Seeks a Re-Set
A New International Role needed after the ISIS fallout in the Middle East
Saudi Arabia’s prestige and leadership stems from its overwhelming presence within OPEC. But, because of the lower oil price and the increased number of traditional and shale oil resources around the world, the Saudi monarchy has necessarily sought other founts of influence and legitimacy. No longer are the senior Saudi princes simply symbols of the Arabs who sell oil and invest in marbled real estate and western financial markets. They have to an extent been abandoning the ‘West’ and focusing on upholding Saudi dominance in the Middle East itself, partly to ensure that their ‘hard’ (Wahhabi) version of Sunni Islam in its most conservative interpretation, thrives.
Meanwhile, the Saudis continue to pursue new spheres of influence. East Asia has become an important diplomatic target. The Saudi royals have undertaken a month-long tour, going from Indonesia to China, via Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. With a retinue of 900 people, several limousines, 450 tons of luggage and large amount of Halal meat (slaughtered according to Islamic rites), 81-year old King Salman bin Abdul Aziz has spent March touring Asian countries in an effort aimed at diversifying his kingdom’s economy. But the choice of destinations carry political weight as well. Indonesia and Malaysia are in fact part of the anti-Isis Islamic coalition, nominally set up by Saudi Arabia in 2016. Indonesia is also the most populous Muslim country in the world and the Saudis have financed the construction of new mosques, and the rise of more conservative Muslim organizations, in that country for years.
King Salman wants to reassure these important Muslim nations in the Far East that his country still has clout, He has announced investment of billions in Malaysian petrochemical projects, also signing an anti-terrorism pact with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia. The point King Salman is making is that the Saudis, cheap oil or not, remain a powerful Kingdom with which they should maintain close ties. It’s also part of Prince Mohammed Ben Salman, King Salman’s son and defense minister’s ambitious "Vision 2030", based on the post-oil era in Arabia, even as Saudi Aramco prepares to float in the stock markets – itself expected to be the biggest IPO in history. Thus, the Saudi tour might partly be a ‘beauty parade /road show,’ to engage Asian banks to come on board. Moreover, Saudi Arabia might be preparing for a world where it no longer holds a privileged position with the United States and Europe, given the US’s shale oil discoveries, Russia’s vast reserves in competition and the geopolitical whirlwind that has re-shuffled the balance of power in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s Role in the Syrian Rebellion
It would be difficult to prove that Saudi Arabia has played an important role in fueling various ‘rebel’ groups and terrorism in Iraq and Syria over the past few decades. But it would be equally difficult to dismiss the Kingdom’s hand. This Saudi role was not casual. There was a strategy that blended Saudi geopolitical goals – especially regional ones – using terrorism as an integral part of its foreign policy, particularly since 1979. That’s the year that Iran had its Islamic Revolution, deposing the Shah, who entertained generally cordial relations with the Arab monarchies of the Gulf, and installing a Shiite cleric in his place. The political leadership by an Ayatollah – Khomeini – was an ‘innovation’ even many Shiite clerics struggled to accept, let alone a Saudi royal house legitimated by its ability to uphold, indeed enforce Wahhabi values, whose powerful Imams are ‘de facto’ separate, but parallel power-holders. The Saudis were able to cement their military alliance with the United States in the 1980’s in large measure because of the ‘menace’ from Iran that both perceived. The Iranian ‘Islamic Republic’, as the cradle and ‘champion’ of political and revolutionary Shiism, had become to them, the very physical manifestation of evil. (For historians, it offers an insight into the intensity of centuries of Roman Catholic-v- Protestant rivalries in western Europe).
Yet Saudi Arabia has a large concentration of Shiites among its majority Sunni people. Many live in Qatif and the Eastern Province, where in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, there were intense protests in 1979. The Eastern Province is where the Saudis extract most of their oil and it is Shi’ite oil workers who predominate in the labour force. Riyadh sees the struggle against Iran as an existential one, given, its potential for regional dominance and its much larger population.
