“Iran has always interfered in the affairs of Saudi Arabia. In 2003 it was Tehran that gave the green light to Al-Qaida attacks on the Kingdom” (1), said a lecturer at King Saud University in Riyadh, certain of this improbable alliance between a Shia regime and an organisation that regards Shias as heretics. He is not alone: Tarik al-Homeid the influential editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat (which is owned by the Saudi royal family), has called on the US to recognise that Iran is the main sponsor of Al-Qaida.
Perhaps this wild speculation comes from a feeling that Saudi Arabia is surrounded by enemies. The lecturer (who asked for anonymity) said: “We are surrounded by instability, and behind it we see the hand of Iran” — in Iraq, where the government now has almost no contact with Riyadh; in Bahrain, where a popular revolt in 2011 following those in Tunisia and Egypt was seen as an Iranian attempt at destabilisation and was put down by Saudi troops; and in Yemen, where a local Shia insurgency (known as the Houthi rebellion, after its instigator), with mainly domestic causes, has been blamed on manoeuvres by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (2).
Two axes dominate the Middle East: one led by Iran, with the Syrian government and Hizbullah, the other led by Saudi Arabia, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri’s 14 March movement. Evidence of these axes can be seen in Syria and Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia’s concerns have grown as cracks have emerged in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (3). In December 2013 Oman opposed Saudi plans for a union of GCC states, and plans for a unified command structure that would cover the armed forces of the six states remain a utopian dream. All the GCC states except Saudi Arabia and Bahrain approved the interim nuclear agreement reached by the US and Iran in November 2013, and received Iran’s foreign minister. Kuwait is refusing to sign a GCC internal security pact (proposed by Saudi Arabia), on the grounds that it would go against rights enshrined in the Kuwaiti constitution (4).
In this uncertain context, Saudi Arabia and two other GCC states — the UAE and Bahrain — recalled their ambassadors to Qatar on 5 March. Relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have seldom been calm (there were armed border clashes in 1992), though both are Wahhabi states, but the overthrow of the emir of Qatar by his son Hamed bin Khalifa Al-Thani in 1995 heightened tensions. In 2002 Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador in protest over an Al-Jazeera TV documentary about the founder of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud. Diplomatic relations only resumed in 2008, after Qatar promised to tone down Al-Jazeera’s criticism.
The Arab Spring deepened the divide between Doha and Riyadh, although both were committed to providing aid, including military assistance, to the Syrian opposition and helping to speed the fall of the Assad regime. Qatar set itself up as champion of the changes that were taking place, and in the hope of benefitting from them, backed the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia, already concerned at the fall of Hosni Mubarak, fears regional destabilisation and has accused the Brotherhood of being a “terrorist organisation”.
The Brotherhood was for many years an ally of Saudi Arabia, but since the 1990s has played an active role in opposition in the kingdom (5). It is now the main target of repression that also affects liberal intellectuals such as Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdallah al-Hamid, both sentenced to long prison terms. In February the Saudi press published a royal decree ordering that anyone “[belonging] to a radical religious or ideological current or group, or [a group] classified as [a] terrorist organisation domestically, regionally or internationally, or supporting or adopting its ideology or approach in any way, or expressing sympathy with it by any means, or providing any financial or moral support for it, or promoting this verbally or in writing” should be sentenced to not less than three and not more than 20 years in prison. “Terrorism” includes atheism and questioning the fundamental principles of Islam.
This is aimed principally at the Muslim Brotherhood, but is also intended to dissuade Saudi nationals from going to fight in Syria and persuading those who have already gone to come home. According to official figures, there are currently 1,400 Saudi nationals in Syria, though reliable sources claim between 5,000 and 7,000. Why should the Saudi government be concerned, when the media harshly criticise the Assad regime, and this mobilisation should have been celebrated? The government is haunted by the memory of the thousands of Saudis who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s, many of whom later came home and took part in violent acts against the monarchy. A senior diplomatic source said that Saudi Arabia’s “Syria policy is getting very counter-terrorism focused. … The interior ministry is very worried about what’s happening in Syria, as they should be” (6). Saudi Arabia has publicly asked its ambassador to Ankara to take all necessary steps to repatriate Saudi nationals transiting through Turkey.
King Abdallah, who remains in command at 90, decides the direction of policy but its implementation in Syria has been entrusted to two men with very different temperaments and objectives. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the interior minister, crushed the Islamist insurrection in Saudi Arabia in 2003, when he was a vice-minister; his priority remains the “war on terror”. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of the Saudi intelligence services, was until recently responsible for conveying aid to the Syrian rebels; his priority was to maximise efficiency in the fight against the Assad regime, even if it meant supporting Salafist groups within the Islamic Front. His lack of vigilance over the supply of arms apparently worried the US, which is probably why he “resigned” on 15 April, confirming the ascendance of the chief of police over the head of the intelligence services.
