The President of the United States, Barack Obama, visited Saudi Arabia last month to meet with the Saudi King anxious about the latest diplomatic developments vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. Why is Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia important for making analyses of the Kingdom’s stance in relation to its security within the region? The reason is that while the Geneva interim nuclear agreement with Iran has been widely lauded in the West as a diplomatic success; it aroused a completely different reaction in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom sees the deal as a step that marks the return of Iran to the world stage and its transformation from an adversary and outsider to a potential partner of the United States and Europe. But more importantly, analysts observe, the Saudi Kingdom is concerned about the possible decline in the importance of crucial partnership between Riyadh and Washington. As the Middle East analysts further argue, there is a widespread belief amongst the Saudi experts and government officials that geopolitical trends in the region are aligning against them and Iranian influence and hegemony in Lebanon, Syria, and the Persian Gulf will go unchallenged, in exchange for a nuclear deal. As a result, relations between Washington and Riyadh were at their lowest when the negotiations with Iran began, which the Saudi ruling family sees as highly suspicious. Therefore, some of the members of the family even recommended a ‘’major shift’’ in relations with the United States in protest over the Obama administration’s decision to retreat from plans to take military action on Syria, to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region. Consequently, Obama’s visit to Riyadh this month was, in a large part, to emphasise to the King that the US would not accept a ‘’bad deal’’ with Iran. As Obama’s deputy national security adviser commented, the US delegation would reassure Saudi royals and government officials that whilst the Obama administration was keen to achieve a nuclear deal with Iran, it remains concerned ‘’about other Iranian behaviour in the region’’.
What is a primary concern for the Saudi Kingdom and the ruling family? If one analyses the security threats shaping growing Saudi tensions vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is important to understand the hierarchy of how Saudi Arabia perceives such threats. While tensions between the Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran can best be described by looking through defensive Neo-Realism’s lenses – competing for hegemony on a regional level for greater security – nevertheless, for Saudi Arabia, regional security and greater influence, with the Iranian nuclear threat, come second and third. Nuclear deal sparks Iran hegemony fears among Saudi government officials. For the Saudi ruling family and government officials, possible normalisation of US relations with Iran could transform Saudi Arabia’s privileged regional position into a zero-sum scenario for the Kingdom. The Saudi government officials’ concern is that whilst the deal halts nuclear activity and suspends certain nuclear plants, it still allows the Islamic Republic of Iran to maintain its nuclear capacity in a way that can undermine the interests of the countries in the region, especially now with the political upheavals in the Arab world have so far benefited the Islamic Republic. Despite the Obama administration’s reassurances given to the Saudi ruling family during the official visit to Riyadh, they see the Geneva agreement as an attempt to reduce the Iran problem to the nuclear level only.
Is this more related to Iran’s political breakout than to its nuclear breakout? The question at this point to ask is: why could Iran’s possible political breakout be so worrying for the Saudi Kingdom and its government officials? Saudi Arabia and Iran have never enjoyed good relations since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, which promised to export its revolution to the Arab and majority-Muslim countries. This meant the end of Saudi Arabia’s role in Islamising the region. Although Iran has largely eased on its revolutionary rhetoric, many Middle East analysts believe that because of the Sunni-Shi’a divide and the geostrategic goals of Tehran and Riyadh competing for greater regional influence; improving relations between them will not be an easy task because a deep mutual distrust exists. The Saudi ruling family has accused Iran of having spy cell amongst Shi’a population of Saudi Arabia. Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of aiding efforts to undermine its nuclear program, and claims by Iranian officials that Saudi Arabia is aiding anti-Iranian insurgent and terrorist groups inside the Islamic Republic such as Sunni Baluchi group Jundullah. In this context, it can be argued that the plot and possible assassination of the Saudi Ambassador in 2011, was Iran’s way of not only retaliating against Saudi Arabia but also reasserting its claims dating from 1979 to leadership within the region. Some Middle East analysts further argue that the real reason that the Saudi ruling family does not want friendlier US-Iran relations is for economic reasons. The positive Geneva nuclear negotiations also mean a loosening of the punishing international sanctions regime on Iran that may affect the Kingdom’s economic platform. As they estimate, relaxed sanctions could soon bring additional Iranian oil to market, driving global oil prices down. In this context, although regional politics are a concern for the Saudi ruling family when it comes to Iran, according to this line of argument, direct economic threats are more likely to require action.
