- By Ross HarrisonRoss Harrison is on the faculty of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, is a nonresident scholar at The Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. and is also on the faculty of the political science department at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches courses in Middle Eastern politics. Harrison authored Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign Policy and Business Professionals (Potomac Books, 2013), and co-edited with Paul Salem, From Chaos to Cooperation: Toward Regional Order in the Middle East (Middle East Institute, 2017)
President Donald Trump likely sees Mohammed bin Salman, who in June was named the new Saudi crown prince, as a Middle Eastern leader made in his own image. The young crown prince’s unrelenting hostility towards Iran and take-no-prisoners censure of Qatar is consistent with Trump’s emerging, aggressive posture towards Iran.
But by placing his thumb on the scale of intramural Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) squabbles and reinforcing the narrative that Iran is the primary source of instability in the Middle East, Trump could hand Tehran a strategic bonanza, much like former President George W. Bush did by taking down Iraq, a country that for good or bad had acted as a check on Iranian power since the Iranian revolution.
The Saudis will miscalculate if they take much solace from Trump’s support for their regional policies. Regardless of what the United States does, sharply increasing the vitriol towards Iran while at the same time laying siege to fellow GCC member Qatar will likely weaken the Saudi position and what is left of an already compromised Arab political order. Intended to take Iran down a notch, these actions instead will likely strengthen Tehran’s hand. In fact, Iranian policymakers would be forgiven for believing that Saudi Arabia had fallen prey to the judo move by which one’s opponents are unwittingly maneuvered to use their own strength to harm themselves.
How does Saudi Arabia undermine its own position by escalating the conflict with Iran and working to bring Qatar forcefully into compliance? While Saudi Arabia, through its security relationship with the United States, derives many military advantages over Iran, much of Saudi Arabia’s political strength in the region comes from the kingdom’s strong position within the Arab world. But the Arab order has become particularly fragile due to the corrosiveness of the civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Although Iran clearly represents a threat to Saudi interests, it is the weakness in Saudi Arabia’s own Arab ranks, caused by the effects of the Arab Spring and the civil wars, that poses the biggest challenge to Riyadh and the biggest opportunity for Tehran. Ratcheting up hostility towards Iran is likely to prolong these wars, running the risk of further weakening the Arab world, thereby compromising Saudi Arabia’s position relative to Iran. The longer the proxy battles between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region’s civil wars continue, the greater the risk that the civil wars could spread to other Arab countries like Jordan and Lebanon, the more splintered the Arab world will likely become, and the more Iran gains in the regional power game.
What is incubating in Syria right now within the Sunni opposition to President Bashar al-Assad is a metaphor for how divisions between Arab countries pose a greater threat to Saudi Arabia than the challenge from Iran. In contrast to the disciplined, tightly consolidated, Iran-led Shia coalition supporting the Syrian government, the Sunni opposition is highly fragmented. Hundreds of different opposition groups, ranging from jihadist militant groups like the al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front), to non-jihadist Salafist groups like Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-sham, and even some of the stronger factions of the secular Free Syrian Army, are busy shaping areas of Syria still outside government control, like Idlib province. Given the propping up of the Syrian government by Iran, Russia, and its Shia militias, it is unlikely that these Sunni opposition groups will pose an existential threat to Assad (or Iran) anytime soon. But with their Syrian base threatened by Russia and Iran tipping the scale towards the Syrian government, and the recent de-escalation efforts by Iran, Russia, and Turkey, these groups, particularly Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, could ultimately turn their sights to the Arab world, further weakening the Arab political fabric, and potentially posing security and political challenges to Saudi Arabia. In other words, battle-tested Sunni groups in Syria could spill over to other parts of the Arab world, further eroding the Saudi position on Iran.
Saudi Arabia has potentially amplified this risk of blowback from Syria by dangerously using divisions within the Sunni Arab community as a flashpoint in relations with Qatar. Saudi Arabia considers the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, while Qatar has kept avenues open to this nearly century-old political organization with deep roots in several Arab countries. While one could debate the motives behind Qatar’s actions, conflating the Brotherhood with the threats from jihadist groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda recklessly delegitimizes the middle ground within the Sunni ideological spectrum, something that could blow back in Riyadh’s face. By pushing the Brotherhood out of the Sunni debate, Saudi Arabia (along with the United Arab Emirates) creates an opening for more extremist organizations, possibly those with deep Syrian roots like al Qaeda’s Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which could pose a significant threat to the Saudis and the broader Arab world.
