Saudi Arabia’s Dangerous Gamble

Posted December 16th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the opening of the shura council in Riyadh on Dec. 13.

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

FOR ITS ENTIRE modern existence — nearly 90 years — the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has wielded outsize influence over the rest of the world because of the wealth afforded by its bottomless oil reserves and its special status as the home of Islam’s holiest sites. The House of Saud, its absolute rulers, has defined itself by a rigid alliance with Islamic fundamentalists and a reactionary aversion to any change in the status quo.

That’s why the country’s recent swirl of activity has confounded observers. The kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, has agitated for a regional war, locked up rival princes, and tossed aside political conventions. At the same time, he swept up the line of succession with dizzying speed, consolidating power in a narrow circle.

But it would be a mistake to believe that Mohammed bin Salman is a reformer, as many US government officials and professional analysts apparently do. There’s only one thing he’s proven interested in reforming, and that’s his family’s undiluted and absolute grip on power — which is no small thing. The young prince might succeed in his effort to refashion the Saudi monarchy. But his wider plans for his country, the Middle East, and Islam have very little chance of success because of Saudi Arabia’s structural limitations and because the supposed reformer himself is an authoritarian — an unaccountable hereditary monarch whose own legitimacy could not survive serious modernization.

Despite its frozen-in-amber culture, Saudi Arabia has pivotally shaped its closest ally, the United States. Its colossal sovereign wealth finances US debt; it can regulate world oil markets to suit Washington’s interests, as it did during the invasion of Iraq; and its ultra-radical state-sponsored brand of Islam has been a central driving force in the rise of violent extremism for nearly 40 years (critics of the kingdom habitually point out that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia). For as different as the two nations are, their fates and fortunes are often intertwined.

Which is why Washington is paying close attention to the regional blowback provoked by Saudi Arabia’s departure from its old gradualist approach. The kingdom broke with its historic, if mostly rhetorical, commitment to a Palestinian state when it voiced only pro forma objections to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Palestinian leaders increasingly see Saudi Arabia as an ally of Israel.

In early December, Saudi Arabia tried to salvage its disastrous war in Yemen with a surprise rapprochement with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president and ally, who had been fighting against Riyadh for the last three years. The new alignment lasted all of two days, until Saleh was murdered. Saleh and the Saudis had once again underestimated the power of their Iranian-backed rivals, the Houthis.

And in one of its most brazen recent failures, Mohammed bin Salman tried unsuccessfully in November to unseat Lebanon’s prime minister (a Saudi loyalist) and replace him with a more slavish apparatchik. That sowed fears of a new regional war, involving Iran, Israel, Hezbollah, and Saudi Arabia. The gambit quickly sputtered into failure.

Jerusalem is primarily a Trump move, and the war in Yemen involves security concerns that stretch to the early days of the Saudi monarchy. But the Lebanon crisis involves well-known regional politics and represents a completely voluntary own-goal. How mighty Saudi Arabia’s effort to bully little Lebanon fizzled says a lot about what the Saudis seem to be after — and why they’re unlikely to get it.

Mohammed bin Salman’s emerging leadership is already turning into a study in the limits of assertiveness on the global stage. Saudi Arabia has gained a brash leader intent on throwing his country’s weight around, but he’s unwittingly made it clear that money only goes so far — and that the Saudi political system may be fundamentally unreformable.

A projection of Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on Sept. 23, during an event commemorating the anniversary of the kingdom’s founding.

SAUDI ARABIA’S LEADERS are unfathomably rich and, contrary to some simplistic depictions, do follow a grand strategy in matters of religion, regional politics, oil markets, and finance. They’re not rubes, and possess serious capacity to affect the world. Among other achievements, the Saudis have forged an enduring alliance with the United States, and have managed their public relations better than most autocratic states.

The American narrative about Saudi Arabia has always skirted wide of reality. Ever since FDR, the United States has relied on the kingdom — initially for its oil, later for its willingness to manage global oil supply in line with American policy objectives. As a result, there has been a steady appetite for stories about Saudi reform, which ring hollow over time. Abdullah Al-Arian, a Georgetown historian, compiled 70 years of clips from The New York Times that “describe Saudi royals in the language of reform,” starting with a 1953 article that describes King Saud as “more progressive and international-minded than his autocratic father,” and ending with a Thomas Friedman column from November entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at last.” Western narratives focus on reform, real or imagined, as the United States pursues cooperation on energy and security — and as a result, Al-Arian said, the United States often misses troubling realities, like the repression of Saudi citizens, or the plummeting of America’s reputation in the region. “It would seem to result in poor policy choices,” he said.

On the other hand, the Saudis have been neither sophisticated nor realistic about setting goals, suffering from the misplaced conviction that their wealth and custodianship of the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, the most holy site in Islam, could translate into control of the wider Islamic world.

Mohammed bin Salman rose to power when he father took over as king nearly three years ago. He took over key positions, including the defense ministry, and pushed for a war in Yemen over the objections of older royals. This year, the previous crown prince was unceremoniously deposed and replaced with bin Salman. No one in Saudi Arabia pretends that the father is making the decisions; the younger bin Salman is openly in charge. (Foreigners often refer to the regent by his initials, MbS.)

After decades of snoozing through regional affairs, Saudi Arabia has been playing catchup. When uprisings against Arab despots broke out in 2010 and 2011, Saudi Arabia’s monarchs understood any popular, mass politics (whether secular or Islamist) posed a threat to their anachronistic form of rule by divine right. They rallied with uncharacteristic vigor against the political energy that the uprisings unleashed. They dispatched troops to Bahrain to crush a political rebellion by the Shia majority. They spent billions backing a secular military coup in Egypt, while simultaneously pouring weapons and money into jihadist rebels in Syria. They’ve backed one warlord in Libya’s civil war. They’ve cracked down hard on the Muslim Brotherhood region-wide, and have tried to assert control over Palestinian factions.

The Saudis embarked on this mad rush only after they realized just how deeply their regional influence had eroded. Iraq, once a reliable linchpin of the Sunni Arab regional bloc, is now governed mostly by its Shia majority, and enjoys friendly relations with Iran. Lebanon has slipped out of Saudi’s orbit and closer to Iran, despite billions of dollars invested over the course of half a century to cultivate loyalty. Once-reliable allies have spurned the Saudi agenda even while accepting money, or have switched sides entirely.

It’s not clear, still, whether the Saudis understand their own unpopularity.

As the monarchy dreams of pushing back Iran and asserting itself as a new regional hegemon, it should study the lessons of its sharpest recent failures: Yemen, Lebanon, and their own royal purge marketed as a corruption crackdown. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to transform into a republic anytime soon. With its massive oil reserves and complete dependence on foreign non-citizen labor to make its economy function from top to bottom, it’s unlikely to create a modern economy despite the crisp assertions authored by the foreign management consultants who wrote Vision 2030, Mohammed bin Salman’s blueprint for the future.

The Vision 2030 pavilion at the Gitex 2017 exhibition at the Dubai World Trade Center on Oct. 8.

OF COURSE, SAUDI’S EPIC, bungled attempt to change Lebanon’s political order made compelling drama: the sovereign head of a state summoned to Saudi, forced to resign, then detained against his will. During the same weekend, Mohammed bin Salman arrested all the rich or powerful royals not completely loyal to him. Some were held in a luxury hotel, and few reportedly died in suspicious circumstances. He summoned the Palestinian leader and apparently tried to give him marching orders as well. He ordered an emergency summit of the Arab League. He issued a script for Egypt, which despite its reliance on Saudi money still wields significant political influence in the Arab world.

Here was a turbo-charged leader making the case for the great-man theory of history, reordering an entire region by force of will — in dramatic fashion and in the public eye. It was riveting drama because the stakes were high.

Very quickly, the monarch found himself hitting the structural limits on Saudi power. Egypt’s dictator pushed for the immediate release of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Instead of taking the bait, Hezbollah dismissed Hariri’s coerced resignation. There wouldn’t be saber rattling and threats of war, Hezbollah said; it would keep calm and wait to talk to Hariri in person when he was free to come home.

