It was embarrassing to see Saudi Arabia's big-power friends stumbling to express even weak words of displeasure over the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr last week.

Once again the U.S. and other Western powers seem to have underestimated — perhaps wilfully — just how very hardline and, now, increasingly risk-taking the new Saudi leadership really is.

The Saudis' in-your-face execution of al-Nimr, known internationally for his calls for better treatment of the kingdom's Shia minority, seemed calculated to further escalate the conflict with its arch religious rival, Iran, to its most dangerous flashpoint in decades.

Aside from showing that the Saudis couldn't care less about weak-kneed foreign displeasure, al-Nimr's execution (along with 46 others on charges of terrorism) also seems likely to sabotage the fledgling international peace efforts to try to end the wars in Syria and Yemen.

In the immediate aftermath, Iran shares some of the blame for inflaming the situation and allowing a Shia mob to attack and burn part of the Saudi embassy in Teheran.

But, clearly, Iran did not initiate this latest provocation, and the grim outcome is likely to be years more of wars by their regional proxies, not to mention mass killings and a rising tide of refugees.

What reform?

Now, Saudi Arabia's foreign partners — including the U.S., much of the European Union and Canada, of course — are confronted with the growing international firestorm over their partners' thirst for grisly executions, which are not far removed from those adopted by ISIS.

Consider that still on a Saudi death row is al-Nimr's 20-year-old nephew, Ali, who has been sentenced to "crucifixion" after he was arrested in the pro-democracy protests that were part of the Arab Spring in 2011, when he was only 17.

In Saudi Arabia, those who are crucified are first beheaded and then the body is hung out on a gibbet in public for several days.

For years, of course, those anxious to do business with Saudi Arabia have insisted that reform, admitted slow and scarcely visible, is stirring hopefully within the deeply conservative kingdom.

We must all be patient is the message (and look away). Humanitarian groups call this wilful self-delusion.

Why did Saudi Arabia execute 47 people?5:42

Indeed, far from reforming, many Middle East analysts now say that the mood at the top of Saudi's royal family is increasingly hard line, and still cozy with the archly fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Islam.

In its unceasing battle with the followers of Shia Islam, which is centred around Iran, the Sunni kingdom continues to fund proxy wars, often of intense brutality, which have helped devastate large sections of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and now Yemen.

Over the years, Saudi's international partners have sometimes expressed polite dismay over the slowness of Saudi Arabia to react to the rise of al-Qaeda and even ISIS, at least until those groups launched attacks within the kingdom.

It is a slowness, to be sure, that the kingdom never showed in crushing pro-democracy and free speech campaigners.

Obama second thoughts

What's ominous about the current crisis is the feeling that the Saudis' hard fist has become even harder since King Abdullah died early last year.

The new King Salman, no friend of reform, seems to have built a new power centre around two relatives who dominate internal security and military matters,

The one to watch is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Salman's nephew, who, as minister of the interior, oversaw the mass executions that included al-Nimr.

He was elevated even over the King's son, Mohammad bin Salman, the ambitious and volatile defence minister, who orchestrated the Saudi military campaign in Yemen.

These two hard-liners appear to be increasingly calling the shots when it comes to all the assumed enemies of the nation and its greater Sunni mission.

Their elevation last spring was welcomed by the Obama administration, which may now be having second thoughts.

'Prince of counter-terrorism'

Bin Nayef was long a favourite of U.S. officials who saw him as "the prince of counter-terrorism" for his eventual campaign against al-Qaeda within the kingdom and for his courage in surviving three assassination attempts.

They tended to overlook his ruthless suppression of dissidents and increasing use of executions.

Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, who has studied bin Nayef's career closely, writes that Washington should have no illusions that he will stand for reform as his power grows.

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Happier days. U.S. President Barack Obama greets Saudi Arabia's newly elevated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef back in May in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

He argues that Saudi Arabia felt betrayed when the U.S. signed the nuclear agreement with Iran, and now feels that a strengthened Iran, free from international sanctions, must be confronted.

Even the Economist magazine recently warned Western democracies to back away from their business-as-usual approach to this more aggressive Saudi regime, editorializing that "the Wahhabism they nurture endangers not just the outside world, but the dynasty itself."

None of these warnings, mind you, have deterred arms sellers from their pilgrimages to weapons-hungry Riyadh.

They certainly didn't stop Canada's former government from approving the sale of $15 billion in light armoured vehicles to the Saudis, a suspension of moral caution that the new Liberal government now seems ready to go along with.

Just over a week ago there were still some slim hopes that both Saudi Arabia and Iran, predictably on opposite sides of the horrific war in Syria, might listen to world appeals and support a ceasefire, hopefully this month.

So why provoke a crisis at such a key moment?

Saudi Arabia likely had many motives for last week's executions, and we may never know them all. But at one level al-Nimr's beheading may have been a way of saying to friends and foes alike we're going to do things our way or not at all.