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#4843, 2 March 2015

Spotlight West Asia

Saudi Arabia and Evolving Regional Strategic Dynamics
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman

Saudi Arabia had, for the immediate short-term, seemingly successfully launched the process of transition to monarchs coming from the next generation; however, there has been dissent about the two younger generation appointments which has been kept secret from the public. Moreover, continuing widespread, but unreported, unhappiness within the royal family about Prince Muqrin’s elevation means that he may not necessarily become King; Prince Ahmed, the youngest of the seven Sudairi brothers, though presently sidelined, cannot be ruled out from becoming King and then equations change for the future.

Thus, uncertainties on the domestic front remain. These add to Saudi Arabia facing the most challenging and daunting external security environment since the end of World War II. It is strongly besieged on all sides - the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria determined to recast the geopolitical map of West Asia while simultaneously posing an unprecedented ideological challenge to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and to the very existence of its monarchical regime; Shiite Houthis taking control of the capital Sana’a and most of northern Yemen, with the country falling apart and staring at the South seceding and where the deeply anti-Saudi al Qaeda is likely to become even stronger than it is; the potential rapprochement between the US, Saudi Arabia’s preeminent ally for the past 70 years, and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy since 1979; Obama’s West Asia policies being very different from that of previous Presidents even as US need for Saudi oil is diminishing very sharply. Saudi Arabia’s continuing troubled relations with two GCC partners - Oman since long and Qatar in recent times.

Saudi Arabia has little or no control over how events in the region will evolve. It is not a significant military power. Even though it is the swing producer in global oil dynamics and can singlehandedly influence the price of oil this still does not give Saudi Arabia the clout to meaningfully influence regional strategic dynamics. To compound matters, it has a new King in fragile health and a relatively inexperienced new senior team.

Iran is, has been and will remain the leading regional power in West Asia. Saudi Arabia is not and cannot be an equal power. Carried away by strong US animosity towards the new revolutionary Iran and its own ‘special relationship’ with the US, Saudi Arabia considered the new Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 as a multi-pronged challenge and chose to respond by adopting a policy of unmitigated opposition to Iran. The US, shortsightedly, also adopted a similar approach which became progressively unsustainable in an increasingly inter-connected world in which Iran has become the preeminent strategic player in West Asia to the increasing disadvantage of the US and its regional allies. There is absolutely no possibility of any improvement in any of the conflict theatres in West Asia without Iran being an active participant in any such endeavours. The region is now caught in the vise of multiple crises forcing the US to finally recognise the reality of strong Iranian regional influence.

If Iran becomes a partner then there is every possibility that negotiated political solutions can be arrived at in Syria and Yemen and of the ground situation improving in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, including in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia has to realise that the challenge posed by the Islamic State is far more fundamental and lethal to the Saudi regime, State and system than Iran. Its first and overriding priority must be to ensure the defeat of the Islamic State, both militarily as well as ideologically, though the latter will take a long time. Given current political ground realities in Iraq and Syria and the enormous assistance that Iran has been giving to Iraq in fighting the Islamic State, Iran is the best placed regional country which can help ensure the defeat of the Islamic State.

Therefore, in more ways than one, a US/Western-Iranian deal is the key to stopping the increasing brutality, death and destruction in West Asia. There has to be a fundamental change of mindset by Saudi Arabia in relation to Iran. This is unavoidably necessary to ensure that the potential beneficial spin-offs of a nuclear deal can be translated onto the ground. This is also the only way that Islam-related extremism and militancy can be curbed and ultimately eliminated. Finally, this is absolutely essential to initiate the processes of controlling and ultimately eliminating deepening sectarian divides which have become the major fuel propelling the entirely unnecessary and avoidable killing of innocent people in the thousands. The new Saudi dispensation must play a statesman-like role, completely abjuring past counter-productive policies in relation to Iran.

Furthermore, absent Saudi hostility, there is no rational reason why Iran would be interested in destabilising the regime of any GCC country, including Bahrain. Finally, Iran must be an integral part of any new regional security structures in West Asia.

If the nuclear deal does not happen and Saudi Arabia does not change its attitudes then deepening cleavages in West Asia will become far worse; possibilities of Iraq, Syria and Yemen imploding will increase; moderate President Rouhani will be discredited and internal strife will in Iran will be aggravated; and, the prized calm in the GCC countries could give way to violence too.

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