The Saudi Paradox
King Abdullah's new strategy is also intended to obscure the renewed alliance between Washington and authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes--Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries--that is trying to counter Iran (the tip of what Jordan's King Abdullah famously described as an emerging "Shiite crescent" stretching through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon). Each side is helping to fuel a proxy war in Iraq, with the Sunni regimes backing Sunni militants and Iran supporting Shiite militias. Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former National Security Council staff member, argues that this new alliance, which includes Israel, is intended to shift attention from Iraq and focus on Iran as the greatest threat facing the region.
"The organizing principle of the new strategy is confrontation with and containment of Shiite influence--and specifically Iranian influence--wherever it appears in the region," says Sick, who now teaches at Columbia University. "Arab states may even subordinate their hostility to Israel, at least temporarily, out of their even greater fear of Iranian dominance of the region."
Although Saudi Arabia has a Sunni majority, its rulers fear Iran's potential influence over a sizable and sometimes restive Shiite population concentrated in the kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Province. In Bahrain--another key US ally in the Persian Gulf--the Shiite majority is chafing under Sunni rulers, who also fear Iran's reach.
As Iraq descends into further chaos and sectarian bloodshed, Sunni Arab regimes are lobbying the Bush Administration to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. At their recent summit, Arab leaders revived a five-year-old offer--initially championed by Abdullah at the 2002 Arab summit in Beirut--for a peace deal between Israel and all Arab states. The plan calls for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab lands captured during the 1967 Middle East war, the creation of a Palestinian state with sovereignty over East Jerusalem and a "just solution" to the problem of more than 4 million Palestinian refugees. But Israel has long rejected withdrawal from East Jerusalem and all of the West Bank, as well as the "right of return" for the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948. Yet even limited progress on peace efforts could provide diplomatic cover for the Sunni Arab states to cooperate more closely with Israel--and work to further isolate Iran.
The Iraq War unleashed sectarian hatreds that will be difficult to contain, even if Washington and its Arab allies are able to shift attention to Iran. Aside from Iraq, sectarian tensions are most prevalent in Lebanon, where bloody confrontations erupted in January between US-backed Sunni political parties and Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported Shiite militia. During Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, the sectarian divide was between Muslims and Christians. This time the conflict is mainly between Sunnis and Shiites. It's also an extension of the ongoing proxy war in Iraq--pitting Iran against the US-Sunni Arab alliance. "Arabs look at events in Lebanon and they worry about spillover from Iraq," says Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "The sectarian war could spread."
The traditional centers of power in the Arab world are extremely nervous about the growing influence of Iran: its nuclear ambitions, its sway over the Iraqi government and Shiite militias, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and its alliance with Syria (which some Arab regimes are accusing of being a traitor to the Arab cause). Contrary to widespread impression, Arab leaders are not worried that Iran will export the cultural and theological aspects of Shiism; rather, they're afraid of political Shiism spreading around the Arab world through groups like Hezbollah. The group's military success against Israel during last summer's war has electrified the Arab street, and it offers a stark contrast to Arab rulers appeasing the United States. Arab regimes fear that their Sunni populations will be seduced by Iran and Hezbollah's message of empowering the dispossessed--creating a new and potent admixture of Arabism and Shiite identity.
There is some precedent for this. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--and the entire Iranian uprising against the US-backed Shah--inspired revolutionary zeal among nationalists throughout the Arab world. The revolution's aftershocks were felt for a long time in the Middle East, helping, indirectly, to give rise to some militant Sunni movements and inspiring Shiites in Lebanon and Iraq. Nowhere was that influence more deeply felt than in Lebanon, where Iran helped create Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of 1982. We could be witnessing a similar historical moment, with events in Iran and Iraq having profound consequences for the course of the Arab world.
And this is why Saudi rulers are suddenly talking tough against America. Threatened by this new challenge from Shiites to become the torchbearers of Arabism, the Saudis are trying to reassert their role as leaders of the Arab and wider Muslim world. In his speech at the summit, Abdullah insisted that only when Arab leaders unite will they "be able to prevent foreign powers from shaping the region's future"--a reference, undoubtedly, to both the United States and Iran. Then he added a rare criticism of himself and other Arab rulers. "The real blame falls on us, leaders of the Arab nation, for our constant disputes, and our refusal to become united," he said. "All this made the Arab nation lose confidence in our credibility and lose hope."
That too played well at the Beirut barbershop. "At least King Abdullah has the courage to be honest," said Trabulsi. "When was the last time you heard an Arab leader say he made a mistake?"