On the Destabilization of the Middle East

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by Derek Davison

One of America’s favorite talking points on Iran is its “destabilizing” role in the Middle East. There’s no question that Iran does things that contribute to regional instability. In particular, it frequently supports armed non-state actors that serve as alternate sources of power inside their countries—Yemen’s rebels, militias in Syria and Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But Iran is not the only or even the biggest contributor to Middle Eastern instability. In this area its contribution is at least matched, if not exceeded, by rival Saudi Arabia. Or, to be more specific, by one particular rival in Riyadh: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). Since his father King Salman appointed him defense minister in January 2015, no single individual has done more to destabilize the Middle East or put more civilian lives in jeopardy than the future Saudi ruler. Saudi rhetoric about Iran’s “aggression” aside, it’s been Saudi aggression that has most afflicted the region on MbS’s watch.

When referring to Iran, the Saudis and their allies have for many years used the term “Arab affairs”—as in, “Iran must stop meddling in Arab affairs.” As a practical matter this is a strange distinction. Leaving North Africa aside, “Arab affairs” are “Middle Eastern affairs,” and Iran, as a large and powerful Middle Eastern nation, will for better or worse continue to play a role in them. But the term isn’t meant to be a reasonable standard for Iranian behavior. Instead, it’s meant to create a reality wherein Iranian meddling in regional affairs must be resisted but the Saudis are free to meddle to their hearts’ content. Worse, the Saudis usually justify their actions as necessary to defend themselves from a supposed Iranian threat.

And meddle the Saudis have—in Yemen, Syria, Qatar, and Lebanon. The result has been chaos throughout the Middle East.

Take Yemen, whose systematic destruction has been MbS’s longest-running project, beginning only a few months after his appointment as defense minister. By now the toll of the destruction is difficult to fully digest: thousands of Yemeni civilians killed and wounded, over 800,000 infected with cholera with the number of cases expected to hit one million by the end of the year, and millions at dire risk of starvation. Saudi brutality reached new heights when, in response to a November 4 attempted missile strike on Riyadh, they closed all ports of entry into Yemen to humanitarian aid. In response to international outrage, Riyadh later gave the appearance of relenting, but this was little more than a hoax, with the Saudis still blockading rebel-held territory and thus leaving the most at-risk Yemeni civilians with little access to desperately needed food, clean water, and medical supplies.

The Saudis ostensibly intervened in Yemen to counter Iranian support for the rebels, though they’ve exaggerated Tehran’s role in that regard, and restore the country’s internationally recognized government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. But recent media reports suggest that Hadi is now effectively under house arrest in Riyadh. The reason appears to be Hadi’s ongoing feud with Saudi coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has been supporting southern Yemen secessionist parties who are nominally aligned with Hadi, in that they also oppose the rebels, but who plan to declare southern Yemen’s independence and whose forces have frequently clashed with Hadi’s. In other words, not only has the Saudi intervention not ended Yemen’s current civil war, it’s created the conditions for a second one.

Perhaps unsatisfied with his adventures in Yemen, MbS has now decided—again on the premise that he has to defend Saudi Arabia from Iranian aggression—to try to wreck Lebanese politics. On November 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation, citing Iranian interference in Lebanese politics through its support for Hezbollah and an alleged threat against his life. He made his resignation not in Beirut, but in Riyadh, in a speech carried on Saudi TV that sounded to many listeners like the Saudis had written it for him.

Predictably, speculation has run rampant that Hariri had been forced to resign by the Saudis, who are the main patron of his Future Movement party and who could have threatened Hariri’s personal wealth, much of it invested in Saudi Arabia. On November 10, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius—certainly no purveyor of anti-Saudi polemic—reported that not only had the Saudis forced Hariri’s resignation, they’d actually detained the Lebanese head of government in the process amid MbS’s supposed anti-corruption purge. The Saudis and Hariri have denied such reports, and yet nothing that’s happened since his resignation has really demonstrated their inaccuracy. It’s been over two weeks, for example, and Hariri still has not returned to Lebanon to formally hand in his resignation, even though Lebanese President Michel Aoun has refused to accept that resignation until Hariri delivers it in person.

In contrast to their performance in Yemen, the Saudis do not appear to have caused Lebanon’s political system to collapse, though certainly not for lack of trying. Lebanese politics have been in a delicate rebuilding phase since last summer, when Hariri and Aoun reached a deal to end more than two years of political stalemate between the country’s pro-Iran and pro-Saudi factions. But instead of sending Lebanese politics back into crisis, Hariri’s resignation, and the perception that he was forced into it, has instead united most of the country against Saudi Arabia. Hariri’s return to Beirut, particularly inasmuch as he’ll come back not as a champion of resistance to Riyadh but rather as its mouthpiece, could shake up this emerging consensus, but for now at least it seems that MbS’s meddling in Lebanese affairs has backfired, to Iran’s benefit.

