Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Battle for Hegemony that the Kingdom Cannot Win (JMD Lecture)

“Saudi Arabia and Iran:
The Battle for Hegemony that the Kingdom 
Cannot Win”


James M. Dorsey 

Senior Fellow, RSIS

Western government officials, former intelligence officers and pundits have long predicted the fall of the House of Saud. I am one of those. “This cannot last,” was my conclusion after my first visit to the kingdom in 1976. That prediction remains true even if I had a different timeline in mind when I first came to that conclusion. Former CIA operative Robert Baer warned almost 30 years later in a book in 2003 that “the country is run by an increasingly dysfunctional royal family that has been funding militant Islamic movements abroad in an attempt to protect itself from them at home… Today's Saudi Arabia can't last much longer—and the social and economic fallout of its demise could be calamitous.”

Operating on the principle of “progress without change” expounded by the government in the 1990s, the ruling Al Sauds have obviously maintained their grip on power longer than many analysts believed possible. They did so on the basis of a social contract that promised cradle-to-grave welfare in exchange for a surrender of political rights; a Faustian pact with the country’s Wahhabi clergy, proponents of an expansionist, puritan, discriminatory, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam; and repression.

The dawn of 2016 has brought a new round of doomsday predictions. Saudi Arabia appeared to be caught in a perfect storm. Arab popular protests in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen; sparked a brutal civil war in Syria and Saudi military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen; and a divergence of interests between the kingdom and the United States, its main protector. The beginning of the end of autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa appeared to be on the horizon. Saudi leaders demonstrated however their determination to turn the tide.

Tumbling commodity and energy prices are forcing the Saudi government to reform, diversify, streamline and rationalize the kingdom’s economy. To succeed, the government will have to introduce change, not just progress. The change is already obvious with the cutting of subsidies, the raising of prices for services, the search for alternative sources of revenues and moves towards a greater role for the private sector and for women. Cost cutting is occurring at a time that Saudi Arabia is spending effusively on efforts to counter winds of political change in the region with its stalled military intervention in Yemen, its support for anti-Bashar al Assad rebels in Syria and massive financial injections into a regime in Egypt that has yet to perform.

US officials for much of their country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia have insisted that the two countries do not share common values, that their relationship is based on common interests. 
Underlying the now cooler relations between Washington and Riyadh is the fact that those interests are diverging. The divergence became evident with the eruption of popular revolts in 2011 and particularly US criticism of the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to squash a rebellion and hesitant American support for the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It is also obvious in the US persistence in reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran that is returning the Islamic republic to the international fold despite deep-felt Saudi objections.

The result of all of this has been with the rise of the Salmans, King Salman and his powerful son, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman a far more assertive foreign and military policy. Make however no mistake, Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness is not a declaration of independence from the United States. On the contrary, Mohammed Bin Salman made that very clear in a recent Economist interview. It is designed to force the United States to reengage in the Middle East in the belief that it will constitute a return to the status ante quo: US support for the kingdom in the belief that it is the best guarantor for regional stability.

The problem with that assumption is that history is not static, it is a dynamic process of continuous change. Analysts suggest that Saudi Arabia is confronting the perfect storm: economic problems, social challenges, foreign policy crises. Saudi Arabia may be heading into a perfect storm but the two key drivers are likely to be far more existential. Those drivers have been interlinked ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the first time that an icon of US power in the region was toppled. One diver is the Al Saud’s increasingly problematic Faustian bargain with Wahhabism, the other is Iran.

Let me start with Iran. Saudi government leaders do not hate Shias so much as that they see them as a tool for countering Iran by motivating Sunnis in the region to fear and resist Iranian influence. Anti-
Shiite sectarianism helps Saudi Arabia motivate both Sunni and Shia Muslims to take up arms as part of the kingdom’s struggle with Iran for regional hegemony to defend their respective nations irrespective of sect wherever they are perceived to be under threat. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused Iran of fuelling sectarianism by backing Shia militias who have targeted Sunnis in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. The Saudi allegations notwithstanding, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded that anti-Shia rhetoric was much more common online than anti-Sunni rhetoric.

Fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia had legitimate concerns in the immediate wake of the Iranian revolution. The fall of the autocratic pro-US regime of the Shah made place for a regime that was revolutionary and keen on exporting its revolution to the Gulf. Iran made no bones about it. The headquarters, for example, of the Islamic Liberation Front of Bahrain was housed in the diwan of Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. Revolution not Shi’ism was what Iran hoped to export. It took however less than a year for nationalism to trump revolution in Iran. The process was accelerated by the Saudi-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran and the eight year-long bloody Iran-Iraq war.

