Riyadh walking a fine line

16 June 2015

At best the region could be heading for a sectarian cold war, at worst all-out conflict

Saudi Arabia’s move to become the Arab world’s main bulwark against the creeping influence and threat of Iran means that the Middle East is closer to all-out war than it has been for many decades.

The more Iran is gently reintroduced into the global political arena, the more sabre rattling that comes from Saudi Arabia.

Tehran knows that if it signs the nuclear deal and opens for business again, there is going to be a stampede from developed nations looking for a slice of what promises to be a pretty huge pie.

Riyadh sees the West’s rapprochement with Iran as a betrayal to all the regional powers who have helped keep the Islamic Republic in a box for the past 35 years and as a slap in the face to the peaceful nations of the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud feels that Iran is getting rewarded for bad behavior and that if left unchecked, Tehran will attempt to dominate the Arab world. This belief has led the kingdom to where it is today.

The fear of an Iran-backed takeover has caused Riyadh to massively ramp up its defence spending and send a clear message to Washington that it will not meekly kowtow any longer.

This has led to real fears that Saudi Arabia’s hawkish foreign policy, coupled with a renewed effort to curtail domestic dissent, could result in a Middle East war that is delineated along sectarian lines. The recent bombing of the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen could only be the beginning.

These problems are compounded by there being less of a desire from the US to keep interfering in regional politics, especially if Iran agrees to a peaceful path to prosperity instead of the international pariah it has become of late.  

This leaves Riyadh in the position where it has to either offer an olive branch to its near-neighbour or slam the door firmly shut in Tehran’s face.

There are several mutual benefits from forging greater links, most notably a shared enemy in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), as well as a reliance on natural resources as the primary driver of revenues and economies.

Whether or not these common interests are enough to set aside decades-long differences is debatable. The likelihood is that at the very least, the region could be heading for a sectarian cold war and at worst an all-out conflict.

Stay informed with the latest in the Middle East
Download the MEED app today, available on Apple and Android devices

A MEED Subscription...

Subscribe or upgrade your current MEED.com package to support your strategic planning with the MENA region’s best source of business information. Proceed to our online shop below to find out more about the features in each package.

Get Notifications