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.