Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah, the 90 year old King, died in late January, and there was a smooth transition with power passing to his half brother, Salman, 79, and the new crown prince, Muqrin, 69, who are expected to largely carry on the policies of the late King. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, the first grandson of the founder of the al-Saud dynasty was advanced to deputy crown prince. Relatively young, this was a change after more than 60 years of rule by a succession of the founder’s sons. A much-feared family head that would have destabilized the kingdom had been avoided.
But elsewhere in Arabia, things went from bad to worse. The Saudi supported government next door in Yemen collapsed to Iranian-backed Houthi tribesmen, costing Riyadh a key ally. Yemen was cited as a US success story only months before.
Meanwhile, conflicts raged on in Syria, Iraq and Libya. ISIS beheaded two Japanese hostages and burned alive a Jordanian pilot causing Jordan to hang two ISIS prisoners. Just another week into the continuing descent into chaos and death that is rending the Middle East.
The reality in Saudi Arabia is that the regime faces mounting domestic pressures from both fundamentalists and modernizers. Saudi has been unusually independent and assertive in its foreign policy recently, possibly as they not longer trust their longtime US protector to defend its interests, particularly against the growing power of Iran.
Rarely have the divisions in the Middle East run deeper or in more directions than today. Nor have they ever seemed less amenable to resolution. The region’s fault lines include those between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, a division that goes back nearly 1,400 years to a dispute over the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Going back at least as far are conflicts between Arabs and Persians. Another divide, of course, is that between Arabs and Israel.
Across the region, there is also bitter competition over what model of governance, if any, will replace the largely secular but often ruthlessly authoritarian one that in recent decades kept a lid on domestic discord n most Arab countries. As these Arab strongmen have been toppled – in Iraq by the US military and in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya by popular movements – the competition to replace them has been largely between what we think of a s the liberalism of the Arab Spring and the rigid, often violent versions of Islam exemplified by ISIS. The Saudi monarchy, one of the few stable regimes remaining, is determined to survive by treading a cautious path that avoid both outcomes. It won’t be easy.
But among those many intersecting fault lines, the one that dominates and sublimates al the others is the fierce struggle for regional influence between the Middle East’s two most powerful nation-states: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both rivals are authoritarian, Iran rled by its mullahs and Saudi Arabia by its al-Said monarchs. Each sees itself as the center of the Islamic world. Yes, Iran is majority Shi’ite and Saudi is majority Sunni, but their rivalry has less to do with Islamic sectarianism than with pure power. Each is exploiting the internal weaknesses of fragile states like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain to expand its political influence with competing, and often warring, factions within those broken countries.
Iran is winning this pivotal struggle – in Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon and in Iraq, which is increasingly coming under Iranian influence after the withdrawal of US troops. This is a nightmare for Saudi Arabia, its few remaining Arab allies and, if unchecked, for Israel. The historic Sunni-Shi’ite divide is simply a weapon that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are wielding in their power struggle and not the primary cause of the region’s bloody divisions.
Iran sought from the birth of its theocracy in 1979 to export its Islamic revolution abroad. But the region’s Arab states proved resistant. In the 1980s and ‘90s, ethnic and religious divisions – always present in most Middle Eastern countries – were repressed by largely secular, often ruthless strongmen. The prototype was Saddam Hussein in Iraq. His overthrow by the US in 2003 not only removed Iraq as the longtime Arab counterweight to neighboring Iran but also unleashed Iraq’s long-repressed majority Shi’ites against their minority-Sunni oppressors.
Iran was quick to exploit this Sunni-Shi’ite strife to exert influence inside Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran was also strengthening its relationship with Bashar Assad’s Syria, once more amenable to Saudi influence. Score two rounds for Iran.
The third body blow to the Saudis came in Egypt. An already nervous Saudi Arabia grew apoplectic when Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was toppled by street protests in 2011 while the US, a longtime supporter of Mubarak stood by. Was this how the US treated valued allies? To make matters worse, the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamist group with tentacles inside Saudi Arabia, won power in Egypt’s first free election, demonstrating to Riyadh that conservative Islam could prevail at the ballot box. In 2013 Egypt reverted to military rule under General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, which was far more compatible with the Saudis, who have since assumed the burden of bankrolling his regime. But the US role in Mubarak’s fall continues to sting among the al-Saud rulers.
When anti-Assad protesters took to the streets of Syria in 2011, the Saudis became unusually assertive in their determination to overthrow Assad and at last deliver a major defeat to their nemesis Iran. Instead of quick victory, the Saudis now find themselves bogged down in a protracted proxy war in Syria with ever more risks to themselves. The al-Saud regime was further appalled when Obama suddenly retreated from his own red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. As the bloody Syrian civil war has dragged on, a virulent group of Sunni jihadists once known as al-Qaeda in Iraq spread in Syria under the name of ISIS, declaring their determination to create a new Islamic caliphate in the region. While the rise of ISIS and its fight against Shi’ites Iran, in fact it presents a much more immediate danger to the Saudis.