The Saudi determination to counter the Iranian revolutionary threat by defeating rather than containing it has ever since shaped Saudi policy towards the Islamic republic and towards Shiites despite occasional thaws in relations. To be sure, Iran repeatedly took the bait with the creation of Hezbollah, political protests during the haj in Mecca, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to name just a few of the incidents.

Nonetheless, much like the Al Saud’s Faustian pact with Wahhabism the kingdom’s handling of relations with revolutionary Iran was certain to ultimately backfire and position the Islamic republic as an existential threat. Rather than embrace its Shiite minority by ensuring that its members had equal opportunity and a stake in society and countering discriminatory statements by the clergy and government institutions, the kingdom grew even more suspicious of Shias who populate the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province. In doing so, they provided Iran with a golden opportunity to forge closer ties to disgruntled Shia communities in the Gulf.

Middle East expert Suzanne Maloney predicted that "the most important variable in the stability of states with significant Shia minorities -- such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan will be the overall tenor of these states' domestic politics, particularly on minority rights issues."  A Kuwaiti Shiite businessman who visited Tehran shortly after the 1979 toppling of the Shah saw the revolution as opening the door to a new era. “We are citizens of Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia. We are Shiites, not Iranians. What happened in Iran is good for everyone. It will persuade our governments to treat us as equals,” the businessman said at the time.

The businessman’s words went unheeded. Instead of acknowledging legitimate grievances, the kingdom accused Iran of Interference in its internal affairs and those of its allies. It relied on autocratic minority Sunni leaders to keep a grip on majority Shia populations in Iraq and Bahrain. Saudi leaders further failed to recognize that Tehran's perception of itself as Shia Central was no less legitimate than Riyadh's insistence on being Sunni Central or Israel's claim that it is the centre of the Jewish world.

As a result, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that brought the Shiite majority for the first time to power left the Saudis incredulous. "To us, it seems out of this world that you do this. We fought a war together to keep Iran from occupying Iraq after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait (in 1991). Now we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason," Saudi Foreign. Minister Prince Saud al Faisal told an American audience in 2005.

Similarly, the perceived Iranian threat to Saudi dominance prompted Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, for decades a key player in the shaping of Saudi security policy and the kingdom’s relations with the United States, to warn Richard Dearlove, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, already more than a decade ago that: "the time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally 'God help the Shia'. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.  As recently as October 2015, Saudi TV Host Abdulellah Al-Dosari celebrated uncontested the death of some 300 Shiite Iranians, including Iranian diplomats, in a stampede during the haj in Mecca. “Praised be to Allah, who relieved Islam and the Muslims from their evil. We pray that Allah will usher them into hell for all eternities.”

Saudi policies, attitudes and perceptions accentuated historic rivalries between Persians and Arabs and Sunnis and Shiites that were never absent but were not primary drivers in contemporary relations. Saudi policy has consistently ignored the fact that some one million Iraqi Shiites died in the Iran-Iraq war defending their country against their Shia brethren.

The Saudi approach created the seeds for intermittent domestic unrest and repeated tit-for-tat attempts to weaken and undermine the legitimacy of the other, set the stage for a global effort to ensure that Muslim communities across the globe empathized with Saudi Wahhabism rather than revolutionary Iranian ideals, and with Saudi support for Saddam Hussein’s bloody eight-year long war against Iran poisoned relations despite occasional attempts by the two states to paper over their differences.

The poisoning was evident in the will of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose anti-monarchical views were rooted in the oppression of the imperial regime of the shah that he had toppled. "Muslims should curse tyrants, including the Saudi royal family, these traitors to God's great shrine, may God's curses and that of his prophets and angels be upon them," Khomeini ordained.

The execution of Nimr al Nimr was not simply designed as many analysts maintain to send a message to domestic opposition, nor was it simply intended to send a message to Iran. The message, ‘don’t mess with me,’ has long been loud and clear. The execution was part of a deliberate strategy to delay if not derail implementation of the nuclear agreement and Iran’s return to the international fold. Iranian hardliners played into Saudi hands with the storming of the Saudi embassy. It is the hardliners that Saudi Arabia wants to strengthen in advance of this month’s elections in Iran for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the council that eventually will elect Iran’s next spiritual leader. If the selection of candidates for both councils for is anything to go by, the Saudi strategy is working.

The strategy makes perfect sense. Saudi regional leadership amounts to exploitation of a window of opportunity rather than reliance on the assets and power needed to sustain it. Saudi Arabia’s interest is to extend its window of opportunity for as long as possible. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. Punitive international sanctions and international isolation long took care of Iran.

