Beyond Syria: Saudi Arabia’s Strategies for Dealing with Iran

Joseph Benzekri | ( Your Middle East | – –

“Claiming to fight ISIS can serve as a valuable pretext for defending one’s own interests”

The difficulties facing Saudi Arabia and its proxies in Syria should not be conflated with any significant new advantage being enjoyed by their rivals in Iran, writes Joseph Benzekri.

Saudi Arabia, alarmed by the rapid thaw in Iran’s relationship with the West and gains recently made by Syrian regime forces, seems to have decided that acting as the Sunni Arab world’s financier will not be enough to secure imperiled regional interests. Having taken the lead against Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen, Saudi Arabia took another step toward acting as an independent military power when it formed a 34-nation military alliance against “terrorism” last December. Responding to calls that the wealthy Gulf monarchies do more in the fight against jihadist groups like the Islamic State, the new alliance should, according to Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, coordinate efforts against extremists in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan. 

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia’s multinational initiative is not limited to the Arab world but is a wide-reaching Sunni effort. Despite pledging to combat extremism in Iraq and Syria, Riyadh’s adversaries in Baghdad and Damascus—and their patrons in Tehran—have clearly been left out of the arrangement. Instead, the new alliance includes established Saudi partners such as Kuwait, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates but also countries as far away as Senegal and Malaysia. Far from entering into perfunctory agreements, the Saudi defense establishment has been deepening its ties with these partners over the past several months. In late January, Mohammad bin Salman signed a memorandum of understanding with his Malaysian counterpart on cooperation in the “scientific, technological and industrial fields for national defense purposes,” which comes in addition to an intelligence-sharing agreement  last September. Malaysia is also expected to take part in major military exercises, dubbed “Thunder of the North,” to be carried out in Saudi Arabia with the participation of 21 countries.

The Saudi strategy of looking beyond the Middle East to partners further afield predates King Salman, although its objectives have shifted of late. Before Riyadh and Kuala Lumpur were discussing intelligence sharing and training exercises, elements from the late King Abdullah’s entourage donated $681 million to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2013 to help his ruling party defeat an election challenge from opponents who included a party inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time, the Brotherhood’s growing influence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring gave the Saudi royals cause for alarm, although Iran’s rise has since forced a shift in priorities. The donation later prompted an investigation into Najib’s accounts, although the results cleared the Prime Minister of suspected wrongdoing—all while offering an idea of just how much King Salman’s predecessor feared the mainstream Islamists he now finds himself courting. The ties between Najib and the Saudi royal family have, for their part, remained unchanged; the Malaysian leader made a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia just last month. 

5 Responses

  1. ” As Vladimir Putin has demonstrated, claiming to fight ISIS can serve as a valuable pretext for defending one’s own interests in the increasingly convoluted Syrian war”.
    This seems to be a description of US action in Syria, the Russians are, at best, copycats.

  2. Saudi Arabia burned through nearly 100 billion USD of its foreign currency reserves last year: some of it misspent in their actions in Yemen and some misspent on arming extremist groups in Syria. In five years, the IMF predicts they will burn through all of their foreign currency reserves, if they continue their profligacy and the price of oil remains depressed.

    Given their loss of oil revenue and no real domestic gains from their foreign policy, one might think they would reconsider their actions. A more accommodating policy vis a vis Iran would be more in their interest than creating and promulgating sectarian strife.

    Do any of the Saudi alliances in this post amount to much? Do they make the Saudi citizenry economically productive? Beyond oil wealth, there’s really nothing going for Saudi Arabia. If the price of oil stays depressed, even that luxury doesn’t amount to much.

  3. The US ought to start planning for the collapse of Saudi Arabia. Since the US government is run by lunatics (I refer not to the elected officials, but to the “deep state” military-industrial complex), it won’t.

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