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Saudi angst upsets region

By K S Dakshina Murthy Nov 24 2017, 1:54 IST

The near-inexplicable incidents in Saudi Arabia are the consequence of a frustrating period internationally for Riyadh's rulers. In particular, since the uprising in the Arab world in 2011, Saudi Arabia's interventions in the region's political turmoil have simply not worked.

Perceiving itself as the region's most powerful country, the Saudi government has been reeling from a number of embarrassing political misadventures. These show the government in poor light - either as a nation that has lost its political supremacy or worse, as a country that is driven solely by sectarian considerations.

The latest mishap, if one may call it, before the current round of events, was the siege in June on its tiny neighbour Qatar. The Saudis expected the siege to bring Qatar to its knees, forcing Doha to submit to its list of demands. Instead, Qatar has braved the siege and tackled the situation with great resolve. Qatar has been able to do this, in large part thanks to the complete support it has received from Saudi's main rival Iran.

The other major embarrassment, if not a setback, is Saudi intervention in Yemen. Backed by the United States and its allies in the Gulf, Saudi has been bombing Yemen since March 2015, inflicting massive damage on the region's poorest country. Saudi's aim is to dislodge the Houthis who have taken over power from the government led by Abdrubba Mansour Hadi, that was supported by Riyadh.

The Houthis, backed by Iran, have held on to power despite Saudi belligerence. The incessant bombings on Yemen have taken the country to the brink of a humanitarian disaster, as a result of which world opinion is gradually turning against the Saudis.

The other theatre of conflict is Syria where the Saudis are backing sections of the rebels through arming and training. The six-year conflict has left the country in tatters. The rebels, backed by Saudi, the US and Western Europe have made little or no headway until now. The Bashar al-Assad government, the target of the insurgency, has withstood the rebels, again thanks to support from Iran, besides Russia and the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah.

The Saudis clearly have been caught on the wrong foot again. Moreover, these instances show that Riyadh is losing the iron grip it once had on the region. And, this frustration is now apparently manifesting itself in an unpredictable fashion - the sudden political bloodletting within the ruling family and the detaining of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, was upset with Qatar for aligning with its main rival, the Shia-dominated Iran, and punished it by laying siege to it. It is similarly angry with Lebanon and its Sunni Prime Minister Hariri for not neutralising the Hezbollah. In an unprecedented move, Hariri was held up under mysterious circumstances in Riyadh where he had gone visiting a few days ago. Though Harari has stated he is staying back in Riyadh of his own free will, the Lebanese are sceptical.

Saudi Arabia was historically dominant in the region. In 1980, the Saudis supported former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. This followed the Islamic revolution and the rise of Shia power a year earlier. Saddam was manipulated in an attempt to unsettle and destabilise the Shia-led revolution. That was also the period when the Saudis helped the US in its proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

But since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Saudi hold over the region has seen a precipitous decline. And, paradoxically, it is its closest ally the US that has inadvertently played a role in the Saudi downturn. The invasion of Iraq while completely altering political equations within the country managed to turn sectarian relations on its head.

Changing equation

If the Sunnis were in power in Iraq before the US invasion, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is the Shia who are in power. The Shias have a strong, historical relationship with Iran and this has worked to the advantage of Tehran, much to Riyadh's chagrin. But nothing can be done about this, as Shias in Iraq are also the allies of the US.

Similarly, in Syria where the Bashar al-Assad government shares close ties with Iran, the revolt against the dispensation in Damascus was perceived as an effort to move the country into the Saudi sphere of influence. But that has not succeeded.

The upshot of all this geopolitical manoeuvring in the region is that while the Saudis are seeing their hold slipping, their arch-rival Iran is on the ascendance. Riyadh was at least happy that the US had imposed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. But, former US president Barack Obama struck a deal, lifting the sanctions, and Iran was back in the reckoning as an acceptable power. A frustrated Saudi Arabia even aligned with the Arabs' arch-enemy Israel in condemning the deal.

However, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for Saudi Arabia after Donald Trump took over as president. Trump has come across as a critic of the Obama-backed Iran nuclear deal and is in favour of accommodating Riyadh's concerns. So, we now see a hopeful Saudi Arabia, which with the backing of Trump, hopes to stall its downward slide.

The Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman's surprising Spring cleaning of the ruling family, in this context, appears to be part of a larger strategy to have a free hand and try taking the country to the pre-eminent position it once enjoyed in the region.

(The writer is former editor of Al Jazeera)

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