Event ReportsPublished on Dec 21, 2017
Saudi-Iran conflict has reached worrisome heights: Expert

Every country in West Asia has both internal and external problems. However, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has reached worrisome heights and the situation can be regarded as a ‘Hot Cold War’. And this can have catastrophic consequences for the objective of seeking peace in the West Asian region, according to Dr Stanly Johny, International Editor, The Hindu.

Initiating an interaction on “West Asia Conundrum” at the Chennai chapter of Observer Research Foundation on December 16, 2017, Dr Johny elaborated on major developments in West Asia and on the relationship between Saudi Arabia, Iran and other smaller powers in the region.

Palace purge

Dr Johny said of late, Saudi Arabia has been in the news for various reasons like the palace purge, the anti-corruption drive and the meteoric rise of Mohammed bin- Salman, from heading the Defence Ministry to becoming the Crown Prince. Many wonder whether this is an Arab spring moment in Saudi Arabia.

After Salman became the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia started playing a much more active role on the foreign policy front, he said. Prince Salman personally spearheaded key decisions such as the Saudi campaign to blockade Qatar, the war in Yemen, providing shelter to Yemeni President Mansur Hadi and the summoning of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Saudi Arabia ‘to obtain/announce his resignation’ (which was rescinded later).

Dr Johny stated that Prince Salman adopted a three-pronged approach with regards to Saudi Arabia’s policy in the region – namely, to consolidate power within the kingdom, ensure that the kingdom remained the leader of the Sunni-Muslim world, especially in the Gulf region and three, contain Iran’s geo-political ambitions in the region.

As Dr Johny pointed out, Prince Salman’s was a meteoric rise, after being made Defence Minister in 2015. Slowly, he started accumulating power and in June 2017, he had Crown Prince Muhammad bin-Nayef (who was also the next in line to be the King) from all the positions he held and elevating himself as Crown Prince.

Salman has been systematically establishing his control within the kingdom. He handles or exerts major influence on Defence and Interior Ministries, and also on the National Guards, which are the three important government agencies looking after national security in Saudi Arabia. In addition, he also oversees the functioning of Aramco, the Saudi petroleum monolith, making him Salman as the most powerful Crown Prince till date.

Salman has also promised to adopt liberal measures such as allowing women to drive cars from 2018, allowing the establishment of cinema theatres and reducing the power of the Ulema clergy. Similar promises were made in the past, too, Dr Johny recalled and said that one needed to wait and watch as to if and how the Crown Prince is able to accomplish it, against possible opposition from the conservative hard-liners. As of now, these promises are more a façade, he said.

Unhappy with US

Dr Johny noted that Saudi Arabia was unhappy with the US for its perceived reluctance to bomb Syria following the Government troops’ launching chemical weapons on its own population, especially because then US President Barack Obama had said that he would consider bombing Syria if it violated the proverbial ‘red-line’  and used chemical weapons on its own people.

Dr Johny said that Crown Prince Salman has since built a rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well. He pointed out, under Salman’s care, Saudi Arabia has offered $10-billion investments to Russia. As he recalled, on September 2015 President Putin sent troops to Syria to defend the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The regime with support from Russia started attacking rebel-held positions. Putin viewed the fight against the rebels as primary and crucial for regime-stability, following which they would attack the ‘Islamic State; (IS)-held territories. The support from Russia completely changed the game in favour of the regime.

Unlike President Obama, his successor, President Donald Trump retaliated against Syria when it used chemical weapons again in April 2017. However, it did not have any major impact on the Syrian civil war, and Dr Johny said that President Trump carried out the attack merely to show that he was a man of his word. Besides this, Trump also closed down the clandestine Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programme to topple the Assad regime. President Trump said that his priority was to defeat the IS and not to seek removal of President Assad.

The US has come a long way from publicly asking Assad to leave, to seeking to topple him, to secretly calling for him to go and later to disbanding that goal under the dying stages of the Obama administration. This was a major diplomatic victory for Putin and as far as the Saudis go, they have lost their main objective with respect to Syria.

Independent stand

Dr Johny mentioned that the Saudis were miffed at Qatar’s attempts to maintain an independent foreign policy and to the support it extended to the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudis want Qatar to be like Bahrain and the UAE (both unflinching allies of the Kingdom). Qatar’s interest in developing good ties with Iran is another contributing factor for Saudi-Qatar hostility. As the speaker pointed out, the Saudis have also invested themselves heavily in trying to depose the Assad regime in Syria. They see Syria as the link between Hezbollah and Iran (entities that Saudi Arabia perceives as a threat).

Dr Johny said that from the Saudi point of view, the Iraq war was a disaster. When Saddam Hussein was deposed, many Shiite groups emerged and this was akin to handing Iraq on a platter to Iran. Saudi Arabia was also extremely unhappy when the US and other world powers negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran. Although they did not vociferously argue in public like Israel, they did express their dissatisfaction to the Americans.

He mentioned that no matter what, the Obama administration strongly believed that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations had to live with Iran in the Middle East/West Asia region, and therefore there needed to be an accommodating of interests between them. However, the Trump administration ditched this moderate approach and has openly labelled Iran as the centre-piece of terror. More recently, Saudi Arabia has also refused dialogue with Iran on re-establishing diplomatic ties (ties were severed when Saudi executed a prominent Shia cleric and Iranians in turn stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran). The Saudis harbour a fear of being encircled by Iran.

In this context, Dr Johny said that Saudi Arabia was also concerned about the emerging Pakistan-Iran relations. As he pointed out, Pakistan was stepping up its energy cooperation with Iran and is not interested in getting involved in the Saudi-Iran quagmire. For India, Iran is a strategically vital partner both from energy security and connectivity perspectives.

Geo-political stalemate

Dr Johny referred to another troubled West Asian nation in Yemen, and recalled how the UN has noted Yemen to be on the brink of a huge, unprecedented famine due to the ongoing civil war there. He also mentions that the Yemen campaign by the Saudis had not invited widespread international condemnation because the Saudis are backed by the Americans. In fact the US supplied arms to Saudi Arabia to continue their campaign. Had the same been done by Iran, Dr Stanly observed, the US would have issued immediate condemnations and launched fresh sanctions against them.

Dr Johny said that the drama played by Saudi Arabia by summoning the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh and making him announce his resignation on Saudi state TV and later rescinding it, had severely backfired.He also stated that Hezbollah has a major clout in the Lebanese government and that the Saudis will try to destabilize Lebanon, due to the former’s increasing clout. However, they will only go for a political destabilization and not an all-out war, as they did in Yemen. From the Saudi point of view, both Yemen and Lebanon represent a geopolitical stalemate.

He noted that President Obama did not make any significant achievements on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He sided with Israel on all matters for the most of his presidency, expressing dissension only towards the end. He also observed that despite expressing sympathy for Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Israel work closely on containing Iran. Cooperation on this front will continue to happen, he said.

On Egypt, Dr Johny pointed out that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was supported by the Saudis and the UAE. Although close to them, once Sisi understood their nefarious intentions, he slowly started drifting away from them and moved towards Russia.

Three main pillars

Dr Johny observed that Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia represent the three main pillars of geo-political affairs in West Asia. The year 2016 was a bad year for Turkey. Multiple terrorist attacks took place. Despite these, it is important to note that the Islamic State is not trying to establish a network in Turkey, the way they did in Iraq, Syria and Sinai (Egypt).

He also stated that Turkish President Erdogan was playing a double game with regards to the Islamic State. On one side, Erdogan stated that Turkey would fight the Islamic State and volunteered to be a part of the US-led coalition against IS, and on the other side, he allowed suspected IS members to freely move between the porous Turkey-Syria border, in anticipation that they would be helpful to topple the Syrian regime.

Responding to questions as to whether the US would pullout anytime from the Middle East, Dr Johny observed that the US is very much present and active in the Middle East and he does not expect them to withdraw anytime soon. All such reports of a US withdrawal are rumours, he said.

On the impact that the 2010 ‘Arab Spring’ had on the region, Dr Johny pointed out that meaningful changes occurred only in Tunisia. He also ruled out the possibility of a recurrence of such protests on such scales.  He concluded by saying that for India’s West Asia policy to be successful, it must maintain a balance in its bilateral relationships with all three major powers in the region, namely, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This report is prepared by Arjun Sundar, Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

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