December 23, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 778

Saudi Arabia Cautiously Navigating Conflict with Iran amid Arab Spring Storm

December 23, 2011 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Saudi Arabia, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 778


In light of the popular uprisings in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf, the past year has seen a considerable escalation of the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have been in conflict for many years. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are following with concern the political changes taking place in the various Arab countries, and the impact these changes could have on the balance of power between the Iran-led and Saudi-led camps in the Middle East.

Both countries have lost key allies as a result of the Arab Spring: Saudi Arabia has lost Egypt, its main ally in its leadership of the anti-Iran camp, due to that country's preoccupation with domestic affairs. Iran has likewise lost its main ally, the Syrian regime, which is currently fighting for its survival amid the wave of protests sweeping the country; if the Syrian regime falls, Iran will be severely impacted, as will be the power-balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The difference between the Iranian and the Saudi approaches to the events in Syria is exacerbating the tension between them. In addition, Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about Iran's growing infiltration of Iraq, especially following the withdrawal of the American troops from that country. Until now, the American presence to some extent neutralized the Iranian involvement in Iraq. But now that the Americans have withdrawn, Iraq, with its Shi'ite government, is becoming a major theatre of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Another source of conflict is the protests in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia itself; the Saudi regime contends that these are not genuine popular protests, but rather riots instigated by Iran in an attempt to destabilize the region. Moreover, after several Iranian attempts to harm Saudi diplomats and strategic facilities in the Gulf were exposed, the Saudis claimed that Iran, like Al-Qaeda, is perpetrating terror against it in retaliation for its stance on the Bahrain and Syria events, and have threatened forceful responses.

Concerned about a possible rise in Iran's regional influence and a decline in the status of the moderate Arab camp, the Saudis are pursuing an active diplomacy aimed at leveraging the changes in the Arab world in their favor and at forming an anti-Iran coalition in the Gulf and the Arab world. At present, despite its apprehensions, Saudi Arabia is not openly confronting Iran but is acting against it in the international diplomatic arena in coordination with the U.S. The reasons for this caution are its military inferiority vis-à-vis Iran; the difficulty of forming an anti-Iranian coalition, whether in the Arab arena or the international one; and the fear that a confrontation with Iran might not only upset the regional status quo but also cause internal unrest in the kingdom that could threaten the regime. Additionally, the Saudi policy may be a cover for intelligence cooperation with the West in operations currently taking place on Iranian soil, which is an issue that is shrouded in secrecy.

Notwithstanding its current reserved stance vis-à-vis Iran, it should be stressed that when confronted with a direct threat to its security or to the rule of the royal family, Saudi Arabia does not hesitate to use military force to repel the threat, as evident from its response to the Shi'ite protests against the Sunni regime in Bahrain.

As for the issue of Iran's nuclear program, Saudi officials state that they oppose a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, which would entail numerous victims on both sides, and advocate dialogue as the best way to resolve the problem. In fact, Saudi Arabia, which advocates completely disarming the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, warns that an Iranian atomic bomb might drag the entire region into a nuclear arms race.

In contrast to the cautious statements made by Saudi officials at this time, the Saudi media has taken a harsh line against Iran, vehemently attacking it and its policies. This contrast begs an explanation, since the Saudi media, which is a mouthpiece of the regime, would have been expected to align itself with the officials. Perhaps the media's aggressive stance is sanctioned by the regime, and is meant to distract the public from the internal problems in the kingdom by focusing its attention on an external enemy.

This report will review the roots of the Saudi-Iranian conflict, the reasons for its current exacerbation in light of the Arab Spring, and Saudi Arabia's moves and policies in managing the conflict.

The Root of the Conflict: Saudi Arabia's Long-Held Concerns over Iranian Hegemony in the Region

The Iranian-Saudi conflict began some 30 years ago, during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and has waxed and waned ever since. The conflict escalated with the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose policy aims at attaining regional Shi'ite hegemony. This policy is manifest in Iran's increasing involvement in the domestic affairs of Arab countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan, and in its determination to become a regional military power armed with long-range missiles and possessing nuclear capabilities despite the opposition of the international community.

The tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran developed into a cold war that reached its peak in 2008 and early 2009, dividing the Arab world into two camps: the pro-Iran camp that supported the resistance movements in the region and challenged America's policy in the Middle East, and the moderate camp, which took an anti-Iranian and pro-Western line.[1]

Over the years and as a result of the many developments in the Middle East, the composition of the two camps has changed. As mentioned above, the moderate anti-Iran camp, once led jointly by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, is now led by Saudi Arabia alone, because post-revolutionary Egypt is preoccupied with its domestic affairs. As for the pro-Iran camp, it has been joined by Iraq and Lebanon. They have replaced Qatar and Hamas, which have been drifting away from this camp, as well as Syria, whose regime is gradually weakening as a result of the uprising in the country.

In this situation, Saudi Arabia, which leads the anti-Iran camp and sees itself as the leader of the Sunni world, feels directly threatened by Iran. Its main concern is Iran's bid to achieve regional hegemony by supporting Arab resistance movements and exacerbating various local conflicts in an attempt to destabilize the region. This concern prompts Saudi Arabia to oppose against any U.S.-Iran dialogue – over the nuclear issue or any other issue, such as the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq – since the Saudis feel that such dialogue might yield a deal between the two countries at the expense of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

Saudi officials have referred explicitly to the Iranian threat. Interior Minister Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, recently appointed crown prince, said, in a rare statement on this issue: "Evil surrounds Saudi Arabia from every direction. We have the problems of Iraq to the north, Yemen to the south, the problems of Iran, which is threatening Saudi Arabia, [to the east], and the problems of Africa to the west. But, praise God, despite all this, we are experiencing stability and progress."[2]

Cartoon in Saudi daily: Iran fails to undermine Saudi Arabia's stability[3]

The Saudi fear of Iran's hegemonic ambitions was much more extensively expressed by Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington, in a November 19, 2010 talk at Harvard University. Addressing the Iranian issue in unusual detail, he elaborated on the roots of the Saudi-Iranian conflict from the Saudi perspective, and on the manifestations of this conflict on the ground. He harshly criticized Iran's bid for hegemony, but stressed that the kingdom was seeking to resolve the conflict through dialogue, which he said must deal with Iran's nuclear program, among other issues. At the same time, he emphasized that Saudi Arabia was able to respond to any Iranian threat. The following are excerpts from his statements on Iran:[4]

"One of the key challenges that the kingdom faces is Iran. In a certain sense, Saudi Arabia and Iran are uniquely positioned to be at odds over a variety of issues. Saudi Arabia has the world's greatest petroleum reserves, Iran the second. Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two holy mosques and home of the birthplace of Islam, Iran aspires to be the leader of not just the Shi'ite world, but of all the Muslim revolutionaries. Its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and [its] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad see themselves as standing up to the West for all Muslims, [while] Saudi Arabia sees itself as bringing the Islamic world and the rest of the world together.

"Saudi Arabia offers friendship. In late 2007 and early 2008, King 'Abdallah twice hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Riyadh. As [the] Saudi Arabian foreign minister said in early 2008, 'We are neighbors to Iran in the Gulf region, and as such, we are careful [to ensure] that peace and tranquility reign between the region's countries.' Yet the brinkmanship continues. With the fall of Saddam Hussein and a growing prominence of Hizbullah in Lebanon, Iran has attempted to gain greater regional influence. President Ahmadinejad has outlined an expansionist agenda with agents and proxies in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. He proffers a pugilist's stance in an effort to be seen as the leader of not only the Shi'a but of all Muslims worldwide. As U.S. forces pull out of Iraq, removing the only major foreign presence in the region, efforts to achieve this agenda are likely to increase.

"Before discussing the crucial geopolitical matches between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is necessary to dismiss any possibility of conventional warfare. Neither country wants a bloody conflict to occur. Further, and if history is any indication, any asymmetrical attacks [by] Iran-supported terrorist groups, such as attacks on oil facilities or high-profile targets, or attempted closure of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran, would be unlikely to succeed and hold little long-term value. Further, the kingdom's security and intelligence networks have improved exponentially since the Riyadh bombings of 2003, which makes planning and mounting any attack on the kingdom increasingly difficult.

"The main theater of this rivalry, therefore, is regional geopolitics, and here the focus is squarely on sectarianism. Iran's major weakness is demographics. The vast majority of the world's Muslims are Sunni - nearly 90%, according to most independent estimates. Even across west Asia, which includes the world's only four Shi'a-majority countries (Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq), Sunnis dominate, [constituting] nearly 75% [of the] overall [population]. Moreover, Iranians are not Arab but predominately Persian, and [are] thus ethnically and linguistically distinct from most of the region. Neighboring Iraq, for instance, is more than three quarters Arab. Iran is therefore promoting a cultural and a specific sectarian creed that is foreign to most of its intended audience.

"Further, Iran remains to most of the industrialized world a global pariah. Iran's harsh crackdown on the protestors in June 2009, and the subsequent trials and forced confessions, did nothing to improve this view. President Obama's 2009 outreach towards Iran was notable because of its rarity. Few industrialized nations engage with Iran diplomatically.

"Yet Tehran has made some geopolitical gains in recent years, with footholds in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq as well. Tehran has also improved relations with several GCC states, including Qatar and Oman, which border the kingdom. But Saudi leaders are keenly aware of Iran's provocative agenda. Iran's nuclear ambitions and recent talk about Bahrain - which is joined to the [Saudi] kingdom by the King Fahd Causeway – as an Iranian province, is taken very seriously and is the source of constant alliance-building by Saudi leaders.

"No discussion of Iran would be complete without touching upon the issue of nuclear weapons. The international community believes Iran is working to obtain nuclear weapons, and is working with the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop any weapons development [by Iran]. Despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, the IAEA has generally failed to halt or slow Iran's nuclear program, which now has at least 5,000 centrifuges with which to enrich uranium. Some reports estimate that Iran could be less than a year away from arming a nuclear missile that could reach Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab world. Tehran's November 2009 flouting of IAEA and Security Council resolutions with the announcement that it plans to build ten more nuclear power plants, suggest that the regime is determined to choose its own course.

"King 'Abdallah has said, and I quote: 'As we regard the Iranian issues, we call for abandoning the language of tension and escalation and the adoption of diplomatic solutions to the issue.' But according to polls, elections and trade and security agreements, Iran's regional standing has fallen considerably. The kingdom has broader influence and solid leadership among the Muslims, a thriving economy, and a modern security and military apparatus. For any threat Iran can muster, Saudi Arabia has a counter. Their ambition of what they perceive as regional supremacy will continue for years to come, but Saudi Arabia will never fold nor retreat.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the elephant in the room is Israel. If history is any guide, we know what will happen. On four previous occasions – against Egypt over the Suez Canal in 1956, in the Six-Day War in 1967, in destroying an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 at Osirak, and in destroying a suspected plutonium reactor in Syria in September 2007 – Tel Aviv acted alone and without warning, to wage war [and] to preemptively protect its presumed interests. Faced with a similar situation, Israel might do the same again today, with or without American approval. Such an attack would swiftly alter the dynamic of the region, and possibly rally nations to support Iran against Israel and the U.S. The asymmetrical attacks on the United States will be bloody and vicious. Beginning in 2003, the Saudi government began a strategic review that considered the nuclear issue. Putting in place an agreement for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is the only viable alternative to a nuclear conflict."

