Middle East

Viewpoints: Saudi Arabia's Geopolitical Maneuvers

Saudi Arabia has been one of the main backers of rebel groups in Syria, one of which is seen here near Homs. (Photo: Freedom House)

In its battle for regional dominance and ongoing rivalry with Shi'ite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia is currently involved in a number of strategic battles throughout the Middle East. On issues involving Syria, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanaon, Yemen and others, the Kingdom has a significant stake in current geopolitical and sectarian turf wars. Worldpress.org provides a sampling of recent news coverage on these stories.

Egypt – Ahram Online, Nov. 3: Top U.S. diplomat John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia on Sunday hoping to soothe tensions over Washington's refusal to intervene in Syria and its diplomatic overtures to Iran. Relations with the longtime ally have been strained over U.S. reluctance to strike Syria or provide more aid to rebels there, as well as its tentative detente with Iran following the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a reputed moderate. Saudi Arabia has also clashed publicly with Washington over its decision to freeze some aid to Egypt's military-installed government, with Riyadh pledging to more than make up for any shortfalls following the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The conservative oil-rich kingdom has grown increasingly nervous over the past two years as Arab Spring revolts have toppled onetime allies in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen and spread turmoil across the region.

France – Euronews, Nov. 21: Saudi Arabia has asked its citizens to leave Lebanon due to the risk of political violence in the country, where twin suicide bombings near Iran’s embassy in Beirut killed 25 people this week. Riyadh has issued several similar calls in the past two years as the civil war in Syria has inflamed political and sectarian tension in neighbouring Lebanon. … Some Shi’ite commentators in Lebanon have accused Sunni Saudi Arabia of being behind Tuesday’s blasts near the embassy of its main Middle East rival. A Lebanese-based Sunni militant group close to al Qaeda has claimed responsibility.

Germany – The Local, Nov. 19: Saudi Arabia bought more military equipment off Germany in 2012 than any other country, a report on Monday revealed.The Gulf state, which has a poor human rights record, spent around €1.2 billion of the nearly €5 billion sales made by the government on exporting military hardware. Saudi Arabia bought gun laying equipment and weapons sights, as well as missile steering technology. It had planned to buy 270 armed tanks but the deal fell through.

Israel – Israel Today, Nov. 18: Unbelievably, Israel and Saudi Arabia are reportedly working together to formulate a plan of attack to hit Iran's nuclear facilities in the event the international community fails to adequately quell the Islamic Republic's atomic ambitions. … The arrangement reportedly being hashed out would allow Israel to use Saudi airspace en route to Iran. The Saudis would also provide logistical support by coordinating the use of drones, search-and-rescue aircraft and refueling tankers over their soil. And if all of this sounds too fantastical, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already hinted at such a deal last week in an interview with French daily Le Figaro. There is a "meeting of the minds" between Israel and the "leading states in the Arab world on the Iran issue," Netanyahu told the newspaper, noting that it is "one of the few cases in memory, if not the first case in modern times" of Israel working side-by-side with these particular states. The Israeli leader reiterated that the Iran nuclear threat is far more severe than Western leaders are willing to admit.

Lebanon – The Daily Star, Nov. 21: Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called Wednesday on Arab and African nations to pressure the U.N. Security Council to act on Syria, urging them to help save “what remains” of the country. … Prince Saud said the Security Council should unite under the “catastrophic” circumstances to fulfill its duty to maintain international peace and security—a description that, if adopted, usually entails economic sanctions and possible military intervention. “[The Council] should carry out its responsibilities and hurry to issue a firm and strong position that prevents the shedding of Syrian blood and protects for them what remains of their nation,” he said. Prince Saud’s call was the latest in a Saudi diplomatic campaign pushing for action on Syria. In October, his country unexpectedly declined a U.N. Security Council seat in a move partially meant to show its disapproval of the body’s failure to act on Syria, where resolutions on the crisis have been vetoed by Russia and China.

Qatar – Al Jazeera, Nov. 20: As senior diplomats from Iran and the six world powers (P5+1) were set to return to the negotiation table in Geneva this week, there is more optimism that an interim deal would be made this time to ease international concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The mere possibility, however, that a deal could be reached soon, has drawn a storm of protest from Israel and Saudi Arabia, both close allies of Washington. The Saudis, in particular, would consider a deal between the big powers and Iran over its nuclear issue as U.S. submission to Tehran's "hegemonic ambitions" in the Middle East. This explains why the bombing, which targeted the Iranian embassy in Beirut on November 19, was widely viewed in Tehran as aiming to undermine the Geneva talks.

United Arab Emirates – Gulf News, Nov. 17: Abdullah was one of at least 23,000 Ethiopians living illegally in Saudi Arabia, and part of a group of close to 400 flown home on Friday after being expelled. According to Ethiopian officials, three of their nationals were killed this month in clashes with Saudi police as the clampdown—set in motion after a seven-month amnesty period expired—got under way. “I had 3,500 Saudi Arabian riyals ($931). We were taken to prison, I lost my luggage, and all of my money was collected by the police,” Abdullah said. Abdullah, who had a job guarding animals, was jailed for six months—during which he said he was denied food and medical help. Facing limited job prospects and harsh economic realities back home, large numbers of Ethiopian men and women head to the oil- and gas-rich Arabian peninsula every year seeking work. The International Labour Organisation said many face physical and mental abuse, menial pay, discrimination and poor working conditions, and the Ethiopian government announced last month it was banning domestic workers from traveling to the Middle East to look for jobs after widespread reports of mistreatment.

United Kingdom – Reuters, Nov. 21: Six mortar shells landed near a remote Saudi border post close to neighboring fellow oil producers Iraq and Kuwait on Wednesday, but caused no damage, the kingdom said on Thursday. … Sunni Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter and a close ally of Kuwait, has an uneasy relationship with the Shi'ite Muslim-led Iraqi government, which it regards as a pawn of its main regional rival Iran. It has not had an ambassador in Baghdad since before the 1990-91 Gulf War. Sectarian fighting in Iraq over the past decade has involved Sunni militant groups close to al Qaeda and Shi'ite militias that regard Saudi Arabia unfavorably. Some Iraqi Shi'ites support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country's civil war, in which Saudi-backed Sunni armed groups are among rebels fighting to end his rule. Some Shi'ite commentators in the region have accused Saudi Arabia of responsibility for suicide bombings that killed 23 people near an Iranian embassy compound in Beirut on Tuesday. Saudi Arabia said it strongly condemned the attack.

United States – Middle East Voices, Nov. 21: In addition to Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Syria, Yemen represents yet another chessboard in the tactical maneuvers between Tehran and Riyadh in the Arab world. The current tide of the sectarian militancy between Shi’ite rebels and Sunni Salafi fighters, which began sweeping the northern provinces of Yemen on Oct. 30, has once again put the spotlight on the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in the region. … The rise of a Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad, the political and military ascendancy of Hezbollah in Lebanon following its impressive resistance to an Israeli assault in the summer of 2006, the overthrow of pro-U.S. rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, the weakening of Washington’s influence on the Middle East, and the stubborn survival of the Assad regime in Syria have altered the balance of regional power in favor of the Iran-led Shi’ite camp in the region. An Iranian foothold in Yemen would hence be a monumental ideological and political setback for the Saudi kingdom.