ISIS’s claim to re-establish an Islamic caliphate encompassing all Muslims means, by definition, reclaiming the two holiest sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina, both inside Saudi Arabia. In other words, it means taking over, or at least dismembering the Saudi kingdom.
So today, Saudi Arabia is encircled by turmoil in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, a country with which it shares a long and very proud border. The al-Saud regime is threatened both by a Shi’ite Iran and a Sunni ISIS that delights in killing Shi’ites. The old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend no longer applies.
But the kingdom’s problem is homegrown too. Young Saudis- officials acknowledge at least 2,000 – have fled their oil-rich kingdom to join ISIS even though the government has issued a decree that sets mandatory prison sentences for any Saudi who join the ISIS jihadists and dares to return.
Having promoted the severe Wahhabi vision of Islam for decades, the Saudi kingdom rightly fears not only an ISIS beyond its borders but also the appeal of ISIS to domestic fundamentalists. Saudi security officials express genuine awe at the high quality of ISIS recruitment videos on social media and their emotional appeal to young Muslims. ISIS is rapidly becoming a fad among impressionable young Muslim males. The Saudi kingdom is seeking to occupy young Saudis at home both by improving job opportunities and providing more sports clubs and other outlets for youthful energy.
Yet the heart of the challenge is modernity itself. Young Muslims in the Middle East, now connected to one another and the outside world through social media, no longer are willing to simply obey authoritarian parents and autocratic rulers. They seek a greater say in their lives and futures. For some, this means joining ISIS to re-establish what they see as Islam’s glory days, even if that leads to the beheadings of fellow Muslims and of infidels whom they blame for supporting the autocratic regimes they believe have suppressed Middle Eastern nations for decades. For others, it means attending Western universities and pressing for more individual liberty and modernity. For still others, it means seeking change that will allow them greater freedom to practice Islam as they choose and to press for governments that are less corrupt and more transparent, and which grant their citizens more individual dignity and human rights. The third group may be a silent majority, but the emphasis is on silent.
Faced with all these challenges, the new Saudi leadership team is likely to be even tougher on domestic dissent and on Iran. They are exceedingly unlikely to seek deals with an Iranian regime they deeply distrust and fear. The Wahhabi religious establishment, which sees Shi’ites as apostates to be destroyed, not dealt with. The first test of their resolve is to confront Iranian proxies will be Yemen, where growing Iranian influence and the risk of terrorism’s spread into the kingdom may soon require Saudi military intervention.
What should the US do to deal with a region trapped in intertwined religious, ethnic and political divisions, all exploited in a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia? Despite the temptation, it is not wise for the US to wash its hands of the Middle East mess or to think it is in America’s interest to simply watch Muslims continue to kill one another. Benign neglect id not a policy, nor is launching occasional drone strikes across the region or limited bombing runs against ISIS. Yet the US should also resist the temptation to jump in and try to untangle the Middle East morass. Only the Muslims themselves – those with a moderate, more modern approach to life – can fight the fundamentalists for control of the Muslim soul. The inevitable battle would be joined when the Islamic terrorists seek to displace their present Muslim leaders, as they must if they are to set up their version of the Islamic state. That is precisely what the world now faces with ISIS challenging the leadership in Iraq, Syria and by extension, Saudi Arabia. Thus, the US should engage patiently and quietly using any means necessary to back moderate Muslims when they merit such support by their actions.
The US has two key interests in the Middle East: the defence of democratic Israel and of the free flow of oil from Saudi Arabia. These aren’t new priorities; what is new is that both Riyadh and Jerusalem deeply distrust the Obama Administration to defend those traditional pillars of US Middle East policy. Securing a nuclear deal with Iran has become Obama’s primary regional goal. Both Riyadh and Jerusalem fear that the Administration will sign a sham deal this spring that essentially papers over Iran’s determination to secure nuclear weapons and thus gives Tehran the best of both world – the opportunity for a nuclear breakout and a big boost in its drive for dominance in the region.
As 2015 opens, Saudi Arabia is using its il production to penalize Iran. The kingdom’s market share is punishing Iran and its Russian ally in Syria far more than Saudi Arabia itself is suffering. There are those who believe that Iran’s economic sanctions. But that almost surely is wishful thinking.
Whether or not Obama succeeds in getting Iran to sign some kind of deal, the odds hold that Iran will become a nuclear power. If so, Saudi Arabia – likely assisted by Pakistan – will not be far behind, thus raising the competition between the two regional protagonists to an even more dangerous level. In this most likely scenario, we all will be there.