Background of Current Tension: Gulf Protests and Security Incidents

The recent uptick in tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran was caused by protests in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia itself. The Shi'ite protests in Bahrain are perceived in Saudi Arabia as a direct Iranian threat to both the Bahraini and the Saudi regimes. When they erupted, Saudi Arabia – along with other Gulf states – quickly mobilized to assist the Bahraini regime in quashing the protests, dispatching over 1,000 soldiers to Bahrain as part of the Gulf Peninsula Shield Force. This move was fiercely criticized by Iran, which saw it as "a [Saudi] invasion to slaughter the Muslims of Bahrain [i.e. Shi'ites]."[5]

The protests in Saudi Arabia, by both Shi'ites and Sunnis, were similarly perceived in the kingdom not as a legitimate public protest but as the result of an Iranian attempt to incite rebellion in Saudi Arabia. Shi'ites in the east of the kingdom demonstrated in support of the anti-regime protests in Bahrain, and even chanted "Death to the Al-Saud clan," as is occasionally done during protests in Iran.[6] In response to these events, the Saudi Interior Ministry claimed that "external hands" were fanning the flames of unrest, hinting at Iran, and demanded that protestors decide whether they are loyal to Saudi Arabia or to a foreign country.[7] Saudi Prince Khaled bin Talal said regarding the protest attempts in Saudi Arabia in March, 2011: "... It is clear that the rafida and the turban-wearers [meaning the Shi'ites and Iran] are behind those who cause fitna [and] who incite and wish to lead the country to the abyss. [This is just like what] Hizbullah did in Lebanon, [and] what they [the Iranians] did in Iraq... in the Houthi war in Yemen, and in Bahrain."[8] On another occasion, the prince said that Iran was the one behind the riots in northeastern Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain, and that the Saudi Shi'ite leaders' oaths of allegiance to King 'Abdallah should not necessarily be believed, in light of their adherence to the principle of taqiyya (religious dissimulation in order to avoid persecution).[9]

Saudi government papers published many articles accusing Iran of interfering in the domestic affairs of the Gulf states in general, and of Saudi Arabia in particular, as part of its plan to destabilize the region and establish Iranian hegemony. Other articles linked these events to Iran's shifting strategic considerations as part of the changes caused by the Arab Spring. Following the October 2011 Shi'ite protests in Al-'Awamiya (in the Qatif province in northeastern Saudi Arabia), columnist Mashari Al-Zaydi claimed in his column in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the protests were an Iranian response to Saudi policy regarding the Syrian regime. He wrote: "Iran and its ally Syria think that the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, are leading a campaign against the Syrian regime... and one of their responses [to this campaign] is to rouse the Shi'ites in the Gulf [including in Saudi Arabia] and to reopen old issues."[10]

Mass protest in Al-Qatif province, in which chants of "Death to the Al-Sa'ud Clan" were heard.[11]

Saudi-Iranian tension increased even further when reports surfaced regarding Iranian involvement in terrorist attacks against strategic targets in the Gulf. It was claimed that Iran has terrorist cells operating against Saudi diplomats and embassies throughout the world, and against other vital interests in the Gulf. In October 2011, U.S. authorities announced that they had foiled a plot by two Iranians, one holding U.S. citizenship, to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. 'Adel Al-Jubeir, and to attack the Saudi Embassy in Washington on orders from elements in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The plot was to be carried out by members of a Mexican drug cartel.[12] Approximately one month later, Qatar announced that it had exposed an Iranian terrorist cell that was planning carry out attacks in Bahrain, inter alia against the Saudi Embassy, the Bahraini Interior Ministry, and the King Fahd Causeway (which connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia). According to Bahraini authorities, the members of the cell trained in Iran, and were in contact with IRGC personnel.[13] Pakistani authorities have recently confirmed Saudi Arabia's claim that Iran was involved in the assassination of Saudi diplomat Hassan Al-Qahtani in May in Karachi.[14] Iran has denied its involvement in several of these incidents.[15]

These events, and particularly the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., have sparked an anti-Iran campaign in Saudi Arabia, accusing Iran of systematic terrorist activity, especially against diplomatic targets, aimed at destabilizing the Gulf states. Referring to the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador, Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal said: "This is not the first time that Iran has interfered in Arab affairs. Kuwait has apprehended Iranian agents. Iran [also] interferes in Lebanon, Iraq, and other countries."[16] Articles and editorials in the Saudi press harshly attacked Iran, with headlines such as: "Iran's Ugly Face" (Al-Yawm, October 15, 2011), "The Root of Iranian Evil" (Al-Iqtisadiyya, October 13, 2011), "The Iranian Regime's Terrorism" (Al-Jazirah, October 13, 2011), "Diplomatic Terrorism" (Al-Jazirah, November 23, 2011), and more. They stated that Iran, utilizing terrorist methods similar to those of Al-Qaeda, is escalating its activity against the Gulf states, particularly because of the changes in the Arab world in general and in Syria in particular.

