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The Middle East’s Cold War Is Not Going Well for the Saudi’s

The Middle East’s Cold War Is Not Going Well for the Saudi’s

Saudi Iranian Flags BIN

On Saturday afternoon November 4th from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, now former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri declared he resigned due to threat of assassination, saying, “I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life.” The BBC reported that Hariri made multiple trips to Saudi Arabia (KSA) over the couple of days prior to his announcement, and Hariri attacked Iran and the Shia movement Hezbollah in the Riyadh broadcast. The location of the surprising revelation and Hariri’s depiction of Iran as determined to “destroy the Arab world” hints that the Saudi-Iranian proxy war may have returned to Beirut.

Lebanon’s elections were scheduled for May 2018, but last weekend’s developments call that into question and may have destroyed any semblance of détente that existed in Lebanese politics between the regional heavyweights. Lebanon’s delicate political arrangement assembled Sunni, Shia, and Christian representatives after two years without a complete government. Yet, the role of Hezbollah (due to its designation as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Arab Gulf States) constituted a legitimate excuse for outside intervention. So far, Lebanon’s government has not collapsed, many suspect Hariri is just a mouth for Riyadh, and Hezbollah may be the hero if they can maintain stability in Lebanon.

On October 10, the U.S. offered two multi-million dollar rewards for Hezbollah leaders which may correlate with Saudi State Minister for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer Sabhan’s tweet two days prior that an international coalition to confront Hezbollah is needed. Following the KSA’s interception of a missile fired from Yemen, Mr. Sabhan described Hezbollah’s role in assembling the missile and stated, “We will treat the government of Lebanon as a government declaring a war because of Hezbollah militias.” This came as Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, labeled the same missile attack an “act of war” by Iran. Iran has supplied Hezbollah with as much as $200 million each year, so Hezbollah may find themselves at the center of a power struggle with few options to extract themselves.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro immediately assessed that an Israeli-Hezbollah conflict was inevitable, arguing Israel has been prepping since 2006. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman contributed to this prospect on Saturday saying, “In Practice Lebanon has been occupied by Hezbollah and the Iranians,” and “This axis is operating inside Lebanon, inside Syria and is extending its patronage into the Gaza Strip.” The U.S. and KSA have lead the fight to coordinate international opinion against Hezbollah and have operated in cohesion with their terrorist designations. Congress even introduced a bill to encourage Europe to see Hezbollah as one movement and not to differentiate between the political and military wings of Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s political future and security may unfortunately be dictated by the interests and strategic moves of foreign powers. The U.S. and Russia have coordinated with Hezbollah at different times to combat Daesh in Syria, and Iran has backed them nearly since their 1979 revolution. Russian and Iranian security interests aligned in Syria and have blossomed into a much deeper relationship, whereas President Trump most recently proved his support for the Saudi Crown Prince’s consolidation of power, tweeting, “I have great confidence in King Salman and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing… Some of those they are harshly treating have been “milking” their country for years!”

In an effort to alienate the militaristic efforts of Hezbollah and Hamas from the greater Arab community and contain Iranian influence, the KSA is moving quickly to build alliances and present a new image as moderate or progressive (like granting women the freedom to drive). The detention of the Saudi “untouchable” Princes may assist in legitimizing the Monarchy’s governing mandate, but the timing of these moves encourages speculation of a Saudi-U.S. plot for the region. Riyadh, by some accounts, is committing war crimes in Yemen, and has not effectively shown off its military competency. What was supposed to be a quick victory is now a disaster with a record-breaking cholera epidemic, the worst famine in decades, and no clear path out.

During the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006, many Arab Gulf States were rattled by public support for Hezbollah which, by default, shed warmer light on Iran. In March 2016, all six GCC States designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but their unanimity is still a hard sell to their citizens.