Saudi expected Lebanon’s Sunni community to rally for confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah, even if Lebanon burned in the process. But with their leader kidnapped, Lebanese unsurprisingly turned against the responsible party — Saudi Arabia. “The Lebanese are not a herd of sheep or a plot of land whose ownership can be transferred from one person to another,” declared Lebanon’s interior minister, Nohad Machnouk. “Lebanon’s democratic system is based on elections, not on a simple pledge of allegiance.”

The Saudi king had put the Middle East on notice that he expected his beneficiaries, especially Sunni Arab leaders, to do his bidding. To his surprise, they refused. The president of France, according to diplomatic sources, flew to Riyadh to explain to the young prince that Saudi Arabia wasn’t the only powerful nation with equities in Lebanon — and that even imperial meddling has rules and limits. Mohammed bin Salman was apparently baffled that he couldn’t simply fire the prime minister of another sovereign nation.

Egypt might have prepared Mohammed bin Salman for the complexities of dealing with weak but sovereign states. It was Saudi intervention that helped Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seize power in Egypt, and Saudi money that ensured his survival. Sisi was willing to make the controversial decision to sign over the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. But on many other key issues he has defied Saudi orders. He refused to send Egyptian troops to Yemen, broke ranks by maintaining relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and came down on Lebanon’s side during the Hariri crisis. He openly opposes provoking a regional war with Iran. His attitude toward Saudi was clear in leaked tapes where he told his chief of staff that he could do whatever he wanted while still hitting up Saudi for more cash: “They have money like rice, man!”

In the latest crisis, a further humiliation came from Israel. Saudi’s supporters spread rumors through diplomatic and media channels that a new war was imminent, between Israel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s leader had already announced his disinterest in a conflict at the present time. Israel followed suit, in an unprecedented interview by the Israeli military’s chief of staff with the Saudi news site Elaph. In the interview, Gadi Eisenkot praised the Saudi leadership’s anti-Iran stance, and offered deeper intelligence cooperation — a marked change from the days when Saudi Arabia backed the Palestinian side. More importantly, though, Eisenkot emphasized the line already propagated in the Israeli press, that Israel wouldn’t start a war on Saudi’s behalf. “We have no intention of attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon and bring about a war,” he said.

A man walks past wreckage, dating back to the so-called Arab Spring, in the town of Awamiya, Saudi Arabia.

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE of therough and tumble of Middle East politics, Mohammed bin Salman was receiving a real-time education in realpolitik. The situation on the home front wasn’t unfolding according to plan either.

Rival royals were rounded up in a lightning overnight purge. Many of the detained billionaires are, by all accounts, genuinely corrupt; the problem is that the sweep was undertaken arbitrarily. Saudi’s modernization plans depend on foreign investment and a credible approximation of rule of law. Bin Salman primarily cares about his power base, but his future depends on economic viability. He might only care rhetorically about his proposals to change his country’s culture and religious practice, but he definitely wants to preserve his kingdom’s wealth. The Saudi economy needs to diversify — but foreign governments and global capital will be wary of deal-making with a capricious, unaccountable, and flamboyant head of state who can’t even be counted upon to be consistent in the corruption he’ll tolerate.

Many of the detained royals are now negotiating for their freedom. The anti-corruption crackdown turns out to be a shakedown in country where corruption is everything. Mohammed bin Salman, the prince with the half-billion dollar yacht claims to be cleaning house by confiscating the assets of his cousins. They might well deserve it, but nothing in this process makes clear why. Nor does it provide any comfort to those who worry that this endemic graft indirectly threatens world finance and oil markets, in which the Saudi royal family plays an outsize role.