There are signs that all of this destabilization is starting to hurt MbS and the Saudis in Washington, but so far these have been very insignificant. The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, 366-30, on November 13 in favor of a resolution sponsored by Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) that acknowledges that America’s crucial role in supporting the Saudi campaign in Yemen has never been authorized. But congressional leadership watered down that resolution to the point where the vote, while symbolically meaningful, had no tangible impact on American policy. America’s support for the Yemen war effort continues unabated. Likewise, the Trump administration, in thrall to the Saudis to a degree unheard of in modern American history, has expressed vague support for Hariri but has said nothing about Riyadh’s decision to involve itself in internal Lebanese affairs. For the most part, Washington remains selectively blind to the Saudi role in destabilizing the Middle East.

Photo: King Salman (center) with Mohammad bin Salman (to his immediate left)

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

10 Comments

  1. @ VIRGILE

    In 1991, to prepare the world for the US military attack on the Iraqi army in Kuwait, the US President, Bush the senior, influenced by the Zionists and the CIA applied the usual tactics in psychological warfare, compared Saddam to Hitler. Again in 2002, while preparing to invade Iraq under the Zionist pressure, the US President, Bush, the junior, compared Saddam to Hitler, that the world is safer without Saddam Hossein. The US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld too compared Saddam to Hitler. In 2003 the British Prime Minister Blair joined the parrots queue by calling Saddam Hitler.

    The CIA blueprint is becoming more transplant and identical with the blueprint and tactics used by the CIA and MI6 in 1953 while trying to overthrow Iran’s democratic government.

    The American conspirators are busy day and night while millions of American citizens are kept in the dark by the Zionist American media and entertainment industry, relentlessly bent on their deliberately war mongering misinformation campaigns.

  2. As bad as the Iranians are, they are likely preferable to the Saudis. Saudi is unmatched in perfidy, mendacity and low cunning.

  3. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of been the new “Hitler”.. The only recent ‘Hitler” was Saddam Hossein heavily supported by Saudi Arabia, who invaded Iran and made a genocide against the ethnic Kurds using chemical weapons supplied by Germany. These weapons were used also on iranians during the 8 years Iraq-Iran war in the indifference of the West who hated so much the Islamic revolution that kicked out another western-supported Hitler, the Shah of Iran.
    Saudi Arabia is now doing the same in Yemen perpetrating a genocide on the Houthis Yemenis with the active support of the USA, as usual fascinated by money.
    Iran never invaded any country, never used chemical weapons. never bombed any country, never supported international terrorism. It supports the resistance against Israel an USA’s hegemony and injustice in the region.
    It is therefore ironical that the amnesic prince of Saudi Arabia calls Iran’s Khamenei the new “Hitler”. I think that as his plans against Iran will fall apart, MBS will become himself a baby Hitler.

  4. “There’s no question that Iran does things that contribute to regional instability. In particular, it frequently supports armed non-state actors that serve as alternate sources of power inside their countries—Yemen’s rebels, militias in Syria and Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
    Iran helping their neighboring countries to stand up to the US/UK/Isreal/and now Saudi Arabia’s agressive wars and destruction is labeled “doing things that contributes to instability….”
    And I’m sure this writer thinks that it was Iran who invaded Iraq, and “did things” in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen which led to a complete chaos in the region, and non interference would have led to a complete success story all over the Middle East.

  5. To my 2cents,, it’s sad you decided not read past the 1st paragraph. I’m 1000% sure the Germans before the war decided not to read after the first paragraph too, see what that got us. The truth is, faults are everywhere. The Israelis have a valid case, so do the Iranians as do the Iraqis, the Syrians the Turks ans so on and so forth. The only regime that has no leg to stand on is the Saudis. I mean how can a whole nation be called after a clan of murderers and pedophiles? How can a country behead hundreds of people every year yet be elected to the UN human rights consul? How can a regime, massacre, destroy and be so heartless yet be praised by the President of the USA? I mean think about it my friend imagine Iran was doing to Yemen what the demented Saudis are doing to women and children in Yemen, what would happen? Would we not threaten Iran with Nuclear weapons? Would we not be talking about it in every TV channels, web site and radio stations?? Think sir, please think,,, it will set you free.

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