And that is what is changing. Iran may not be Arab and maintains a sense of Persian superiority but it has the assets Saud Arabia lacks: a large population base, an industrial base, resources, a battle hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete, and certainly not with Wahhabism in control.

Which brings me to the second driver of the perfect storm. The Al Sauds in my mind are inching ever closer to a fundamental change in their deal with the Wahhabis. Reform that enables the kingdom to become a competitive, 21st century knowledge economy is difficult if not impossible as long as it is held back by the strictures of a religious doctrine that looks backwards rather than forwards, whose ideal is the emulation of life as it was at the time of the prophet and his companions.

Saudi Arabia was shell shocked on September 11 2001 when it became evident that the majority of the perpetrators were Saudi nationals. Saudi society was put under the kind of scrutiny the kingdom had never experienced before. The same is happening again today in the wake of the execution of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr. The Saudis expected human rights criticism. The criticism goes in one ear and out the other. What they didn’t expect fuelled by the emergence of the Islamic State was that the focus would be on Wahhabism and Salafism itself.

Wahhabism was Saudi Arabia’s defense against the Islamic revolution that demonstrated that rulers can be toppled, that raised questions about a clergy that slavishly served the needs of an autocratic ruler and that recognized some degree of popular sovereignty. To be sure, Wahhabism has been an expansionary, proselytizing force from its inception. But the success of an Islamic revolution that potentially could inspire not only Shiites but also Sunnis persuaded the Al Sauds flush with oil dollars in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis to kick Wahhabi proselytization into high gear.

It may be hard to conceive of Wahhabism as soft power, but that was the Saudi government’s goal in launching the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history to establish Wahhabism and Salafism as a major force in the Muslim world that would be able to resist any appeal Iran might have. Estimates of Saudi expenditure on this campaign in the almost four decades since the Iranian revolution range from $75 to $100 billion.

The cost is however beginning to become perhaps too high. Saudi Arabia finds itself being increasingly compared to the Islamic State. Not unfairly. Wahhabism at the beginning of the 20th century and the creation in 1932 of the second Saudi state was what the Islamic State is today. Saudi Arabia is what the Islamic State will become should it survive. Saudi clerics despite their denunciations of IS as a deviation from Islam admit this.

Adel Kalbani, a former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was unequivocal. “Daesh (the Arabic reference to IS) has adopted Salafist thought. It’s not the Muslim Brotherhood’s thought, Qutubism, Sufism of Ash’ari thought. They draw their thoughts from what is written in our own books, from our own principles…. The ideological origin is Salafism. They exploited our own principles that can be found in our own books… We follow the same thought but apply it in a refined way,” Kalbani said. Mohammed Bin Salman summed up the Al Saud’s dilemma when he told The New York Times in November: “The terrorists are telling me that I am not a Muslim. And the world is telling me I am a terrorist.”

One can question the effectiveness of the Saudi soft power effort on multiple levels. True the, Islamic Conference Organization recently backed Saudi Arabia in its conflict with the Islamic republic. But only four countries broke off diplomatic relations with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy in Riyadh. All four – Bahrain, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia – were dependent on the kingdom. None of the other Gulf states did so although some lowered the level of their diplomatic representation in Tehran. To be sure, the move by Sudan had more than symbolic value. It disrupted Iranian logistics in the region.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia recently hastily announced the creation of a 34-nation, Sunni Muslim anti-terrorism military command to be headquartered in Riyadh. The command appeared to be a paper tiger from the moment it was declared in December 2015 by Mohammed Bin Salman. Various Muslim nations, including Malaysia, Pakistan, Lebanon and Indonesia were quick to state that they had not been consulted and had yet to decide whether they would be part of the Saudi initiative. Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein ruled out any military contribution to the command. So did senior Bangladeshi officials.  Pakistan’s parliament had months earlier rejected a Saudi request that it contribute troops to the war in Yemen. 

The alliance was likely to further struggle with definitions of what constitutes terrorism given that various of its potential members were likely to take issue with Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in its definition of everything ranging from adherence to atheism to the vaguest contact with any group deemed hostile to the kingdom.

On the level of Muslim communities and at the level of Saudi relations with a host of government agencies in Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the kingdom’s soft power strategy has paid off. It is proving however to be increasingly a pyrrhic victory. Societies particularly in countries with governments that play politics with religion have become more conservative. The result is greater intolerance towards minorities and greater social volatility. The payback is obvious in for example an intelligence chief who recently retired who believes even after the IS attack in Djakarta last month that Shiites not Wahhabis, Salafis or jihadists constitute the greatest domestic threat to Indonesian national security.

Two major political parties in the Dutch parliament recently asked the government whether there was a legal basis for outlawing Wahhabi and Salafi institutions, schools, academies, social services that are funded by Saudi and Kuwaiti institutions. The question arose as a result of graduates of those institutions increasingly refusing to interact with Dutch society and allegations that a minority had joined IS in Syria. The government has yet to respond to the questions. Nonetheless, imagine a scenario in which the government did move to a ban that would likely be challenged in the courts and imagine that the ban would be upheld in the courts. The next step would be the banning of Saudi funding and ultimately the expulsion of the Saudi embassy’s religious attaché. It’s not a development that the Saudi state can afford.

The Al Saud’s risk was also evident late last year when German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, in a rare attack on Saudi Arabia by a senior Western government official while in office, accused the kingdom of financing extremist mosques and communities in the West that constitute a security risk and warned that it must stop. “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over. Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia.  Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany,” he said.

Changing international attitudes towards Saudi sectarianism and the fighting of proxy wars against Iran are evident in a quiet conclusion in Western intelligence and policy circles that the crisis in Syria is in part a product of the international community’s indulgence of Saudi propagation of Wahhabism. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director John Brennan unsuccessfully tried in 2011 as peaceful anti-regime protests in Syria descended into violence to persuade Saudi Arabia at a meeting in Washington of Middle Eastern intelligence chiefs to stop supporting militant Sunni Muslim Islamist fighters in Syria. An advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff recounted that the Saudis ignored Brennan's request. They "went back home and increased their efforts with the extremists and asked us for more technical support. And we say OK, and so it turns out that we end up reinforcing the extremists," the advisor said

In sum, the complex relationship between the Al-Sauds and Wahhabism creates policy dilemmas for the Saudi government on multiple levels, complicates its relationship with the United States and its approach towards the multiple crises in the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria, IS and Yemen. Historian Richard Bulliet argues that Saudi “King Salman faces a difficult choice. Does he do what President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many Republican presidential hopefuls want him to do, namely, lead a Sunni alliance against the Islamic State? Or does he continue to ignore Syria, attack Shias in Yemen, and allow his subjects to volunteer money and lives to the ISIS caliph’s war against Shi‘ism? The former option risks intensifying unrest, possibly fatal unrest, in the Saudi kingdom. The latter contributes to a growing sense in the West that Saudi Arabia is insensitive to the crimes being carried out around the world in the name of Sunni Islam. Prediction: In five years’ time, Saudi Arabia will either help defeat the Islamic State, or become it.”

The Al Sauds problems are multiplied by the fact that Saudi Arabia’s clergy is tying itself into knots as a result of its sell-out to the regime and its close ideological affinity to more militant strands of Islam. Dissident Saudi scholar Madawi Al-Rasheed argues that the sectarianism that underwrites the anti-Iran campaign strengthens regime stability in the immediate term because it ensures “a divided society that is incapable of developing broad, grassroots solidarities to demand political reform… The divisions are enhanced by the regime’s promotion of an all-encompassing religious nationalism, anchored in Wahhabi teachings, which tend to be intolerant of religious diversity… Dissidence, therefore, centres on narrow regional, tribal and sectarian issues.”

The knots are also evident in approaches towards Syria. A Saudi royal decree banning Saudis from granting moral or material aid to groups including Islamic State and al Qaeda's official offshoot in Syria, the Al Nusra Front, was countered more than a year later by a statement of more than 50 clerics that called on Sunni Muslims to unite against Russia, Iran, and the regime of Bashar Al Assad. The statement described groups fighting the Assad regime as "holy warriors" in what was widely seen as an endorsement of jihadist groups. 

By the same token, Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen in a bid to defeat Houthi rebels, the only group to have challenged Al Qaeda advances in the country but that also threatened to undermine the kingdom’s dominant role in Yemeni politics, has effectively turned the Saudi air force into the jihadists’ air wing as Al Qaeda expands its reach in the country. 

Whether Bulliet is right or not in his prediction, Wahhabism is not what’s going to win Saudi Arabia lasting regional hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, as long as Wahhabism is a dominant player in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia is even less likely to win its battle for hegemony. At the end of the day, it is a perfect storm. The stakes for Saudi Arabia are existential and the kingdom may well be caught in a Catch-22.

Iran poses an existential threat, not because it’s still projects itself as a revolutionary state, but simply by what it is, the assets it can bring to bear and the intrinsic challenge it poses. But equally existential is the fact that Wahhabism is likely to increasingly become a domestic and external liability for the Al Sauds. Their future is clouded in uncertainty, no more so if and when they lose Wahhabism as the basis for the legitimacy of their absolute rule. 


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