An editorial in the Saudi daily Al-Watan claimed: "Iran has recently stepped up its activity to destabilize the region, in light of the [protests] in Syria and the international position vis-à-vis the region. [These] have led it to look for excuses to further fan the flames the region. The plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington indicates that [Iran's] ambition to destabilize [the region] is part of a deeper plan connected to certain circles in Tehran that wish to harm the [Saudi] kingdom..."[17]

Columnist Ibrahim Al-Amir wrote in the same daily: "Iran senses that Syria, its only Arab ally, is about to fall... [so] it is operating on two levels to ignite world crises: targeting Saudi diplomats in order to harm and weaken Saudi diplomacy, and igniting internal fitna in some of the Gulf states, chiefly in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain."[18]

Cartoon in Saudi paper presents Iran as addicted to terrorism. The cartoon is titled "Iranian Plan to Assassinate Saudi Ambassador to Washington Using Mexican Drug Dealers"; the syringe is labeled "terrorism."[19]

An editorial in the Saudi daily Al-Yawm claimed that the Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador "indicates that evil intent and [an inclination] to do damage are ingrained in the [Iranian] regime, which wishes to take over the Gulf and the Islamic world by violating all international laws and norms... Iran, which leads the forces of evil in the region, knows that Saudi Arabia is the strong country that stands up to its strategic aspirations of political expansion and of attaining weapons of mass destruction... [It also] knows that Saudi Arabia can achieve an Arab, Islamic, and international consensus for its just policy on Middle East affairs by presenting a model of political and economic moderacy. This angers Iran and pushes it to undertake demented and depraved actions, which are incompatible with global norms of peaceful [conduct]."[20]

Turki Al-Sudeiri, editor of the daily Al-Riyadh, wrote in an article that Iran is even more hostile to the Arabs than Israel. He said that Israel's enmity was limited only to the Palestinians, while Iran forcefully and violently interfered in many Gulf and other Arab states.[21] Al-Sudeiri's deputy, Yousef Al-Kuwailit, wrote an article titled "Iran is a Terrorist State," in which he stated: "The international community, which hunted Al-Qaeda throughout the world, should place Iran on the same level [as Al-Qaeda]."[22] In another article, Al-Kuwailit even warned of "the birth of a Shi'ite Al-Qaeda" that would be operated by Iran and its allies – Syria, Iraq, Hizbullah, and Hamas – and that would harm the entire world.[23]

Cartoon in Saudi Paper: Iran and Syria – first place in "Terrorism against Embassies"[24]

The Egyptian Revolution: Saudi Arabia Loses Its Chief Ally

The events of the Arab Spring have had far-reaching effects on the balance of power between the pro-Iran and anti-Iran camps in the region. Following the Egyptian revolution, Saudi Arabia lost its most important ally in the anti-Iran camp – the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt. Saudi Arabia, which distanced itself from the Egyptian revolution, was perceived by the Egyptian people as working against it in an attempt to thwart the revolution and assist Mubarak's supporters. On September 9, 2011, the date of the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, the Saudi Embassy in Giza was also attacked. Diplomatic vehicles were torched, and an attempt was made to break down the embassy walls and enter the premises. In an edict, King 'Abdallah ordered that work at the embassy continue despite the attack, "in order to preserve the eternal relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia."[25]

Along with fear of the collapse of the Mubarak regime, Saudi Arabia, a Salafi country, feared that the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would cloud future relations between the countries. These are the grounds for accusations that Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf states, is funding and cultivating the Egyptian Salafi stream as a counterbalance to the Muslim Brotherhood.[26]

After Mubarak's fall, Saudi Arabia could no longer rely on the Egyptian regime for support in its struggle against Iran's attempts at hegemony. The transitional government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was busy struggling for political survival and handling Egypt's domestic affairs. Furthermore, although renewing relations with Iran was not a top priority for the new Egypt, there was also nothing preventing it politically. Indeed, Egypt has stated that it wishes to maintain normal relations with Iran, just as with every other country.[27] This Egyptian approach brought about the renewal of meetings between Egyptian and Iranian officials, and Iranian navy vessels were even permitted to pass through the Suez Canal.

Saudi Arabia followed these attempts at rapprochement with concern, even though they have not yet produced any substantial change in Egypt-Iran relations, and tried to thwart them by attempting to grow close to the new regime and the Egyptian population, as manifest by its pledge of $4 billion in aid to Egypt.[28]

The attack on the Saudi Embassy in Giza, Egypt[29]

The Saudi and Egyptian regimes are trying to project a sense of "business as usual." The Egyptian foreign minister stressed that Cairo sees the stability and Arabness of the Gulf as a red line that must not be crossed.[30] However, this did not prevent certain Egyptian circles from pondering the state of relations between the two countries following the revolution. Egyptian intellectual 'Imad Al-Din Adib wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "The decision-makers in Cairo and Riyadh should tell us: Is there really a crisis in relations? If the answer is yes, what kind of problems are there and how can we resolve them? However, if these are purely rumors, what is [Cairo's and Riyadh's] response to these rumors? The Arab region is facing grave dangers. The last thing we need is for the Egyptian-Saudi dialogue to stop."[31]

The Fate of the Syrian Regime – A Crucial Variable in the Regional Power Struggle

The fate of the Syrian regime is another crucial variable in the power balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The fall of the Assad regime – Iran's most important Arab ally – will necessarily impact Iran's regional status and Hizbullah's power in Lebanon.

Despite hope in the anti-Iran camp that Assad's fall would damage the rival Iranian camp, the Saudi regime has adopted a policy of caution vis-à-vis the Syrian unrest, expressing support for Syria "which faces a plot to harm its security and stability"[32] and even providing some $100 million in aid to Syria in July of this year.[33] This backing of the Syrian regime seems to be a direct continuation of the conciliatory policy towards Syria that King 'Abdallah has been pursuing since 2009. According to this approach, despite Syria's good relations with Iran, understandings can be reached with the Assad regime in matters that serve Saudi interests. In addition, the Saudis fear that the fall of the Assad regime could lead to anarchy in Syria, with disastrous consequences for Saudi Arabia – similar to what happened following the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, like Syria, has a non-democratic regime and fears that the wave of revolutions will reach it. The Saudis justify their policy of restraint towards Syria on the grounds that the kingdom does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. In return for the Gulf silence over the suppression of protests in Syria, Syria disregarded the entrance of Gulf Peninsula Shield Force troops into Bahrain to suppress Shi'ite protests there.

Eventually, however, the continuing unrest and rising death toll in Syria forced Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states (especially Qatar, which led the anti-Syrian line) to adopt a harsher position vis-à-vis the Syrian regime, and to lead political and economic measures in the Arab League aimed at compelling Assad to change his policy. King 'Abdallah called on the Syrian regime to stop the killing machine and bloodshed and to enact serious reforms in Syria, while at the same time recalling the Saudi ambassador from Syria.[34] In an unusual statement, Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal said that Assad's refusal to stop the violence against his people would lead to his certain ouster, but stressed that this was only his personal opinion.[35]

Currently, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states support the steps taken by the Arab League (together with Turkey) to pressure the Assad regime, such as: the demand to accept the Arab initiative to resolve the crisis in Syria; the temporary suspension of Syria from the Arab League; and the leveling of economic sanctions against it until Arab League observers are allowed to enter the country. Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal explained his country's change of policy by saying that the Arab League's intervention in this matter "does not constitute interference in domestic affairs."[36]

King 'Abdallah and President Assad meet in Damascus, October 7, 2009[37]

Contrary to statements by Saudi officials on the Syrian crisis, which have been relatively reserved, the Saudi government media has harshly attacked the Assad regime for its brutality against the protesters, thus breaking the silence imposed upon the media by the regime since King 'Abdallah adopted a policy of openness towards Syria in 2009. Harsh attacks were made in the media by clerics who openly supported the Syrian protestors and condemned the bombing of mosques by the Syrian regime. Prominent Sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan even called for jihad against the Assad regime.[38]

Several anti-Iran articles in the Saudi press even claimed that the fall of the Assad regime would improve the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Columnist Osama Sa'id Al-Qahtani wrote in the daily Al-Watan: "...There is a strategic alliance between the Syrian and Iranian regimes... Syria is the most important gateway for Iranian influence in the Arab region. Through [Syria], Iran reaches Hizbullah in Lebanon, its most important mainstay in the region. With the fall of the sectarian Syrian regime, [Hizbullah] will also fall, and Iranian supplies [to it] will cease, or at least substantially decrease... Due to its prominent status in the Arab world, Syria is also an Iranian gateway to the rest of the Arab countries... The fall of the Syrian regime, or the weakening of its enslavement to Iran, will weaken Iranian influence in the region."

Al-Qahtani added: "The political and security interest requires Arab countries in general, and the Gulf states in particular, to adopt a firm policy towards the lethal Syrian regime. This is a historic chance to preserve the Arab entity as a single unified unit, after the repeated successes of Iranian influence and regional expansion by way of Iraq and Syria. It is important to form strong blocs to oppose the rampant Iranian ambition in the region. The most important players we must employ are the Turks, and we must take advantage of the Turkish enthusiasm to compete with the Iranian role."[39]

Al-Watan columnist Fahd Al-Deghaither wrote in a similar vein: "If the regimes that are allied with Iran fall, Iran will be left with no [helping] hands. Then the Iranian people will respond harshly to the policies of its foolish government, which is leading it to its doom... [We must] focus on eliminating the failed Assad regime, which supports the Iranian perception, through international and regional support for the Syrian rebels, by commencing the trials of the suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, and by returning Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood... to the Arab fold – [because these steps] will be a cornerstone in the confrontation [with Iran]."[40]

Cartoon in Saudi daily: Iran tries to save a drowning Assad[41]

Saudi Difficulty in Formulating an Anti-Iran Coalition

The confrontation with Iran, along with the Arab Spring, presents Saudi Arabia with major challenges in the domestic and international arenas. After losing its powerful ally Egypt, Saudi Arabia is trying to take the helm on its own and lead developments in the new Middle East according to its policy, rather than sitting on the sidelines.

In fact, the Saudi policy of stepping up regional involvement and adopting active diplomacy to lead regional processes emerged prior to the Arab Spring, following the severe conflict in the Arab world that developed into a cold war between the pro-Iran camp and the camp of moderate countries (2006-2009). Back then, Saudi Arabia followed with concern the gains of pro-Iran countries and organizations, which essentially attested to the failure of the conciliatory line that it led along with Egypt, and which weakened Saudi Arabia's and Egypt's regional and international status. The Hizbullah and Hamas resistance movements achieved political victories in Lebanon and Gaza, thus marginalizing the political influence of the March 14 Forces and Fatah and the allies of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Furthermore, Syria, despite its political alliance with Iran, and despite its support for Hizbullah and Hamas, managed to avoid Western isolation, to the chagrin of Saudi officials.[42]

In January 2009, King 'Abdallah announced his plan to establish a unified Arab front, aimed at lessening Iranian influence in the region, as part of which he sought reconciliation with Syria. This announcement was part of the Saudi approach, according to which a lack of Arab unity has paralyzed the Arab world and allowed non-Arab countries such as Iran, Turkey, and Israel to increase their regional influence at the expense of Arab interests. For example, Iran's involvement in the Middle East – especially in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, and Sudan – which greatly worries Saudi Arabia, was seen as the result of disagreements and schism in the Arab world. According to this perception, Arab unity will restore the Arabs' lost influential status, and enable them to resolve regional conflicts in various zones and face future political challenges posed by those non-Arab elements.

