The Middle East Channel

What Saudis really think about Iran

There is not much public debate in Saudi Arabia on foreign-policy issues. Even with the greater media openness of the last five years or so, critiques of Saudi foreign policy from within the country are rare. But there is a new level of public debate about foreign policy in Saudi Arabia, not so much in ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

There is not much public debate in Saudi Arabia on foreign-policy issues. Even with the greater media openness of the last five years or so, critiques of Saudi foreign policy from within the country are rare. But there is a new level of public debate about foreign policy in Saudi Arabia, not so much in the media as in discussion groups and private conversations. The dominant public discourse on foreign policy continues to be very Arab-Israeli focused, very Arab nationalist/pro-Palestinian in nature, and not very interesting. We have yet to see anything approaching a public discussion on whether Saudi Arabia should go nuclear if Iran does the same. But another taboo in the Saudi public sphere —  a real critique of the country’s foreign policy —  is being confronted. The mood of these new critics seems to be broadly realist, focused on power, nationalist, and impatient for a more assertive Saudi foreign policy. 

What I heard during my recent stay in Saudi Arabia (from January to April of this year) is captured in an interesting article by Saud Abd al-Aziz Kabili in the May 2 edition of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan. The author, who regularly comments on foreign-policy issues in al-Watan, takes as his starting point an interview that former ambassador to the United States and former head of foreign intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal, had with two well-known Saudi journalists — Jamal Khashogji and Mishari al-Dhiyadi. Kabili was less interested in what Prince Turki said and more interested in the questions that the two journalists pressed on him, which Kabili saw as based on an emerging critique within the country of the rather cautious and reactive Saudi foreign-policy tradition.  

Kabili identifies this critique with a group of young, American-educated writers and thinkers who have rejected both the Arab nationalist and the Islamist frameworks for understanding regional politics. This group, in Kabili’s view, is both very nationalist, in that they make Saudi interests the cornerstone of their foreign-policy analysis, and very "realist" in international relations theory terms, in that they view the region on the basis of state actors and balances of power. Kabili says that this group believes that Saudi foreign policy has been too passive in the regional arena, unwilling to take the initiative and use Saudi power to achieve national goals. Although he does not identify Iran specifically, my past reading of both Khashogji and Dhiyadi and their pretty harsh critiques of what they see as Iranian expansionist aims leads me to think that Kabili is talking mostly about a critique of Saudi efforts to deal with Iran.

Kabili calls this new groups he identifies "Saudi neoconservatives," probably to get attention. He claims to see in them many of the same characteristics he sees in the American neocons: ambitious, activist, willing to use power, nationalist. To my ears, this sounds more like traditional realist notions of national interest and balance of power, without the idealistic edge of reforming the domestic politics of the Middle East. While he views them as proponents of "creative destruction" on the American neocon model, I do not see in them the same desire to change the regimes of Middle Eastern states. But a number of Saudis with whom I spoke said that they wanted the kingdom to take a more active stance, particularly in Iraq, to check Iranian ambitions. They were mildly critical of the kingdom’s relatively passive stance on Iraq and enthusiastic backers of the use of the Saudi military in Yemen earlier this year against the Houthis, whom they saw as Iranian allies if not Iranian agents.

This nascent Saudi debate on the country’s foreign policy, implicitly or explicitly focusing on how to deal with the rise of Iran’s power in the region, uses much of the same language the American debate does — "containment" and "rollback" of Iranian power, whether it is better to directly confront the Iranians or try to engage them — but, in my reading, it is based on a very different understanding of Iranian power and regional dynamics.

The American debate is very militarized. We wonder about whether to use military force against Iran on the nuclear question, seeing a possible nuclear Iran as a new level of military threat. The recent Foreign Affairs article by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh emphasizes the military element of containing Iran and warns that the United States must be ready to use force to implement a containment policy. Substantial majorities in both houses of Congress seem to be chomping at the bit to confront Iran. Even Barack Obama’s administration seemed to see its policy of engagement with Tehran as a "last chance" before more forceful measures, and those of its supporters in Congress who had been willing to stand against majority sentiment and support engagement last year seem perfectly happy with that.

The Saudi debate, as I experienced it, does not stress the military element. The Saudis see Iranian power in more political than military terms. It is Iranian political influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Palestine that worries them, not the prospect of the use of Iranian military force. They see the Iranian threat to the Gulf states as centered in Iran’s power to mobilize support among Shiite sympathizers in those states, not in the prospect of an Iranian missile attack or amphibious landing on the Arab shore of the Gulf. (The revelation by the Kuwaiti newpaper al-Qabas a few days ago of the arrest in Kuwait of an alleged Iranian "terrorist" cell is the kind of evidence Saudis point to of the nature of the Iranian threat.) They do not worry that much about a nuclear Iran as a military threat, but rather worry that nuclear acquisition will make Tehran more ambitious in terms of pushing for political influence in the region and that nuclear weapons will make Iran seem a more attractive and powerful ally for substate groups throughout the Arab world.

I think that the Saudi perspective on Iranian regional power is much more accurate than ours. It is not Iranian military power that gives Iran regional influence, but rather Iran’s political links to powerful actors in states where the central government is weak. Those links are based on a mixture of shared ideology, sectarian affiliation, common antipathy toward the United States and Israel, and short-term self-interests, in different degrees in different cases. But none of those relations are based on Iranian military power. I doubt that nuclear weapons will make that much difference, one way or another, in Iran’s regional influence because nuclear weapons will not change the nature of Iran’s relations with its substate allies in the Arab world.

The nascent Saudi debate on this question has not generated much in the way of answers to how to deal with Iranian power. There is something of a consensus that Riyadh has forfeited the chance to play a greater role in Iraq through passivity, and one can see the beginnings of a more active Saudi policy there now (backing Ayad Allawi, receiving a delegation from the Sadrist movement since the election). Although King Abdallah has a real personal antipathy toward dealing with Nouri al-Maliki, it is possible that even that obstacle will be overcome as the current maneuverings over the creation of a new Iraqi government continue. But American policymakers should be aware that, though Riyadh shares their perspective that Iran needs to be contained, the Saudis are taking a very different view of the nature of the Iranian challenge than is ascendant in Washington.

So, what does this mean for the American debate on Iran? First, it is not clear just what position the Saudi government would take on an U.S. military attack on Iran. It is likely that Riyadh would want the benefits of such an attack — setting back the Iranian nuclear program, however briefly — without taking any public responsibility for the American action. Washington should not count on any Saudi cooperation on such a plan that might become public. And American policymakers should know that a more active Saudi policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, if it were influenced by these Saudi "neoconservatives," might not be completely supportive of American efforts to enlist Arab states in "confidence-building measures" toward Israel. Saudi Arabia will judge those kinds of suggestions from a hardheaded "realist" perspective.

F. Gregory Gause III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont. His latest book, just published, is The International Relations of the Persian Gulf.

Sign up here to receive the Middle East Channel’s twice-weekly brief in your inbox, and follow the Middle East Channel on Twitter.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola