Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince is seeking to rewrite the rules of society within his kingdom. But one thing is sure to remain unchanged: the country's intent to challenge Iran for influence across the region. Driven by the fear of losing ground to Tehran and by rhetorical support from Washington, Riyadh will keep trying to carve out a greater presence in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Despite the Gulf giant's formidable power, however, its political and military options on these battlefields are far more limited than Iran's — a harsh reality that will continue to prevent Saudi Arabia from achieving its age-old ambition of Middle Eastern dominance.
Vying for the Middle East
Since King Salman assumed the throne in January 2015, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a series of unusually overt interventions beyond its own borders. But its new and proactive approach doesn't always yield the intended effect. Just a few months after the monarch's ascent, the kingdom initiated a bombing campaign against Yemen's Houthi militants that now drags on with no end in sight. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia severed ties with Qatar in hopes of forcing a behavioral change, but it succeeded only in driving Doha away. And at the start of November, Riyadh tried to use Lebanon's prime minister to curb the activities of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — an effort that seems to have backfired and could reflect poorly on the kingdom. All the while, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's attempts to corral and cajole the region's Sunni states into forming a united front against Iran's ever-expanding reach have generated much talk among Saudi Arabia's allies, but little real action.
From Riyadh's perspective, Iran's growing influence over the past decade has left it with no choice but to respond in some way. In 2003, the overthrow of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sowed chaos and created space for Tehran to equip and train local militias while shaping pro-Iran factions in the government in Baghdad. Subsequent conflicts in Syria and Yemen gave rise to additional opportunities for Iran to strengthen its connections to militant groups on Saudi Arabia's northern and southern flanks. As the Syrian civil war inches toward a settlement that will likely preserve the government of Iranian ally President Bashar al Assad in Damascus, Riyadh is becoming increasingly concerned that Tehran will cement its military and political footholds in the Levant.
Iran's nuclear deal with the West has only compounded Saudi Arabia's anxiety about these developments. The agreement, which loosened some of the economic sanctions against Iran, has given Riyadh added motive to try to contain Tehran wherever it can through the use of its political and military connections across the region. Saudi Arabia fears what havoc an unsanctioned Iran might wreak by using additional revenue to funnel aid to militants in nearby countries, and perhaps by continuing to develop nuclear weapons in secret.
The United States' recent policy shift in the Middle East has emboldened Saudi Arabia in its endeavors. Over the past few years, Washington has worked to delegate its leading role in a number of regional conflicts to local actors, including Riyadh. Under pressure from the United States and eager to increase its standing abroad, Saudi Arabia has tried to take matters into its own hands by becoming more assertive in these disputes. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which shares the Saudi crown prince's desire to contain Iran, has staunchly supported the kingdom in a way that its predecessor did not.
Of course, none of Saudi Arabia's recent activities are entirely new. Rather, each move aligns with the kingdom's traditional imperative to ensure its preservation and position at the center of the region. To that end, Riyadh historically has sought to maintain its seat at the helm of the Muslim world by spreading its own interpretations of Islam. It has also worked to protect its avenues of influence across the Middle East, often using money and diplomacy to nurture the emergence of governments that are friendly to its interests while halting the growth of political movements that could disrupt its grip on power at home. But as Saudi Arabia pursues these familiar goals, it will encounter familiar obstacles as well — especially in places where Iran has its own interests to protect.
The Keeper of the Keys to Islam
As the home of the holiest site in Islam, Saudi Arabia isn't afraid to try to influence how its neighbors make use of the religion. Riyadh has voiced strong opinions about Iran's Shiite doctrine and the Muslim Brotherhood's populist Sunni ideology, both of which it considers to be detrimental to regional stability.
However, history has shown that manipulating the currents of political Islam is not only impossible for a single government to achieve, but also perilous. In the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia's decision to export Wahhabism to schools scattered throughout the region helped flesh out a conservative brand of Islam that can be more easily distorted into hard-line extremism than some liberal interpretations can. Today those efforts are starting to backfire, fueling resistance to the young crown prince's attempts to usher in a "more moderate" era of Islam and curb the extremist narratives that underpin jihadist groups. Whether such pushback comes from Islamist clerics and adherents inside the kingdom or from other Muslim nations that do not approve of Saudi Arabia's religious leadership, controlling the narratives that define the daily lives of communities around the globe is no easy task for any one state to manage.
History has shown that manipulating the currents of political Islam is not only impossible for a single government to achieve, but also perilous.
