Saudi Arabia’s increasingly erratic behavior has raised questions around the world. After decades in which Riyadh kept a low profile and mainly intervened in world affairs by using its oil wealth, the Saudi military-and-intelligence machine is now pursuing a brutal war in Yemen, has put little Qatar under boycott, has attempted to destabilize Lebanon, is licking its wounds from defeat in Syria, and is cultivating potential clients in Iraq. At the same time, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is concentrating power in his own hands. The common denominator here is the Saudi elite’s competition with Iran for the position of regional hegemon.
Iran’s influence has gone from almost zero in the 1990s to predominant in the eastern reaches of the Middle East today. The mildly Shiite Houthi rebels staged a coup in Yemen in 2014, and deepened their control over the country the following year. That was mainly a local development, but Riyadh projected its Iranophobia on it. The pro-Iranian party-militia Hezbollah in Lebanon has dominated that country’s national unity government since 2016. Another Iranian client, the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad, appears to have won the civil war in Syria, and the Saudi cat’s paw there, the extremist Army of Islam, has been defeated. Saudi influence in Iraq evaporated after most Sunni Arab–majority provinces seceded to join the ISIL “caliphate” in 2014, and then were conquered by the central government’s army and its Shiite militia auxiliaries. While Tehran’s relationship with the Palestinian Hamas has been roiled since 2011, the two appear to be on the mend.
Saudi Arabia’s struggle against Iran has everything to do with nationalism and security and almost nothing to do with economics. Both are oil states, both are in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and so are members of the same cartel. They are not competing for export markets. Iran’s return to exporting petroleum freely after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear deal, of 2015 has helped depress the price of petroleum, but so too has US production of shale oil, and the latter has not caused tensions between Riyadh and Washington. Rather, this is a 19th-century-style contest over territorial spheres of influence.
While it is not irrelevant that Iran is an avowedly Shiite state and Saudi Arabia has a hard-line Sunni Wahhabi government, the conflict is not primarily over religion. Iran supports the secular, socialist, atheist government of Assad’s Baath in Syria. Saudi Arabia supports the secular nationalist military in Egypt. Two Wahhabi states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are at daggers drawn, in part over the issue of whether to have correct relations with Shiite Iran, as Doha insists, or to treat Tehran as a deadly enemy.
Saudi Arabia, a fourth as populous as Iran and lacking substantial infantry capabilities, cannot take Iran on frontally in a conventional conflict. As Saudi strategists looked out on what they viewed as a menacing tableau, they appear to have concluded that the only way they could hope to blunt Iranian influence in the region was to divide and rule.
Lebanon, for instance, is a little over a fourth each Sunni and Shiite and a third Christian, with 6 percent of the population belonging to the esoteric Shiite offshoot, the Druze. When right-of-center Christians ally with the Sunnis, as in the 2009 parliamentary elections, the Sunnis can have a strong prime minister. (In Lebanon the president is always Christian, the prime minister is Sunni, and the speaker of parliament Shiite). In 2016, Michel Aoun was elected president by 83 members of the 128-seat parliament. Aoun, a popular former general and a Christian ally of Hezbollah, oversaw the formation of a national-unity government and convinced Sunni leader Saad Hariri to serve in it as prime minister, though his anti-Hezbollah position had clearly become a minority one. Hezbollah dominated the cabinet and had an ally in the presidency, putting Lebanon firmly in Iran’s orbit.
Hariri’s father had made billions in Saudi Arabia as a contractor decades ago, and Hariri has Saudi citizenship. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have forced him to tender his resignation, throwing Lebanon into turmoil. Perhaps a more stridently anti-Hezbollah prime minister would have to be brought in or perhaps the post would stay vacant. Beirut would go from being a unified Iranian asset to a set of petty fiefdoms at cross purposes with one another. Troubles could have burgeoned to the point where Aoun would be forced out as president (something Aoun himself clearly feared). With parliamentary elections set for May of 2018, to be conducted under new, proportional voting rules, it was not impossible that a Sunni coalition with right-wing, anti-Aoun Christians could do well and sideline Hezbollah and its allies.
According to a leaked diplomatic cable, this scheme quickly gained the behind-the-scenes support of the Israeli government, with Israeli officials suddenly becoming very frank about their alliance with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia against Iran and its regional allies. Putting pressure on Hezbollah to depart Syria, now that the Al Qaeda affiliate and ISIL have been defeated there, may have been part of Mohammed bin Salman’s game plan, as well. This goal is also one shared by the Israelis, who have threatened to bomb any Hezbollah base established in Syria closer than 40 miles from the Israeli border.
The ploy of keeping Hariri under house arrest and forcing him to resign, however, produced so much international backlash that French President Emmanuel Macron proved able to convince the crown prince to let his prime-ministerial hostage go to Paris. Last week Hariri returned to a hero’s welcome in Beirut, where he rescinded his resignation. He does rail, as do his Saudi backers, against Iran’s influence in Lebanon and the outsized role played by the Hezbollah militia regionally, but clearly Hariri disagreed with Riyadh on strategy.
Hariri is unwilling to relinquish what little power he has, and he may calculate that his Future Party has a better chance in next May’s polls if he has the advantage of incumbency. In 2009, the last time Lebanon held a general election, the Future Party garnered 26 seats, and with its coalition partners in the March 14 Alliance gained a solid majority (71 of 128 seats) in Parliament. Hezbollah’s March 8 Alliance, including Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, won 57 seats. (March 8 and March 14 refer to the dates of massive pro- and anti-Syria demonstrations in 2005.)
The Saudi attempt to divide and rule Lebanon has failed for the moment, though ironically Riyadh greatly burnished—at its own expense—Hariri’s reputation with the Lebanese public, who saw him as the nationalist victim of an external Saudi plot rather than an Iranian one. The Saudi elite is unlikely, however, to relinquish its strategy, and may attempt behind the scenes to fill the coffers of far-right-wing Christian parties opposed to Aoun.
Elsewhere, too, divide and rule has yielded few successes. The Saudi attempt to use air power to unseat the Helpers of God, or Houthi movement, in Yemen has only succeeded in turning that country into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 50,000 children expected to die this year of starvation or disease. Pro-Iranian Shiite politicians are firmly ensconced in Iraq, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a fierce foe of Riyadh, does not appear to be going anywhere. Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to force Qatar to break ties with Iran has backfired big time, causing Doha and Tehran to move substantially closer and probably destroying the Gulf Cooperation Council, which had been a vehicle of Saudi power in the Gulf region, grouping it with Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates as well as Qatar. So far, Saudi divide and rule has simply become a destabilizing factor in an already roiled region, and has not made a dent in Iran’s influence.