Despite its efforts, Saudi Arabia's attempts to reconcile with Syria, pry it away from the Iranian camp, and establish an Arab coalition led by a Saudi/Syrian/Mubarak-Egyptian alliance, met with failure. Moreover, during this time, Iraq and Lebanon, with the latter's new government headed by Najib Miqati, joined the pro-Iran camp.

In light of this failure and of the onset of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia tried to establish a coalition of Sunni monarchies by bringing Jordan and Morocco into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The purpose of this was to unite the monarchical regimes in the face of possible popular revolutions, to create an alternative to the declining Arab League, and to create a Sunni body that would confront the policy of Shi'ite Iran.[43] However, Saudi Arabia did not achieve this goal either. Some Gulf states objected to expanding the GCC, fearing that it would harm the Gulf economy, as is currently happening in the EU due to the need to assist economically weak countries like Greece.[44]

A new initiative by King 'Abdallah to form a union of the Gulf states was endorsed at the recent GCC summit. In his speech at the summit, the king said that the Gulf states were facing a threat to their security and stability, and therefore "must move from the phase of cooperation to the phase of union within a single entity."[45] Editorials in Saudi papers stated that forming a Gulf union was an urgent necessity, especially in light of the Iranian threat. The daily Al-Madina wrote in an editorial: "[Endorsing the king's initiative] is an important step in confronting Iran's constant threats and provocations... A Gulf union is an urgent necessity from a security, economic, and political [standpoint], because the fate of the six GCC states hinges upon it. An additional [consideration] is the anarchy and loss of security control that are likely to escalate in many countries in the region, especially in Iraq after the American withdrawal. Iran does not hide its intention to fill the vacuum created by this withdrawal. Furthermore, the latest developments have placed Iraq on the edge of a new volcano of sectarian [conflict]."[46]

Other editorials spoke of the need to form a joint military force in the framework of the new Gulf union. Al-Riyadh deputy editor Yousef Al-Kuwailit wrote: "We are facing a country in the region that is heavily armed and wants to obtain a nuclear bomb, and which does not conceal [the fact that it is looking] at the Gulf states with a covetous eye. We have no option but to form a well-trained army equipped with [the best] minds and with advanced weapons... We have the ability to recruit over half a million young men from all sectors."[47]

Yes to Dialogue, No to Direct Confrontation

Saudi attempts to lead a hawkish anti-Iran coalition with the Gulf states have also been fruitless. Aside from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the Gulf states are not rushing to mobilize for a confrontation with Iran, and would rather solve the conflict by means of dialogue.[48] Furthermore, Qatar, which has begun to drift away from the pro-Iran camp to which it once belonged, and which, to Iran's chagrin, is even leading an anti-Syria line, has not hastened to join the Saudi camp; rather, it is using the Saudi-Iranian rivalry to advance its own status by attempting to mediate between the two. Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim has repeatedly said that his country has good relations with Iran, and has even questioned the veracity of reports of Iran's involvement in the assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. During a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, bin Jassim said that the best way to resolve the affair would be through dialogue, and added: "Saudi Arabia and Iran are two large countries, and their relations must be good for the sake of us, the small countries."[49]

A number of reports in the Arab media reveal that Saudi Arabia and Iran are indeed conducting a limited dialogue, apparently with Qatari mediation. Iranian Intelligence Minister Haidar Moslehi, who is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, recently visited Riyadh for a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince and Interior Minister Prince Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, at which security and political matters were discussed. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that Moslehi's visit was meant to clear up the misunderstandings between the two countries.[50]

The Saudi daily Al-Jazirah reported, citing Iranian sources, that during Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi's visit to Qatar in late October 2011, the issue of improving relations between Iran and the Gulf states was discussed, especially Saudi-Iranian relations.[51] Moreover, approximately one month earlier, the Iranian foreign minister and his Bahraini counterpart Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad Al-Khalifa held two meetings, which were presumably coordinated with Saudi Arabia.[52]

Saudi Crown Prince Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz and Iranian Intelligence Minister Haidar Moslehi meet, December 2011[53]

Moreover, statements by Saudi officials indicate that the Saudis have adopted a cautious policy vis-à-vis Iran, focusing on the international diplomatic arena and avoiding direct confrontation. Asked about the possibility of recalling the Saudi ambassador from Iran following the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal replied "we shall wait and see," despite the threats of a harsh Saudi response.[54] This Saudi policy may be mandated by the difficulty in forming an anti-Iran Gulf coalition; alternatively, it could be an attempt to maintain a low profile in light of the recent string of attacks against strategic installations in Iran.

