OpinionMiddle East

The Cold War returns to the Middle East

Saudi Arabia is playing its renewed ties with Iran, China and Russia against that of the United States.

The flags of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Credit: FreshStock/Shutterstock.
The flags of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Credit: FreshStock/Shutterstock.
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern is the founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a think tank that specializes in the Middle East. She is the author of Saudi Arabia and the Global Terrorist Network (2011).  

As I write this, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Jeddah, meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia. An American offer of $150 million was just made to those areas of Iraq and Syria that had fought against ISIS, the Islamic State. This can be looked at as an American conciliatory trip to allies we have all but abandoned in our mutual fight against ISIS, and, most particularly, to Saudi Arabia.

Now that other players have been courting the Saudis, the Americans have realized—a bit late in the game—that they cannot avoid the Middle East while turning their attention to other international security threats, and that all of these regional foes are tightly intertwined.

Getting Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords, as outstanding as that might be, is no simple task. The Saudis are a very proud people and no doubt were highly insulted when, on the campaign trail, Joe Biden stated: “We are not going to sell them more weapons. We are, in fact, going to make the Saudis the pariah state that they deserve to be” (in reference to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.) Since then, the U.S. administration has walked this back considerably and has granted MBS immunity from prosecution.

In August, U.S. President Joe Biden traveled to the region, fist-bumped MBS and asked the Saudis to increase their production of gas. This was after a particularly devastating summer of American soaring gas prices, and the Saudis did not want to be regarded as a local gas-station attendant. Their response was to immediately decrease the supply.

We are now experiencing déjà vu all over again. We have just asked the Saudis to pump more oil, and they are slashing their productivity by 1 million barrels a day.

In September of 2022, the Biden administration declassified a long-awaited report, particularly for the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, indicating that a Saudi diplomat, Fahad al Thumairy, had been “tasked” with working with an associate, Omar al-Bayoumi, with assisting the hijackers.

Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the two mosques in Mecca and Medina, is a tightly controlled, paternalistic theocracy. It has long been regarded as the most important religious center for Muslims and is the decisive voice in OPEC. The Saudis do not appreciate any dirty laundry being aired publicly.

They also are feeling threatened by Iran, and have taken note of our feckless withdrawal from Afghanistan, our drastic troop reduction from Syria, our basic turning away from the Middle East and towards Asia, and our overlooking and ignoring—aside from a very few rhetorical comments—of the egregious human-rights situation in Iran. This is all because of a futile U.S. effort to resuscitate the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal that continues to this day.

According to the Oslo-based, Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), more than 20,000 protesters have been arrested, 200-plus people have been hanged so far in 2023 alone, and 500 people have been shot in the streets. The record of executions in Iran is among the worst in the world, with 583 people hanged in 2022. A June 1 report from CHRI details how some 720 students and professors now face arbitrary arrests, and Iranian universities are spearheading the crackdown.

Of course, the Saudis saw all of this, and have been scratching their heads and wondering why there seemed to be selective ethics towards them.

They also were profoundly disappointed when in May of 2019, there was an attack on the Saudi oil fields by the Houthis, and America did nothing.

The Saudis are also looking across the Persian Gulf and can see a glaring nuclear Shi’ite arsenal from their very doorsteps. They know that Iran has been stockpiling highly enriched uranium at the 60% level and that it will take about 12 days to get to the perilous level of 90%. Besides the Beijing brokered deal from March, they have endured seven centuries of bitter enmity with their Shi’ite rival, and this relationship is still somewhat insecure; sill, they know that they are an emerging regional power.

America has had a long, solid relationship with Saudi Arabia, stemming back to Feb. 14, 1945, when an aging President Franklin D. Roosevelt met Saudi King Ibn Azziz al Saud on the USS Quincy destroyer in the Persian Gulf. We were in love with our cars and needed a cheap supply of oil. But now that long relationship is being challenged.

Yes, we are talking about “normalization” with Saudi Arabia and bringing them into the Abraham Accords, and, of course, that would be ideal. The Saudis, however, are demanding three, rather high-priced items:

1.) A formal security commitment from the United States, which might involve Senate ratification;

2.) Access to our most advanced weapons systems, including our F-35s; and 

3.) American assistance with the construction of nuclear power plants.

The likelihood of Saudi Arabia getting these three expensive requests is not at all high. They are playing their renewed ties with Iran, China and Russia against that of the United States. They also are recognizing that this is no longer a unipolar but a multipolar world, where Beijing, Moscow and Tehran are calling the shots, and that the United States is still licking its wounds from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is in retreat. As Osama bin Laden had said: “When I see a strong horse and a weak horse, I bet on the strong horse.”

Unfortunately, that strong horse is no longer America. In the perception of much of the world, our “situational ethics” and hubris—what appear to be our glaring double standards—and our lack of dependability as an ally are all tremendously resented.

The Saudis remain fearful of the emerging Shi’ite power just on the other side of the Gulf and have been “diversifying their portfolio,” only strengthening the forces of Iran, China and Russia, bringing a new sort of Cold War back into the Middle East.

We have learned from all of this, perhaps too late, that we cannot turn our backs on the Middle East. In so doing, we only strengthen the backs of our collective enemies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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