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Saudi Arabia and Iran – Opposite Poles in the Persian Gulf

Feb 16, 2012 Written by  Richard Rousseau, Contributor
Saudi-IranIn mid-April 2011 Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) intervened militarily to quell the street riots in Bahrain, both acting in support of the besieged government. The reasons for this intervention are to be found in a range of economic variables and social and religious conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Also included in this mix is the Iranian government’s ambitions.

Any escalation of the riots into the Gulf could lead to a much more violent military crackdown, which would have far-reaching consequences. If such repression were to continue and succeed, this could complicate even further the already difficult process of democratization in the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia, on March 11th, on the occasion of the “Hunayn revolution” (Hunayn is the name of a battle “miraculously” won by the Prophet Mohamed against supposedly far more powerful armies) organized by Shia and Sunni intellectuals, Prince Nayef Biu Abdul al-Saud, the Saudi Interior Minister, issued this order, which may be worthy of investigation by the International Criminal Court at The Hague: “to all the honorable heads of police in the areas of Riyadh, Mecca and Medina, al-Bahr, Qassim, the northern borders, Tabouq, Sharqiya, Qaseer, Najwan, Jezaan, and the head of the emergency Special Forces, previous to our conversations regarding the so-called "Hunayn Revolution"—if indeed it exists—with its single goal of threatening our national security: this group of stray individuals spreads evil throughout the land. Do not show them mercy. Strike them with iron fists. It is permitted for all officers and personnel to use live rounds. This is your land and this is your religion. If they want to change that or replace us, you must respond.”

Later the same Saudi government, in agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), decided to send troops to break up the riots in Bahrain and prevent the spread of protests to the Saudi border. This military intervention cannot solely be attributed to the fact that Bahrain is a member of the GCC, which makes it possible for the Peninsula Shield Force (the Council’s military force for intervention) to be used. More likely, the reason for the crackdown is due to the fact that these demonstrations, if not tackled quickly, represented a threat to the balance of political, economic and religious power in the region. The bitter words of the Saudi prince, the GCC military intervention, and Qatar’s simultaneous pressure to curb the uprising were the first visible signs of nervousness in the Gulf at the prospect of a victory for the “rebels” over the Bahraini regime. Saudi Arabia’s decisions to use force was not based on religious factors—Prince Nayef Biu Abdul al-Saud’s order—or the influence of the Arab League (AL), as some insinuated, but rather on a range of economic and political factors deemed particularly crucial by the most powerful states and drivers within the GCC, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

Why a military intervention in the Gulf?

The Arab revolutions currently underway are seen by many Gulf monarchies as an imminent threat. The revolutionary wave which has hit nearby Yemen and Bahrain, two Arab League member states, could quickly spread to other Gulf States. The Bahraini and Yemeni riots, in fact, may serve as a source of inspiration for Sunni and Shiite reformists in Saudi Arabia. If the Bahraini government grants major concessions to the so-called rebels, dissent could be reinforced and become even more emboldened in its more stable neighbors.

This anxiety is well-founded, especially if one takes into account the distribution of wealth among the Gulf States. The protests in the region are being led by the poorest and least politically represented Arabs. That accounts for their request for a true representation in political institutions and reforms to ensure greater social and economic welfare. For instance, the protests originated from Bahrain because governmental power lies in the hands of a Sunni minority in that country, although the majority of the population is Shiite.

Occupying a central position in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia is the seat of Sunni orthodoxy. It has, for more than two centuries, been dominated by the Wahhabi sect, which follows an extremely conservative interpretation of the Koran. As a result, a greater Shiite influence in the Gulf would be generally considered a threat to both the monarchies and the Wahhabi Sunnis of the region.

Another reason for the strong Saudi response to the events in Bahrain is the role the Muslim Brotherhood movement has played in them. This Islamic organization is alleged to be a promoter of these rebellions and be actively involved in stirring up trouble in the region. Moreover, there are well-organized Muslim Brotherhood groups in Bahrain and Kuwait’s parliaments positioned to raise tensions which could easily boil over into full-fledged riots. In that context, maintaining order and security is paramount, especially considering the massive strategic resources the region contains.

Ensuring order and security around the location of the most of the strategic resources of the region—oil—was another reason for the GCC troops’ heavy-handed military intervention. In addition, Bahrain is now one of the world’s leading Islamic financial centers. Altogether, these factors make it easier to understand Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States’ shared interest in nipping these revolutionary outbreaks in the bud.