Iran, or in its Saudi interpretation, the Shiite bogeyman, has become even more dangerous to them in the past few years. Not because the mullahs of Iran have adopted a more aggressive stance; rather because Iran has pursued a diplomatic ‘charm campaign’ to regain its place in the international community. The 5+1 nuclear deal for Iran, was such that European and American companies from the oil to aerospace sectors, have rushed to do deals in Tehran since 2015. The Iranian capital has become an Eldorado of sorts, for businesses all over the world now sanctions are lifted, free to operate without fear of an American legal backlash. Oddly, Iran’s rehabilitation is such that the Saudis’ closest ‘strategic’ allies in the Middle East aren’t any longer the Americans, but the Israelis. How curious that the protectors of the Holy Shrines of Mecca and Medina should have more goals in common with Tel Aviv, than with Muslim Tehran. But, the Iranian nuclear deal was seen by them as merely the latest and most direct threat to the Saudis.
Limiting the temporal scope of this article to the last twenty years, would place the first shock to the al-Sauds as coming from ‘liberated’ Iraq in 2003. Tehran welcomed Saddam Hussein’s demise far more even than did the Saudi royals, whose shock was profound when Kuwait was invaded and occupied by the Iraqi dictator, before the Iraqis were evicted by a US-led alliance.
The fall of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Baathist regime.
Financially and ‘morally’ encouraged by the Sunni Gulf States during the terrible 8 years long, Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Saddam Hussein became a liability after his forces invaded Kuwait in a straight land-grab, in August of 1990. The Gulf monarchs faced a dilemma. Iraq had a large Shiite majority. They knew Saddam would never allow the Shiites to seize or even share power. President George H. W. Bush had decided not to pursue Saddam’s armies into Baghdad, after the decisive battles in January and February of 1991 that evicted the Iraqis from Kuwait. His at-the-time questionable decision, could be explained in the context of the Saudi and Gulf monarchs’ Shiite fears.
Skipping ahead two decades, beyond the US and allied invasion of 2003 and its aftermath, the Shiite government of Iraq is now a reality. It was even a concrete reality before 2014, under the regrettable leadership of Nouri al-Maliki. He did little to quell the intra-confessional tensions in his country even as corruption persisted. The Sunni areas of the country, like Mosul, faced so many difficulties that it was no surprise that they ‘sold their soul to the ISIS devil’ in exchange for a modicum of administrative stability. It was a similar ‘pact’ to that which Somalis, worn out by years of anarchy, made with the ‘al-Shabab’ Islamists in 2006; and the Malians of Timbuktu with ‘al-Qaida in the Maghreb’ (AQIM) in 2012.
In Iraq that ‘devil’ was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A former al Qaeda Commander, his ‘pitchfork’ was the army of radicals he had assembled, called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS (Daesh in Arabic). Now known as Islamic State, the group became a tool that the Saudis could exploit or manipulate to confront aspects of regional Middle East geopolitics that the Kingdom found threatening. Such is the logic that explains why the Saudis (both State and wealthy individuals), have financed Islamist rebels in Syria against the established Assad government of Shiites, mixed minority moslem sects, and religions including Christians, from which ISIS also benefited. Similarly it explains the Saudi army’s raids into Bahrain, to suppress an anti-monarchical revolt. It most certainly explains the enduring and escalating war the Saudis are leading in Yemen, to sustain the Sunni President Hadi, with American backing, against the Houthi tribespeople - Shiites who live there and are in revolt, with some success.
The Post-ISIS Scenario for Saudi Arabia
While, President al-Asad with Russian and Iranian help has retaken much of Syrian territory, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical calculus has not changed. Riyadh’s two main goals are to prevent the emergence of a Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian axis; and to build a hegemony in the Middle East. Iraq and Syria were bitter rivals for decades until 2003. Indeed, the Syrian civil war has disrupted an emerging Iranian (and Shiite) dominated area between the Mediterranean coast and Mesopotamia. (The last time Iran’s influence enjoyed such geographic reach was during the Sassanian Empire ca.200-600). But, the Saudis seemed to have miscalculated Iran’s determination to resume a protagonist role. Just as the Saudis fueled the Sunni rebels in Syria, many of which were not even Syrians, the Iranians took up a direct role, deploying troops and equipment alongside Russia in Syria – and Iraq.