However, Saudi Arabia has been working against its Iranian rival on the diplomatic front, in cooperation with the U.S., which leads the anti-Iran line in the international arena (although the U.S. too is having difficulties establishing an international anti-Iran coalition, particularly due to objections by Russia and China). Saudi Arabia and the U.S. worked together to pass an implied condemnation of Iran at the U.N. General Assembly, after exposing the assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., albeit without mentioning Iran directly.[55] A U.S. State Department official told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the Americans and the Saudis were coordinating steps to be taken against Iran, and added: "We work with our Saudi allies and with all countries that are concerned about and object to Iran's [nuclear] program... We are pursuing this matter through all available channels, whether in New York [at the U.N.], or as part of bilateral relations with countries or groups of countries, such as the E.U."[56]

Saudi Arabia's low-key policy toward Iran was also manifest in its response to the November 2011 IAEA report on Iran's nuclear weapon ambitions. Despite the report's harsh findings, Saudi officials, like U.S. officials, chose to disregard it, while editorials in the Saudi press responded only by saying that an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear installations would be disastrous.[57] The official silence over the IAEA report was not broken until a month after its publication, when Shi'ite unrest broke out in Qatif, which the Saudis interpreted as an Iranian attempt to harm the kingdom. Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal said: "Iran's possession of nuclear weapons is a clear threat to regional security."[58]

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia stressed its wish to resolve the conflict with Iran through dialogue rather than military confrontation. For example, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz said: "If a war breaks out, there will be no winners. War means victims on both sides and destruction on both sides." He added: "We agree with Russia that the military solution would not be an ideal one; however, Iran should act more wisely and listen to its neighbors and friends, and reveal the truth regarding its [nuclear] program." According to the prince, Saudi Arabia "fears Iran's nuclear program due to [its] lack of transparency... A transparent dialogue, [in which] the Iranians clarify the real goals of their program, is the solution..." Muqrin, like other officials, warned that a failure to respond to Iran's nuclear program could force Saudi Arabia into entering a regional arms race, stressing that Saudi Arabia was already acting "to strengthen the Gulf's aerial defense in case of any attack."[59]

Following these reserved responses, Saudi columnists called to take harsher steps against Iran. In a column in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat titled "The Iranian Blood-Turbans," columnist 'Abdallah bin Bjad Al-'Otaibi wrote: "The turban regime [i.e. the Iranian regime] has declared a new cold war against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and indirectly against Turkey and the West... In order to resist the Iranian cold war, a comprehensive strategy must be formulated. Iran enjoys attacking and harming others without incurring a response. It is time for it to learn something new. We must start by [responding] to the crime of the [attempted] assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., by intensifying the struggle [against Iran] in international forums, and, if necessary, by prosecuting [Iran] in the International Criminal Court... We must act for an international condemnation of this incident, impose additional sanctions, and adopt diplomatic positions that reflect this condemnation."[60]

Former Al-Watan editor Jamal Khashoggi called to "isolate Iran economically," and explained: "There are sanctions that have already been imposed on Iran, but some countries have ignored them due to economic interests, or because they were not persuaded by the reasons for imposing the sanctions... Countries like Turkey, India, and even Japan, Italy, and Spain did not see themselves as part of this campaign, and continued their economic ties with Iran...

"It is time for these countries to stop putting their own interests ahead of the global interest. After the Washington scandal [i.e. the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador], Iran is not just a country that sponsors terrorism, but a country that perpetrates terrorism. It is like Al-Qaeda... If the U.N. banned the purchase of Iranian oil and gas – and I believe Saudi Arabia and the U.S. can pass such a ban – it would break the back of the deteriorating [Iranian] economy, and also bring Tehran back to the straight path and produce a more responsible [Iranian] leadership. Are there two million barrels of oil that would replace the banned Iranian oil? I think the Saudi kingdom can provide one million barrels a day, and Libya is gradually returning to the market. Maybe [even] Russia and Qatar will cooperate by supplying gas to the Turks."[61]

*Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 492, "An Escalating Regional Cold War – Part I: The 2009 Gaza War," May 7, 2009, An Escalating Regional Cold War – Part I: The 2009 Gaza War.

[2] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), August 29, 2011.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 13, 2011.

[5] For more, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 678, "The Bahrain Situation: Media Clashes Between the Iranian-Shi'ite Camp and the Saudi-Sunni Camp", March 18, 2011, The Bahrain Situation: Media Clashes Between the Iranian-Shi'ite Camp and the Saudi-Sunni Camp.

[6] See MEMRI TV Clip No. 3210, "Protestors in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, Chant 'Death to the Al-Saud Clan' in Mass Demonstration Following the Recent Shooting of Two Local Shiites by Police," November 23, 2011,

[7] See, for example, the Interior Ministry's announcement following clashes between Shi'ites and security forces in early October in Al-'Awamiya, in which 11 security personnel and 3 civilians were injured, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 5, 2011; as well as the Interior Ministry's response to the later November events in Al-Qatif, in which two people were killed and three injured. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 24, 2011.

[8], March 11, 2011. Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal recently said that Iran continues to interfere in the internal affairs of countries in the region. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 24, 2011.

[9] Al-Resalah TV, Rotana Khalijiyya TV, December 2, 2011. See MEMRI TV Clip No. 3229, " Saudi Prince Khaled Bin Tallal: Bin Laden Is Alive and Being Held by the Americans; The Shiites in Saudi Arabia Are Loyal to Their Iranian Masters,"

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 7, 2011.

[12], October 11, 2011.

[13] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 14, 2011.

[14] According to a senior Pakistani official, Al-Qahtani was killed by the outlawed Shi'ite organization 'Askar Al-Mahdi, which receives support and training from the IRGC and Hizbullah. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 21, 2011.