‘We are unable to solve these problems’
The government’s support of Syrian rebels has popular approval in Saudi Arabia (except from the Shia minority), but its support for the overthrow of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 has been more controversial. As an influential Saudi journalist (who asked to remain anonymous) said: “For the first time there is criticism. Why do we support the overthrow of Morsi, a president who was a declared follower of Islam? Why are we pouring billions of dollars into Egypt when our own housing and poverty problems are currently so big?” This previously unvoiced dissatisfaction is expressed on social networks, which the authorities have difficulty in controlling. “In an Arab world where the traditional powers such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt are weakened by their absorption in internal problems, more and more political forces are turning to us. And we are unable to solve these problems. We are unable to resolve the crises in Iraq and Bahrain, let alone Syria.”
The change in US policy has heightened Saudi Arabia’s insecurity. President Barack Obama’s refusal to bomb Syria last summer, and the agreement on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, prompted an unprecedented response. After campaigning for years to be elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Saudi Arabia achieved its goal last October. But a day later it turned down the seat and its foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, decided not to speak at the General Assembly in protest at the UN’s inaction over Syria.
The revelation that the US was conducting secret negotiations with Iran (talks hosted by Oman, a member of the GCC), and the announcement of the interim nuclear agreement, have revived Saudi Arabia’s fears of a US-Iranian accommodation at the expense of the Arab world. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of intelligence services, told me in 2010: “We are worried that the US and Iran could both forget our interests. We would be caught between a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Israel. Thank God for Ahmadinejad!” Such a reversal of allegiance would have been unlikely with the then Iranian leader (7). But Ahmadinejad was replaced by Hassan Rohani in June 2013, and it is now seen as a possibility in Saudi Arabia. It’s not the content of a nuclear accord that worries Riyadh so much as the actual possibility of an accord and an end to Iran’s isolation.
US-Saudi relations have been through rough patches; as in a marriage, the weaker party worries about being abandoned. But the alliance remains strategic because it meets the basic needs of both parties: Saudi Arabia needs the US for military security, as shown by the 1990-91 Kuwait war and the poor performance of Saudi troops against the Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2009. The US needs Saudi Arabia because it finances the US arms industry through its massive (and mostly useless) purchases, and because it guarantees the stability of the world oil market.
President Obama’s visit to Riyadh in March was intended to reassure the Saudi leaders by reminding them of these facts. But did it succeed? As one Saudi commentator recognised, Obama’s first priority is a nuclear accord with Iran, while that of Saudi Arabia is to prevent Iranian interference in the region (8). The royal family will have to adapt.
‘Our security comes first’
Nobody “can convince us that Iran will be peaceful,” a Saudi analyst wrote in Al Riyadh. “Our security comes first and no one can argue with us about it” (9). Saudi Arabia could distance itself from the US and repress protests in Bahrain, or give massive support to the military regime in Egypt. But it has limited room for manoeuvre: the US has still not authorised the supply of anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian opposition, and Saudi Arabia has not dared to go behind its back. And the “objective” convergence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel over Iran is unlikely to lead to policy coordination, even if the press has drawn attention to a few “chance” meetings between their representatives (10).
Saudi Arabia’s weakness is also due in part to a rarely discussed structural factor. The monarchy has based its legitimacy on a purely religious discourse that is conservative and largely apolitical — Wahhabism and Salafism preach submission to the sovereign and, though able to eradicate religious heresy, are ill suited to combating political heresy. In the 1950s and 60s, when Saudi Arabia opposed Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Arab nationalism, it appealed to the Muslim Brotherhood, which supplied the political framework and themes for its fight against Nasser. Now that Saudi Arabia is repressing the Brotherhood, it is ideologically impoverished: the Salafist religious propaganda broadcast by satellite TV hesitates between apolitical conservatism, anti-Shia rhetoric and invocations that have little to do with regional realities.
Even the idea of establishing a “Sunni front” against the “Shia and Persian threat” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Sunni Turkey is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and regularly denounces the illegitimacy of the Egyptian regime. Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait refuse to ban the Brotherhood, as it is an important part of their domestic political scene. Saudi Arabia is reluctant to break with Yemen’s Al-Islah, which is close to the Brotherhood, and with which it has historic links.
Though relations with Qatar could return to a semblance of normality (an accord between the GCC states was finally reached on 17 April), this is unlikely to lead to a fundamental change in the stance of Qatar’s new emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, who succeeded his father Hamed bin Khalifa last June. Even this power transition, where a man of 33 succeeded a man of 60, must have seemed insulting to the Saudi monarchy, dominated by old men. Riyadh may take some consolation from the possibility of a realignment of Al-Jazeera; its total alignment with the Muslim Brothers has attracted criticism even from within Qatar’s governing circles.
Meanwhile, Iran is pursuing an active international strategy, forming alliances with leftwing governments in Latin America and with the “secular” Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and sending its charismatic foreign minister to Abu Dhabi and Muscat. “The problem is not Iran,” said a Saudi intellectual who is certain that Iran is a threat in the region. “Iran has a political, diplomatic and regional strategy — like any other country. The problem is that we are incapable of formulating one ourselves.”
Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique.
This article appears in the July edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.