Saudi Struggle vs. Iran Looks Likely to Get Worse
Saudi Arabia has gone on the offensive against Iran to protect its interests. Its involvement in Syria is the first battle in what is going to be a long conflict that will know no frontiers nor limits.
Ongoing disorders in the island kingdom of Bahrain since F
ebruary 2011 have set off alarm bells in Riyadh. The Saudis are convinced that Iran is directing the protests and fear that the problems will spill over the 25-kilometer long COSWAY into oil rich Al-Qatif, where the bulk of the Saudi Arabia's Shia are concentrated. So far, the Saudis have not had to deal with demonstrations as serious as those in Bahrain, but success there could encourage the protestors to become more violent.
Protecting the oil is the first concern of the Saudi government. Oil is the sole source of the national wealth and is managed by state-owned Saudi Aramco. The monopoly on political power held by the members of the Saud family means that all of the wealth of the kingdom is their personal property. Saudi Arabia is a company country with 28 million citizens the responsibility of the Saud rulers.
The customary manner of dealing with a problem by the patriarchal regime is to bury it in money. King Abdullah announced at the height of the Arab Spring that he was increasing the national budget by $130 billion to be spent over the coming five years. Government salaries and the minimum wage were raised. New housing and other benefits are to be provided. At the same time, he plans to expand the security forces by 60,000 men.
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While the Saudi king seeks to soothe unrest among the general population by adding more government benefits, he will not grant any concessions to the eight percent of the population that is Shia. He takes seriously the warning by King Abdullah of Jordan back in 2004 of the danger of a Shia Crescent that would extend from the coast of Lebanon to Afghanistan. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, and the Shia controlled government of Iraq form the links in the chain.
When the Arab Spring reached Syria, the leaders in Riyadh were given the weapon to break the chain. Appeals from tribal leaders under attack in Syria to kinsmen in the Gulf States for assistance could not be ignored. The various blinks between the Gulf States in several Syrian tribes means that Saudi Arabia and its close ally Qatar have connections that include at least 3 million people out of the Syrian populations of 23 million. To show how deep the bonds go, the leader of the Nijris Tribe in Syria is married to a woman from the Saud Family.
It is no wonder that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in February that arming the Syrian rebels was an “excellent idea." He was supported by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani who said, "We should do whatever necessary to help [the Syrian opposition], including giving them weapons to defend themselves." The intervention has the nature of a tribal issue, one that the prominent Saudi cleric Aidh al-Qarni has turned into a Sunni-Shia War by promoting Assad’s death.
The Saudis and their Qatar and United Arab Emirate allies have pledged one hundred million dollars to pay wages to the fighters. Many of the officers of the Free Syrian Army are from tribes connected to the Gulf. In effect, the payment of wages is paying members of associated tribes.
Here, the United States is not a welcomed partner, except as a supplier of arms. Saudi Arabia sees the role of the United States limited to being a wall of steel to protect the oil wealth of the Kingdom and the Gulf States from Iranian aggression. In February of 1945, President Roosevelt at a meeting in Egypt with Abdel Aziz bin Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, pledged to defend the kingdom in exchange for a steady flow of oil.
Since those long ago days when the U.S. was establishing Pax Americana, the Saudis have lost their trust in the wisdom or the reliability of American policy makers. The Saudis urged the U.S. not to invade Iraq in 2003 only to have them ignore Saudi interests in maintaining an Iraqi buffer zone against Iran. The Saudis had asked the U.S. not to leave a Shia dominated government in Baghdad that would threaten the Northern frontier of the Kingdom, only to have the last American soldiers depart in December 2011. With revolution sweeping across the Middle East, Washington abandoned President Mubarak of Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s favorite non-royal leader in the region.
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Worried by the possibility of Iranian-sponsored insurrections among Shia in the Gulf States, the Saudis are asserting their power in the region while they have the advantage. For 30 years, they have been engaged in a proxy war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Syria is to be the next battlefield, but here, there is a critical difference from what were minor skirmishes in Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. The Saudis, with the aid of Qatar and the UAE, are striking at the core interests of Tehran; and they have through their tribal networks anadvantage over an isolated Islamic Republic.
Tribal and kinship relations are being augmented by the infusion of the Salafi vision of Islam that is growing in the Gulf States. Money from the Gulf States has gone into the development of religious centers to spread the fundamentalist belief. A critical part of the ideology is to be anti-Shia.
Salafism in Saudi Arabia is promulgated by the Wahhabi School of Islam. The Wahhabi movement began in the eighteenth century and promoted a return to the fundamentalism of the early followers of the Faith.
The Sauds incorporated the religious movement into their leadership of the tribes. When the modern state of Saudi Arabia was formed, they were granted control of the educational system and much else in the society in exchange for the endorsement of the authoritarian rule.
When the Kingdom used its growing wealth in the 1970s to extend its interests far from the traditional territory in the battle against the atheistic Soviet Union, the Wahhabi clergy became missionaries in advancing their ideology through religious institutions to oppose the Soviets. More than two hundred thousand jihadists were sent into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet forces and succeeded in driving them out.
There is no longer a Soviet Union to confront. Today, the enemy is the Islamic Republic of Iran with what is described by the Wahhabis as a heretical form of Islam and its involvement in the Shia communities across the region. For 13 centuries, the Shia have been kept under control. With the hand of Iran in the form of the Qud Force reaching into restless communities that number as many as 106 million people in what is the heart of the Middle East, the Saudis see a desperate need to crush the foe before it has the means to pull down the privileged position of the Saud Family and the families of the other Gulf State rulers.
The war begins in Syria, where we can expect that a successor government to Assad will be declared in the Saudi-controlled tribal areas even before Assad is defeated. The territory is likely to adopt the more fundamentalist principals of the Salafists as it serves as a stepping stone to Iran Itself. It promises to be a bloody, protracted war that will recognize no frontier and will know no limits by any of the participants.