This oversight, probably, provoked the Saudis to gamble further, creating Frankenstein-like monsters like ISIS, which have probably grown beyond their grimmest expectations. The Saudis have also played diplomatic moves to this effect. In May of 2016, they imposed the inclusion of Hezbollah in the Arab League’s list of terrorist groups. Hezbollah, it should be noted, has gained respect from most nationalist Arabs (especially after the 2006 Israeli war), who would rather their struggles be focused against Israel than against themselves. The Saudis may even have hampered the efforts of Shiite militias fighting ISIS in Mosul, judging by the rage with which the Saudi Foreign Minister al Jubair, criticized the Shiite PMU (Popular Mobilization Unit) militias in Mosul last December.
In 2017, the Saudis have less to give thanks for than in 2016 or even 2015. The Alawite Shiites are taking back Syria, getting ever closer to a final battle with ISIS in Syria at Raqqa. President Trump may have cooled relations with Russia, seeking to intimidate Iran and threatening to scrap the nuclear deal that his predecessor signed. That might leave a temptation for the U.S. to go for the strike that Trump is suspected of wanting, so as to demonstrate US military ‘muscle.’ Because, if the Americans don’t, then the Israelis, previously restrained by Obama, might well try. (If that were to happen, the world should celebrate Nostradamus, whose interpreters anticipate a truly apocalyptic war in the next few years and such a confrontation as this, would have all ‘the makings’). Therefore, even Trump might be reasonable enough not to fool around with Iran for the time being. That said, Riyadh would certainly have preferred a Hillary Clinton White House. She would have ensured a steady flow of political assurances. Now, with ISIS under fire in Syria and Iraq – and Trump apparently, if not declaredly more ‘on side’ than Obama with Iran in playing a bigger role against ISIS and Islamist rebels in general in the Middle East, Iran’s star could be on the rise now and for the near future. Yet with the factor of uncertainty, characterised by Trump, any firm prediction for the mid-east is uncertain
A clash between Ankara and Riyadh
The Saudis have fewer financial resources at their disposal, given oil prices struggling to reach beyond $50/55. Yet, they will play the pieces they still have left on the board. They are not going to give up their leadership of the Sunni cartel even as there are signs that their global influence is waning. Despite the Allies best efforts, they will likely defy the west, to try to keep Islamic State, or some deniable facsimile thereof, alive and ‘in play,’ interfering in a different strategy.
The jihadists they support in Syria are still active. The peace brokered by Russia and Syria excluded the religiously motivated rebels, who anyway were not interested in peace and they are primarily non-Syrians, probably the best equipped (and paid) and most ruthless, of the numerous militias that have tried for six years to overthrow Asad’s Shiite government. The first salvos of this new approach may already have occurred. Damascus has seen a renewed ‘terror bombing’ campaign in the past weeks. Meanwhile, just as talks for the future of Syria proceeded in Astana, Kazakhstan, involving Russia, Iran and Turkey, there has been an intensification of clashes in Syria’s Idlib province involving various jihadist groups. Idlib remains a contained ‘jihadi reservation’ stronghold in Syria. But, now the disintegrating groups there are fighting between themselves over remaining slices of territory. Their opponent is no longer the Syrian Arab Army, loyal to al-Asad. Dozens of anti-Asad militias sprouted in Idlib since 2012. Unlike ISIS, the main suspect for their funding, other than that of their original Saudi and Gulf Wahhabi patrons, is Turkey whose frontier is Idlib’s border.
Even within the sheer number of such groups, two stand out and hint as to how the Saudis might stay in the game to obstruct the rise of ‘the Shiite crescent’ – however more futile such a pursuit has become. They are Ahrar
al-Sham (“The Islamic Movement of the Free Peoples of the Levant”) and Tahrir al-Sham (“The Islamic Movement for the Liberation of the Levant”). The first group sent delegates to Astana and benefited from the truce made possible by the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, last December.
