Riyadh and Representation of Threat in the Middle East

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hossein Kebriaeezadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

The Middle East is a region which has always been grappling with tension due to various reasons. Apart from the potential and capacities for tension, which are embedded in this strategic region, there have been certain actors, which have tried at various junctures to take advantage of these capacities to foster crisis in order to achieve their short-term goals. Saudi Arabia is one of these countries. It is a rich actor with considerable spiritual influence in the Islamic world, which sees a rival in its propinquity in the form of Iran. This powerful rival has been both a blessing and a curse for Saudi Arabia.

The Arab Spring and human awakening in addition to developments, which led to Iran's nuclear agreement with the international community in past few years, have caused major problems for this nondemocratic peninsula, which in addition to seeing world’s abhorrence for Wahhabism as its ideological dynamic component, has been also witness to growing influence of pan-Turkism and Shiism in comparison to Wahhabism.

A combination of these ideological and geopolitical factors in addition to special conditions in Saudi Arabia (including the power struggle within the royal family, reduction of the kingdom’s financial power, cancellation of subsidies, protest at injustice in Saudi Arabia…) and the power transition period in the Middle East have emboldened Riyadh to a degree that it is not afraid of causing crisis and tension in the region even if it causes Riyadh to be considered as the mother of terrorism by its 70-year ally, that is, the United States.

Apart from these issues and according to historical experiences about the rise and fall of power in various historical periods, it is clear that the power transition, which is currently underway, will create friction points among regional actors. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia and some other littoral states of the Persian Gulf such as Qatar will try to manage friction points in the transition period in order to weaken such rivals as Iran and establish their desirable regional order.

Saudi Arabia’s strategy to achieve this goal has been forming an alliance based on threat. The most available threat for Arab brothers is a country, which can be easily defined as the “other” from psychological and ideological viewpoints.

Based on its past experience, Saudi Arabia has come to realize that any alliance among Arabs either in the form of the Arab League or the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] is very unstable due to different power level of actors involved in it and wide scope of their interests. Therefore, the actor, which is to be defined as the “other,” and in other words as the enemy, should have special characteristics. The enemy of Arabs must be prone to be mentally represented as enemy, and to do this, the most advantage must be taken of history and existing differences among countries. This enemy must be also unique in ethnic terms. Under these conditions, any regional move by this player can be introduced as an example of enmity and unfriendly influence. To achieve this goal, the geopolitical rival can be easily introduced as ideological enemy despite Tehran’s convergent positions with the Sunni world.

In addition, Riyadh, which is now disappointed in Washington, has come to believe that Iran's power can be only reduced if this country is engaged in various fronts from the Mediterranean to west of Pakistan and from eastern Syrian and northern Iraq to southern Persian Gulf and Yemen in conflicts with different coordinates, so that, even the resolution of the nuclear crisis would not benefit Iran much.

The question, however, is how long an alliance based on tension and representation of threat would be beneficial to Riyadh?

The Sunni alliance has been practically defeated in Iraq and Syria, has hit a deadlock in Yemen, and Bahrain is now the only fortress which is apparently still standing for the Saudi king.

During past years, Riyadh had adopted the diplomacy of bribing other countries on the strength of its abundant oil revenues. However, at present, oil prices have drastically fallen at a time that Saudi Arabia believes further drop in oil prices is a way to show its animosity toward Iran. Will Saudi Arabia be able to grease palm of a wide range of actors in Asia and Africa, including Pakistan, Sudan and Djibouti, by spending its petrodollars under these conditions?

It is clear that Saudi Arabia cannot keep up its ongoing policy of stoking unrest in the region in the long term, especially taking into account that Riyadh's main tool in this regard is Takfiri groups. However, these groups have not only elicited intense hatred of the international community, but as such extremist groups gain more power, they become more willing to interfere in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs by consistently blocking political and cultural reforms that are considered by Riyadh as the key to survival of the kingdom. Therefore, these groups are sure to turn into the Achilles’ heel of the monarchial Saudi regime in the near future.

Careful review of the approach adopted by such groups, especially al-Qaeda and Daesh, would reveal that they are not reliable tools and if they gain enough power, they would distance from Saudi Arabia’s security agencies.

At the same time, Tehran, for its part, has more reliable tools and friends. The experience gained by Iran during the years it was isolated, has taught the country the rules of the military game while showing it the best way of political bargaining and diplomatic convincement in multiple fronts.

Key WordsRiyadh, Threat, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Arab Spring, Wahhabism, Power Struggle, Persian Gulf, Arab League, (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, Enmity, Sunni Alliance, Iraq, Syria, Deadlock, Yemen, Bahrain, Oil Prices, Takfiri Groups, Daesh, Al-Qaeda, Kebriaeezadeh

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*(Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, Riyadh’s Inefficient Tool for Isolating Iran:

*A Glance at Future Prospects of Turkish-Saudi Strategic Cooperation Council:

*Photo Credit: Boeing in the Middle East