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The Sunni-Shi'a War
The Roots of Saudi Rage

One week ago, the Saudis executed Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and Iran retaliated by torching the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The repercussions of both moves have roiled the Middle East since. If you’re interested in why exactly the Saudis have been acting the way they’re acting, Kenneth M. Pollack has a great explainer over at Brookings, starting with a look at the Shi’a regions of the Kingdom:

[B]oth the civil wars [in Syria, Yemen, etc.] and the spillover they generate have also produced a general mobilization of the Middle East’s Shiites, instigated and led by Iran. And that includes the Shiites in the Saudi kingdom. Officials in private and press reports occasionally note that hundreds of Saudi security service personnel have been killed and wounded in operations in the Eastern Province, the home to the vast majority of the kingdom’s Shiites. Americans tend not to pay attention to these operations because we see them as proof that the Saudis have things well in hand; but another way to look at it is that the Saudis are fighting pitched battles with someone in the cities of the Eastern Province. In other words, there seems to be a much higher degree of mobilization and violent confrontation among the Saudi Shiites than most realize.

And then there’s the drop in oil markets and the ever-hotter flames from regional wars that lick around the borders of the kingdom. What do these all have in common?

And there sits Iran, at the intersection of all of these problems, from the Saudi perspective. The Saudis think the Iranians are to blame for the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and (to a lesser extent) Iraq by mobilizing Shiites to destabilize the kingdom and its Sunni Arab allies. (They also blame the United States for the Iraqi civil war, appropriately, I might add.) They see the Iranians as threatening to pump new oil out onto the market to fight the Saudis for market share regardless of how low the price goes; Iranian officials openly crow that all of the money that will finally be released to them after the nuclear sanctions are lifted will be used to enable them to take market share away from Riyadh. In addition, the Iranians are waging proxy wars against the Saudis in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and aiding subversive elements in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the kingdom itself. So, as the Saudis see it, Tehran contributes to Riyadh’s financial problems by driving down Saudi revenues and jacking up expenditures, both of which threaten the kingdom’s internal stability.

And while we may believe that the Saudis exaggerate both Iranian capabilities and intentions, the Saudis have a number of good points when it comes to Iran. The Iranians do seek to overturn the regional order, and they have repeatedly attempted to overthrow Arab governments (including Saudi Arabia’s, albeit several decades ago). The Iranians do tend to back Shiite populations, whether they are in power or out, majority or minority. And they do often incite them to violence and provide them with the wherewithal to do so. As a result, the Iranians have become deeply embroiled in the civil wars of the region. I would argue their involvement in both Iraq and Syria is primarily defensive (seeking to preserve the control over the state by their allies), but in Yemen it has unquestionably been offensive. There is no other explanation for Iran’s involvement in Yemen other than to annoy, weaken, or even undermine the Saudis—as strategic leverage or a genuine bid at regime change. And the Iranians do not make matters any better by arrogantly dismissing Arab fear and interests and placing themselves on a higher level than their neighbors across the Persian Gulf.

Finally, the Saudis feel frustrated and abandoned by the United States. Many Saudis and other Gulf Arabs consider President Barack Obama deeply ignorant, if not outright foolish, about the world and the Middle East. They evince out-and-out contempt for him and his policies. From their perspective, the United States has turned its back on its traditional allies in the Middle East. Washington is doing the least it can in Iraq, and effectively nothing in Libya and Syria, with the result that none of those conflicts is getting better. If anything, they are actually getting worse. Moreover, Saudi Arabia seems to differ over whether Obama is using the new nuclear deal with Tehran to deliberately try to shift the United States from the Saudi side to the Iranian side in the grand, regional struggle or if he is allowing it to happen unintentionally. The more charitable Saudi position is the former, because that suggests that Obama at least understands what he is doing, even if they think it a mistake and a betrayal. The latter view, for Saudis, sees him as a virtual imbecile who is destroying the Middle East without any understanding or recognition.

For anyone interested in the geopolitics of the Middle East, we highly recommend you read the whole thing—one of the best and most comprehensive explainers of Saudi thinking in some time.

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  • Pete

    Okay, so Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a threat. But how does putting down this terrorist Nimr al-Nimr help the Saudis counter Iran? I’m just asking.

    • dawnsblood

      According to the linked article: “We see a popular Saudi Shiite cleric who would become a martyr if he is executed. The Saudis see an Iranian-backed firebrand stoking revolution in their country’s oil-producing regions.”

      I have no idea if it is true but I have seen similar theories elsewhere.

      • Ofer Imanuel

        “hundreds of Saudi security service personnel have been killed and wounded in operations in the Eastern Province, the home to the vast majority of the kingdom’s Shiites”.
        This is not necessarily Nimr, but someone is agitating. Assuming the Saudis are not completely incompetent, I would assume that he was a trouble maker.

  • Ellen

    Finally somebody is telling the truth about Obama’s view of the world: imbecillic and deeply ignorant. In our politically correct world here in the US, only Donald Trump is willing to utter such truths about the first black president. None of the sycophants in the media will admit that his foreign policy has been anything but swimmingly brilliant.

