The energetic young leadership in Saudi Arabia is facing insurmountable challenges and the most imminent one by far is Iran’s aggressive policy in the region and beyond. Iran’s, to coin a phrase, “Arc of Ambitions” stretches from Baghdad through the Gulf, Syria, Lebanon and the Saudi’s “soft belly”: Yemen. Since the signing of the nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of world power, Tehran’s top clerics and their powerful army of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC, do not hide their country’s policy and openly claim their intervention in the region aims to prominently establish Iran as the centre of power in the region.
This has been the main topic of discussion in the British capital during the latest round of visits of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, to both Cairo and London. The Saudi crown prince was highly received in both capitals and was given the red-carpet hospitality usually extended only to heads of states. Prince Mohammad is due to visit the US next week and is expected to highly engage in comprehensive talks with the American hierarchy, including President Donald Trump.
Turkey’s intentions ... make the challenges confronting Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy more acutely urgent.”-Mustapha Karkouti
Saudi Arabia, as the only regional Arab power left in the driving seat to lead the Arabs in their endeavour to face up to the Iranian vicious and destructive attack, finds itself in an unprecedentedly historic situation in the struggle for self-preservation.
The kingdom has experienced a similar attempt threatening its existence in the past during the era of the late king Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz in 1962. The imminent threat then originated from North Yemen, renamed Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) after the 1962’s coup that had ended the rule of Al Mutawakkelite dynasty, led by the military under the commander of Abdullah Al Sallal, hugely supported by the most popular Arab leader of his time, Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. Having miserably failed earlier in 1961 to keep the first ever unity between two countries in modern Arab time, Syria and Egypt, within the framework of United Arab Republic (UAR) that was established in 1958, Nasser opted to regain his regional authority through attempting to win the “Saudi Jewel” by significantly using the immense pressure of his Second Army Division stationed in the Yemen corridor to achieve his goal.
However, this is history now, but Nasser’s plot should be looked at as seriously fateful since it was carried out with the full support of the then Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. Iran is currently engaged in the most vicious war against the existing political order in the region and causing in the process, unprecedented destruction and unimaginable deaths never seen in the region. Saudi Arabia as the leading power of the Arab coalition, must be equally aware of its responsibility on the one hand, and the huge task it is facing on the other. This probably explains the kingdom’s recent wide-ranging moves in widening up its balancing act on the world stage by building relationships with many different powers, particularly those who are heavily involved in the region.
The visit last year to Moscow by King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, the first by a Saudi monarch, explains the Saudi current foreign outlooks. Having withdrawn almost completely from Iraq and limiting -so far- its presence into northern Syria, the US can no longer be considered the single power that the Saudis would necessarily depend on. Events of the so-called Arab Spring in the region have shown how accurate this assumption is.
Since then, and in view of former president Barack Obama’s decision to decisively pack up from the region during his second term in office, there is no clear certainty of any substantial and direct role of the US in the region in the foreseeable future. Despite the noisy rhetoric occasionally coming out from the White House in the past weeks accusing Tehran of supplying illegal weapons to the Al Houthi group in Yemen, the American reaction is still limited to words rather than action. Equally true, Trump’s administration remains ineffective in facing up to Iran’s uninterrupted political, financial and military support to Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus.
However, with this uncertainty the Gulf’s Arabs were led to believe that the US would eventually reconsider, or in the process of reconsidering their historic security presence and their long-term commitment in the region. But, regardless of what the Arabs think, it is still clear that there is no other power that has advanced itself to replace or fill the vacuum the US has left in the region. Russia’s role in the Middle East, though far from constructive, is tightly limited within Syria and aims under the current circumstances mainly to shore up Damascus regime. In fact, Moscow has made it clear that its interests would be exclusively satisfied by establishing presence in the warm waters of the Mediterranean through its air and naval bases along Syria’s coastal area.
With Turkey’s intentions, as another major regional power which has ambitions of its own in the region, make the challenges confronting Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy more acutely urgent. The nature of political realities in the region have fundamentally been transformed. This does not necessarily mean the Saudis would need to change their alliance with the US. But they are aware that — in order to curtail the advancement of Iran’s regional hegemony — they need to widen their network of partnership in energy and trade with the rest of the world, particularly Europe, India and China.
Mustapha Karkouti is a columnist and former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. Twitter: @mustaphatache