Moreover, the Middle East today is a dangerously pressurized regional system, with few safety valves for conflict mitigation. Qatar (with Oman and Kuwait) could be seen as providing this pressure relief function. By building bridges with the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, it creates pathways for dialogue and conflict resolution both inside and outside the Arab world. While the Saudis bristle at the ambiguity of Qatar’s position, it serves a purpose of blurring some of the lines of conflict, potentially creating diplomatic pathways towards eventual normalization of relations between Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi Arabia’s censure of Qatar brings into sharper relief the conflict lines, threatening the pressure relief value of Qatar’s strategic ambiguity. Also, it potentially divides the Arab world between Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar on the other, splitting it into camps, ultimately weakening the Saudi position.
Another risk is that Qatar is pulled further out of its GCC orbit. While Qatar has followed an independent foreign policy, it has cooperated with Saudi Arabia on many initiatives, including the war in Yemen. The potential for Doha to become more dependent on Turkey and Iran, which now provide Qatar a lifeline, would be a net loss for Riyadh. Allowed to continue further, the Saudi-Qatar row could cement a Turkey-Iran axis, something that has already been evolving due to a common threat from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and tactical collaboration with each other and Russia on the Syria negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan. Having Turkey as a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been one healthy feature of an ailing region. Having Tehran and Ankara close ranks further is neither constructive for the region nor for Saudi Arabia. There is also a risk that Pakistan, which has walked a fine line in the Saudi dustup with Qatar, would be forced to take sides in a way that would not please Riyadh.
Also, the current Saudi path could disrupt and compromise the war against the Islamic State. Recent Islamic State attacks on Iran and an increased threat of attacks on Turkey in theory create a convergence of interests between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. But in the current environment of hostility, it appears that the Islamic State will remain everyone’s second most important enemy, with Tehran and Riyadh each seeing the other as the number-one threat to its own security. Given the need for a concerted effort to ensure that the Islamic State does not effectively regroup after the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa, and other like-minded groups don’t fill these spaces, this is not good news for the region or the Saudis. The Islamic State and other jihadist organizations represent an insurgency against the Arab order, and their perpetuation will do more harm to the Arab heartland than to non-Arab countries like Iran and Turkey.
Last, Saudi actions are likely to strengthen the factions within the Iranian foreign policy establishment with the greatest capacity to exploit vulnerabilities in the Arab world. The Saudis are not wrong to be worried about an adventurist Iran, as Tehran is actively taking advantage of the hollowing out of the region, through activities in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s al-Quds force, is responsible for giving Iran strategic depth by exploiting power vacuums created by the Arab civil wars. Saudi hostility will likely strengthen voices like that of Soleimani, who advocates for a confrontational stance on Saudi Arabia, and dilute voices coming from the Foreign Ministry and president’s office less inclined to see the region in zero-sum terms.
If Saudi Arabia fails to deviate from its current path, it is likely to weaken its own regional position and strengthen Iran. Like it or not, the Middle East has moved from an Arab-centric to an Arab-Iranian-Turkish region. While trying to create countervailing power to Iran’s adventurism within this tripartite regional system is strategically sound, working to deprive Iran of regional influence will likely fail and weaken the Saudis. Instead, Riyadh should become a constructive partner for peace in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, in effect shoring up its base in the Arab heartland. Continuing to fight a proxy war with Iran in Yemen is like shooting up your own house to try to save it. Only by working to heal the ideological, political, and military rifts in its own Arab ranks can Saudi Arabia feel secure of its position relative to Iran.
What the United States should be doing, in addition to supporting Saudi Arabia’s attempt to create a balance of power against Iran, is to encourage Riyadh to open a parallel diplomatic path with Tehran and try to resolve peacefully the row with Qatar. America should be bringing out the best, not the worst, strategic instincts of the Saudis by encouraging diplomacy. In the Middle East of today, containment of Iran blended with diplomacy, along with cooperation on behalf of bringing the corrosive civil wars to an end, is the only pathway out of the current regional morass.