  • Anthony

    Given that professional pundits express various points of view on issue addressed in post, here’s a few others (It’s Time for America to Dump Saudi Arabia and The High Cost of Saudi Insecurities):

  • FriendlyGoat

    You have the Sunnis and the Shiites squabbling over how to interpret and arrange the succession to an utterly false and imaginary
    “Prophet” and Obama is the imbecile. You have clerics in two countries whose nuttiness is only exceeded by that of their followers and Obama is the imbecile. You have the USA presently not spending a couple of trillion per decade in military engagement for benefit of policing the impossible-to-redeem Islam and Obama is the imbecile. Sure, guys, you all keep thinking. That’s what you’re good at.

    • Anthony

      A pundit said the root of the problem is Islam itself – in dire need of a reformation that may be impossible (“the only solution both bitter and truthful is the Muslim world has to work it out for itself.”).

    • JR

      Dealing with these clerics is part of the President’s job. Everything was Bush’s fault, remember? To say Obama is just a victim of circumstances simply won’t fly anymore. Unless our judgement somehow reversed in 2008 for some weird and unknown reason.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Well, I believe we might be better served to admit that the Islamic leaders are the “imbeciles” in the game if we’re going to throw that word around. Who really gives a hoot what either the Saudis or the Iranians think of either Bush or Obama? None of them are going to like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz either.

        • Gene

          No one here is saying anything POSITIVE about the Saudis. It’s an alliance of convenience, nothing more.

          Would it make you feel better if I described Obama as a fool rather than an imbecile, i.e., a smart man who carries around foolish beliefs about how the Middle East works?

          • FriendlyGoat

            Alliances of convenience with those about whom nothing positive can be said are really pretty questionable. We are now at the point of questioning even though we went through decades thinking differently during a different world oil situation.

          • GS

            @Gene: “Would it make you feel better if I described Obama as a fool rather than an imbecile…” – One does not preclude another, for they are perfectly compatible.

      • solstice

        The President’s job is to deal with Muslim clerics in the Middle East? No, it is not. His job is to give them the finger and protect the homeland by denying their followers entry into our country.

        “Everything was Bush’s fault, remember?”

        A lot was Bush’s fault and a lot is Obama’s fault but not everything is their fault. What we are dealing with in the Middle East is a failed civilization in the iron grip of a barbaric religion whose maladies are, for the most part, self-inflicted and beyond our control.

    • Suzyqpie

      You certainly have a circuitous composition style attempting to make the point that Obama is not an imbecile.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Well, compared to the entirety of Islam which various pundits would have us embracing by being cozy with Saudi Arabia, he isn’t.

        • ARMSTROB

          Because Obama decided to ignore the ME so he could just work on domestic issues is not an excuse for his terrible handling of the ME. Obama and his base are now being told to accept the consequences of their policies and they are refusing. Instead they just look for others to blame. After all everybody knows how truly exceptional Obama is and the people who elected him twice. Obama and his base did not listen to experienced advisers, instead they told us how they just knew more than any of them, just because.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I learned that some amount of money perhaps approximating the entire Social Security Trust Fund was spent in Afghanistan and Iraq. (including the back end costs of those wars—veteran care). Did you learn anything from THAT?

          • Boritz

            Invest in General Dynamics.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “The latter view, for Saudis, sees him as a virtual imbecile who is destroying the Middle East without any understanding or recognition.”

    This is my opinion, Obama is by far the “Worst President in American History”, the only reason he was elected is the color of his skin, it certainly wasn’t for the “Content of his Character”.

  • Kevin

    This Pollack article and Mansour Alnogadian’s provide a much needed insight into Saudi thinking. One doesn’t have to agree with the Saudis POV but at least should understand it to make sense if what they are up to and how they are likely to behave.

    On a larger point, to much of sophisticated American thinking about foreign policy comes from a theoretical rather than emirucal perspective. Whether neoconservatives during the Bush administration or realists during the Obama administration, US strategy has emphasized applying theoretical models derived in the academy to the Middle East. The neoconservatives brought in universalist theories which promoted democratization as the key to solving all the region’s woes without really understanding Arab culture and politics. The realists think that power relationships and the rational self interested actions of states explain everything and act without regard to the culture and sentiments of the actors. These have led to horrific foreign policy miscalculations expanding vas amounts of our blood and treasure and leaving us in a far weaker position and the region in chaos.

    In some ways our intelligence services have made the same mistake of relying on technical sophistication rather than intimate understanding of the actors and local culture.

    I wonder how much of this is driven by the retreat into naval gazing by the humanities in our universities. The focus on grievance studies has deprived our society of people who knew the history, languages, religion, philosophy, culture, etc. of the region and also how these factors has played out over the past. Furthermore by abandoning the study of empirical facts, this retreat by the humanities has removed any empirical constraint on the theorizing of social scientists who have gone on to create theories which have beautiful internal consistency but only tenuously relate to how the real world actually operates.

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