In recent weeks, we have seen tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran skyrocket to unprecedented levels. Both countries have been hurling accusations at one another, from the Saudis “interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs” to Iran’s “act of war”. Despite all the sudden hype in the media about how the two Middle-Eastern hegemons are on the verge of war, the Saudis will not sacrifice their remaining ounce of political stability for a conflict they would, without a doubt, lose.
Saudi Arabia has, for a long time, been dependent upon their historical ally – the United States. Although the United States would not be willing to make colossal sacrifices for a clear no-win situation, especially when its own strategic interests are not directly in the crosshairs.
Instead the US has other plans. Saudi Arabia’s usefulness has expired and it is time for the Kingdom to be divided whilst its banks and oil-rich lands are drained to fuel future American endeavours in the region: divide et impera. Taking a leaf out of Iran’s book, the US has been baiting the Saudis with their words.
On 14 December, Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the United Nations, presented evidence of “illegal Iranian weapons proliferation”, declaring that that Iran had been supplying the Houthi rebels in Yemen with short-range ballistic missiles which were later fired at Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, the evidence was declassified and inspection from other nations was permitted.
The question on everybody’s mind is ‘How long until we see a military confrontation?’ – the simple answer to that question would be: an eternity. Exploring the situation in more detail, this bitter rivalry is not a new concept; Imperial Iran, a rapidly westernising empire under Mohammad Reza Shah, was also considered a geopolitical enemy by its neighbours. The only difference between the past and the present is that it is now more about religion than culture – and all of Iran’s ties with America and Israel are disguised.
The Saudis have been quick to liken any Iranian moves to “an act of war” or “direct military aggression.” However, these words will not be coupled with any physical response, owing to the extensive Iranian proxy network in the region. Over the past decade, Iran has been expanding its sphere of influence, developing an intricate web of proxies throughout the region; which ultimately provides the upper hand in any conflict and is therefore a device for deterrence against proximate military aggressors.
Take the recent Houthi missile launches on Riyadh as examples where Iran has used its proxies to threaten its adversaries. General Hossein Salami of the Revolutionary Guards warned Saudi Arabia that if they or their allies used military force against Iran, the Houthis would not hesitate to release a barrage of missiles upon the Kingdom.
This leads onto the failing Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, where after two and a half years a stalemate still persists. If the Saudis cannot attain a swift victory against rebels in Yemen, how would they fare against an opponent which outnumbers them on land, sea, and air.
Furthermore, trade is pertinent topic for discussion – especially in relation to oil. Iran has exercised control over one of the world’s most strategic chokepoint, the Strait of Hormuz, where an approximate 19 million barrels of oil passes through daily. Gulf nations depend heavily upon the revenues from oil exportation out of the Persian Gulf, any disruption in the strait could have disastrous effects for not only the exporter but the importers who rely on timely delivery.
Saudi Arabia has maintained crude oil exports at around 7 million barrels per day, with most of this liquid gold forced to pass through the Straits of Hormuz due to limited options. The East-West Petroline which the Saudis use to direct oil to the Red Sea only maintains a maximum capacity of 4.8 million barrels of oil per day, and other pipelines such as the Trans-Arabian Pipeline are out of service due to war damage, disuse and political and military conflict.
So far we have looked into the issues of security and long-term economic devastation, but to complete the triad there is also the topic of political instability within Saudi Arabia’s borders. With King Salman’s health deteriorating, his son and future successor, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), has been exercising his powers to excess.
MbS’s brash and reckless style of leadership has presented him with a plethora of enemies, especially after the waves of ‘anti-corruption’ investigations which have proven to be nothing more than an opportunity for MbS to solidify his position by sweeping his rivals under the rug.
Not only has the Crown Prince disturbed the balance amongst the nobility, but after declaring that he will reduce the tonality of Islam, he is also a cause of concern for the clergy and conservative Islamists of which there are many. MbS would have a hard time justifying any long-term military conflict if those who command the civilian population are against him.
For Saudi Arabia to enter into a large-scale warfare under these conditions would create such an uproar in the political scene that the Iranian ‘threat’ would be the least of their worries. How does the ‘Democratic Republic of Hejaz and Nejd’ sound?