SAUDI-PERSIAN RIVALRY: WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT?
"Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday and gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the kingdom, marking a swift escalation in a strategic and sectarian rivalry that underpins conflicts across the Middle East. The surprise move, announced in a news conference by Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, followed harsh criticism by Iranian leaders of the Saudis’ execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by protesters in response. The cutting of diplomatic ties came at a time when the United States and others had hoped that even limited cooperation between the two powers could help end the crushing civil wars in Syria and Yemen while easing tensions in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere. Instead, analysts feared it would increase sectarian divisions and investment in proxy wars. “This is a very disturbing escalation,” said Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a research center based in London. “It has enormous consequences for the people of the region, and the tensions between the two sides are going to mean that instability across the region will continue."Ben Hubbard, "Saudi Arabia Cuts Ties With Iran Amid Fallout From Cleric’s Execution". The New York Times. 3 January 2016, in www.nytimes.com.
"For all the sectarian differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, what divides the two countries most may be the thing they have in common. Both regimes have predicated their legitimacy on a transnational mission of exporting religion and safeguarding Islam. Following the Arab awakenings and the collapse of the regional state system that followed, their competition for power has only become more urgent. For months, the Islamic republic had been warning the Saudis not to harm the dissident Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The kingdom’s rash decision to kill him probably stems from a sense of vulnerability. Weakening oil prices are sapping the Sauds’ petroleum wealth just as the jihadis of Isis challenge the Islamic orthodoxy that underpins their claim to power. The US, for decades the guarantor of Saudi security, has lately seemed not just flat-footed but indifferent. It is not lost on Riyadh that the Obama administration transacted a deficient nuclear agreement with Tehran, which offers ample financial rewards in return for transitory checks on an Iranian bomb. The US has stood aside as Iran directed the battle against Isis in Iraq, and looked askance as the Syrian civil war produced the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the modern Middle East. But while insecurity may explain why the Saudis lashed out, the principal victim will be House of Saud itself. The execution is bound to polarise politics further in Saudi Arabia and beyond, helping Tehran to kindle an affinity with the Arab Shia community".Ray Takeyh, "Middle East Pays the Price for a Poorer, Weaker House of Saud". The Financial Times. 5 January 2016, in www.ft.com The true answer to the above referenced question is: very little. Why pray tell one might well ask? Simply put the impetus for current Saudi policy (and make no mistake, it is Saudi Arabia which has been more aggressive as of late both vis-à-vis Persia and in the region generally), is primarily domestic in origins. Id est., very much a case of primat der Innenpolitik. With the accession of the new King Salman and the two Crown Princes, especially the young (and it would appear very impetuous and no doubt ambitious Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman) 1. For a mixture of reasons including a 'changing of the guard', as well as a felt need to bolster its domestic popularity given the recent financial pressures on the Kingdom due to the seventy-five percent decline in the price of oil in the past eighteen months, the Saudi ruling elite sees an aggressive foreign policy as one which pays dividends. Whether Riyadh is as fearful of Persia and its policies in the region is an unknowable query. However, I for one would be very surprised if the ruling trio (King, Crown Prince and Deputy Crown Prince) are as fearful of Teheran as they claim to be. What might perhaps (and I do mean 'perhaps') calm Saudi fears (real or imagined) would be a more forceful and competent American policy in the Near and Middle East. Something which has been unfortunately almost completely lacking in the past few years. As the Kenneth Pollack formerly of the American National Security Council staff and the Central Intelligence Agency recently noted at his lecture to members of the Lotos Club here in Manhattan (see my post of the 5th of December Anno Domini 2015) 2. Judging from the comments above coming from the State Department and the White House, I do not anticipate anything changing in that regard until perhaps the next American President arrives in the White House and perhaps not even then. In short: do not expect any changes in Saudi-Persian rivalry in the Near and Middle East any time soon. 1. For one example of the Deputy Crown Prince's new policy initiatives, see: Simeon Kerr, "Proposed Aramco sale breaks with Saudi’s past". The Financial Times. 8 January 2016, in www.ft.com. 2. See: "BARACK OBAMA MAKES NO SENSE TO ANYONE": OR KENNETH POLLACK AT THE LOTOS CLUB". Diplomat of the Future. 5 December 2015, in www.diplomatofthefuture.blogspot.com