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.

The heat is on.

Diplomatic historians will be familiar with the idea of “two table games.” That is, governments deal with both other states and with domestic constituencies. This analytical approach arose in part as a result of the domestic problems that led Wilhelmine Germany to court the danger of war in 1914. By the early Twentieth Century, the fake-parliamentary government of the Second Reich faced a serious challenge from the rapidly expanding Social Democratic Party, with the powerful labor unions at its back. Middle-class parties were also growing restive with a government dominated by big business and the reactionary “Junker” land-owners of Prussia. To rally support for the established order, Germany pursued an aggressive foreign policy. Either Germany would achieve some diplomatic triumph that would redound to the credit of conservative leadership or the country would face a diplomatic crisis that led all parties to rally ‘round the flag. In the end, however, this policy brought on the First World War.[1]

According to one well-informed analysis, something like the same thing is contributing to the current Iran-Saudi conflict.[2] On the one hand, supporting the spread of the Wahhabist message of conservative Islam has been one way for the Saudis to fend off unrest. Such conservatives have seen Iran as a revolutionary and anti-Saudi force since the Iranian Revolution began (1979). They have quietly criticized the Saudi government for inertia in the early stages of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. That criticism may have helped spark the Saudi intervention in Yemen—and Saudi non-intervention in the struggle against ISIS.

On the other hand, handing out free stuff has been another way of fending off discontent.[3] The slump in world oil prices brought about by the American “fracking” revolution forced Saudi Arabia to choose between reducing production to push earnings back up or accepting lower earnings to maintain their share of the market. Saudi Arabia opted for the latter course because they recognized that if they lost customers, they would never get them back. However, lower income meant that the Saudi public budget had to be cut. Recently, Saudi Arabia announced a 14 percent cut in its budget, leading to reduced subsidies for all sorts of things.

For their part, Iranian conservatives are unhappy with the deal over Iran’s nuclear program and the suspected openness to “liberalization” on the part of younger people. New elections loom in February 2016. What to do? Anything that revived revolutionary fervor and rallied people to the defense of the Islamic Republic would be welcome.

Adding to the grounds for complaint by Saudis about various aspects of government policy is the problem of radical Sunnis. What to do? In October 2014, a Saudi court convicted a Shi’ite cleric named Nemer al-Nemer of sedition and sentenced him to death.[4] On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed him—along with 47 Sunnis linked to al Qaeda. In Iran, crowds stormed and burned down the Saudi embassy.[5] Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic ties with Iran. Other Sunni-ruled Arab states followed suit.

In 1914 German leaders misjudged where their policy could lead them. People had great confidence in rationality. There isn’t much rationality in “playing chicken.”

[1] See, for example, Volker Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977).

[2] Jaroslav Trofimov, “Mideast Internal Politics Fuel Rift,” WSJ, 5 January 2016.

[3] It’s the mirror-image of “taxation without representation is tyranny.” No taxes = no right to representation.

[4] In both Iraq and in Saudi Arabia, Iran has long used Shi’ites as instruments of Tehran’s policy.

[5] It is difficult to believe that the government of Iran did not understand the implications of one more embassy invasion, especially since the seizure of the American embassy figures as the Iranian “Boston Tea Party.” Perhaps that’s why the police failed to prevent it.