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Escalation in the Persian Gulf

By Jonathan Cristol

The safest bet in international politics right now is that the situation in the Middle East is going to get worse in 2016. The question is, how much worse can it get? The last few days have seen Iran and Saudi Arabia play an increasingly high-stakes game of tit for tat. The proximate cause was Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, but there is a wider and much more combustible context.

The Jan. 1, 2016 execution of Sheikh Nimr triggered a series of events that shows no sign of abating. Protests broke out across the Muslim world, including in Pakistan, Bahrain, Iraq, and even in Saudi Arabia. Most notably, however, the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked, ransacked, and burned. 

This incident was swiftly followed by Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Bahrain’s expulsion of all Iranian diplomats. Kuwait recalled its ambassador from Tehran. United Arab Emirates downgraded its diplomatic ties with Iran, and Saudi Arabia banned its citizens from visiting Iran and closed its airspace to Iranian flights. The escalation shows no sign of abating.

None of these actions took place in a vacuum. They took place in a broader context of two regional wars, a major regional geopolitical realignment, the shale revolution, and the incoherent strategic vision in the United States—all of which could leave the Kingdom isolated and surrounded.

The first regional war is the “proxy” war between Saudi Arabia and Iran being fought in Yemen. It is often referred to as a proxy war, but in fact Saudi and Iranian forces are directly engaged in the fighting. Saudi Arabia is using its own air force, while relying on Emirati and Sudanese soldiers and Colombian mercenaries to fight Houthi rebel forces, who are backed by Iranian ground commanders based inside the Iranian embassy in Sanaa.

Location is Yemen’s only significant natural resource. Until the most recent civil war started, it was a major U.S. military port. It also has an extremely long and almost totally open desert border with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is not going to allow a state in that geographic position to become an Iranian proxy. It fought an eight year war to prevent Yemen from becoming an Egyptian proxy, and there is no reason to doubt the Saudi resolve to prevent Yemen from becoming an Iranian proxy, especially when Iran is so well positioned to its north. 

The second regional war is the Syrian civil war. Until recently, this war could also have been considered “hot” as Saudi and Emirati planes were bombing Iranian commanders advising Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The Syrian civil war is exceedingly complicated for all parties, but especially so for Saudi Arabia. The U.S.-led coalition is fighting the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, both avowed enemies of Saudi Arabia, and politically maneuvering to make sure that Assad, another enemy of Saudi Arabia, leaves power. The Islamic State is ostensibly fighting Assad, but is also the regime’s major supplier of oil.  The U.S.-led coalition has made little progress and it is the Russia-Iran entente that is most likely to act as the power broker in Syria. If Assad remains in power, and he likely will, a newly emboldened and strengthened Iranian presence will remain as well. And the Shiite-dominated Iraq grows closer to Iran, leaving Saudi Arabia sandwiched between the two sides.

Problems like these require strong, reliable, and close friends, and/or a ton of money to spend. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Saudi Arabia needs to sell oil at $106 per barrel to balance its budget. On Jan, 3, 2016 the price was $37.04 per barrel.  Saudi Arabia recently cut its domestic energy subsidies and plans to privatize some state-run industries.  These are major developments for a state that historically has economically provided for its citizens in exchange for their tacit acceptance of the repressive government. The economic outlook is not just bad for Saudi Arabia, it’s dangerous. 

Saudi Arabia’s second most important resource was the strong backing of a United States that was a regional leader and a reasonably competent guarantor of its security. In the wake of the Iraq War, American competence could certainly be doubted, but not its resolve. Now, the view from Riyadh is of an America that has recently become the world’s top energy producer; is more concerned about its relationship with Iran and the Shiites than with Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis; does not do what it says it will do, and is thus an unreliable ally; and, most importantly, has no vision for the future, let alone a roadmap to get there.

The Saudis are not stupid—they know that their situation is not good. And they had to have known that executing Sheikh Nimr would provoke a strong reaction. They could have held him in prison for life without inciting the kind of violence that erupted in the last few days. But when you are boxed in and your options are limited, as is the case for the Saudis, you take risks. In the international system, stability, not risk-taking, should be everyone’s preference. However, as its economy dramatically declines while its enemies grow stronger, stability is not an option for Saudi Arabia. Taking risks is the only option.

The Iranians are not stupid, either—they know that their situation is good. They are taking risks from a position of rising power, confident that President Obama will not want to upset “the deal.” This situation isn’t going to solve itself, and American leadership is not forthcoming. Whether a state has no other options or believes it can act with near impunity, the results are the same: continued risk-taking and instability, neither of which are positive forces for the region or for the world.

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Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College.  Follow him on Twitter at @jonathancristolHe reports from the United Nations on international security and UN reform.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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