Sectarian identity fluctuates with time and by situation, which makes for insecure politics. Sectarian identity is not only driven through polemics, but institutionalized via access to public sector jobs, opportunity in the armed forces, and cemented by wealth distribution. Generalizing Arab Gulf state economies may, by nature, predispose some flavor of Orientalism, but the rentier economic model has granted the government the necessary incentives to impose sectarian identity on its people by correlating profits and stability with the Monarchy.

However, questions of legitimacy arise quickly when funds run dry and as Saudi economic woes become more urgent, social unrest could threaten the Monarchy. Much has been written on the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional supremacy and their shadow looms heavily over Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Qatar, and now Lebanon. The dense collection of alliances and informal dealings with States and non-state actors encourages rumors and conspiracy theories to bounce around the Arab Streets, and the presence of foreign powers (like the U.S. and Russia) inspires speculation about their end game and further obscures the truth.

If we accept that a new Middle Eastern Cold War has settled in, as argued by F. Gregory Gauss III of Brookings, between the KSA & Iran, then have the rapprochement efforts by the KSA with former foes inspired any allegiance following last week’s barrage of developments?

Rapprochement Coverage & A New Order

Since November 2013, reports have surfaced over Saudi-Israeli rapprochement and speculation has accelerated since the summer of 2016 due to fears of the U.S. abandoning the MENA region. Saudi officials went so far as to state, “Israel is not an enemy” that summer to a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; a drastic divergence from the 2007 condemnation of Israeli excavations near al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem as “a provocation to Muslims around the world.”

Private rapprochement efforts along military and business interests are widely documented, but public statements frequently contradict such evidence. On October 21, the Forward reported in an interview with Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington and onetime head of the KSA’s intelligence agency, that such rapprochement with Israel was an illusion of Prime Minister Netanyahu; yet, “two hours after the interview,” Prince Turki, the former Head of Mossad, and a Pentagon official sat on the same stage for a security seminar. Due to the political consequences, official confirmation of such rapprochement is highly unlikely for now.

A leaked cable by Israel’s Channel 10 on November 6, shows that the Israeli MFA ordered its embassies to support the Saudi & Hariri line about the destabilizing effect Hezbollah has had on the Lebanese government. Publicly, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has tweeted, “The resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri and his remarks are a wake-up call to the international community to take action against the Iranian aggression, which is turning Syria into a second Lebanon.”

This leak will likely play as a smoking gun, implicating Israel and the KSA in an effort to upend the regional structure and severely damage Riyadh’s legitimacy amongst Arabs skeptical of Israel. This revelation may make Riyadh’s relationship with Cairo that much more significant because the KSA is in desperate need to save face in the Arab Streets. Riyadh invested heavily in Egypt following the removal of the Egyptian Brotherhood in 2013 with not only economic funds, but political capital; Riyadh’s relationship with Cairo is complicated but as Egypt makes up a quarter of all Arabs, they remain a key source of legitimacy.

The Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement effort has made great strides over the past month including: the first flights between Riyadh and Baghdad in 27 years, a newly appointed Saudi Ambassador to Iraq, and the establishment of a Coordination Council in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson. Riyadh’s diplomatic blitz also comes as Russia is championed the de facto winner in Syria, and classic U.S. allies are seeking assurances that their Iranian-foe will not topple the regional status quo.

Iraq has not shown any public allegiance to Riyadh since last week’s developments and has avoided comment on the subject. This is fairly easy to do because their security situation can still consume local headlines and Baghdad has been clear about balancing its relationship with the U.S., Russia, the KSA, and Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi just two weeks ago returned from a trip to Riyadh, Cairo, Amman, Ankara, and Tehran without declaring any allegiance to one over the other. This flood of developments comes amidst the steady drip of information hinting at possible negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, facilitated by Cairo whose most ardent backer is Riyadh.