[15] For Iran's response to the Saudi ambassador affair, see MEMRI Special Dispatch Series Report No. 4207, "Initial Reactions in Iran to Report on Foiling of Iranian Terror Operation in Washington", October 12, 2011. Initial Reactions in Iran to Report on Foiling of Iranian Terror Operation in Washington. In addition, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian denied reports that Iran had planned an attack on the Saudi embassy in Manama. See Asr-e Iran (Iran), November 14, 2011.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 14, 2011.

[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 13, 2011.

[18] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 15, 2011.

[19] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 14, 2011.

[20] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), October 13, 2011.

[21] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) October 13, 2011.

[22] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 14, 2011.

[23] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 16, 2011.

[24] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 4, 2011.

[25] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 16, 2011;, September 15, 2011; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 10, 2011.

[26] On May 10, Copts and Shi'ites demonstrated outside the Saudi embassy in Cairo in protest of the funding of Salafis in Egypt. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 10, 2011.

[27] A source in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that Egypt aspires to hold "basic normal relations with Tehran, no more, no less... And this is nothing out of the ordinary, considering that the Gulf states themselves have embassies in Tehran." Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 5, 2011.

[28] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 22, 2011.

[29] Sabq (Saudi Arabia), September 10, 2011.

[30] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 7, 2011. Furthermore, Essam Sharaf, then Egyptian prime minister, assured that turning over a new leaf with Iran would not harm the security of the Gulf states. Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 28, 2011.

[31] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 4, 2011.

[32], March 27, 2011.

[33] Al-Watan (Syria), July 23, 2011. The Kuwaiti government also loaned Syria a similar sum. Kuwaiti MP 'Ali Al-'Amir severely protested loaning money to a regime that kills its own people. Al-Watan (Kuwait), July 15, 2011.

[34] King 'Abdallah addressed the Assad regime one day after the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) condemned the excessive use of force against protestors, and called to immediately stop the bloodshed in the country and to enact serious reforms., August 8, 2011; August 6, 2011.

[35] Sabq (Saudi Arabia), November 16, 2011.

[36] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 17, 2011.

[37] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 8, 2009.

[39] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 12, 2011.

[40] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 17, 2011.

[41] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), November 8, 2011.

[42] On Syria's diplomatic achievements, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.583, "Syria Regains Pivotal Regional, Int'l Role – The Triumph of the 'Course of Resistance,'" January 29, 2010, Syria Regains Pivotal Regional, Int'l Role – The Triumph of the 'Course of Resistance'.

[43] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 696, "Addition of Jordan and Morocco to Gulf Cooperation Council – A New Sunni Arab Alignment Against Iran", June 15, 2011. Addition of Jordan and Morocco to Gulf Cooperation Council – A New Sunni Arab Alignment Against Iran. The first manifestation of the new coalition's aspirations to serve as an alternative to the Arab League and to spearhead initiates in the Arab League came with the GCC's condemnation of the Syrian regime on August 6, 2011, which gave rise to a series of other Arab condemnations, and later to various Arab League resolutions on Syria.

[44] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 1, 2011.

[45] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 20, 2011.

[46] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), December 22, 2011. See also editorials in Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 21, 2011.

[47] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 19, 2011. See also editorial in Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), December 22, 2011.

[48] See article by Raghida Dergham, Al-Hayat (London), October 14, 2011, as well as Madhawi Al-Rashid, Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 13, 2011.

[49] Al-Raya (Qatar), October 31, 2011.

[50], Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 13, 2011.

[51] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), October 31, 2011.

[52] In statements to the press during a visit to Egypt, the Bahraini foreign minister said that his country and Iran had engaged in dialogue, and that he had met the Iranian foreign minister twice, in New York and in Kuwait. He also applauded the Qatari mediation between the Gulf states and Iran. See Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), November 2, 2011; Al-Wasat (Bahrain), October 7, 2011.

[53] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 13, 2011.

[54] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 14, 2011.

[55] On November 16, 2011, Saudi Arabia submitted a condemnation proposal to the UN General Assembly over the attempted assassination. Sabq (Saudi Arabia), November 16, 2011. One month earlier, on October 15, the US officially informed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that an assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador had taken place on its soil. The Saudi delegation to the UN asked Ban to inform the General Assembly of this issue, which it called "a violation of international laws and UN resolutions and of all conventions and human norms." It demanded that those responsible be prosecuted in an international court. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 16, 2011. In November 2011, the US took a number of steps against Iran's economy, with President Obama signing an executive order targeting Iran's petrochemical industry and increasing sanctions against its oil and gas industry. A previously existing executive ordered was invoked to freeze the assets of "individuals and entities for their roles in assisting Iran's prohibited nuclear programs." See

[56] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 16, 2011.

[57] See editorials in Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 10, 2011, and Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 7, 2011.

[58] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 24, 2011. Speaking on behalf of Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal at a conference in Riyadh, Deputy Foreign Minister Turki bin Muhammad bin Sa'ud spoke in a similar vein, saying that Iran's nuclear program threatens the security and stability of the region and the world. He added that Iran and the other countries in the region have the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but only under IAEA supervision. Sabq (Saudi Arabia), December 4, 2011.

[59] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 4, 2011. Similar statements regarding the arms race were made by Prince Turki Al-Faisal. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 6, 2011.

[60] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 15, 2011.

[61] Al-Hayat (London), October 14, 2011. Columnist Salman Al-Dosari wrote in a similar vein in a December 3, 2011 article in the daily Al-Iqtisadiyya.

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