(March 1, 2021 / BESA Center)
Following the U.S. administration’s publication of an intelligence assessment that the Saudi crown prince had approved the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom now faces a challenge. Namely, whether and how to further diversify its alliances with other world powers in response to the report and U.S. human rights pressure.
The options available to Saudi Arabia (and the United Arab Emirates) are limited by the fact that they cannot fully replace the United States as a mainstay of their defense as well as their quest for regional hegemony, even if the report revives perceptions of the United States as unreliable and at odds with their policies.
As Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman contemplate their options, including strengthening relations with external players such as China and Russia, they may find that reliance on these forces could prove riskier than the pitfalls of the kingdom’s ties with the United States.
Core to Saudi as well as UAE considerations is likely to be the shaping of the balance of power between the kingdom and Iran in a swath of territory stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Central Asia’s border with China.
U.S. officials privately suggest that regional jockeying in an environment in which world power is being rebalanced to create a new world order was the key driver of Saudi and UAE, as well as Israeli, opposition to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran.
“If forced to choose, Riyadh preferred an isolated Iran with a nuclear bomb to an internationally accepted Iran unarmed with the weapons of doom,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and founder of the National Iranian American Council. Parsi was summing up Saudi and Emirati attitudes based on interviews with officials involved in the negotiations at a time when Biden was U.S. vice president.
As a result, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel appear to remain determined to either foil a U.S. return to the accord (from which Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump withdrew in 2018), or ensure that it imposes conditions on Iran that severely undermine its claim to regional hegemony.
In the ultimate analysis, the Gulf states and Israel share U.S. objectives that include not only restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities but also limiting its ballistic-missile program and ending support for non-state actors like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Yemen’s Houthis. The Middle Eastern states differ with the Biden administration on how to achieve those objectives and the sequencing of their pursuit.
Even so, the Gulf states are likely to realize, as Saudi Arabia contemplates its next steps, what Israel already knows: Chinese and Russian commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia or Israel is unlikely to match that of the United States, given that they view an Iran unfettered by sanctions and international isolation as strategic in ways that only Turkey, rather than other Middle Eastern states, can match.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will also have to recognize that they can attempt to influence U.S. policies with the help of Israel’s powerful Washington lobby and influential U.S. lobbying and public relations companies in ways that they are not able to do in autocratic China or authoritarian Russia.
Beijing and Moscow will no doubt seek to exploit opportunities created by Washington’s recalibration of its relations with Riyadh with arms sales as well as increased trade and investment. But that will not alter the two countries’ long-term view of Iran as a country that, while problematic, possesses attributes the Gulf states cannot match, even if it is momentarily in economic and political disrepair.
Those attributes include Iran’s geography as a gateway at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe; ethnic, cultural and religious ties with Central Asia and the Middle East; a deep-seated identity rooted in the empire; some of the world’s foremost oil and gas reserves; a large, highly educated population of 83 million that constitutes a huge domestic market; a fundamentally diversified economy; and a battle-hardened military.
Iran also shares Chinese and Russian ambitions to contain U.S. influence, even if its aspirations at times clash with those of China and Russia.
“China’s BRI will on paper finance additional transit options for the transfer of goods from ports in southern to northern Iran and beyond to Turkey, Russia, or Europe. China has a number of transit options available to it, but Iranian territory is difficult to avoid for any south-north or east-west links,” said Iran scholar Alex Vatanka, referring to Beijing’s infrastructure, transportation and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative.
Compared to an unfettered Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE primarily offer some of the most strategic waterways through which much of the world’s oil and gas flows, as well their positioning opposite the Horn of Africa and their energy reserves.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s position as a religious leader in the Muslim world, built on its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, could potentially be challenged as the kingdom competes for leadership with other Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority states.
On the principle of “better the enemy you know than the devil you don’t,” Saudi leaders may find that in the best of scenarios, in response to changing U.S. policies. they are able to rattle cages by reaching out to China and Russia in ways that they have not until now. Still, at the end of the day, they have no good choices.
That conclusion may be reinforced by the realization that by not sanctioning Prince bin Salman in the wake of the intelligence assessment’s publication, the United States has signaled that it does not wish to cut the kingdom’s umbilical cord. That message was also contained in the Biden administration’s earlier decision to halt the sale of weapons that Saudi Arabia could use for offensive operations in Yemen but not arms that it needs to defend its territory from external attack.
At the bottom line, Saudi Arabia’s best option is to work with its allies to develop the kind of economic and social policies as well as governance that would enable it to capitalize on its assets to effectively compete. Containment of Iran is a short-term tactic that will eventually run its course.
Former British diplomat and Royal Dutch Shell executive Ian McCredie warned: “When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in 1922, it created a vacuum which a series of powers have attempted to fill ever since. None has succeeded, and the result has been a century of wars, coups, and instability. Iran ruled all these lands before the Arab and Ottoman conquests. It could do so again.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident senior associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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