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Saudi Arabia Abroad: A Kingdom In Retreat

Despite military adventurism beyond Saudi borders, the comfortable status quo is fading.

April 21, 2016

Despite military adventurism beyond Saudi borders, the comfortable status quo is fading.

The home front situation for Saudi Arabia may be grim, but the Kingdom is also hard-pressed to defend its foreign position. U.S. President Obama is visiting the country this week to re-assure the monarchy that all is well, but reality undercuts soothing words.

From serious problems with rival Iran to mounting tension with the United States to endless crises within the Arab world, its ally, Saudi Arabia’s regime is not as confident as its expanding military activities would suggest.

The relationship between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran has been characterized by tension and mistrust since the self-proclaimed “Islamic Revolution” of the latter in 1979.

Read Alon Ben-Meir’s two-part feature on Saudi Arabia: At Home and Abroad

Quicksand Kingdom: A Shaky Saudi Home Front

Saudi Arabia Abroad: A Kingdom In Retreat

The quiet enmity came to the fore in the wake of the 2003 Iraq war and the growing influence of Tehran over the new, Shia-led Iraqi government.

This was further aggravated with the eruption of the civil war in Syria. There, Iran supported the Assad regime with money, military equipment, training and subsequently foot soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Saudis provided similar aid to the rebels and foreign insurgents opposed to Assad – short of dispatching ground troops.

The enmity between the two countries also took a turn for the worse because of suspicions that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Riyadh viewed this as a direct threat to Saudi national security.

Despite the Iran deal, the Saudis remain deeply skeptical about Tehran’s true intentions.

It’s all about the Iraq War

Ultimately, however, the Iraq War that began in 2003 remains the biggest source of regional – and Saudi – insecurity.

The war ignited a dormant religious conflict between Sunnis and Shia. Syria and Iraq became the battleground between the two sects, where the bloodshed continues unabated, claiming the lives of thousands each year.

The execution of the Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr—an icon who called for addressing human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, was charged with incitement and treason and sentenced to death along with 46 others—further deepened the animosity between the two countries.

This caused unrest among Shia in the country, sparked protests in Tehran and was condemned by the international community.

Although Tehran recently called for reconciliation with the Saudis, the latter rejected the Iranian gesture.

The Saudi royals view the conflict with Iran as irreconcilable, due to religious and geopolitical reasons. Both seek to exercise regional hegemony and religious leadership.

Due to the size of Iran’s population, its natural resources and industrial advancement, the Saudis believe that Iran will inevitably become the indisputable regional powerhouse.

Iran would hold the ability and resources to intimidate the entire Gulf region (especially if it acquires nuclear weapons) – a position which the Saudis consider their own domain.

The unsettling relations with the U.S.

Although Saudi Arabia and the United States have enjoyed decades of close bilateral relations, the relationship has soured over the changing geostrategic interests of the United States.

The latter’s “pivot” to the East and the manner in which it has tackled the Syrian civil war or negotiated the Iran deal has not pleased the Saudi royals.

On the one hand, the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia militarily (very actively in the Yemen War) and remains the de facto guarantor of its national security. On the other hand, the Saudis remain unconvinced of the United States’ commitment to that end.

Indeed, from the vantage point of regional security, the Obama Administration chose to draw a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In a recent major interview with The Atlantic, President Obama said that Saudi Arabia and Iran “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood.”

Moreover, President Obama believes that bringing Iran out of its isolation will lead to greater regional stability, from which the Saudis will also benefit.

Another point of contention between the two countries is Obama’s failure to make good on his vow to punish Assad if he crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons against civilians.

This decision created serious doubts in the minds of Saudi leaders that the United States won’t come to their aid, even if their security is directly threatened.

Despite repeated efforts by the United States to assure the Saudis of America’s unwavering commitment to their national security, the strained relationship is likely to persist.

The Saudis still believe that the nuclear deal will only delay – rather than end – Iran’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, which may lead to regional nuclear proliferation.

The dangerous intra-Arab crisis

Due to its riches and ability to provide financial support to several Arab countries including Jordan and Egypt, the Saudis have been able to exert significant influence throughout the region in recent years.

They have essentially assumed the leadership role of the Arab world, which was traditionally held by Egypt.

With the rise of Egyptian President Sisi to power, however, it is clear that Egypt remains an impediment to unchallenged Saudi hegemony in the Arab world. This is true even though the country remains in need of Saudi financial aid.

The recent visit of the Saudi monarch attests to the Kingdom’s need of Egypt’s support in confronting Iran, with the turmoil in Iraq and Syria and in its fight against the Houthis in Yemen.

The regional prognosis for the future does not bode well for Saudi Arabia.

The Sunni-Shia conflict the Kingdom has helped aggravate is simply militarily unwinnable. Regardless of how the civil war in Syria comes to an end, Iran will continue to exercise considerable influence in the country. The same can be said about Iraq, which has, in any case, a Shia majority.

What steps to take

Regarding the Saudi-Iranian conflict, both sides ought to begin a process of reconciliation and restore diplomatic relations. This could also potentially help facilitate a mutually accepted solution to Syria’s civil war.

Even with the best of intentions, the bilateral relations between the two countries will continue to experience ups and downs. Accepting the inescapable reality of where each stands religiously and geopolitically could ease tensions and lead to improved relations.

Both must recognize that neither of them can win a religious war or dominate the entire region.

In respect to the United States, the Saudis have little choice but to trust the United States to stand by it, not only because of the United States’ commitment to shield the kingdom from outside threats, but also because the United States continues to have major strategic interests in the region.

The Saudis, however, must also understand that in being a global power, the United States must balance its overall strategic interests with its bilateral relations with countries who are hostile to one another.

And finally, in connection with intra-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia can still play a leading role, but it must adjust to unfolding events throughout the region while maintaining this leadership role in the Gulf.

Moreover, the Saudis, who have genuine concerns over the security of the entire Arabian Peninsula, should work toward ending the violence between the Houthis and the internationally-recognized government of Yemen – rather than trying to win a total military victory.

Saudi Arabia is facing a pivotal crossroad; the kingdom must take a hard look at its internal and external affairs and chart a new course to stave off an otherwise inevitable violent eruption.


Saudi Arabia's regime is not as confident about its status as its expanding military activities would suggest.

Saudi Arabia faces chaos in Syria and Yemen, a rising Iran, a more distant US and rivals aplenty.

Saudi Arabia's monarchy must take a hard look at its internal and external affairs and chart a new course to survive.