How the Saudis Plan to Counter Iran

3 MINS READJan 7, 2016 | 03:08 GMT

Qatar announced Wednesday that it was recalling its ambassador to Tehran. It joins Saudi Arabia and a growing number of allied states that have severed or reduced diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran. Ostensibly, the moves are coming in response to the storming of Saudi diplomatic posts in Tehran and Mashhad after the Saudi execution of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. In reality, the splits reflect the belief in the region that Iranian influence is a threat to Sunni Arab states.

By itself, Saudi Arabia is no match for the much larger, more populous Iran — and the end of Western sanctions is only boosting Iran's might. For example, the Saudi kingdom has a 200,000-member military versus Iran's 550,000. And Saudi Arabia's hydrocarbon industry accounts for the vast majority of its economy; its population is smaller and less educated than Iran's, which means Riyadh has struggled to reduce its dependence on the petroleum sector.

If it is going to match Iran, Saudi Arabia has no choice but to form alliances. To this end, Riyadh has assiduously been seeking alliances all over the region. To entice allies, Riyadh has promised military and economic cooperation.

Militarily, Saudi Arabia has launched a 34-country regional "anti-terrorism" coalition that pointedly excludes Iran and its allies Iraq and Syria. The coalition bolsters Sunni interests in all the major theaters of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, namely Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

Following Saudi Arabia's lead, a number of Arab countries have condemned Iran's regional role and taken diplomatic measures against it. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Djibouti have withdrawn their ambassadors from Iran, while Jordan and Egypt have lambasted Iran's "interference" in Arab affairs. By contrast, Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government described the execution of al-Nimr as a domestic Saudi issue.

Al-Nimr's execution was Riyadh's signal to Tehran that it will not tolerate Iranian influence in Sunni Arab countries' Shiite communities. After nearly a decade studying in Iran, al-Nimr had set up in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where he was a vocal critic of Riyadh's authoritarianism and a supporter of the Shiite community's right to seek external assistance to achieve political and economic objectives.

Riyadh understood that executing al-Nimr would have significant domestic and regional repercussions. It sought to reduce the domestic backlash by salving Shiite grievances in the days leading up to the execution. In this way, Saudi Arabia hoped to contain domestic Shiite tensions while sending a strong signal to Iran that it is ready to use harsh measures to limit Iranian influence over Shiite populations living under Sunni governments.

Riyadh's efforts aside, protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Turkey exemplify the difficulty that the kingdom faces in achieving this feat. Though Saudi Arabia will continue to develop a Sunni Arab alliance in the Middle East to combat Iranian influence, it will struggle to mollify Shiite communities within its own borders. This failure will only make sectarian tensions worse.

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