Tahrir al Sham represents a fragment of al-Nusra Front, the subsidiary of ‘Al Qaeda in
Syria’ (whilst ISIS originally was ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’), which back in July announced it had changed
to that name, led by the Aleppo- born Hashem al- Sheikh. As a sponsor of the Astana talks, Turkey has exacerbated the rift between groups which sent delegates to Astana – therefore complicit in some way in the Asad restoration of power – and those who had stayed behind. It remains arguable that the Syrian war was never truly a civil war, a suggestion Newnations has made frequently from the beginning. Indeed, one way to describe the conflict is that of a small proxy ‘world war’ with Islamist volunteers from all across the Moslem world, congregating in Syria (following a local outbreak of protesting Syrian farmers with irrigation problems, violently suppressed), to fight the Shiite government on behalf of their Sunni faith. This, with Saudi, Qatari, and wealthy Saudi and Gulf individuals as well as governments (to whom religiously tolerant Syria was ‘a stone in the Wahhabi shoe’), footing the bills. As simple - and as complex as that!
The armies that emerged on the ground, were financed by international players chasing different objectives and interests. Whereas, until the summer of 2016, Turkey and Saudi Arabia shared a common goal of overthrowing al-Asad at all costs, even if it meant smashing the country into smaller pieces, now the two major Sunni powers in the region are facing off in an all but declared, ‘cold war’. Erdogan in Ankara, facing the prospect of a divided Syria and an autonomous Kurdish region along Turkey’s southern flank, has decided that he prefers a strong regime in Damascus keeping everything together, as it was before the events of 2011 (in which he was complicit). Turkey, that claims to be a moderate Sunni but secular nation, has effectively abandoned the broad Saudi-American front and joined the Russo-Iranian one – the Saudi’s historic enemy being Iran, although historical tensions between neighbouring Turkey and Iran, are inevitably present. The Islamist struggle in Syria between the various groups could spread throughout the region as part of what might next become new proxy wars. This puts Riyadh and the al-Saud legitimacy at greater risk.
The Syrian proxy conflict could shift, intensifying the struggle in Yemen. The Saudis will want to prevent the Houthi (Shiite) tribal rebels from prevailing there as well. Meanwhile, the various foreign fighters – among these Saudis – could join that fight, reflecting the quickly intensifying rivalry between the Saudis and the Turks. In other words, the Saudis in a regional power contest are becoming a possible target, one against which the potentially megalomaniac, certainly powerful, Erdogan might want to strike. That said, the end of the Syrian war does not mean the end of the threats of ISIS, Jihadism or Islamism. Indeed, many will join the countless other equally zealous and violent groups. Indeed, squeezing ISIS out of Syria, will mean infecting the rest of the region with the virus, as well as numerous trained veteran fighters returning from whence they originally came.
The Saudis have much to fear. For starters, their very legitimacy at home with the Saudi people and the Wahhabi Ulama (religious authorities) has already been compromised. They have failed in Syria and they risk failing in Yemen. The price of oil has not increased, and the Saudi ability to uphold the generous welfare state that has kept many citizens from challenging the regime, could erode. Meanwhile, the Saudi oppressed Shiites within the kingdom, might feel sufficiently buoyed up by their co-religionists’ triumphs, to mount a tougher resistance against the Saudi regime. That, at the least, would disrupt Saudi’s exploitation and shipping of its oil wealth that makes everything possible for the Kingdom’s rulers. If it deteriorated into an armed struggle, that might in turn attract Sunni radicals to come to the Saudis’ defense, bringing a piece of the ‘Arab Spring’ to Riyadh. Certainly, any eventual de-legitimization of the al-Saud, raises the spectre of an ISIS- like organization making a bid to seize the Holy places for the symbolic value for any custodian of Mecca and Medina, to legitimise its claims. (There remains an unanswered question as to why ISIS, at its most aggressive as ‘the Caliphate’, did not attempt to seize the Hejaz, no great distance away, for its supremely powerful religious symbolism in Islam).
Such speculation and much more is inevitable, given the fluidity of the armed struggle, the intractability between Sunni and Shia rulers in the region; and the feeling of unfinished business as it appears to state actors, as well as the fighters, planners and financiers within the Islamic world. It is noteworthy that outside of the region where politics rather than religion is supreme,, Sunni and Shia populations, such as those in India, have long lived in tolerance and at peace.