis is likely to be reflected at a “proxy level” in places such as Lebanon and Syria and Yemen, he said.
Sir John said the move to cut ties reflected Saudi Arabia’s view that it has “to stand up for their own interests and the interests of Sunnis”, especially at a time when the US is seen as withdrawing from the region.
Citing social media, Sir John said that Saudi Arabia’s move to cut ties with Iran was popular in the kingdom.
The decision came in the context of Saudi Arabia facing several key challenges, including a view that Iran will not change its stance over the war in Syria, the threat of extremists groups, low oil prices and the need to transform its economy to create millions of jobs for citizens in the coming years.
“If you have a large group of unemployed young men, you are a target for the Islamic State,” Sir John said.
“They need to be seen as addressing the aspirations of ordinary Saudis and at the same time dealing with the supposed attraction of alternative groups like Daesh or the extremist Shiites, which claim to have their own answers for social justice.”
“It was easy when oil was over 100 dollars a barrel to deal with a lot of these issues ... especially when you think that you have external allies you can rely on,” he said.
Saudi Arabia previously severed ties with Iran between 1988-1991.