Ever since King Salman came to power in early 2015 and brought about sweeping changes in the hierarchy within the monarchy, the administration has been pursuing a more vigorous foreign policy than the one followed by the previous regime of King Abdullah. The focused objective has been to limit to the barest minimum, the influence within the Saudi kingdom of the social and political fallouts of the events in the region. Along with this, Saudi Arabia is also acutely aware of Iran’s increasing regional influence, which it wants to curtail in order to ensure regional hegemony.
Towards this end a number of strategies have been put in place by the Saudi monarchy. The war in Yemen that was initiated in March 2015 is an example of the Saudi strategy to dilute the Iranian influence in that country. The Arab coalition conducting the war against the Houthis blame Iran of supporting the rebel forces in Yemen and believe that a defeat would be a setback for Iran.
The latest part of the strategy was the execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr on 2 January along with another 46 convicts, mostly Sunnis accused of links with al Qaeda. Al-Nimr was arrested in July 2012 for inciting Shiite activists when the Arab Spring in neighbouring countries was not completely dead—the smoke of the fire that had burned was still easily visible. At this stage, Saudi Arabia had militarily intervened in Bahrain, a Shia majority country ruled by a Sunni royal house, to put down a populist uprising. Al-Nimr was an adherent to religious politics who is on public record as being against any kind of violence to resolve sectarian issues. He opposed the marginalisation of the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province and suggested an alternative structure for the religious governance of the kingdom. This would have meant replacing the house of Saud, which was not a welcome situation for the Saudi monarchy. The cleric remained an enigma till the end.
Al-Nimr was sentenced only in October 2014 and one year later, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the death sentence. The slow progress of the trail and appeal process was essentially meant to minimise the chances of Sunni-Shia unrest taking place. Iran had repeatedly told Saudi officials that al-Nimr should not be executed and it is felt that under the old regime, he certainly would not have faced execution. So what changed?
The Aftermath of the Execution
There was an almost immediate backlash to the execution—the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran was ransacked and some parts burned. It also enraged the Shiite community in the region and antagonised them. It is certain that Saudi Arabia would have anticipated such a reaction. Two issues come out of this situation. First, the cleric was already in custody for close to four years and did not have any tangible influence on any events outside the walls of the prison.
Therefore, what was the point in executing him, other than to consciously create a sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites? Second, if the backlash was anticipated, then it is certain that Saudi Arabia would not have gone ahead with the execution if they were not sure of controlling it within the country, especially in the critical Eastern Province, which is vital to the Saudi oil industry. This fact indicates that the execution was a part of a well-thought-through strategy in order to facilitate the government tightening its grips on power through cracking down on dissent. In addition, a show of force would also increase their influence over the smaller Sunni monarchies in the neighbourhood.
The security forces were generally successful in keeping down low-level activities such as street protests, but Saudi Arabia can anticipate an increase in suicide bombings in both the Sunni and Shiite areas of the country, which will be harder to counter. In this case, the soft targets will be sectarian such as Shiite mosques in order to goad them to retaliate and also security forces at the lower levels.
The attack on the Saudi embassy prompted an immediate reaction—Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Iran, closely followed by Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan. The promptness of the action indicates that the Iranian reaction was also correctly anticipated. However, the actions of other Arab nations are worth monitoring. Kuwait with a sizeable Shiite minority of its own only condemned the attack. Egypt was even more circumspect in its reaction, even though Saudi Arabia was to sign loans and grants worth $ 3 billion on 5 January, three days after the execution and subsequent events. It is clear that while accepting the financial largesse of Saudi Arabia, Egypt will be more balanced in voicing its opinion regarding contentious sectarian conflicts in the region. The al-Nimr execution remains only one part of a much larger geo-political competition for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has been brewing for some time now.
Even if Saudi Arabia is aware of the precariousness of its position, it has adopted an attitude that indicates its almost complete disdain for external opinion. This could be the result of a long-standing sense of impunity that has been granted for decades to the Saudi royal family by the US and its allies. However, there is also a different play in place here. King Salman, 80, has suffered a stroke and has delegated powers to the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, 55, who effectively rules supported by the even younger Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman who also doubles as the hard-line Defence Minister. Both these rulers cannot, and will not, accept the rise of Iran as a regional power. They support the claim that the Shiites pose a threat to Sunnis. Considering this, it can be anticipated that the anti-Iranian rhetoric will only rise further in the coming days. The current actions by Saudi Arabia are by far the most aggressive against Iran and goes beyond any other initiatives taken since the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 that removed the Shah from power. In this scenario, Saudi Arabia will look for support within its Arab and other allies, although most of them will try and keep a distance from the confrontation. There is no unanimity in the support that is coming from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Riyadh heads by de fault, and outside support by smaller nations are not consequential enough to matter. The US is in damage control mode. It looks as if Saudi Arabia is about to find out who their real friends are.
A New Saudi Arabian Initiative
Saudi Arabia created an Arab Military Alliance on 14 December, ostensibly to fight the Islamic State (IS). The objective and its employment was explained in vague terms as dependent on needs and requests, although the alliance can be seen as the embryo of an interventionist force. If the primary objective is indeed to fight the IS, it is difficult to understand the reasons for not including Iraq and Syria in the coalition, since the IS is most active in these two nations.
The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is on record questioning the intentions of the alliance since the coalition members have so far not provided any assistance to Iraq to fight the IS. There is no denying that the coalition has a sectarian bias, since no Shiite forces have been invited to join. Therefore, this is an Arab ‘Sunni’ Military coalition that will be called in to assist and support Saudi Arabia in the on-going stand-off with Iran, on an as required basis. However, the coalition is unlikely to gain much traction on the ground since all members have their own internal domestic issues to counter and the coalition itself consists of small and insignificant countries almost coerced to join. At least for now, the coalition does not hold any real power or influence.
A Reality Check
Saudi Arabia is under great political and economic stress, whether the ruling coterie accepts it or not. It faces a major financial crisis of a shrinking budget for 2016 and has already indicated that certain welfare programs would be curtailed. This will lead to public resentment from a population that has been bought off in a number of previous crisis situations by the petro-dollars that the ruling dynasty was able to spread across the nation. There is internal dissent at various levels of society and even within the house of Saud itself, where there are dissatisfied and marginalised princes who are not above public criticism of the current regime. The Saudi society is built on traditional beliefs regarding tribal loyalties that have gradually become a bit archaic. The current crop of urban middle class groups have distanced themselves from the traditional tribal source of power and are also more experienced with the external world. They demand more freedoms and a move towards democracy. The monarchy is unable to accommodate these demands within the current model of governance and has tried to trivialise them by equating the serious demands with the demand to permit women to drive cars. There is also an attempt at channelling away the legitimate demands as a Shiite rebellion. Societal dissonance is not far away.
One of the real aims of the execution of al-Nimr was to bolster the regime’s Wahabi credentials in the domestic arena and use it as an example to shut down dissidence from the more fundamental fringes of Islam. There is a viewpoint that the attack on the embassy in Teheran and the consulate in Mashshad could have been state-sponsored. This gains acceptance especially since Iran has demonstrated adequate infrastructure to stop street mobs from getting out of control, in a number of earlier occasions. There is no doubt that letting the mob run riot, even if it was for only a brief period of time, has damaged Iran’s reputation and diminished its position on the issue of the execution. From a purely legal point of view, the actions are being seen as interfering in the judicial process of another nation. However, it has to be accepted that in the current imbroglio in the Middle-East, there was no doubt that sectarian violence was bound to follow the execution.
An opposing viewpoint is that Saudi Arabia has long been the fundamental entity in creating regional instability based on sectarianism. It has supported extremist organisations across the region in order to keep its own backyard clean; it has always assumed an anti-democratic stance and used force to dismantle any democratic movements that have taken root in the region; and it has intervened militarily in other nations, violating sovereign borders at will. Saudi Arabia’s actions in the recent past, culminating in the current execution and the backlash, has had the unintended consequence of making it isolated from its traditional allies. The counter strategy that it has concocted is aimed at creating a new ‘monster’, a common enemy that will unite all the Sunni nations under an anti-Shiite umbrella. Towards this end, it is endeavouring to make Iran take a clear anti-Saudi Arabia position in the belief that such a situation could then be turned to a Sunni-Shia standoff. If this can be pulled off, then Saudi Arabia believes that it will be able to use its considerable regional political influence and financial clout to isolate Iran. Anticipated result—victory in the regional race will then automatically fall to Riyadh.
The reality, however, is slightly different. The policies being enshrined by the new regime in Saudi Arabia are short-sighted and unlikely to yield the desired results. Therefore, they will not gather the necessary momentum and will remain unsustainable. Viewing the current situation it would seem that Saudi Arabia has painted itself into a corner. It has four major challenges to face and ameliorate. First, the fall in oil prices has created budgetary woes that can only be dealt with by cutting down on welfare activities, primarily health and housing subsidies, free education and cheap fuel. Unfortunately these are the measures that have ensured ‘popular’ support for the monarchy. The probable reaction to welfare cuts has still not been ascertained. Second, the open-ended war in Yemen that could be termed Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam. A graceful, face-saving exit from the quagmire seems a far-fetched proposition. More importantly, if the Yemen War is seen as a failure or defeat, the current Crown Prince and the Defence Minister will face open revolt from within the royal family. Such a situation would be the first crack in the foundation of the house of Saud.
Third, after the executions of 47 ‘terrorists’ most of whom were Sunnis with actual or perceived alliances with al Qaeda, the kingdom becomes a more focused target for IS and al Qaeda terrorist activities. The ability of the security apparatus to rein in a dedicated campaign of suicide bombings has not yet been proven. Given the nature of such attacks, it is highly possible to escalate them at will. Fourth, the intensifying rivalry for regional influence with Iran that cannot be won. Saudi Arabia cannot wish away the fact that Iran is part of the region and emerging as an alternative centre of power with great influence in some parts of the region, and also across the widely spread Shiite population. Most of the Gulf States want to find common ground with Iran, although the expanse of common ground available seems to be rapidly reducing. The US and its Western allies have accepted this fact and are not pursuing any anti-Iran policies, at least for the time being. On the other hand, the effort is to bring Iran back into the fold of the international community. Russia has indicated its willingness to mediate between the two nations, again confirming Iran as an indelible entity in the region.
The Saudi monarchy is beleaguered and in Riyadh there seems to be a sense of being besieged. The financial reforms being instituted are necessary to bring the economy back on an even keel. However, far-reaching reform and change are always accompanied by social and political consequences, which in this case is not easy to predict. Containing them is an exercise that can only be undertaken after the consequences are known. The looming question is the future viability of Saudi Arabia itself since a volatile combination of these factors have the power to make the desert kingdom implode.
Iran, the other party in the tug-of-war, is also not without its own problems, although its political cohesion is almost fully guaranteed. It has so far been focused on getting the international sanctions lifted and is unlikely to interfere with the free flow of oil, unlike in earlier times of heightened tensions. Internally, the current moderate Iranian government faces a hard-line group that had always seen the nuclear program as a symbol of Iran’s resistance to the West. These hard-liners are not happy with the nuclear deal and the direction of the current foreign policy. They want to derail the process for normalisation of relations and the attack on the Saudi embassy could well have been orchestrated by them.
The attack was an Iranian ‘own goal’ that led to international condemnation and the subsequent intensification of regional tensions could have stalled the normalisation process. Fortunately the more mature response subsequently from the official Iranian sources was able to somewhat contain the challenge and institute the lifting of sanctions a couple of weeks later. However, the ruling regime in Iran was weakened by the attacks on the embassy and Saudi Arabia was able to convert a bilateral tension into a diplomatic crisis to their benefit. The hard-liners need to be curbed if Iran is to take its place as a regional power.
Iran has been steadfast in its objective of fighting the IS, Russia being the only other participant clearly pursuing the same objective. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have been supporting extremists of all hue and the US-led coalition has been changing its partners on the ground almost at the whim and fancy of its more ‘important’ allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. At this juncture, Iran will be well-advised not to over react and to bide its time with patience. In the meantime, public diplomacy to highlight the activities of Saudi Arabia and its direct support for violent religious extremism will likely pay rich dividends, especially at a time when the European nations are already sceptical of Saudi intentions.
Implications – What Next?
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the only two nations in the region that continue to be stable and both are equally important and integral to regional security—and regional security is fundamentally aligned to defeating the IS and then denying it an afterlife. The US and its allies will therefore want to ensure the viability of both the countries. A direct confrontation will politically weaken both Saudi Arabia and Iran. While an actual war between the two is highly unlikely, intensification of the on-going proxy wars between them is almost a certainty. At the moment, the Saudi-Iranian confrontation has not yet reached its high-point and therefore, ratcheting up the rhetoric and indirect actions will take place. In this context it is highly probable that the War in Yemen would assume the guise of a proxy war and become much more pronounced. Only after reaching a plateau of heightened tensions can de-escalation take place.
Bahrain could become a flash point in the proxy war. In 1981, Iran supported an attempt in Bahrain aimed at installing a Shiite clerical theocracy that did not come to fruition. In 2011, Saudi Arabia used its military to put down an Arab Spring inspired Shiite protest. The fact is that Bahrain is contested space between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the sectarian chasm in the small country is clearly visible. Intensification of the proxy war could engulf Bahrain and blow out of control, irrespective of the Saudi Arabian military presence there.
The most important fallout from the stand-off is the impact that it has on the peace negotiations in the Syrian Civil War. In fact the negotiations could be the first casualty and become confirmed as a non-starter, since Iran-Saudi Arabia cooperation is a pre-requisite for any meaningful progress to take place. The UN Security Council resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015 authorised the Secretary General to assume the lead in negotiating a political resolution to the Syrian Civil War. However, events seem to have overtaken the good intentions apparent in the resolution. There is a dichotomy in the Saudi Arabian approach to Iran vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict. Saudi Arabia openly calls Iran a sponsor of terrorism, while in the UN it maintains that it is willing to work with Iran to achieve a settlement in Syria.
The incoherence of this strategy is apparent.
The other notable casualty is the creation of a coordinated strategy to fight the IS. In the current climate of heightened tensions, such a strategy cannot be formulated or implemented. The Gulf Arab states, under Saudi Arabian leadership, now consider Iran a bigger threat than even the IS. However, such a turn of events will be a strategic blunder of enormous proportions that will in the future affect the Sunni states more than Iran, because the IS will be let off the hook and may even garner support from these nations in their misguided efforts to defeat Iran. By the same token, Sunni extremism in Iraq can be expected to increase and become even more virulent with the covert support of the Arab Sunni states. Irrespective of the implications, it seems for now that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to change its current strategy or alter course to contain emerging events.
The new Saudi Arabian leadership is inexperienced in matters of global real politic and impetuous in their decisions, emphasising and exposing the more fundamental aspects of Saudi policies, rather than displaying practical prudence, even it is cloaked in pretence. This will be detrimental, in the long-term, to Saudi Arabia’s position in the region. Even so, these actions have the advantage of creating a sense of unpredictability in the decision-making process and marks a clear break from the staid approach to foreign policy that has been the Saudi Arabian trade mark so far. The US faces a stark choice in the Middle-East—stand in unison with its ally Saudi Arabia, who has disregarded its advice not to execute al-Nimr or take a balanced view of the situation and fight to put out the current bushfire while continuing to engage with Iran. The US actions in the past few days indicate that it has opted for the second choice. The battlelines between the two regional powers are being drawn.
Many pillars of stability have already collapsed in the Middle-East and the region has for the past few years been a powder keg with a burning fuse. With the Saudi Arabia-Iran stand-off the fuse has just become that much shorter.
First published in at www.sanukay.com