After the passage of many desert sands in the hourglass of history, on-again, off-again U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is realizing its impulsive strategies and ill-conceived policies are not working in its favor. Whoever thought that, in this era of chest-pounding, the desert kingdom would at long last reach out to Iraq to mend relations between Riyadh and Tehran?
Impossible of these age-old enemies? One is, after all, the great Sunni leader of the Mideast; the other is a rising Shia power. Yet that’s exactly what has happened this summer.
Iraqi TV’s Alghadeer reports that Mohammed bin Salman, the impulsive crown prince who once vowed he would take the kingdom’s fight to Iran, has reached out to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi requesting al-Abadi lead a mediation effort with Iran. Among glad tidings: a Saudi promise to treat warmly all Iranian Muslims making pilgrimages to holy sites in the kingdom.
Why the sudden change of heart from Saudi Arabia? The answer lies not only in the Middle East’s complex political dynamics but also in the kingdom’s declining clout. Let no one fall for the Saudis’ increasingly empty promises and false declarations.
The kingdom’s request that Iraq act as a mediator to mend Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran shows the desert kingdom realizes a hard political truth: Rather than fight Iran on all fronts (including in the disastrous Yemen conflict next door), it makes sense to re-establish relations, work together (if only superficially) to resolve regional issues (including Syria, Yemen, Iraq, etc.) and, finally, find common ground on troublesome oil prices.
Another explanation: Saudi Arabia wants to accelerate inevitable political changes that will speed across the region once the Syrian conflict is resolved (if ever), tensions in Yemen subside, the blockade of Qatar is lifted and oil prices stabilize. My guess is someone is advising Saudi leadership not to lock horns with Iran because China and Russia will work behind the scenes to pull the two nations apart, purely as a favor to Iran.
Mind you, it is in the interest of both China and Russia that conflicts in the region persist. That way, both countries — Russia and China — can realize greater opportunities to multiply their economic and political footprints in the region and influence broader internal affairs of the Middle East.
Yes, there are those in the Middle East who dreamily argue that re-establishment of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia would bring long-lost stability to the region. I disagree. The reason for Saudi outreach stems from the kingdom’s mounting fear of losing its leadership role and prestige — whatever’s left of all this in the Middle East — in the face of Iran’s growing influence.
One doesn’t have to look far to find evidence of Saudi outreach. For instance, Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite and an anti-American figure who commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and southern cities, recently visited the Gulf region during the ongoing dispute between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc. (Qatar just Thursday reaffirmed its controversial diplomatic ties with Iran.)
Of note for those not near a world map: Shia-majority Iraq lies on the fault line between Shia-dominated Iran and Sunni-ruled Arab Gulf monarchies that include Saudi Arabia. As I argue in my forthcoming book, “Saudi Arabia: Islam, Corruption and the Hidden Truth,” the future of Saudi Arabia will change as the region’s geopolitical shift continues. The future landscape is one in which (a) Iran’s influence continues to grow and (b) Saudi Arabia pursues unsound foreign policies, allows domestic discontent (high unemployment) to grow and permits royal family feuding to intensify. In short, Saudi Arabia’s desire to repair relations with Iran is merely a strategic move and has nothing to do with any tenets of Islamic brotherhood.
My sense is the desert kingdom — that is, the royal family — is worried more about its survival and domestic stability. Diverting attention to new partnerships or even diplomatic understandings, however hollow, could be a good strategy. However, if discontent seizes the people of Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Khobar and Qatif and if complications arise in the Shia eastern province, things could quickly go south. And Iran stands to benefit from a destabilized Saudi Arabia. It could not only increase its influence in Iraq, Yemen and Syria more than it already has, it could also open up opportunities in other Gulf states, including Bahrain and Kuwait. That sends chills down spines of some observers in Sunni circles.