There is disquiet in the Sunni Gulf capitals—especially in Riyadh. All the winds are blowing in Iran’s direction, and American policy is partly responsible—and not just because of the ongoing nuclear negotiations.
The collapse of the Saudi/U.S.-backed government in Yemen is now complete, with Iranian-backed Shia Houthis now set to take control over most of the important parts of the country—albeit with inevitable resistance from Southern nationalists, government loyalists, and Sunni extremists. The Saudis have now launched an aerial intervention against the Houthis in an attempt to blunt their progress. (Iran is protesting the intervention, but it has American support.)
Meanwhile, the rise of ISIS has been a huge gift to Iran. In the eyes of the Obama administration, Iranian presence in Iraq is now tolerable and even beneficial. ISIS is such a grotesquely evil enemy that virtually anyone can join the coalition of the willing against it. Coupled with the safety provided by the ongoing nuclear talks, Iran has used the ISIS threat as means of expanding its military presence in Iraq.
The Saudi bombing campaign against the Houthis is especially notable because Saudi foreign and security policy is rarely the domain of its armed forces. Instead, the country’s religious and intelligence institutions fund ideologically receptive Sunni militias to act as proxy levers—much like Iran does with Hizbullah and the Shia death squads of Iraq. This approach was successful for the Saudis in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and they have tried to emulate it across the Muslim world—even after Al Qaeda emerged as a threat to Riyadh and its allies.
One of the reasons the Saudis have preferred to outsource their security initiatives to militias is the political and demographic makeup of its surrounding region: Massive swaths of inhospitable terrain populated by disaffected Sunni tribes whose loyalty can be bought. The Saudis can tap into popular resentment and use its great network of religious influence (and money) to quickly establish clients in neighboring states.
The Saudis attempted to do this in Syria, but the effort backfired. The Sunni extremists now most eager and willing to fight Iranian influence are also maniacal sociopaths who reject Saudi authority. Their ideology and practices are so horrible that Saudi attempts to co-opt them would seriously endanger the Kingdom’s ties to its Western allies. The Saudis therefore have no strong horse to back in the new ideological war emerging in the jihad movement.
Iran’s other advantage is that it controls the foreign policy of all of Shiism. There is no ideological or political competitor when it comes to spreading Shia influence.
The Sunni states are not so lucky. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar each promote Islam in their own ways, often at cross-purposes with each other. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although in better relations now than in the last couple of years, are perpetual rivals for Islamist influence in the Arab world. Meanwhile, Turkey is still resisting Saudi efforts to have them reconcile with Egypt. (Turkey was supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood government the Saudis so insistently tried to remove from office.)
The Saudis therefore have had one country on which they can totally rely for support: Egypt. The Egyptians, like the Saudis, oppose ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and liberal movements. They are the stalwarts of the old, pre-Arab Spring Middle Eastern order. The UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait are smaller and less committed members of this order, but the Saudis hope to be able to rely on their support.
The last potential ally for the Saudis is Israel, but meaningful partnership isn’t going to happen soon. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in turn, have said that lack of progress on the Palestinian issue precludes closer cooperation against regional extremism with Israel—and it doesn’t appear Prime Minister Netanyahu is eager to make that trade just yet.
For Salman, the new King of Saudi Arabia, the options are more limited than he would prefer. Even so, the Saudis are used to playing complicated games and are not about to abdicate their role as leaders of the old guard. The alliance with Egypt is paramount for now, and they will invest heavily to bring as many countries as possible into this orbit. It appears they may also have to conduct military operations more frequently than in the past, sticking their necks out in riskier ways that rely less on soft power and covert action.
On the other hand, Salman is seen to be more tolerant of the Muslim Brotherhood than his predecessor was. Saudi regional coalition building is so difficult because it includes resistance to so many political forces. Perhaps the first one of these enemies to be diminished as a priority will be the Ikhwan, in hopes of uniting Turkey and Qatar with the Saudis’ more traditional allies. Still, an effective alliance is a long ways off and remains the great strategic challenge for the Kingdom.