About a year after the coming to power of King Salman, Saudi Arabia has generated more headlines than during the entire preceding decade. And not (only) about the unfortunate situation of human rights or the segregation of women, but surprisingly because of its foreign policy. With the intervention in Yemen, the new monarch has given an important twist to the traditional discretion that the Desert Kingdom favored until now to advance its interests and undermine those of its rivals. To the extent that last month, the German secret services (BND) made the unusual decision to release a note warning that the country runs the risk of destabilizing the Arab world.
The BND attributes the new policy of “impulsive intervention” to the internal struggles of the Al Saud and the desire to lead the Arab world. Just a week after his accession to the throne, Salmán redistributed power among the different branches of the royal family, placing men of his trust in the security apparatus. But the most important appointment has been that of his favorite son, Mohamed Bin Salmán, as second in line of succession, Defense Minister and president of the macro commission in charge of economic reform and of the national oil company, Aramco.
Never before has a prince accumulated so much power. That fact and his youth, barely 30 years in a society that equates age with wisdom (the king is 80), have raised suspicions, and even a couple of letters from prominent princes calling for the replacement of the monarch. Many analysts attribute riskier decisions such as the war in Yemen to his son's fledgling.
It soon became clear that Yemen was only the beginning. The Salman doctrine, as Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi dubbed it, it spans the entire region. Around the same time that Riyadh was hastily mounting the coalition to curb the Huthi rebels in a country it considers its backyard, it was also trying to build an Arab military force and economically bolster its shaken allies springs, especially Egypt. More recently, it has announced a great Islamic coalition against terrorism of such uncertain realization as that project. Also in Syria, where since 2011 it has financed groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad, it redoubled its commitment with the creation of a new force to integrate them, Jaish al Fatah.
That sudden need to act stems from the conviction that the West has abandoned the kingdom
That sudden need to take initiative and act stems from the monarchy's conviction that the United States, its historical protector, (and the West in general) have abandoned the kingdom in the face of Islamic State (ISIS) extremism and Iranian expansionism. The obsession with this non-Arab neighbor, with whom Saudi Arabia vies for regional hegemony, has reached a climax and underlies the sectarian confrontation between Shiites (sponsored by Tehran) and Sunnis (sponsored by Riyadh) that bleeds the Middle East.
Many Saudis, and not just among the ruling family, feel that Iran has benefited from the strategic changes that have taken place in the area since the beginning of this century. The US military interventions in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), the riots of the spring Arab (2011) and finally the nuclear agreement have been eliminating the walls that contained the Iranian regime, which they see extending its influence hand in hand with the religious-cultural affinity with the Shiite communities. Hence the majority applauded the intervention in Yemen, including dissident (Sunni) Islamists.
For the same reason, outside the Shiite minority (10% of the 20 million Saudis), there has been little criticism of the recent execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqr al Nimr, which has sparked the latest scuffle with Iran and the breakdown of relations diplomatic. Outside, however, some observers compare the kingdom to a wounded animal and point to a flight ahead capable of unleashing a war. That is something that does not interest the Al Saud, who are focused on preserving power in the hands of the family.
"A war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (would) be the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region and would have serious effects on the rest of the world," Prince Mohamed has acknowledged in an interview with The Economist. "We will not allow it."
In reality, the greatest threat to the Saudi regime does not come from across the Persian Gulf but from the ultra-conservatives of its own Sunni majority, in whom it has historically sought its legitimacy. These sectors, hostile to Shiite Iran and to activists like Sheikh Al Nimr campaigning for civil rights, are ideologically very close to the extremists who have already attacked the kingdom, first under the banner of Al Qaeda and more recently ISIS.
So for the monarchy to refresh the traditional enmity towards Iran and the Shiites also has an internal utility, to show them that it is on their side and that they do not need another champion. In particular, at a critical moment like the current one when a delicate process of succession from the children to the grandchildren of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom, coincides with an economic situation that requires profound reforms due to low oil prices .
This manna has financed a generous welfare state that the Saudis have assumed as a cradle right, in exchange, yes, for renouncing political participation. With a barrel of crude hovering around $ 30, it is impossible to maintain a system that, in addition to being very expensive, generates indolence and apathy among its beneficiaries. The challenge that Salmán faces, and for which he has delegated to his son, is to achieve the transformation of a rentier economy into a modern and competitive one, without giving up the absolute power of the family. Hence, the search for public support.
The confrontation with Iran is a very dangerous gamble. Without discharging this country from its share of responsibility in some regional crises, it runs the risk of increasing its involvement even where it is less than intended and of turning sectarianism into a monster with a life of its own. Even ruling out the extreme of the war between the two rivals, the consequences of the deterioration of their relations are already affecting the region.
In no case is it more evident than in the fight against ISIS, a common enemy in whose fight they are unable to cooperate. While Tehran considers it a product of Wahhabi ideology (the strict interpretation of official Islam in the kingdom) and of the financing of the petromonarchies, Riyadh sees it as a reaction to the brutality of Assad in Syria and the sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki in Iraq, both Iranian allies. Therein lies the Saudi distrust of Western pressure to reach an agreement with the Syrian president that allows the defeat of ISIS, which in his opinion would give Iran wings.
Although the conflict extends to other conflicts in the area, it is in Syria where the main game is played. The next talks on that country, scheduled in Geneva before the end of the month, will measure to what extent they are willing to reach a compromise or risk turning animosity into a (dangerous) modus vivendi. The messages have so far been mixed.
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