While using the term “destabilize” in conjunction with the Middle East might seem rather redundant, recent actions orchestrated by Riyadh have the potential to make the foundations of this turbulent region even more unstable.
Recent development in the region, lead by the abrupt resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, have brought to light the extent of Saudi involvement with regional politics. Just a few years ago, this kind of open demonstration of power would be unthinkable and has prompted politicians and analysts alike to ponder the question of how much damage could Saudi Arabia’s action cause to the Middle East.
Riyadh’s open meddling with Lebanon’s internal politics is a clear indicator of the kingdom’s attempts to distance itself from its oil wealth. What would once be solved with money behind closed doors is now pursued with aggression in the open.
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How did this severe change in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy come to be? Despite the fact it seems like an obvious culmination of the regional tensions that took place over the last few months, it’s actually a well-thought-out, long-term strategy to dethrone Iran as the region’s hegemon.
During the 1990s, Iran’s influence on the dozen or so prominent Middle Eastern countries was too insignificant to count. However, with the rise of its militant Shia Hezbollah party, Iran’s influence over the neighboring Shia countries began to spread.
Saudi Arabia’s distaste for Iran has little to do with economics
With both states being incumbent members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the scenario of them competing for export markets is highly unlikely.
Despite the fact that Iran’s response to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was to start exporting petroleum freely, lowering the price of petroleum, it appears that it hasn’t tarnished its relations with any of the 14 member countries.
The U.S. shale oil production has grown significantly in the past couple of years, and with the Department of Energy stating that its output is bound to grow by another 81,000 barrels a day just in November this year, its impacts on petroleum prices is much greater than Iran’s. However, Saudi-U.S relations have been on the rise with the Trump administration, and it seems apparent that the two countries diplomatic relations are not suffering.
As a battle between economies isn’t the root of the conflict, many analysts are suspecting religion as the cause of the ever increasing distaste the Saudi kingdom has for Iran.
With two opposing Islamic fractions present – Iran being a Shi’ite state and Saudi Arabia having a hard-line Sunni Wahhabi government – the religious schism between the two countries shouldn’t be overlooked. Religion, especially when it comes to Islam and the fractions within it, is a powerful tool that could be used to manipulate the perceived perception of a country. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seems very aware of this as he increasingly seeks to position Saudi Arabia as a moderate Islamic state, increasing the contrast between the majority Sunni state and a more extreme Shia country.
Saudi Arabia’s support for the secular, nationalist military in Egypt is a clear indicator of how freely Saudi officials use religion to pursue their foreign policy goals. With the ample support it gives to the secular atheist government of Bashar al-Assad’s Baath, Iran is also guilty of this.
Hard-lined Sunni Wahhabi Saudi Arabia also seems to disregard any religious relations when it comes to their Qatari counterparts. The question of how to handle Iran’s influence over the region has divided the two countries, stretching the already tense relations to their breaking point, which resulted in a full-blown diplomatic crisis. Several Middle Eastern countries lead by Saudi Arabia have cut all diplomatic and trading ties with Qatar, leaving the country dealing with ruinous consequences.
Divide and rule
It seems as almost all of Saudi Arabia’s actions had a very clear purpose to bring turmoil and instability to the countries they were directed to. The divide and rule is most likely Saudi Arabia’s strategy when it comes to dealing with Iran – unable to defeat Iran in a conventional conflict, Riyadh seeks to lower its influence on Middle Eastern countries so that the very foundations of Hezbollah start to get shaky.
The abrupt resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri from Saudi Arabia’s capital is clearly another attempt to destabilize Iran’s satellite countries from within. With Lebanon’s general elections scheduled for next spring, an increasing distrust in the governing body could bring drastic change to the country.
With Lebanon’s Christian President, Michel Aoun, being an open ally of Iran’s Hezbollah party, even a slight shift in Lebanon’s power could drastically lower the amount of influence Tehran has on the country. A Prime Minister with a more strident stance on Hezbollah than Hariri would tilt Lebanon away from Iran and closer to Saudi Arabia.
The statements recently made by General Lieutenant Gadi Eizenkot about Israel being ready to cooperate and share intelligence with Saudi Arabia is a clear indicator of the changes happening in the Levant. A connection that would be considered unimaginable just a few years ago is now actively taking place on the diplomatic spectrum, all thanks to the increasing Iranophobia that seems to be looming over Saudi Arabia.
However, despite what seems to be very elaborate schemes orchestrated by Riyadh have failed to remove any power from Iran and its militant ruling party, Hezbollah. Its reign over Lebanon, Yemen and Syria does not seem to have faded, and the only thing that seems to have increased is the number of eyes watching over the situation.
How far is Saudi Arabia’s impact going to reach is yet to be seen, but what remains clear is that a solution to the rising tensions in what was already a problematic region seems to be more unattainable than ever.