Well, well, well, it looks like Saudi Arabia is finally realizing that its impulsive strategies and ill-conceived policies are not working in its favor. Who ever thought that in an era of arrogant chest pounding the desert kingdom would reach out to Iraq to mend relations between Riyadh and Tehran? But that is exactly what happened few days ago.
The Iraqi TV channel Alghadeer reported that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the impulsive crown prince who once said that he would take the fight to Iran, reached out to Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, requesting that al-Abadi lead a mediation effort with Iran.
Why this sudden change of heart from Saudi Arabia? The answer lies in not only the Middle East’s complex political dynamics, but also the kingdom’s declining regional political clout. Let us, then, not fall for the Saudis’ empty promises, false indications, and misreading.
The kingdom’s demand for Iraq to act as a mediator to mend Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran shows that the desert kingdom realizes a pragmatic political truth: Rather than fight Iran on all fronts, it makes sense to reestablish relations, to work together (though on the surface only) to resolve regional issues (Syria, Yemen, Iraq, etc.), and to find a common ground on oil prices.
Another explanation is that Saudi Arabia wants to accelerate the inevitable political changes that will speed across the region once the Syrian conflict is resolved (if ever), tensions in Yemen subside, the blockade of Qatar gets lifted, and oil prices stabilize. My guess is that someone is advising the Saudi leadership not to lock horns with Iran because China and Russia will work behind the scenes to pull the two nations apart (as a favor to Iran). Mind you that it is in the interest of both China and Russia that conflicts in the region persist. That way, both countries, Russia and China, can realize greater opportunities to multiply their economic and political footprints in the region, to influence the internal affairs of the Middle East.
Irony: there are those in the Middle East who argue that the reestablishment of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will bring stability to the region. I have to disagree with their assessment. The reason is that the desert kingdom’s initiative stems from fear of losing its leadership in the region—whatever is left of it—in the face of Iran’s growing influence. One does not have to look far to see, for instance, how Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite and an anti-American figure who commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and the southern cities, is visiting the Gulf region while the dispute between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc persists.
Of note: Shia-majority Iraq lies on the fault line between Shia Iran and Sunni-ruled Arab Gulf monarchies that include Saudi Arabia.
As I argue in my forthcoming book, Saudi Arabia: Islam, Corruption and the Hidden Truth, the future of Saudi Arabia will change as it settles into the region’s geopolitical shift. That landscape is one in which (a) Iran’s influence continues to grow, and (b) Saudi Arabia pursues unsound foreign policies while domestic discontent (high unemployment) grows. Thus, Saudi Arabia’s desire to repair relations with Iran is a strategic move and has nothing to do with Islamic brotherhood or any other slogan. . . .
By the way: Did the desert kingdom receive the blessing of the religious establishment to repair relations with Iran? No doubt. To my knowledge, nothing can proceed in Saudi Arabia, from a policy perspective, without the blessing of the hardline conservative religious establishment. It leads me to wonder how Mohamed bin Salman intends to approach religious issues. Thus far, MBS has treated the religious establishment as allies against radicalism rather than as cultural adversaries. I find MBS’s argument that extreme religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent phenomenon, born in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution, absurd.
My sense is that the desert kingdom (the royal family) is worried more about its survival and domestic stability. Thus, shifting the conversation and diverting attention could be a good strategy. However, if the people of Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Khobar, and Qatif among others, were to unravel, combined with ongoing issues in the Shi’a eastern province, things could quickly take a different turn. In that case, Iran stands to benefit from a destabilized Saudi Arabia. An unstable Saudi Arabia would pave the way for Iran not only to increase its influence in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria even further than it already has, but also to start working on other Gulf States, including Bahrain and Kuwait.
That scenario sends chills down the spines of some observers in Sunni circles.