Why Saudi Arabia Hosted Mattis in Riyadh?

Thursday, April 27, 2017


Jalil Bayat
Doctoral Student of International Relations; Tarbiat Modarres University

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has chosen Saudi Arabia as the first destination of his Middle East tour, which also took him to Qatar, Egypt and Israel. Given recent measures taken by Saudi Arabia, the question is what goal is Saudi Arabia pursuing through hosting the US secretary of defense? It seems that Saudi Arabia is trying to build alliances with regional and transregional powers in order to make Iran withdraw from its positions on issues, which are bone of contention between the two countries.

Throughout their history, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been considered as two regional rivals. However, since regional developments known as the Arab Spring unraveled, and especially after what happened in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, on the one hand, and following conclusion of Iran's nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of countries, on the other hand, this rivalry has taken a more hostile turn and has also led to complete severance of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Some analysts, who have elaborated on identity-based and ideological differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, have opined that the root cause of differences between the two countries with regard to regional crises should be sought in these nonmaterial factors.

Nonetheless, there have been specific junctures in the two countries’ history in which they have had cordial relations and have even signed a security agreement. Therefore, it seems that the main reasons behind the ongoing confrontation between these two countries include objective issues, geopolitical factors and regional interests, and this confrontation has been further intensified by such nonmaterial factors as identity and ideology. In other words, any time there have been developments in the region, which have led to geopolitical changes and caused the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia to come to loggerheads, the two countries have moved toward hostility. At other times, relations between Tehran and Riyadh have been normal and have sometimes even been cooperative. Therefore, the confrontational position adopted by Saudi Arabia against Iran during recent years has been more a result of security-related and objective factors rather than ideological and identity-based issues.

From this viewpoint, since Saudi Arabia has been one of the destinations of the first visit to the Middle East by Mattis, Iran must attach more importance to this development. In view of the differences that exist between Iran and Saudi Arabia with regard to regional crises, including the ongoing situations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, the measures taken by Saudi Arabia in recent months need more attention. It seems that Saudi Arabia is trying to build alliances with regional and transregional powers against Iran in order to make the Islamic Republic withdraw from its positions on a variety of disputed issues.

It is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia also hosted the British Prime Minister Theresa May quite recently. During her visit to Riyadh, the British prime minister accused Iran of supporting Houthi fighters in Yemen, opposing efforts made by international community to restore stability to Yemen, and also sending forces to Syria in order to support the country’s President Bashar Assad. In addition to such political developments, Saudi Arabia has been trying to further cement its ties with the UK by purchasing huge amounts of various weapons from London.

On the other hand, although Saudi Arabia had not succeeded at first to convince Pakistan to join the Saudi-led “Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism,” it has recently convinced Islamabad to allow General Raheel Sharif, the former Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan, to assume command of the Saudi-led alliance. This issue, which was followed by a sharp reaction from Iran's ambassador to Pakistan, can be considered in line with Saudi Arabia’s tactic to form new alliances.

A while ago, Saudi news channel, Al-Arab, reported that Mohammad Bin Salman, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. During the meeting, he had proposed a plan to increase the global oil price in return for Russia’s compromise on Syria with the final goal of countering Tehran’s rising influence in the Arab world. Putin, for his turn, had noted that his country would not interfere in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Of course, this was the third time during the past three years that Saudi Arabia had taken steps to give concessions to Russia over the crisis in Syria. In a previous instance, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had said in an interview on July 22, 2016 that if Russia accepted to cut its support for Assad, Riyadh would give an important share of the Middle East to Russia, so that, Moscow would become much stronger in this region than it was under the former Soviet Union.

Although US President Donald Trump took anti-Saudi positions during his election campaigning, Riyadh is bent on getting the United States under Trump's administration to join its unwritten alliance against Iran. This is why during his press conference in Riyadh, Mattis claimed that Iran was behind all instability in the region, adding that the Islamic Republic must be prevented from creating another “Hezbollah-like” group in the region.

Therefore, regardless of the goals and consequences of Mattis’ visits to Qatar, Egypt and Israel, it must be noted that his visit to Riyadh has been in line with Saudi Arabia’s policy to build new alliances against Iran in the region.

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.


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