The coming war
The Middle East media is abuzz with debates and discussions on the region’s next big war, and everyo
The Middle East media is abuzz with debates and discussions on the region’s next big war, and everyone is apparently confident they know the protagonists of this coming conflict: Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Both Tehran and Riyadh are Pakistan’s western neighbours. We have close links in both capitals. Developments in the Saudi-Iranian bilateral ties impact our own relations with West Asia.
Tehran has several recent successes to its belt. It had two of its enemies, Saddam Hussain in Baghdad and the AfTaliban in Kabul, removed. It rules by proxy in Iraq, has a military footprint on the ground in Syria, and is now wielding influence through armed groups in Egypt, Gaza, Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia almost lost Egypt as an ally. Already Iraq and Syria are lost. Riyadh is dealing with Iran-inspired trouble on its doorsteps in Bahrain, eastern Saudi provinces, and Yemen. In Pakistan, the Saudis were uneasy with the NRO deal brokered by the United States and Britain. Riyadh saw the NRO suspiciously as an attempt to limit Islamabad’s close ties to Saudi Arabia and China.
Two recent articles by Saudi authors in the international media reveal major changes in Saudi thinking and signal things to come.
One of the seminal papers on this coming conflict was written by Dr. Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi-Arabian assistant professor of political sociology at King Saud University.
Dr al-Dakhil’s article, in Arabic, is titled, ‘Iran Has A Plan, What Is Saudi Arabia’s Plan?’ published on June 30 in the London-based Saudi newspaper al-Hayat, owned by Prince Khaled bin Sultan Al Saud, a retired general officer of Saudi army.
This article continues to generate a lot of interest six months later. It sheds light on the potential Saudi strategic thinking after successful Iranian inroads in the region coupled with clear signs that Saudi and American policies are in conflict in places like Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain.
In short, Dr al-Dakhil criticised Saudi Arabia’s passive foreign policy, accusing it of being obsessed about keeping things under control instead of actively moving to influence the course of events in places like Syria and Egypt. He recognised that Riyadh had one of the best air forces and air defence systems in the region but needed to dramatically improve its ability for rapid military intervention in conflict zones and project power.
He accused Iran of ‘imposing’ a conflict on Arab countries. In Dr al-Dakhil’s words, “There is a confrontation in the region between Iran and the Arab world (…) this is a confrontation that Tehran has imposed on everyone.”
After the Iraq war, Dakhil writes, “The Iranian leadership, like Israel, wanted to use the situation of Arab weakness to expand its role and influence in the region using the lie of resistance to Israel.”
Another article with even stronger message, this time in English, came from the Saudi ambassador in London, published in the New York Times on Dec 17, appropriately titled, ‘Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone.’
One excerpt: “We believe that many of the west’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East. This is a dangerous gamble, about which we cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by.”
What does all of this mean for Pakistan?
First, it is important to understand that this is not a sectarian conflict, rather a strategic one. Riyadh and Tehran competed for strategic influence during the Cold War. The sectarian element was injected into this conflict after 1979, with Tehran and later Riyadh using religious sects for strategic gain.
Second, there are strong lobbies inside both Tehran and Riyadh that want good relations. For example, the emergency OIC summit in Makkah in August 2012 saw unprecedented levels of harmony between the Iranian and Saudi leaderships.
In the closed-door session, then President Ahmadinejad did not mention Syria once in the 55-minute speech, focusing instead on Palestine and Zionism. In return, the Saudi monarch too glossed over Syria and announced the creation of a study centre to bring Sunni and Shia scholars in one place in Riyadh.
Third, there is no denying there are sectarian Sunni and Shia extremists who thrive on conflict. Both Riyadh and Tehran need to restrain them.