Saudi Arabia Shuffles its Geopolitical Card
BY Leila Hatoum
Over the past century, three countries have led the Middle East’s political hegemony: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. But never, has the Kingdom, since the days of King Faisal —who cut off Saudi oil from the West— been as assertive and firm in its stand and policies as it is today.
With King Salman Al Saud’s recent succession to the throne, and the pumping of young blood into Saudi Arabia’s top posts, namely ministries of defense, interior and foreign affairs, the Kingdom seems to have reshuffled its geopolitical cards.
This new stand is seen by many as Saudi Arabia’s way of telling the world that the Kingdom will not accept any threat to its own security or regional interests.
Those interests not only govern political and economic aspects, but also religious ones, too.
“Saudi Arabia has gradually seen itself being pushed over the past years towards a highly difficult geopolitical situation. That’s why it adopted —with the succession of King Salman— a confrontational policy to counter any [threat], be it political or military,” Saudi renowned journalist and expert on Saudi affairs, Abdulrahman Al Rashed, told Newsweek Middle East.
With that confrontation “has become a necessity to defend, not only the interests, but also the very existence of Saudi Arabia,” according to Al Rashed, who is also the former general manager of Saudi-owned regional news channel Al Arabiya.
This confrontation is already happening today, be it in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia currently leads a coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi militias, or elsewhere in this region. With that, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it has adopted a new policy: Resorting to offense as its best defense.
The Kingdom’s bold step can only be seen as a result of the new young Saudi leaders calling its shots today.
King Salman’s own son, Prince Mohammed, a young man under 30, is said to be the one spearheading the offensive in Yemen, as his country’s defense minister and deputy crown prince.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also been active on the international level trying to broker a political deal for Syria that brings an end to war there, as well as to Assad’s regime. Mohammed bin Salman visited Moscow in October and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is a staunch ally of Assad. Apparently the meeting didn’t broker anything new as the young prince later expressed his worry with regard to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, and the country’s possible alliance with Iran.
Last week, 19 global and regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, gathered in Vienna to discuss the Syrian file and agreed to work towards setting up a nationwide ceasefire in the troubled Mediterranean country.
Meanwhile, the King’s own nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, is leading the Kingdom’s own fight against radicals and terrorist threats from within.
Another young figure in King Salman’s cabinet leading his country’s diplomatic front is no other than Adel Al Jubeir, who has relentlessly toured world capitals to broker military and diplomatic support of Saudi Arabia’s regional policies.
Of course, those diplomatic ties do not include Iran, since the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations remain colder than ice and tensions between both are hotter than lava.
Both countries, geographically situated at opposite ends of the waters, have had their share of disagreements over political aspirations, hegemony over Muslim countries, ties with the western world and oil-related policies.
Prior to 2011, the relationship between both regimes saw its ups and downs. Despite a slight enhancement in relations in 2011 —following a visit by former Iranian president Ahmadinejad to Riyadh— the ‘momentary brotherly’ ties saw a major dip shortly afterwards that same year.
Ties were severed after March 2011, as Iran openly and fully supported the current regime in Syria, while Saudi Arabia wanted to see an end to Syrian President, Bashar Al Assad’s rule.
The Iranian threat, from a Saudi perspective, doesn’t stop there. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denounced Iran’s attempts to practice political hegemony in this region. The Kingdom alleges that Tehran is not only flexing its muscles northwards in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, but also westwards towards the Kingdom’s own borders.
One example is Iran’s alleged move to control Bahrain, an Arab Gulf State sharing borders with Saudi Arabia. In 2007, an advisor to Iran’s Supreme leader publicly stated that Bahrain should be Iran’s 14th district.
More recently, Bahrain recalled its ambassador from Tehran over what it called “Iran’s meddling” in its internal affairs following a foiled attempt to smuggle arms into the gulf state by an alleged Iran-backed group.
Another threat, which Saudi leadership sees, is Iran’s backing armed Yemeni militias along its southern borders.
“[Iran] had the [audacity] to expand south of Saudi Arabia via its backed Houthi militias and took over Yemen by force… that happened at a time when Saudi Arabia was trying to broker a peaceful solution,” Al Rashed said.
Adding a cherry on the top, Iran’s courting to the West finally paid off with the U.S. and the Persian State signing a long-negotiated nuclear deal in June.
Nearly a month ago, Iran treaded a dangerous path as it tried to pull the rug from under Saudi Arabia’s feet when it came to organizing Hajj, or Islamic pilgrimage.
In the wake of the tragic death of over 2000 pilgrims in the Mina Stampede, including hundreds of Iranian citizens and officials, the Islamic Republic called for including other Muslim countries in organizing Hajj.
Saudi Arabia mocked Iran’s suggestion and created an outcry over Iran’s continued attempts to meddle in its internal affairs.
Needless to say, this spat between the region’s strongest political blocs is taking its toll on the rest of the countries surrounding them, as proxy wars and diplomatic catfight continues.