Iran’s Role

Saudi authorities’ concern skyrocketed when Iran decided to lend its support to the rebels, although not openly. Iran’s covert engagement can be primarily explained by the fact that it is the “home” of Shiite power in the Middle East. Consequently, a positive outcome for Shiites in Bahrain would be seen as a victory for the rebels against the shared “Sunni enemy,” as represented by the governments of the Gulf monarchies. The decline and fall of Sunni Arab regimes, avowed enemies of the Shiite regime in Iran, would bring about greater Iranian influence in the region and would represent yet another victory against the “Great Satan,” the United States. Washington, as a matter of policy, has always supported Sunni regimes, notably the Saudi monarchy. An ousting of the Saudi government in favor of Shiite movements could give Iran a staunch ally against the U.S. presence in the region.

Moreover, according to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, democratic Arab uprisings emanate from a logic rooted in the 1979 Iranian revolution, regarded in Tehran as an Islamic revival against Western-backed dictators. This line of reasoning among the Mullahs made the GCC intervention even more pressing in the eyes of the Saudis and other Gulf States. The real fear, therefore, lies in the possible increase of Iranian influence in the region, not only in religious terms but also through Shiite Iranians spreading Islamic activism. In economic and geopolitical terms, the acquisition of nuclear bombs by Iran would nominally change the dynamic and gravely disrupt the current geopolitical arrangement in the Middle East.

Reactions and Consequences

Bahrain and its powerful neighbors affiliated within the GCC, when faced with the threat of disorder, have quickly opted for military intervention—for example, Syria is the most recent case in which force has been resorted to on a massive scale. In other countries, the predominant policy has been to adopt political and military “hocus-pocus” coupled with astute positioning. In those countries where an emergency intervention has so far been avoided, concessions have been made in order to placate the locals, albeit for the short term. For example, during one of King Abdullah’s frequent extended trips out of his country, Prince Naif of the Saudi government took the opportunity to give a 15 percent wage increase to civil servants. He also implemented a series of measures which gave immediate benefits to the population without actually bringing about economic and political reforms.

Any escalation or expansion of the uprising into other Gulf States and the wider Middle East could have severe and unpredictable consequences. These could include the rise of an even more radical form of Wahhabi orthodoxy and conservatism. Such a shift would not bode well for Western geopolitical interests in the Persian Gulf. The continuation of rebellions could also prompt an even more violent intervention by the Peninsula Shield Force. In such a scenario, Sunni governments would, without much trouble, come out victorious. This would likely halt the political and economic development processes in the Arab world, worsening the social malfunctions which already exist.

The political leadership of other Arab countries, should the Peninsula Shield Force be used to quash the rebellion, could easily find inspiration from the Gulf monarchies in how best to prevent unrests and the toppling of their governments. Jordan and Morocco, for instance, are trying to ally themselves within the GCC in order to create a sort of monarchical bulkhead against the incoming revolutionary wave. Social and political disorder within these two counties would act as a disincentive for foreign investors, drying up Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), which in turn would impact industrial and trade relations for the entire region. The end result is a serious development slowdown in the Gulf and, particularly, a further decrease of tourism.

On the other hand, a continuing—and in the end, successful—process of democratization would make a significant difference for the Middle East. A greater number of representative governments based on popular majorities would come into existence. It is for this reason that the promotion of reform packages oriented to fostering the production of highly policy-relevant results remains the most viable option in securing outlines that coincide with the needs and demands of the populace.

The burgeoning of Arab governments advocating sound employment policies and cultivating a favorable business environment could seriously cool the fervor of the rioters and force the mobs to melt away. Expectedly, a better distribution of wealth among locals, and therefore greater social welfare, would normally appease the Arab youth who provide the bulk of the contingents of rioters. For now, however, purely political and strategic considerations have the upper hand, even among great Western powers, which, seemingly, do not want to see any real and substantial change in governmental structure within the Gulf States, especially in view of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Broad based status quo-oriented alliance of Sunni monarchies—a king of Gulf Counter-Revolution Club—to prevent the rise of Iran’s influence is what has come to fundamentally characterize the strategic environment in the Arabian Peninsula. A bipolarity system, opposing Saudi Arabia and Iran, is embedded in the region and perceived as a classic zero-sum game.

Richard Rousseau is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan and a contributor to Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century and the Jamestown Foundation.

Tagged under Saudi Arabia    Iran    Arabian Gulf    Sunni    Shiite    Bahrain    Syria    GCC    Cold War   

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