Saudi Arabia in Search of Allies.

Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with the danger from Shi’ite Iran.[1]   Government spokesmen continually portray Iran as “expansionist and interventionist.”  Moreover, the basic values espoused by Shi’ite Iran clash with those that under-pin Sunni Saudi Arabia.  As one Saudi Shi’ite put it, “What we are asking for, we ask for everyone in Saudi Arabia…: We are against corruption, and we are for women’s rights, for elections, against sectarianism.”  The 2011 “Arab Spring” sparked widespread protests in the Shi’ite areas of eastern Saudi Arabia.  The government saw these as an Iranian effort to sow disorder.  A heavy repression (mass arrests, executions of leading dissidents) fell on the Shi’ites.  This has driven dissent underground.

Saudi Arabia pursued an equally vigorous course abroad.  In 2015, it intervened in Yemen’s civil war to prevent pro-Iranian Houthis from taking complete control of the country on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern border.[2]  Assisted by the Egyptian navy, the Saudis imposed a blockade of Yemen’s ports.  The Saudis also unleashed a devastating bombing campaign.

The struggle against Iran has sent Saudi Arabia in search of allies.  Egypt’s military government–in power since General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, overthrew the Mohammed Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013—sees political Islam as the country’s chief danger.  This, in turn, means that the “moderate” Sunni rebels in Syria—with an ideological affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood—pose a greater danger than does the Assad government.  Then there is the even greater danger from the Islamic State.  Until 2015, Saudi Arabia also opposed the Brotherhood.  After the coup, Saudi Arabia poured in financial aid to the Sisi government.

Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan is an exponent of political Islam who feels threatened by a military coup.[3]  An anti-Islamist military coup in Egypt might put ideas in the head of more secular Turkish generals.  So Turkey opposed the overthrow of Morsi.  Also, Turkey favored the Sunni “moderates” in Syria.  This created a divide between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  In 2015, however, the succession to the Saudi throne of King Salman changed the Saudi position on the Muslim Brotherhood.  This opened the road to cooperation with Turkey.

Back in Summer 2016, Saudi Arabia had two chief allies in the struggle against Shi’ite Iran: Turkey and Egypt.  Turkey joined Saudi Arabia in supporting the Sunni rebels against Bashar al Assad in Syria.  Egypt played a valuable role in the struggle against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  Owing to their different stances on the Muslim Brotherhood, however, those two allies were estranged from one another.

For the moment, Russian intervention has tipped the balance in favor of the Shi’ites.  The Russian alliance with Iran and Iraq to support the Assad government of Syria against the “moderate” rebels appears on the verge of winning the day in that struggle.  Turkey, which refused to break diplomatic relations with Iran after mobs ransacked the Saudi embassy to protest the execution of a Shi’ite imam, seems to be making its peace with Russia and its Shi’ite allies.  Meanwhile the economically costly Yemen war drags on as Saudi Arabia imposes austerity policies on its coddled subjects.  It’s trite to say, but alliances are complicated things.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Feuding Friends Frustrate Saudi Efforts on Iran,” WSJ, 1 July 2016; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudis See Time on Their side in Yemen,” WSJ, 23 July 2016; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudis Contain Shiite Unrest at Home,” WSJ, 2 September 2016.  Yes, I’m just cleaning out my files over Christmas break.

[2] Whether this posed an actual danger given the many problems of Yemen is open to question.  See:

[3] Also, he’s one of those guys with a sunburned personality who goes “Ouch” at every perceived slight.