TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia’s Challenges
October 17, 2014

Saudi Arabia’s Challenges

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• As King Abdullah remains out of sight, worries persist over Saudi Arabia’s ability to handle its many domestic and foreign issues

• The Sunni-Shi’a divide is now seen largely in terms of competition for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran

• But it is not just the Sunni-Shi’a tension which impacts the region as Saudi Arabia and Turkey also compete for primacy in the Arab Middle East; the three-way competition has been a key factor in the chronic conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen

• Common antipathy toward the self-declared Islamic State is the only glue that holds together the US-led coalition at this time: there’s no consensus on how to defeat it, what to put in its place, and the role of Iran—issues made more complicated by questions about Saudi Arabia’s internal decision process.

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As Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah remains out of sight, quite possibly for health reasons, worries begin to mount again about the ability of Saudi Arabia to surmount the many problems that it faces.

These challenges are both internal and external, and while none is especially threatening, cumulatively they cast a cloud over both the country and the region, made darker by the knowledge that without a strong and confident Saudi Arabia, it will be difficult to address the wider issues that have dragged the Middle East into its current state of political decline, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

All three of those countries suffer from the deepening sectarian divide between Sunni and Shi’a that became highly politicized following the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the Iran–Iraq war that followed it. Sectarianism is now seen almost solely in terms of the competition for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia is determined to see the reduction if not the elimination of Iranian influence, despite Shi’a outnumbering Sunni there by a factor of two to one.

In Syria, where the proportions are reversed, Saudi Arabia’s determination to see the end of the Bashar al-Assad regime and a more sympathetic, Sunni leader take its place, are complicated by its competition with Turkey. This is an expression of the other regional fault line between those who support the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood approach to government, adopted by Turkey, and those who support the monarchical system practiced in the majority of the Arab Gulf States and now Egypt. This competition, which is also evident in Turkey and Saudi Arabia vying for control of the Syrian rebel movement, is further exacerbated by Saudi suspicions that Turkey seeks to exert a neo-Ottoman influence in the region, even beyond Syria.

In Yemen, which Saudi Arabia regards as its backyard, an already highly unstable and weak government, plagued by the insidious political influence and relentless interference of its previous president, Ali Abdullah Salih, has been further threatened by the Houthi on one side, a group that Saudi Arabia believes is the cat’s paw of Iran, and on the other, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is essentially al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia in exile.

King Abdullah, together with his closest supporters, has been chipping away at these problems, even if without making much headway, but his absence will not make them easier to solve. His Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, takes a harder line against Iran, and sees any concession as a loss. Yet without some agreement between the two regional powers, it is difficult to imagine the region breaking free from its most fundamental problems.

Indeed, the United States-led alliance against the so-called Islamic State (IS) is a good example of how the dynamics of the region, and Saudi Arabia’s position in particular, complicate the prospect of any truly joint endeavor. There is almost nothing to hold the alliance together except a shared antipathy towards IS. How to defeat it, what to put in its place, who should take the lead, how to underpin any settlement, and what should be the role of Iran, are all questions that have no agreed answer, and have attracted little effort to find one. The stakes for everyone are too high to concede the decision-making to a rival, yet at the same time not high enough to persuade the regional powers that unless they reach a decision, their rivalries will seem of little consequence given the more direct threats that will emerge.

Within Saudi Arabia, the king’s succession beyond the two crown princes, Salman, and Muqrin, remains of enormous importance to some very powerful people. The rest of the world can only hope that those vying for power have seen a route towards agreement. Internal instability, heightened by the death sentence handed down on Wednesday to the Saudi Shi’a cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, who was involved in the uprising in the Eastern Province in 2011 and accused of encouraging ‘foreign’ (read: Iranian) involvement, is likely to lead to more protests. This will further stoke sectarianism and further sour relations with Iran, which must be even more disinclined to help settle the problems of the region in light of Saudi Arabia’s big oil sell-off which has brought the price of a barrel to a two-year low—well below the level that Iran needs to balance its economy.

In the meantime, Secretary Kerry is valiantly trying to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program that hardliners in both countries will accept, and Vice President Biden is still having to sooth ruffled feathers over his all-too blunt remarks about regional support for extremists in early October. Neither of them has therefore reassured Saudi Arabia that the United States is not in the process of reassessing its long-term alliances in the region.

Out of challenges can come opportunities, and if Saudi Arabia is strong enough, it is sure to find some. But with internal problems complicating the decision-making process, it seems more likely that the region will have to wait a little longer before any new thinking emerges. Unfortunately, the need for a new approach is immediate.

 

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