Saudi Ambitions Threaten to Inflame Middle East

by Shireen Hunter

Saudi Arabia has once again been flexing its muscles in the Persian Gulf, partly encouraged by the Trump administration’s full embrace of its regional views and policies. First came the spat with Qatar, supposedly over the latter’s support for terrorism, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Several Gulf and Middle East Arab States moved to cut ties with Qatar. Ironically, Saudi charges of Qatari support for terrorism is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

The Qatar affair was followed by terrorist attacks in Tehran, reportedly by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which targeted the parliament and Khomeini’s mausoleum. The timing of the attacks in Tehran are intriguing as they came after statements by Prince Mohammad bin Salman that Saudi Arabia will take the war inside Iran and by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir that Iran will be punished for its terrorist acts.

These developments are certain to undermine stability in the Persian Gulf and increase the risk of full-scale warfare, which most likely would not remain limited to the Gulf region. Should this happen, Saudi Arabia will bear the main responsibility.

Saudi Arabia’s Negative Impact

This type of behavior is nothing new for Saudi Arabia. For more than four decades, the Kingdom has exerted a highly negative influence over the political development of the Persian Gulf Arab States as well as the prospects for regional stability. Riyadh has consistently discouraged the growth of parliamentary democracy in the Gulf states and nipped such practices in the bud where they’d begun. In the 1970s and 1980s, because of its fear of contagion, Saudi Arabia discouraged the establishment of parliamentary practices that could have transformed Bahrain and Kuwait into constitutional monarchies. Saudi Arabia’s panicky reaction to the Arab spring was also caused by the same fear.

Similarly, through the propagation of its version of Wahhabi Islam, Saudi Arabia has undermined the sectarian harmony of the Gulf States. Historically, for instance, Kuwait maintained reasonably good relations between its Sunni and Shia populations. Because of this balanced attitude, Kuwaiti Shias by and large supported the ruling family largely because of their tolerant approach to sectarian issues. However, in the last several years, Wahhabi proselytization and Saudi pressure have undermined Kuwait’s sectarian peace. Saudi Arabia has also used Kuwait’s newly minted Wahhabis to pressure the Emirate to follow its line on regional issues, particularly on Iran. Wahhabi infiltration has even complicated sectarian relations in places like Egypt and Morocco, where indigenous Sunni Islam now faces the Wahhabi-Salafi version, and exacerbated tensions between Muslims and Christians as well.

Saudi intolerance has even led it to militarily intervene in other countries, notably Bahrain and more recently in Yemen. Not willing to admit that its problems are largely self-made and gripped by paranoia, Saudi Arabia has tried to create a sort of cordon sanitaire around itself. The Qatar incident is the outcome of this Saudi mindset and behavior.

Grandiose Ambitions

Fear, however, has not been the only factor behind Saudi actions. Ambition and the desire to dominate have also motivated Saudi Arabia. The history of the Al Saud family has been one of expansion and conquest. In advancing their ambitions, Saudi Arabian leaders have skillfully coopted major powers: Britain from the 1920s to the 1950s and the US ever since.

Since the 1960s and more actively following the oil boom, Saudi Arabia has pursued a policy of ideological expansion in the Middle East, South, and Southeast Asia, Africa and, since 1991, Central Asia. Saudi Arabia also sees itself as the big brother of other Gulf sheikhdoms. The Gulf Cooperation Council has never been anything but a vehicle for legitimizing Saudi hegemony over other Gulf States. All of them at one point or another have resented Saudi overlordship. This includes the UAE, and more precisely Abu Dhabi, since other sheikhdoms have neither the money nor the clout to challenge Abu Dhabi.

From the Maldives and Malaysia to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Saudi activities and the propagation of its version of Islam have transformed the cultural map of these regions in a highly negative fashion. Their soft and tolerant Islam has been transformed into a rigid and intolerant one affecting all aspects of life from women’s clothing to communal relations. The mass killings of Shias and attacks on Sufi Shrines in Pakistan and Afghanistan were unheard of before the spread of Wahhabism. And no one was beheaded for apostasy or blasphemy. Saudi ideology, meanwhile has nurtured thousands of Islamist militants waging jihad from Chechnya to the Philippines.

The West’s Silence

Through it all, Western countries, including America, have been so dazzled by Saudi gold that they have closed their eyes to all these destructive activities and have never taken Saudi Arabia to task. After the Iranian revolution, containing Iran has provided another excuse for ignoring the kingdom’s nefarious influence.

Some of these countries, especially the US, are hoping that Saudi Arabia will deliver the Palestinians and thus make peace between the Arabs and Israel. In fact, the latest American embrace of Saudi Arabia has more to do with Israel than any other consideration. But this at best is a mirage. It is highly unlikely that the Saudis either could or would deliver the Palestinians or solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially if they manage to convince America to solve their Iran problem first. Relieved of their anxiety about Iran, the Saudis would have no incentive to tackle the Palestine issue.

What the Saudis can do is to cause a rift between America and some of its best Gulf allies or, worse, drag it into another costly and destructive war. Make no mistake: both Saudi Arabia and the UAE want America to attack Iran. Should this happen, it would cost more than even Saudi Arabia with all its gold would be able to repay.

Instead, Western countries should realize that Saudi Arabia must be contained. They should begin to question the blank check that they’ve given the Saudis. No amount of Arabian crude or Arabian gold is worth the damage done by the Saudis.

Photo: Donald Trump and Mike Pence meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. This is a test! Why all of the previous comments were removed?

  2. Something BIG is afoot. First, Qatar gets pressured to kick Hamas leaders out, now Lebanon is being told by the Khazar Land Thieves to kick out Hezbollah, while Israel’s willing bitch, the Pentagon, commits daily war crimes against Syria, all the while stealing their territory.

    I’ve sent several tweets to the butchers at “Operation Inherent Resolve,” the murderers who are bombing civilians and Syrian Army troops, telling them they are committing war crimes and you do know what happens to war criminals? The last time, included a pic of a gallows pole, in case they weren’t getting the point.

    Surprisingly, no replies!

Comments are closed.