That hasn't stopped countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar from trying. Over the past few decades, Riyadh has deeply disapproved of Doha's foreign policy — in part because of its unwillingness to kowtow to Saudi Arabia, but also because of its support for certain strains of Islam beyond its borders. This aid has granted Qatar far more clout than its small landmass and population would normally afford. Despite Riyadh's efforts to clamp down on Doha's assistance to media outlets and political figures that it believes to be contrary to Saudi interests, Qatar has used its immense financial reserves to resist the economic pressure the kingdom has brought to bear against it. Meanwhile, the dispute has started to slowly unravel the fabric of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to which both countries belong. And Saudi Arabia has begun to lose interest in isolating Qatar as it becomes clear, just as it has many times before, that the effort is bound to fail.
Closing the Ranks With Coalition Building
Riyadh has a penchant for propping up its friendly neighbors as well. In the late 20th century, Saudi Arabia funded Afghanistan's mujahideen to fend off the Soviet Union's encroachment. Three decades later, in much the same way, Riyadh supported a regime change in Egypt to replace the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo with a more secular, military-backed administration that was friendly to the Saudi royal family.
Even Saudi Arabia's attempts to bolster its preferred government in Yemen predate the ongoing civil war by half a century. In the 1960s, the kingdom gave military aid to North Yemeni forces fighting on behalf of the Yemeni monarchy. Today the specific actors and alliances in Yemen's conflict have changed, but Saudi Arabia's motives have not: to install a friendly government in Sanaa and to eliminate any threats to the kingdom's stability emanating from Yemen. But Riyadh's chances of success are just as slim as they were decades ago, when the Yemeni war ended in a stalemate.
Lately, Saudi Arabia's tendency to back its partners has taken on the new dimension of marshaling alliances. Thanks in part to U.S. prodding to take on a bigger role in counterterrorism and security initiatives in the region, Saudi Arabia cobbled together the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in December 2015. Though the bloc has advanced some common goals and has held joint military drills, its members' competing priorities have already begun to surface. Even the kingdom's steadfast allies are reluctant to become too beholden to its foreign policy directives. These differences of opinion have undermined the cohesion of Saudi Arabia's other joint endeavors as well, including its military coalition in Yemen, its stand against Qatar and its proposals in the GCC.
Given how hard it has been for Saudi Arabia to secure the full cooperation of its allies, it's no surprise that shoring up support among fairweather friends has proved difficult, too. The kingdom has hit roadblocks with Sunni powerhouse and longtime rival Turkey; with the independent Tunisia, Algeria and Oman; and with Sunni actors that rely on some measure of Iranian backing, such as Sudan and the Palestinian territories. Though Saudi Arabia has tried to use regional forums, including the Organization for Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League, to promote a common vision that suits its aspirations, it has had little success so far. In fact, its attempts to unify its neighbors against Iran have had the unintended consequence of banding together Iranians in defense of their government.
Outgunned and Outmatched
Saudi Arabia has had as much trouble countering Iran on the battlefield as it has in the diplomatic realm. Compared with Iran, Saudi Arabia has less military experience, and it is not the only power of its religious sect in the region. (Iran, by contrast, is the main Shiite force in the Muslim world.)
For years Tehran has steadily cultivated ties to militias across the Middle East, whereas Riyadh's efforts to do the same have proceeded in fits and starts. For instance, Saudi Arabia's support for Sunni militias in Lebanon flagged in the mid-2000s. Since then, Hezbollah — an Iranian-backed militia — has tightened its grip on the country. To the south, nearly three years after the kingdom's bombing campaign in Yemen began, Houthi rebels are still able to launch missiles at Saudi territory, likely with Iranian-supplied weapons. And in Iraq, Saudi Arabia has struggled to identify and support partners among the country's fragmented Sunni communities. Iran, on the other hand, has built a more durable network of political allies and militias in Iraq. Because of Saudi Arabia's relative weakness in the country, it will continue to fall back on the United States for help as it seeks out new political inroads into Baghdad — a strategy that will be increasingly difficult to execute as Washington looks for ways to withdraw from the region.
None of the challenges facing Saudi Arabia's newfound interventionism will prevent the kingdom from aggressively pursuing its interests all the same. They do mean, however, that Riyadh will have trouble designing its neighborhood as it sees fit. Because when all is said and done, the Middle East is too varied, and Iran is too strong a rival, to allow the region to become one of Saudi Arabia's making.