international analysis and commentary

How the Saudi-Iranian cold war in the Gulf eclipses America


Though it is geostrategic logic that should not have eluded a three-year old, one of the most enduring consequences of American neo-conservatism’s calamitous adventure in Iraq was to leave arch enemy Iran and difficult ally Saudi Arabia alone vying for dominance in the vital Persian Gulf. With one of the Big Three regional powers (Iraq) permanently reduced, realists everywhere would find an increased rivalry between the remaining two to be almost axiomatic. And indeed, that has been what has happened.

But here the story grows stranger, telling us a great deal about the evolving multipolar world we now find ourselves in. For Saudi-Iranian competition—particularly played out over the Shia-dominated island Gulf state of Bahrain—has become one of a series of local canaries in the coal mine, indicative of something much larger; it is regional great powers and their rivalries that will matter more and more, even as a weakened (but ubiquitous) America struggles to remind the locals around the world that it alone remains the only true global power. If the Bahrain case is anything to go by, this will increasingly sound more like a plea, as great power regionalism rather than global superpowers drive the new multipolar era.

The Bahrain Chess Piece
The Arab awakening came to Bahrain in February of this year. There the general conflagration found most genial wood to set ablaze. Tiny Bahrain, home to just under one million people (half of whom are expatriates) has an endemic political legitimacy problem; it is ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family, even though fully 70% of its population is Shia. To offset this political weakness, the al-Khalifas have long tilted toward fellow Sunni regional power Saudi Arabia as well as to the United States. Bahrain is the homeport of the US 5th Fleet, and hosts the main American naval base in the Middle East. This military security is matched by economic dependence on the Saudis, as Bahrain is utterly reliant on Riyadh for oil supplies (the two countries share an offshore oil field administered by the Saudis), which provides the lion’s share of government revenue. The Arab Spring has put great pressure on this alliance structure, as nearby co-religionist Iran has beckoned to its Bahraini Shia brethren, championing their cause in the name of democracy, certainly a convenient position for them to take, as any hedging on Bahrain’s part about its US and Saudi ties would strategically redound to the benefit of Tehran.

The country is relatively liberal by Middle East terms (it’s a place where many of the Saudi elite go on the weekends to grab a drink), but there is no doubt that the majority Shia have long been systematically excluded from the top ranks of the civil service, the police and the army. So Iran’s wooing of them fell on fertile soil. As the protests grew in Pearl Square in Manama, an important geostrategic shift in the regional balance of power seemed increasingly possible.

But the Saudis were having none of it. On March 14th they acted. Under the cover of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a club of six Gulf Sunni monarchies dominated by Riyadh, 2,000 Saudi and Emirati troops descended on Manama to help the al-Khalifas quell the almost out-of-control uprising. Nor does it appear they are leaving any time soon; frightened into military action the Saudis are unlikely to risk any further upheaval from their next-door neighbor. Intriguingly, the Saudis have cited countering pernicious Iranian influence as the main reason their troops are staying; the cold war between Tehran and Riyadh becomes ever more explicit. The Saudi rebuff of Iran’s foray into Bahraini politics is likely to be the first move in a long chess match for dominance in the Persian Gulf.

But notice that I did not mention the United States in all of this?

The Rise of Regionalism
Lost in all this is the role of America. Just before the Saudis struck, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to Bahrain, to urge America’s ally to speed up political reforms as a way to defuse tensions with the Shia majority.

The Saudi and al-Khalifa response was a pointed rebuff for an America whose advice was spurned, and which was not informed of the coming intervention. What is going on between long-time allies Riyadh and Washington?

Saudi anger toward its erstwhile protector has been rising, just as American power has been waning. Furious that the Obama administration so quickly threw long-time ally (and fellow Sunni) Hosni Mubarak under the bus of democratic reform, the House of Saud can be forgiven for wondering about America’s loyalty should serious unrest spread to its own country. The global superpower had shown itself in Saudi eyes to be an unworthy partner at best, and treacherous at worst.

Secondly, the monarchist Saudis have a much less starry-eyed view of the Arab Spring than do its Wilsonian cheerleaders in the White House. Almost from the start the Saudis have grasped the geopolitical contradiction at the heart of the regional uprising: more democracy did not necessarily signal more pro-American (and by extension pro-Saudi) outcomes. This was certainly true in Bahrain where democracy would have likely led to the ouster of the al-Khalifas, and the establishment of a strongly pro-Iranian regime on the Arabian scene. If America couldn’t differentiate between democracy and its interests, the Saudis surely could. They proceeded accordingly.

But what this really signals is the end of an era. Saudi Arabia and the US will doubtless remain allies, as their strategic and economic interests are so obviously in line. However, there are degrees of closeness, and in a multipolar world (as can also be seen by America’s relations with Turkey and Brazil) regional powers have more room to drift from the waning superpower and go their own way. And that is just what has happened in Bahrain. Scornful of an America that did not seem to understand what was at stake, the Saudis did what they felt they had to do.

Look for a whole lot more of this in the future.