Cairo’s Role in Riyadh’s Scheme

Cairo’s relationship with Riyadh is complicated as Sisi seeks to reform his relationship with the Palestinians, by pushing Qatar out of Gaza, but does not view Hezbollah as a serious threat. The summer of 2017 was characterized by the cutting of diplomatic relations and a financial boycott of Qatar by the KSA, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt that has upset GCC coherence. A unique condition that was not explicitly stated in the 13 demands circulated by the Saudi-led bloc was for Qatar to quit funding Hamas.

Qatar hosts the previous leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, who has ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; the current Egyptian government rose following a coup perpetrated by the military against the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar was the first world leader to visit Gaza under Hamas control in 2012 (bringing $400 million in aid) and Qatar is the only Gulf state to maintain close ties with Hamas. For its part, Hamas has felt that many Middle Eastern governments have used the Palestinian cause for their own ends, which makes their relationship with Qatar that much more significant.

In early October, representatives of Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement which would grant the Palestinian Authority (PA) greater control over Hamas controlled territories in the Gaza Strip (like the Rafah border crossing with Egypt). Two weeks prior, Hamas called for the PA to replace it as the governing body in Gaza, which would in effect remove restrictions on Gazans access to electricity. While Israeli analysts caution against the longevity of this agreement, the PA assumed control over the Rafah border crossing on November 1.

On October 29, Al-Monitor quoted an Egyptian diplomat on the contents of a Cairo initiative for multilateral negotiations towards an Arab-Israeli peace accord. The main tenants of this initiative include:

  1. The Arab League will recertify its adherence and support for a two-state solution based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative; launched by then Crown Prince Abdullah of KSA and representing a collective Arab interest in recognizing Israel.
  2. The U.S. will initiate a conference seeking to determine a path-way to a two-state solution and establishing mechanisms to combat terrorism; Washington and Tel Aviv maintain Hamas must disarm as a precondition to negotiations.
  3. The PLO will represent Palestinian interests and Cairo will host the initiative.

Netanyahu stated he was willing to discuss the Arab Peace initiative in May 2016, but even the alignment of all Arab States does not preclude sabotage from non-state actors. Acts of terrorism by individuals or movements force comment from Arab leaders, and their allegiance to their ethnicity can be called into question (often a great source of their legitimacy and power).

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has urged caution and for the de-escalation of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, while also affirming his support for Riyadh stating, “We support our (Saudi) brothers.” Riyadh’s backing of Cairo presents an opportunity to elevate Cairo’s status as a leader of Arabs, and as the lead negotiator of peace and stability for the region. Yet, Sisi’s caution is warranted because Egypt has struggled to control the Sinai Peninsula with terrorist attacks occurring frequently, and they do not need to incur the wrath of Tehran. Cairo is avoiding greater sanctions on Hezbollah, amidst Saudi urging, which reduces the odds they would take part in any sort of military confrontation.

Riyadh Might Fight Iran Without the Arabs

The most dependable alliance the Saudi’s have cultivated is with Israel and the drastic developments of the past week should be considered an experiment, testing the regional structure and allegiances. Baghdad seeks stability and wants nothing to do with any future conflict. Cairo see’s room for growth with Saudi backing but is not ready to sign up for armed conflict because Iran is not an immediate threat. Israel see’s Iran and Hezbollah as an immediate threat and is ready to adjust the regional structure before stability settles in.

This is the state of affairs, and Riyadh must decide if they are willing to go forward with Tel Aviv as their staunchest ally in the region. Such a move would likely all but eliminate Riyadh’s hopes of becoming the leader of the Arabs, but might ensure the survival of the Monarchy with allies like the U.S. and Israel.



Samuel Hickey

Samuel Hickey is a Visiting Researcher at the Arab Institute for Security Studies in Amman, Jordan where his portfolio consists of a wide variety of issues facing the Middle East. He was previously appointed an Adjunct Instructor of physics labs at American University. He recently received a dual degree from American University (AU) in International Studies with a regional focus in the Middle East and a general focus in U.S. foreign policy and national security, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics.