The Race with Iran: Saudi Arabia’s Sectarian Card

Four months ago, we returned from a trip to the Middle East and wrote that “the main question engaging people with respect to the Arab Spring is no longer, ‘who’s next,’ but rather how far will Saudi Arabia go in pushing a ‘counter-revolutionary agenda’ across the [region].”  Since then, something of a discussion, if not a debate, has arisen among Middle East analysts as to whether Saudi Arabia is, in fact, pursing a counter-revolutionary strategy and what it is really up to in the region.

In this regard, Gregory Gause published an interesting article, “Is Saudi Arabia Really Counter-revolutionary?” on earlier this week.  Greg’s bottom line answer is that Saudi Arabia is not really counter-revolutionary; it is, rather, out to best Iran in an ongoing battle to shape the regional balance of power.  Sometimes, this means that the Kingdom looks like it is acting in a counter-revolutionary way, as when it “sent troops to Bahrain to put down popular protests.”  But sometimes, in Greg’s view, “counter-revolutionary” is not the right adjective to describe Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy initiatives — as with the Kingdom’s recent recall of its ambassador in Syria and King Abdullah’s public demand that Syrian President Bashar al Assad “stop the killing machine,” thereby appearing to put Saudi Arabia on the side of Syrian protesters.

Syria is Iran’s most important and longest-standing Arab ally.  Under Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, Damascus was able to sustain good relations with Riyadh while also cultivating the Persian connection.  But the son has proven less nimble in balancing his regional relations.  Syrian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon (and assumed Syrian involvement, if not directly then indirectly, in the assassination of Saudi ally Rafiq al-Hariri) alienated Riyadh.  Bashar even publicly insulted the Saudi king and other Arab leaders over their stance during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006.  King Abdullah was hesitant to break fully with Damascus, as demonstrations against the regime accelerated over the past five months, given the importance of Syria in regional politics.  But the escalating violence of the past week, coming at the beginning of Ramadan, seemed to seal the issue.  Dealing Iran a blow in regional politics trumps the risks of greater instability.

While public opinion is hardly a major factor in Saudi foreign policy decisions, on the break with Syria the King was following, not leading, his people.  The Saudi media and Saudi-owned pan-Arab media has been vehemently opposed to Assad’s crackdown and sympathetic to the protestors.  This is where the Ramadan timing comes into the picture.  During the holy month religious feelings are heightened.  The sectarian element of the Syrian confrontation, with an ostensibly secular and Alawite Shiite dominated regime brutally suppressing the Sunni Muslim majority, becomes a more prominent element in how the overwhelmingly Sunni Saudis, population and leadership, view events. . . .

Saudi Arabia is against regime change in allied states.  It supports its fellow monarchs both out of concern for its own domestic regime security, ideological solidarity, and balance of power politics.  It might not like democracy much, and certainly not at home, but that does not mean it will oppose all democratic movements.  Its support for the March 14 anti-Syrian coalition in Lebanon in the last two Lebanese elections was crucial.  When leaders, even leaders with whom it has had decent relations in the past, no longer can get the job done, the Saudis will help usher them out the door.  They will deal with their successors in a pragmatic way (as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt, the deposers of Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak, quickly realized).  They will oppose leaders and groups that they think are allied with Iran, whether it is Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, or Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.  Their focus is on checking and rolling back Iranian influence in the Arab world.  That is what drives their policy, not some imagined notion of anti-revolutionary dictatorial solidarity.

We might still argue that “counter-revolutionary” is an appropriate description for Saudi foreign policy in a number of contested regional venues, including not just Bahrain but also Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.  But, leaving that quibble aside, we think that Greg makes some important points about the drivers of current Saudi diplomacy.  What does this mean for U.S. policy toward the region?  We were struck that our former colleague John Hannah, now at the neo-conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, recently argued that,

King Abdullah’s dramatic intervention has created a potential turning point in the unfolding Syrian tragedy, but one that can only be fully taken advantage of by authoritative U.S. leadership that infuses our allies with confidence and a clear sense of direction, and our adversaries with the inevitability of their own eventual demise.  The Obama administration has been handed an important opportunity to secure U.S. interests.  The president should act quickly to seize it.

Against this, Greg Gause offers what we think are some compelling cautionary observations.

The sectarian factor, never absent, is now becoming a more open element in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.  The Saudi and Gulf commentary on events in Bahrain was openly sectarian.  While the Saudi leaders do not explain their policies in sectarian terms and tend to view the region more in balance of power terms, they have always thought that sectarianism was their hole card in the confrontation with Iran.  There are more Sunnis in the region than Shiites.  They know it and the Iranians know it.  But playing up the sectarian element of regional conflict will blow back on the Saudis sooner rather than later.  Heightened sectarian tension provides fertile ground for extremist salafi jihadist movements like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to sell their anti-Shiite ideas and recruit new members.  The Saudi leadership believes it has the AQAP threat under control, but their current actions could be providing a safety net for an organization that, like its parent, has suffered serious reverses in recent years.

The “sectarianization” of regional balance of power conflicts should concern the United States as well.  The United States has an interest in a stable Iraq, a stable Lebanon, a Syria that does not implode into all-out civil war, and a Bahrain that overcomes the bitterness of its government’s recent brutal crackdown on its citizens.  Heightened sectarian feelings work against all those interests.  While the Saudis are correct that there are more Sunnis than Shiites in the Muslim world, privileging sectarian identity gives the Iranian regime an entry into the politics of many Arab states.

On this basis, Greg argues that “Riyadh would be better served by encouraging a common Arab identity that overcomes sectarian differences and emphasizes the foreignness of Iran in the Arab world while marginalizing sectarian extremists like al Qaeda and its sympathizers.”  But this is part of the Saudis’ problem, which leads them to take what we describe as a counter-revolutionary approach: when regional publics look at their situations in terms of a common identity, this does not re-enforce an Arab-Persian divide.  Rather, it directs attention to the ways in which the United States, Israel, and others trample on regional interests and sensibilities — something that plays powerfully to the Islamic Republic’s advantage.  The Saudis really have no other option but to play the sectarian card.  We remain intensely skeptical that this will be a winning play, in the long run, for Saudi Arabia or for the United States.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 12 August 2011 under a Creative Commons license. 

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