By Hossein Kebriaeezadeh*
As the Middle East is consumed by war and tensions, Saudi Arabia, which has a claim to be the leader of the Islamic world and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is beating the drums of war with its Muslim brethren. The country, which has taken an overtly hostile approach toward its regional rivals under its new monarch, King Salman, has gone as far as using religion as a tool to deprive Iranian Hajj pilgrims from taking part in the religious ceremony of Hajj, which is one of the most important rituals in Islam.
The fact that Saudi Arabia launches a military war on Yemen or, at domestic level, issues death sentence for such an influential cleric as Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, indicates that Riyadh is shifting its strategy from proxy war to direct confrontation with Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s failures in the region and the pursuit of a confrontational foreign policy with Iran should be considered among those strategic mistakes part of which stems from the country’s political order and its foreign policy, which lacks adequate support base. Another part of these measures has its roots in Saudi Arabia’s miscalculations with regard to its allies in the region and, in general, is due to Riyadh’s inability to correctly differentiate friend from enemy.
Saudi Arabia took measures in Syria, Yemen and Iraq beyond its political capacities the main result of which was the growth of a phenomenon known as Daesh. Recently leaked emails sent by former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, clearly prove that Saudi Arabia has been providing financial and arms support to Daesh and other Sunni extremist groups. However, the empowerment of this Takfiri group not only gave Iran an upper hand in the region, but led to a strategic alliance between Iran and Russia in Syria through a change in goals and strategy of this terrorist group.
One of the most important reasons behind Saudi Arabia’s regional failures and the sense of threat it feels from Iran should be sought in Riyadh’s special viewpoint to the region. This country does not believe that regional equations are multidimensional and when formulating its aggressive foreign policy approach toward Iran, considers regional equations as only containing a single variable. As a result, Riyadh believes that its dwindling influence in the Middle East region is the result of the increasing clout of Iran in regional countries. This oversimplification of developments in the complicated Middle East region forces Saudi Arabia to choose the easiest way in its confrontational approaches toward its rivals. This comes while it is clear that in any geographical region from Latin America all the way to the Middle East, there are always at least two countries, which are rivals, but at the same time, they always prevent their rivalry from taking an aggressive and confrontational turn.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia lacks a correct and purposive viewpoint and strategy for rivalry with Iran. The policy of isolating Iran in the region is pursued by Saudi Arabia due to the spiritual influence that Riyadh sways among Islamic countries. However, apart from a few cases, which have proved successful through Saudi Arabia bribing those countries, this policy has generally failed in all other cases. At the same time, the nuclear deal that Iran clinched last year with the P5+1 group of world powers has practically removed obstacles in the way of Iran’s integration into the international community. On the other hand, developments in Syria have fared in Iran’s favor, as said before, after they led to closer cooperation among Iran, Russia and China.
Riyadh does not take advantage of suitable tools in its rivalry and confrontation with other countries. Supporting and organizing Takfiri groups has caused those groups to be a more serious threat to the international community and the West than being a threat for Iran and its allied countries, and has led to the establishment of a global anti-Daesh front.
In the meantime, inefficiency of the Saudi-led Arab coalition in its war on Yemen has prevented it from changing the balance of power in favor of Riyadh as Saudi officials expected. On the other hand, diplomatic moves made by Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf region, to convince its regional allies and create a coalition among all Sunni states against Iran have proven futile. Domestic tensions and differences between Persian Gulf littoral states and Saudi Arabia in addition to extreme weakness of these countries in military terms will practically render any possible military coalition among them ineffective. This is especially true taking into account that such militarily powerful countries as Pakistan and Turkey have not gone beyond lip service in their support for Riyadh.
After Saudi Arabia suffered frequent failures in the face of Iran, it could only take revenge on Iran, which had gotten rid of restrictions that were imposed on the country over its nuclear program, through a faceoff within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). However, due to overreliance of Saudi Arabia’s economy on oil revenues and a budget deficit amounting to 98 billion dollars, this ageing tool cannot be a secure means for confrontation with Iran. Under conditions of sanctions, Iran learned that due to global economic conditions and the sway of political motivations over the international community, the policies of the Economy of Resistance must be pursued for transition from an oil-based economy.
The conditions, however, are different for Saudi Arabia due to its monocultural economy and high reliance on oil revenues. As a result, the first field to be affected by militarization of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is the Saudi society. At domestic level, delineating the country’s geopolitical strategy on the basis of threatening and having tension with neighboring countries has made it difficult for Saudi Arabia to achieve its vision goals for 2025, according to which Riyadh was supposed to promote its standing in the Middle East in terms of domestic welfare and economic achievements.
On the other hand, focusing on confrontation in relations with Iran has had untoward consequences for this country. Increasing domestic and regional costs and absence of balance in purposive and smart relations with neighboring countries in addition to political passivity have been major outcomes of Saudi Arabia’s effort to define Iran as an enemy. In line with this policy, Saudi Arabia’s unfortunate alignment with Israel, which is the black sheep in the eyes of Muslim nations, has been among those factors, which have served to tarnish the prestige of Riyadh among regional states.
*Hossein Kebriaeezadeh, Expert on Middle East Issues