If Gulf states, the US and Europe welcome the opening to Iran, can Saudi Arabia take a contrary position?
Riyadh readjusts its policies as regional dynamics change
On January 20, an interim deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, to freeze much of the Iranian nuclear programme will take effect. In exchange, the international community will ease sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Saudi Arabia has been worried that any lifting of the sanctions, for nothing in return, will only give Tehran latitude to pursue a campaign of domination in the Middle East. But the Saudis, in their hard-nosed attitude toward Iran, are also increasingly isolated, as many governments, including governments in the Arab world, welcome improved relations. Sensing this, the kingdom appears to be in the process of readjusting its policies in order to compensate.
Saudi mistrust of the West – and particularly the US – opening to Iran did not sit well with the Obama administration, which views better relations as a step that may lower tensions in the Middle East. This optimism has not pleased the Saudis, but it also must have made them wary of allowing a rift to widen with Washington, the ultimate guarantor of the kingdom’s security.
Even in the Saudis’ immediate zone, the Gulf, the kingdom’s scepticism has not necessarily been shared. Both Kuwait and Qatar welcomed the nuclear deal with Iran. Qatar’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it would enhance peace and security in the region, an opinion that must have made the Saudis groan.
But the Saudis were jolted when the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) took over large parts of Fallujah and Ramadi two weeks ago. While the kingdom is no friend of Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, the prospect of an Al Qaeda-controlled territory on the kingdom’s northern border posed a major threat.
It was no surprise, then, that in Syria the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, a coalition of mainly Salafist rebel groups, took the lead in fighting Isil in and around Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa. Realising that the narrative of the Syrian conflict had changed due to the presence of Isil – from that of a legitimate uprising against a dictator to a war that was allowing Al Qaeda to spread throughout the region – the Saudis saw the reaction against Isil as a way of saving the Syrian revolution and giving it renewed credibility.
This was also necessary to regain some credibility for the Saudi regime itself, which had been accused by its political enemies of backing Al Qaeda groups in Iraq and Syria against Iran and its allies.
In Lebanon, which is also on the front-lines in the continuing Sunni-Shia struggle, the Saudis gave the green light for the formation of a national-unity government that may be announced this week. Saad Hariri, who is close to the Saudis, has accepted to be part of a government that will also include Hizbollah, even though he has strongly implied that the party was behind the assassination of his adviser Mohammed Chatah in December.
Hizbollah has also become more flexible in accepting a power-sharing formula that will satisfy all sides, probably encouraged by Iran. This may be to lower sectarian strife in Lebanon, but also because the party needs to build a consensus to cover its controversial intervention in Syria, and in the run-up to the Lebanese presidential election in May, when it hopes to replace the president, Michel Suleiman, with a more compliant figure.
Three weeks ago, it was announced that Saudi Arabia would provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion (Dh11 billion) in military assistance. The primary aim of the gesture is to discredit Hizbollah’s claim that it must retain its weapons because the army is not strong enough to fight Israel. There have been fears that Hizbollah’s allies in the Lebanese government, notably the defence minister, Fayez Ghosn, would try to block the assistance. But the money is to be paid directly to French companies, so this will not be easy. More importantly, after a long period in which the Saudis had seemed detached from Lebanese affairs, the formation of the government and the funds to the army suggest a renewed concern with what goes on in Lebanon.
The Saudis are also keeping an eye on the Geneva conference on Syria, which is scheduled to start next week. The kingdom’s allies in Syria have gained strength, with the Islamic Front sidelining the western-backed Supreme Military Council of Salim Idriss. This puts the Saudis in a better position to block any accord reached in Geneva with which they are unhappy.
One thing the Saudis and Iranians seem to share is a desire to avert a broader Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict in the region. This explains why both countries allowed a government of national unity to be formed in Lebanon, after several months of deadlock. It is also why the Iranians and the Saudis are objective allies in trying to contain Isil in both Syria and Lebanon.
With many Gulf states, the US and Europe welcoming the opening to Iran, the Saudis cannot be seen to be taking a contrary position, especially through actions that exacerbate sectarian hostility. That explains why the kingdom has shifted its behaviour in Syria and Lebanon, even as it continues its efforts to gain the upper hand in Syria. Balancing its different objectives will be tricky, but Riyadh can see that much is changing around it.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling