Although it seems relatively clear that Saudi Arabia was in the wrong, it was unclear how Western countries would respond. Saudi Arabia is a major ally of the US, and the ongoing war against Yemen strongly suggests at least the Americans are happy to give them a free pass on other human rights violations. Additionally, this event significantly inflamed tensions with Iran, which has a majority Shia population. Indeed, Tehran experienced violent public protests that ultimately resulted in vandalism and occupation of the Saudi embassy. In response, the Saudis cut off diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran.
Thus, if America condemned Saudi Arabia for these executions, we would appear to be on the same side as Iran, which is something our politicians try to avoid doing whenever possible. But if we failed to do so, this would be an uncomfortably visible form of hypocrisy on the question of human rights. In short, the choice for the US was an awkward one. Defend the Saudi execution of an apparently peaceful political figure to try to preserve the status quo, or condemn the Saudis, inadvertently agreeing with Iran, and call attention to the human rights violations of a country that we are actively arming at this moment.
As it happens, the US has essentially tried to stay on the fence--neither strongly condemning or defending Saudi Arabia. This is unfortunate, but it also fits with our usually mild response to the transgressions of our allies.
On the bright side, however, there are increasing indications that some leading nations in Europe are charting a different course--against Saudi Arabia. This is a positive development. If the Europeans are growing more sympathetic to Iran and less so to Saudi Arabia, it makes all of the following more likely:
- Increased recognition and scrutiny of Saudi's war against Yemen
- Increased criticism of Saudi Arabia (and/or its citizens') funding of terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria
- More international resistance if the US tries to delay lifting sanctions or reimpose sanctions on Iran without a legitimate reason.
We should note here that it does not make sense to be either pro-Iran or anti-Saudi as such. All countries should be judged by their actions and policies, and neither of these countries is perfect. The fact that this development may ultimately benefit Iran is not the key point. What matters is that it reflects a continued rebalancing of world opinion away from uniformly demonizing one country (Iran) and whitewashing its rival (Saudi Arabia). This in turn makes it more likely that sanctions against Iran will be lifted by more countries, regardless of US opinion, and it also could put more pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its bombardment of Yemen.
Jason Ditz at Antiwar.com has more on Europe's shift away from Saudi Arabia here: