By Arab News
By Hassan Barari
Over the last six decades, regional security and stability have dominated the Saudi foreign policy. Indeed, the centrality of these themes in Saudi thinking has pushed the regime to establish close strategic partnerships with various countries to create a regional environment conducive to peace, stability, and prosperity. This proactive approach has been the hallmark of Saudi foreign policy since the end of World War II.
For Saudi Arabia to realize these objectives, it needs statecraft. Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and acts as a national security analyst for ABC News, makes the case that the environment in which Saudi Arabia operates is not stable. Every now and then regional conflict erupts. For this reason, the stability of the region is under constant threat. This is where leadership is needed and the Saudis have been fortunate in having leaders who manage to navigate through the volatile region successfully.
Yet, chances are high that the most recent regional changes will affect the strategic environment in the Middle East and the Gulf. Unlike Saudi Arabia which favors the status quo, Iran is a revisionist state. Tehran’s relentless quest for influence in the Gulf cannot be more striking. Two episodes that took place recently shed light on Tehran’s subversive policies. First, the American authorities thwarted an attempt on the life of the Saudi Ambassador in Washington Adel Al-Jubeir, an attempt, if successful, would have aggravated the already cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although Iran rejected this claim, it fingerprints on this plot were obvious. Second, the Bahraini authorities arrested a terrorist group backed by Iran to carry out attacks on Saudi targets including the causeway that links Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Implicit in the public debate in Saudi Arabia is the concern over how to handle the rise of Iran’s regional influence in the wake of regional developments that have unfolded since the demise of Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq. The new imbalance of power that characterizes the Gulf called for a new thinking on the part of Riyadh. Therefore, concepts like “containment’ and “rollback” of Teheran’s rising power are reiterated in the Saudi press.
And yet, unlike the American debate on Iran which is centered on sanctions and military option, the Saudis are more concerned about the political influence of Iran in countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, etc. Iran’s capacity to mobilize support among Shiite sympathizers in some countries is worrisome. Additionally, the nuclear ambitions on the part the Iranian regime will help Tehran enhance its attraction as a regional power. This will only help Iran push for a greater political influence throughout the region. Iranian decision-makers play on the spread of anti-Americanism in the region. Therefore, Iran tries to position itself as the last stronghold to face the American strategy in the region. Needless to say, this sectarian affiliation works to the advantage of Iran.
Amid the changing reality in the Middle East and the blowing winds of change, Riyadh is closely watching the regional developments to chart a foreign policy that is both realistic and wise to at least mitigate the negative effects of these changes. In the Gulf region, it seems that only Saudi Arabia can balance the political and military threat of Iran. Evidently, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to sit idly by while Iran is taking what it takes to further its interests in the Gulf and the wider Middle East.