Poor Saudis! They have become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Persian Gulf, at least for the United States. They have not been getting any respect from the Obama administration lately. President Barack Obama, in a highly publicized interview, described the Middle East as a region that cannot be fixed, “not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.” The Persian Gulf is a case in point. That is a region where the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is getting hotter. Since King Salman came to power, he appointed his 30-year-old son, Mohammad, as Defense Minister and the chief manager of his court. In this latter capacity, he is generally regarded as the power behind the thrown. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Bin Naif, though he holds numerous posts, is not number two in terms of his exercise of power. Brash Mohammad, it seems, is the second most visible, and ostensibly, the second most influential man in that country. Personalities are important in authoritarian states. Thus, it is safe to say that defense and foreign policy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is being formulated and conducted through the most visible participation of Salam and his favorite son, Mohammad. Mohammad is regarded as the architect of that country’s invasion of Yemen.
Under Salman, four issues seem to be driving the KSA’s foreign policy. First, is the hatred, fear, and envy of Iran. Second, is the Saudi military aggression in Yemen. Third, is the Saudi’s obsession with ousting Bashara Assad’s regime from Syria. Fourth, is the defeat of ISIS, which is a very important goal for the KSA in Yemen, but only a secondary goal in Syria.
These issues clearly clash with President Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East. Obama is the first US president to envisage Syria as a place where the United States should not do “stupid stuff” by waging another war, since it is beyond repair.
The Saudis are still in a state of shock that Obama concluded a nuclear deal with Iran, whereby the latter was allowed to continue its nuclear research program. Now, the Saudis have no choice but to work on a realignment of their foreign policy toward Israel, which hates Iran with equal intensity. However, the chief problem with that alignment is that it may never be made public, given the intensely anti-Israeli environment among the Saudi powerful religious community. Still, Saudi Arabia may be able to become a little overt about its policy realignment with Israel, in the sense that the same Saudi religious scholars also hate Iran on the basis of their long-standing views of the Shias stemming from Wahhabism.
The Saudis also remain envious of Iran because of the way it has handled itself against the United States during that country’s invasion of Iraq. They are envious of the way Iran became an influential power inside Iraq after the US withdrawal from that country. And, in a perverse way, they admire Iran’s commitment to confront the United States in Syria through their resolute support of Bashara Assad.
The United States has long nurtured a strong antipathy toward the Islamic Republic. However, that antagonism is secular in orientation. As such, the United States was open to—and indeed, it sought and concluded—a nuclear agreement with Iran. Even if a Republican president succeeds Obama, chances are that the United States is likely to keep its doors wide open for negotiations with Iran, for at least two reasons. First, Iran remains a powerful player in the ongoing anti-ISIS war in Iraq, where the United States’ military involvement is primarily for the same purpose. Second, as long as the United States continues to seek a political resolution of the Syrian ongoing civil war, Iran will remain an important player around the negotiating table, along with Russia. The United States also knows that there can never be a stable peace in Iraq without active participation and approval by Iran. In other words, in the making and sustenance of peace and stability in Iraq, Iran is likely to have a definite say. Washington has begrudgingly accepted that reality, since it knows how destructive an alienated Iran can be in Iraq.
The Saudi leaders are watching these developments in Iraq, and all they can do is remain covetously on the sidelines. For its own long-term advantage, Iran must ensure that the Iraqi Sunnis are not alienated. For that purpose, it also knows that it has no choice but to ensure the emergence of a negotiated power-sharing agreement guaranteeing political participation and economic integration of the Sunnis in the governance of Iraq. Again, despite being an Islamic Republic, Iran has demonstrated, time and time again, that it is fully adept at negotiating political agreements and deals and then ensuring their implementation, as it has been doing in the enactment of its promises within the nuclear deal.
Regarding the resolution of the Syrian civil war, Iran is likely to remain open to a power-sharing agreement, as long as such an agreement also guarantees its presence in Syria, and provided that agreement does not disturb the current status of Iranian-backed Hezbollah in the Levant.
On the contrary, the only card the Saudis and their GCC allies have in Syria is to back the so-called moderate Islamists. However, the chief problem with those groups is that, despite recognizing that it has no other credible option but to allow them to play a meaningful role in the fight against Assad, the Obama administration has never stopped suspecting their loyalty. Besides, the United States is also fully aware that a Saudi-backed post-Assad government in Syria is likely to be intensely Islamist. And that type of government is likely to remain a source of abundant apprehension to both Jordan and Israel.
So, the US-Saudi strategic drift has not only become a reality under President Barack Obama, who has remained highly skeptical of any US military involvement in the Middle East, but who also steadfastly refuses to become a tool for Saudi Arabia’s continued proxy war with Iran and with the KSA’s military aggression in Yemen. He knows how potentially destructive both of those developments are for the United States’ own undisputed priorities to see the emergence of a peaceful and stable Middle East. A lot of Western strategic analysts believe that Obama’s aforementioned conclusions are the result of the fact that his country is no longer dependent on Saudi oil. That is one reason, but the paramount reason is Obama’s conclusion that Iran is likely to be the future major regional power of the entire Middle East. As such, he seemed to have concluded, it should be engaged on a variety of issues that are quite important to the United States. That is why he has openly advised the Saudis to share the Persian Gulf with Iran.
Examining President Obama’s conclusions that Saudi Arabia has long served as a “free rider,” and an actor that refuses to play a constructive role in the Middle East, it is hard to envision that Obama’s successor would draw conclusions that are radically different from his.
Thus, in order to engage Iran in a dialogue, it behooves Saudi Arabia to abandon at least the aspect of its Wahhabi ideology that has remained highly scornful of Iran as the leading Shia state. Saudi Arabia has to conclude on its own that its mindless bombing and other military actions in Yemen is creating a powerfully adverse image of its country in the global community. More importantly, those policies, because their pursuit is wasting so much money, appear to be pushing it toward a certain economic backwardness and political instability. Having Yemen as the poorest country of the Arab Middle East has been bad enough; now, it is also becoming a fertile place for the nurturing of the two bloodiest terrorist entities: Al-Qaida and ISIS. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to have either of them remain active in Yemen, from where their infiltration inside Saudi Arabia would be considerably simple. Saudi Arabia has to conclude on its own that, only by cooperating with Iran, can both of them become sources of peace and stability from West Asia to the Levant. Obama’s criticism of Saudi Arabia should be taken by its rulers as a clarion-call and an eye-opener, rather than a source of acrimony and anger. Finally, Saudi Arabia also has to realize that President Obama’s thinking and conclusions about that country have become a powerful precedent, which his successor will have a hard time discounting.