7 June 2017

The Saudi Bid for Leadership in the Middle East

The balance of power in the Middle East has shifted significantly in recent months, due in large part to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to assume a dominant position in that region.  In recent weeks, this drive for regional hegemony by Saudi Arabia has gained momentum.  First, Saudi Arabia stepped up its efforts to solidify the military alliance (the Islamic Military Alliance) that it formed in late 2015 and that consists of mostly Sunni-Muslim states.  Second, United States President Donald Trump choose Saudi Arabia as the first destination for his initial trip abroad as US president, signaling the Trump Administration’s support for Saudi efforts to expand its power and influence over the region.  Now, Saudi Arabia has led efforts to isolate Qatar, a tiny country that has managed to be a major thorn in the Saudi side for more than a decade. 

Together, these recent developments indicate Riyadh’s determination to form a Saudi-led coalition aimed at reshaping the Middle East, particularly in the wake of what it views as two decades of gains by Iran and its Shiite allies in the region.  As these coalitions harden, the potential for a major conflict in a region that is already suffering from numerous internal conflict will rise significantly.

The recent developments in Qatar are a good example of how Saudi Arabia views the Middle East and how it intends to lead a coalition against Iran and its allies.  For many years, Saudi Arabian leaders have been dismayed by the independent line taken by what it views as a small state that should heed their demands.  For example, Saudi Arabia and allies such as Egypt and Jordan have been dismayed by Qatar’s long-standing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, even in the wake of the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood across the region in recent years.  Moreover, Qatar’s backing for some rebel groups in Syria’s civil war was opposed by Saudi Arabia and others, and this put Qatar more in line with Turkey’s position in that country than with that of its Arab neighbors. 

Of course, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network has long been a source of contention between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with Riyadh repeatedly pressuring Qatar to bring the network in line with the positions of other regional media outlets.  Finally, Qatar’s relatively healthy ties with Iran have angered Saudi Arabia, particularly as sectarian tensions have risen in the Middle East.  Now, Saudi Arabia and eight of its allies have cut off ties with Qatar, closing their airspace to Qatari airplanes and expelling Qatari citizens from their country.  More importantly, Saudi Arabia has closed Qatar’s land border, cutting off nearly half of the country’s supply of food and other necessities.  For Saudi Arabia, it hopes that this will be an example for other countries in the region that have wavered on giving Saudi Arabia their full backing in its efforts to lead a Sunni alliance against their Iranian-backed rivals.

While Saudi Arabia has a good deal of economic and military power, not to mention the standing its enjoys as the protector of Islam’s most holy sites, it does not alone possess the power needed to dominate the Middle East.  As such, Riyadh has placed a great deal of emphasis on forming a coalition of like-minded countries that can serve as a defensive alliance, one that is led by the Saudis themselves.  Some countries have quickly embraced this Saudi-led alliance.  For example, Gulf states such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have largely toed the Saudi line in recent years, despite Bahrain’s Shiite majority and Dubai’s economic ties with Iran.  In addition, poorer Arab countries in need of Saudi Arabian economic support (such as Egypt and Jordan) have also followed the Saudi lead with regards to confronting Iran and other regional rivals in recent years.  Moreover, Saudi Arabia has sought to enhance its defense ties with countries further abroad, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

Now, it appears that the United States had given its backing for Saudi Arabia’s efforts to form and lead a Sunni coalition against Iran and its allies, paving the way for the Saudis to take greater steps against their Shiite rivals.  With this backing, Saudi Arabia is now free to coerce states such as Qatar into following its lead or else face the prospect of isolation in a region that is increasingly being divided into Saudi- and Iranian-led blocs. 

These recent developments are all part of what have been described as the Sunni-Shiite Cold War in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.  Clearly, Riyadh is preoccupied by what it perceives to be Iran’s growing power and influence in the region in the wake of the wars in Iraq and the nuclear deal between Iran and the international community.  This Cold War is now being fought as a series of proxy wars across the region, including the conflicts underway in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, as well as the volatile situations in places such as Lebanon and Bahrain.  Furthermore, Saudi Arabia remains greatly concerned about the threat of more unrest among its large Shiite minority that lives in the eastern part of the country, which happens to be the heart of Saudi Arabia’s all-important oil industry. 

Today, with apparent US support, Saudi Arabia is finally free to attempt to regain what it views as the initiative against Iran in the battle for regional hegemony.  Without a major US presence in the region, or with some level of US support for the Saudi-led side, the potential for a full-scale regional conflict will rise substantially.  Therefore, while the world watches to see what will happen to Qatar, the more important question is, will a conflict between the region’s rival alliances be avoided, or will a major war erupt in the Middle East, one that could cause irreparable harm to an already war-torn region.