While all these threats to Saudi ruling family are real, they are not of primary importance. Although the majority of Saudis remain loyal to the ruling family and the Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment (ulama), which is still able to provide jobs and services thanks to oil revenue; In essence, all these threats are of secondary importance. Because Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy cannot be understood without first understanding its internal policies and new Saudi foreign policy cannot be adopted prior to adopting new internal policies. In this sense, Riyadh’s foreign policy is an extension of its internal one, based upon the interests of the Saudi ruling family and the official Salafi-Wahhabi ulama. Riyadh’s view of external threats is therefore but a reflection and an extension of its assessment of the internal political risks and threats faced by the political-religious elite. In the Saudi view, the Iranian threat is serious not only because of its ramifications for its privileged regional position, especially amongst the Sunni Muslim majority countries, but most importantly, because of the implications for the Kingdom’s stability. For the Saudi political-religious elite, the Twelver Shi’a citizens remain a more important security problem in a large part because of their presence over the largest oil reserves in the world. Since the start of upheavals in the Arab world, the oil-rich Eastern region has witnessed unrest that followed detentions, shootings, and demonstrations. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly accused the Islamic Republic of Iran of supporting the Saudi Shi’ite minority, and on a number of occasions official Wahhabi ulama described its Shi’te citizens as being a ‘’fifth column’’ inside the Kingdom – one such is a senior Saudi Shi’a cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, who suggested the secession of Eastern province if Shi’ite rights were not respected. The Saudi political-religious elite was quick to portray these unrests as serving the parochial interests of Shi’a as well as the hostile ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region.
The historic alliance between the ruling al-Saud family and the Salafi-Wahhabi religious establishment plays a legitimating role for both. Wahhabi ulama view Shi’as as deviants from Salafi Islamic orthodoxy. In this context, the Saudi political-religious elite believe that any formal recognition of Twelver Shi’a identity – whether in the political, legal, or cultural spheres – would effectively undermine this historic legitimacy and therefore, primacy. The primary fear is that the Geneva nuclear deal can embolden the Islamic Republic of Iran in its hostile intentions towards the Saudi monarchy and Salafi-Wahhabi ulama’s privileged position within it. Although Iran has largely eased on its revolutionary rhetoric, the Saudi political-religious elite still believes that the Islamic Republic has not entirely forgotten its revolutionary heritage; its real attitude to the Arab Gulf monarchies occasionally surfaces, calling into question the legitimacy of their political systems within the region. Although pro-Iranian groups do exist amongst Gulf Shi’ites, it can be argued that they are not the most powerful amongst Saudi Shi’ites. However, given the primacy that Saudi Arabia now assigns to internal security, this is a driving force in its perception of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a threat that matches the threat posed by Jihadists and Sunni extremists (which reject the legitimacy and unquestioning obedience to the King) such as Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers, now banned in the Kingdom.
As argued above, in essence, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy cannot be understood without first understanding its internal policies and Riyadh’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran is an extension of its internal policy reflecting the assessment of political risks and threats faced by the political-religious elite. There is a natural competition between the two sides in that both predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shi’a Iran see themselves as the vanguard of the Muslim world. What Saudi Arabia is trying to avoid at all costs is a situation defined by insecurity, instability, and uncertainty about its political legitimacy. There has always been a fear that the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be trusted and Saudi Arabia is therefore actively working to check Tehran’s rise. The Saudi leadership believes that increased Iran’s power will automatically increase its interventionist foreign policy in the region, which will lead to political mobilisation by the Shi’a inside the Kingdom and the Sunni-ruled Gulf states. Although Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states including Saudi Arabia issued cautious statements welcoming the deal, nevertheless, it is still doubted that this deal is done with good intentions. The argument of the Saudi ruling family that Obama does not know Iran as well as the Saudis do, and as one Saudi official put it after Obama’s visit to Riyadh, that internal security comes first and no one can argue with them about it, should be understood in its primary threat context.
Irakli Tusiashvili is a researcher at Liberation. His research interests include Iran and Saudi Arabia, with an emphasis on Political Islam and their foreign policies.