Within months of embarking upon a new foreign policy doctrine, Saudi Arabia has run into serious problems. The Saudis are trying to assume the leadership of the Arab world and create a regional Arab bulwark against Iran, which is on the path toward international rehabilitation, but Riyadh is facing resistance from Qatar and other Gulf Arab states. The extent to which the Iranians can exploit these tensions is limited, but so long as the Saudis are having problems, there is ample opportunity for Iran to advance its interests.
The Saudis are engaged in several geopolitical battles at the moment. Riyadh is attempting to subdue jihadism before countering Iran in Syria and the wider region. The kingdom has also been trying to contain the Arab Spring phenomenon, particularly the rise of Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism.
While the Saudis have been preoccupied with these matters, their interests have diverged from their longtime American allies. This has forced Riyadh to assume an assertive foreign policy, one that entails shouldering the leadership of the Arab world. However, Saudi Arabia quickly ran into problems with a fellow Gulf Cooperation Council state, Qatar.
The rivalry between Riyadh and Doha is not new. For years Qatar, a tiny but natural gas-rich emirate, has been trying to compete with Saudi Arabia for regional influence. Having one foot in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Qataris have pursued their own independent foreign policy agenda, which has conflicted with Saudi interests for years. Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, such as Hamas, and has maintained a milder approach toward Iran. On the issue of backing Syrian rebels, Qatar has been more aligned with Turkey, active in supporting its own set of proxies separate from rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia.
Qatar has demonstrated that it is unwilling to accept Saudi hegemony in the region. For a long time the Saudis worked behind the scenes to get the Qataris to fall in line. Those diplomatic efforts failed to produce any results, leading to last week's move by Saudi Arabia, in concert with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to recall its ambassadors from Doha.
It is no surprise that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain support the Saudis against the Qataris. Bahrain is heavily dependent on Riyadh due to its unstable domestic political situation with its Shia majority and the island nation's proximity to Iran. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates shares Saudi Arabia's loathing for the Muslim Brotherhood and has an interest in aligning with the Kingdom against Doha.
What is significant, however, is that Kuwait — Saudi Arabia's closest historical ally among the Khaleeji (the Arabic name for the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf) — did not participate in the move to isolate Qatar. Instead, the Kuwaitis have tried to mediate between Riyadh and Doha. Even Kuwait is maintaining a position independent of Saudi Arabia. This applies not only to the dispute with Qatar; the Kuwaitis also have a close working relationship with Iran and Iraq. This is especially true for the Tehran-backed (and mostly Shiite) government in Baghdad, given the shared border and the fact that Kuwait has a sizable Shia population.
The only remaining Gulf Cooperation Council member state is Oman, which has long kept its distance from the Saudis. In fact, the Omanis have had a special relationship with Iran and have served as a conduit between the Americans and the Iranians. Oman uses its close ties with Iran as a way to counter Saudi efforts to dominate the Arabian Peninsula. It also has an interest in ensuring peaceful relations between its neighbor north of the Persian Gulf and the United States. It is no surprise that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's first trip to a Gulf Cooperation Council state, scheduled to begin March 12, is to Oman.
To make matters worse for the Saudis, the crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council comes as Riyadh has been pushing to convert the bloc into a regional union. The public manner in which the Saudis have assumed a hostile stance toward the Qataris suggests that this is not a small rift that can be sealed easily. The longer the dispute lasts, the more it will eat away at the coherence of the council.
Realizing this, the Saudis seem to be cutting their losses and moving beyond the khaleeji region. They are now trying to cobble together a coalition among Arab states, especially with Egypt. This is why the Saudis took the step of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, though standing against the Brotherhood will take Saudi Arabia only so far.
Unlike the Saudi kingdom, which is based on a vision of Islam and politics that is in opposition to that of the Brotherhood, many other Arab states do not view the Brotherhood as an existential threat. Instead they seek to co-opt the group. Kuwait has a working relationship with its branch of the Brotherhood, known as HADAS. Likewise, Jordan, though quite dependent on Saudi Arabia, has historically had close ties with the Brotherhood branch in the Hashemite kingdom. The Tunisian and Moroccan versions of the Brotherhood are in government, and the Algerians have long worked with the Brotherhood chapter in their country.
Opportunities for Iran
Between the rift with Qatar, the wider resistance to Saudi leadership in the region and the Saudis' uncompromising opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran has plenty of ways it can exploit the struggle within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Ethnic and sectarian factors restrict the Iranians' ability to influence the situation, but their primary goal is simply to ensure that the Arab world remains incoherent.
By calling for a negotiated settlement in Syria, the Qataris have already aligned their position with that of the Iranians, making a break with the Saudi objective, which is to oust the al Assad regime. Iran is also a potential source of support for Qatar, which has defied the Saudis and Egyptians by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Despite the Sunni-Shiite conflict and the disagreement over Syria, Hamas has maintained ties with Iran and its main Shiite Arab proxy, Hezbollah.
Tehran could use its links with Hamas and Qatar and the channel between Hamas and Hezbollah to try to gain an advantage in Syria. Turkey and Qatar are already working closely with the Syrian Brotherhood and nationalist rebels. All of these actors also share a common opposition to Salafist-jihadist militias, which Iran is trying to use to weaken the rebels who are driven by sectarian impulses. Such an alignment could greatly increase problems for Saudi Arabia, which is already struggling to sustain the sectarian struggle against Damascus and at the same time roll back transnational jihadism.
Saudi Arabia is fighting on too many fronts. Riyadh cannot effectively counter Iran while also battling al Qaeda-style jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood and resistance to its pursuit of regional hegemon status. Since their inception in the early half of the last century, the Arab states have always constituted an incoherent lot; this is why for the longest time the Saudis focused on the Gulf Cooperation Council as a vehicle for their strategic imperatives more so than the forum of the Arab League. The 2011 uprisings in the Middle East have only added to the regional fragmentation — a process the Saudis will find hard to reverse without compromising with the Qataris and their Muslim Brotherhood allies.