by Shireen T. Hunter
By militarily attacking Yemen, Saudi Arabia has committed its second aggression against a regional country in less than four years. The first was in Bahrain in 2011. This time, in addition to some Gulf Cooperation Council members, the Saudis have also dragged in Pakistan and Egypt. They may also engage other Arab states.
Saudi Arabia is thus risking that Gulf conflicts will extend to the broader Middle East and even South Asia. It has justified its aggression against regional states on the grounds that Iran and its regional proxies are threatening its security by trying to entice Shia populations throughout the Middle East to rise against existing political orders. More extravagantly, the Saudis, plus some other countries in the region, accuse Iran of wanting to establish a Perso-Shia Empire. As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sees himself as a latter-day Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, has put it, Iran wants to dominate the entire Middle East.
Yet deep in their hearts the Saudis know that Iran has neither the capability nor the intention of creating such an empire. What is really riling the Saudis is that their decades-long mistakes in the region and their inability to move into the 21st century and transform their society and polity from a family firm to a real country are catching up with them. They don’t seem to realize that, Iran or no Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Shias will not forever settle for second-class citizenship. Bahraini Shias don’t need Iran to show them that their conditions also border on inhuman, or that Saudi Arabia has turned Bahrain into a virtual colony and a hub for drinking alcohol for its citizens who cannot do so at home. I’ve witnessed planeloads of Saudis come to Bahrain and, without formally entering the country, spend hours drinking at the transit lounge. In the same vein, the Iraqi Shias don’t need Iran’s reminder that, even before gaining control of the entire Arabian Peninsula, al-Saud and their partisans invaded their holy shrines in 1802, the House of Saud funded Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime and its war machine, and after Saddam’s fall Saudi Arabia has done all it can to roll back political enfranchisement for the Shia.
Moving on to South Asia, Pakistani and Afghan Shias don’t need Iran to tell them that Saudi ideology and money have been at the root of groups such as the Taliban and other Sunni extremists who see killing Shias as a weekend sport. Even many Sunni Pakistanis are aware of the destructive impact of Saudi influence on Pakistan’s culture and society and do not want to become involved in its aggressive plans. But Pakistan’s military and political elites have become addicted to Saudi money.
In Yemen, meanwhile, al-Saud’s aggression toward that country dates back to 1803. Later, following wars in 1934, Saudi Arabia incorporated regions of Yemen, such as Asir and Jizan and eventually Najran with its substantial Ismaili population, who are also treated dismally. At the time, Iran was not even able to defend its own borders much less threaten Saudi Arabia or engage in empire-building. If anyone were building an empire, it was the al-Sauds, who dislodged the Hashemites and expanded their domain in Yemen and the rest of the peninsula. In fact, the story of the House of Saud is an uninterrupted story of empire-building.
Furthermore, if Iran has influence among Saudi Shias, Saudi Arabia has financed Iran’s dissidents in Baluchistan, supported separatist movements among its Arab minority, and tried to spread Wahhabism among its Sunni populations.
This Saudi animosity toward Iran is not something new, and it’s not a function of Iran’s revolutionary threat. This animosity is rooted first in the Wahhabis’ visceral hatred of the Shias and also in a general Arab dislike of Iran for complex reasons.
Today the Saudis and many other Arab governments pretend to regret the Shah’s departure in 1978 and even blame America for having let the Shah go. But the Arabs financed opponents of the Shah and trained them in camps in Jordan and Lebanon. In 1976, the Saudis brought down global oil prices, which caused a recession in Iran and contributed to the rise in dissatisfaction in the country beyond the Islamist and leftist opposition and thus contributed to the Islamic Revolution. They hoped that with Iran out of the picture they would become the undisputed leader of the region and America’s regional favorite. Before that, the Saudis fought Iran’s influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan and sowed the seeds of the cultural change that has turned Pakistan from a relatively progressive Muslim state into a hotbed of Islamic obscurantism and radicalism. If for a while the Saudis had tolerated Iran and the Shah, it was because they were more scared of the Communists and the Nasserites.
The kind of Iran that the Saudis, the Arab Sheikdoms, and some other Arabs would like is a non-existent Iran. The Islamic State (ISIS or IS), for instance, envisions the dismantlement of Iran and its incorporation into a larger Islamic Caliphate, to be called Khorasan. The only wrinkle in this plan is that, once Iran were gone, the Turks and the Arabs would fight over who would run the new Islamic Caliphate. Today, President Erdogan and King Salman may be chummy. But in the long run, it is unlikely that Erdogan, who dreams of a resurrected Ottoman Empire, will play second fiddle to the Saudis.
The list of Saudi actions damaging to the West does not end here. Today, everyone knows about the support of Saudi citizens for Sunni terrorists and the destructive impact of Wahhabi ideology in regions as far-flung as Nigeria and Somalia. Yet through it all, the US and other Western countries have indulged Saudi Arabia. Judging everything in light of oil and its price and irritated by what they saw as the Shah’s “getting too big for its britches,” they followed policies that helped precipitate his departure and ushered in the West’s biggest strategic setback in the region, which has been a major cause of its troubles in the last several decades.
What the West Has Missed
In more recent times, partly as a result of Saudi pressures, the West ignored changes in Iran, including the emergence of its reformist discourse on Islam, and continued a policy of isolating it. Through its support for the Northern Alliance, Iran prevented Afghanistan’s complete takeover by the Taliban and later helped in making the post-Taliban transition smoother. And yet the US made it a member of the “axis of evil,” while the Saudis and the Pakistanis continued to support the Taliban and thus to undermine US efforts in Afghanistan.
Western leaders continued to listen to their Saudi Svengali in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, not realizing that the Saudis care not at all for democracy in Syria or any other place in the Middle East. On the contrary, they are scared of democracy, as their policy in Egypt clearly demonstrates. The Saudi’s goal is to keep the family in power at home, come what may. Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz put it succinctly: “We got our power by the sword and will keep it by the sword”—even if the sword is wielded by the Pakistanis, Egyptians, IS, or others.
The problem is that the world has changed, and the sword may not be enough to protect the Saudis. The big question now is whether the West, especially the US, will continue to buy into al-Saud’s paranoid delusions about Iran and the Shias and continue seeing Saudi Arabia as a friend and strategic asset, or whether the West will finally see it for the albatross it has become. No amount of cheap oil can ultimately compensate for the money and blood that the US has spent to protect Saudi Arabia from the encroaching world of political modernization.