Lose-lose in the Middle East

Tehran, Iran, Jan. 3, 2016: Protesters hold posters of late Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration near the Saudi Arabian embassy (source: dpa)
Tehran, Iran, Jan. 3, 2016: Protesters hold posters of late Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration near the Saudi Arabian embassy (source: dpa)

Saudi Arabia began 2016 by executing 47 people. Most were al-Qaeda members condemned for terror attacks. But among their number was a leading cleric from the Shia minority, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution can be seen as having a twofold purpose, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

Firstly, it served as a reminder to Saudi Shias of the price of disloyalty. Secondly, it was a signal to Tehran that, in a time of rising tensions, the kingdom is unimpressed with Iran’s claim to be the protector of the Shia branch of Islam.

The Iranians reacted within hours by setting fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which caused Riyadh to sever diplomatic relations and expel Iranian diplomats.

Power plays are nothing new in the Middle East. In addition to the traditional global powers, the key regional players are Turkey, Iran (historic Persia), Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.

For centuries, the Ottoman Empire kept most of this region under its sovereignty, even as it fought frequent conflicts with Persia. Britain and France sponsored an Arab rebellion against the Ottomans during World War I, but failed to honor their promises after the war. Instead of allowing independent Arab states under the rule of the Hashemite dynasty, they set up artificial states under semi-colonial mandates.

First Britain and then, after World War II, the United States tried to preserve a balance of power in this unstable area. Both have retreated since the winding down of the Iraq war, leaving behind a vacuum.

This has exposed long-simmering tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are vying to control the Persian Gulf. The intensifying Saudi-Iranian rivalry is shown by proxy wars now being fought in Syria and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia enters this conflict in a weakened state. Economically, lower oil prices have produced a fiscal crisis that endangers the social contract between the Saud dynasty and its subjects. Those ties have already been loosened by sectarian splits within Sunni Islam. Daesh, al-Qaeda and other terrorist movements pose an increasing internal security threat, while the Shia minority in the peninsula’s oil-rich east may also become a problem.

The lifting of sanctions against Iran is seen by the Saudis as a fundamental policy shift, which could portend a withdrawal of U.S. support in the local power struggle.

That prompted Saudi Arabia’s new leaders, King Salman and his ambitious son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to assume the mantle of Sunni leadership and adopt a forward strategy, as is the case in Yemen.

New alignments have emerged from the Syria conflict. The old but informal alliance between Turkey and Israel is reviving after years of friction, while both countries appear to be drawing closer to Saudi Arabia. All three countries have taken a firm anti-Assad position in Syria, something they share with the U.S. and Europe.

There is an even more powerful common denominator between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. All three countries are vulnerable to armed sectarian groups, and each one of them feels abandoned by Europe and the U.S. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel regard Iran as their biggest external threat.

On the other side, there is an evident Iran-Russia axis. It is most clearly visible in Syria, where Iran and Russia have put boots on the ground in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

These two axes now confront each other in an arc stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden. Saudi Arabia believes that its old ally the U.S. has broken faith, while the U.S. and Europe are trying to keep their distance, limiting themselves to bombing Daesh and training and supporting the Iraqi army.

GIS has been reporting and warning for years that this limited Western response is insufficient.

This week’s diplomatic crisis is mostly important as a gauge of where we stand in the region. Peace is a distant prospect, and the situation is going from bad to worse.

Related statements:

Regime changes resulting in failed states

Yemen turmoil poses wider threat

Yemen's fragmentation

Syria - a humanitarian catastrophe and a political disaster

Related reports:

The implications for Iran's growing influence in the Middle East

Iranian threat drives the Saudi initiative in Yemen

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