One reason why the Saudis get the benefit of the doubt is good press, for which they pay top dollar. After he was first appointed deputy crown prince in April 2015, bin Salman met with foreign politicians and granted long interviews with journalists. By the time he engineered a quasi-coup against rival branches of the royal family, bin Salman had cornered the narrative. He was portrayed as a young energetic reformer. Rumors quickly made it into the mainstream media that his unceremoniously deposed uncle was addicted to opiates. Meanwhile, bin Salman suffered little critical press about the disastrous war he started in Yemen, or about his superyachts, or his $450 million purchase of a Leonardo da Vinci painting this month in the middle of his austerity program.

Rhetoric eventually has to square with reality. Bin Salman will have to learn to navigate a world in which he is an important, but not omnipotent player. Saudi wealth and oil will almost always assure it a hearing, and its historical alliance with the United States endows it with extra clout. But its reach is limited. Few states admire Saudi Arabia’s opaque and personalized form of authoritarianism. The most important countries in the region tend to be republics, even those ruled by military despots or theocrats. For all its wealth, Saudi Arabia has underperformed. Its military can’t project power outside its borders, and the money it spends abroad on proxy-building tends to bring little return and less loyalty.

Meanwhile, its biggest regional rival, Iran, has managed to consolidate influence across the region. Saudi Arabia is a middle-rank power with few levers at its disposal. Its most successful leaders have tried to maneuver within the zone of the possible, understanding where Saudi Arabia could use moral, religious or sectarian suasion to its advantage, and where it could get away with some coercion. Mohammed bin Salman has grossly overestimated his reach. For nearly three years, his military campaign in Yemen has achieved none of its strategic goals, while inflicting shocking levels of human misery. Instead of revising his ambitions, he’s aimed still higher. His present season of overreach and humiliation suggest, once again, that it’s time for the young king-in-waiting to align his goals with reality. As long as he doesn’t, an unsettled region — and, ultimately, the rest of the world — can expect to continue paying the price.

Hariri’s Unnerving Interview

Posted November 13th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned, is seen during Future television interview, in a coffee shop in Beirut, Lebanon November 12, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

[Published in The Atlantic.]

In the Middle East, the parlor game of the moment is guessing whether Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister—or is it ex-prime minister?—is literally, or only figuratively, a prisoner of his Saudi patrons. In a stiff interview from an undisclosed location in Riyadh on Sunday, Hariri did little to allay concerns that he’s being held hostage by a foreign power that is now writing his speeches and seeking to use him to ignite a regional war. He insisted he was “free,” and would soon return to Lebanon. He said he wanted calm to prevail in any dispute with Hezbollah, the most influential party serving in his country’s government.

Since Hariri was summoned to Saudi Arabia last week and more or less disappeared from public life as a free head of state, rumors have swirled about his fate. On November 4, he delivered a stilted, forced-sounding resignation speech from Riyadh. Michael Aoun, Lebanon’s president, refused to accept the resignation, and Hezbollah—the target of the vituperative rhetoric in Hariri’s speech—deftly chose to stand above the fray, absolving Hariri of words that Hezbollah (and many others) believe were written by Hariri’s Saudi captors.

The bizarre quality of all this aside, the underlying matter is deadly serious. Saudi Arabia has embarked on another exponential escalation, one that may well sacrifice Lebanon as part of its reckless bid to confront Iran.

Foreign influence seeps through Middle Eastern politics, nowhere more endemically than Lebanon. Spies, militias, and heads of state, issue political directives and oversee military battles. Foreign powers have played malignant, pivotal roles in every conflict zone, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Libya. Lebanon, sadly, could come next. Even by the low standards of recent history, the saga of this past week beggars the imagination, unfolding with the imperial flair of colonial times—but with all the short-sighted recklessness that has characterized the missteps of the region’s declining powers.

Saudi Arabia, it seems, is bent on exacting a price from its rival Iran for its recent string of foreign-policy triumphs. Israel and the United States appear ready to strike a belligerent pose, one that leaders in the three countries, according to some reports, hope will contain Iran’s expansionism and produce a new alignment connecting President Donald Trump, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The problems with this approach are legion—most notably, it simply cannot work. Iran’s strength gives it a deterrence ability that makes preemptive war an even greater folly than it was a decade ago. No military barrage can “erase” Hezbollah, as some Israel war planners imagine; no “rollback,” as dreamed up by advisers to Trump and Mohamed bin Salman, can shift the strategic alliance connecting Iran with Iraq, Syria, and much of Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia, as the morbid joke circulating Beirut would have it, is ready to fight Iran to the last Lebanese. But the joke only gets it half right—the new war reportedly being contemplated wouldn’t actually hurt Iran. Instead, it would renew Hezbollah’s legitimacy and extend its strategic reach even if it caused untold suffering for countless Lebanese. Just as important, a new war might be biblical in its fire and fury, as the bombast of recent Israeli presentations suggests. But that fire and fury would point in many directions. Iran’s friends wouldn’t be the only ones to be singed.

Saudi Arabia’s moves have gotten plenty of attention in the days since Mohamed bin Salman rounded up his remaining rivals, supposedly as part of an anti-corruption campaign. Hariri was caught in the Saudi dragnet around the same time. It seemed puzzling at first: For years, Saudi Arabia had been angry with Hariri and his Future Movement, its client in Lebanon, for sharing power with Hezbollah rather than going to war with it. Riyadh was clearly displeased with Hariri’s pragmatic positions. He had learned the hard way, after several bruising political battles and a brief street battle in May 2008, that Hezbollah’s side was the stronger one. Rather than fuel a futile internecine struggle, Hariri (like the rest of Lebanon’s warlords) opted for precarious coexistence.

Once it became clear that Hariri could do nothing to prevent Hezbollah’s decisive intervention in the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia cut off funding for Hariri, bankrupting his family’s billion-dollar Saudi construction empire. It also ended its financial support for the Lebanese army, cultivating the impression that it considered Lebanon lost to the Iranians and Hezbollah.

Now, Saudi Arabia has steamed back into the Lebanese theater with a vengeance. It dismisses Hezbollah as nothing but an Iranian proxy, and, in the words uttered by Hariri in his resignation speech, wants to “cut off the hands that are reaching for it.” In what must be an intentional move, it has destroyed Hariri as a viable ally, reducing him to a weak appendage of his sponsors, unable to move without the kingdom’s permission. Mohamed bin Salman won’t even let him resign on his home soil. If Hariri really were free to come and go, as he insisted so woodenly in his Sunday night interview, then he would already be in Beirut. Even his close allies have trouble believing that threats against his life prevent him from coming home, and the Internal Security Forces, considered loyal to Hariri, denied knowledge of any assassination plot.

The Saudis have fanned the flames of war, seemingly in ignorance of the fact that Iran can only be countered through long-term strategic alliances, the building of capable local proxies and allies, and a wider regional alliance built on shared interests, values, and short-term goals. What Saudi Arabia seems to prefer is a military response to a strategic shift, an approach made worse by its gross misread of reality. In Yemen, the Saudis insisted on treating the Houthi rebels as Iranian tools rather than as an indigenous force, initiating a doomed war of eradication. The horrific result has implicated Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United States, in an array of war crimes against the Yemenis.

Hariri has clearly tried to balance between two masters: his Saudi bosses, who insist that he confront Hezbollah, and his own political interest in a stable Lebanon. On Sunday night, he appeared uncomfortable. At times, he and his interviewer, from his own television station, looked to handlers off camera. The exchange ended abruptly, after Hariri implied that he might take back his resignation and negotiate with Hezbollah, seemingly veering from the hardline Saudi script. “I am not against Hezbollah as a political party, but that doesn’t mean we allow it to destroy Lebanon,” he said. His resignation does nothing to thwart Hezbollah’s power; if anything, a vacuum benefits Hezbollah, which doesn’t need the Lebanese state to bolster its power or legitimacy.

One theory is that the Saudis removed Hariri to pave their way for an attack on Lebanon. Without the cover of a coalition government, the warmongering argument goes, Israel would be able to launch an attack, with the pretext of Hezbollah’s expanded armaments and operations in areas such as the Golan Heights and the Qalamoun Mountains from which they can challenge Israel. Supposedly, according to some analysts and politicians who have met with regional leaders, there’s a plan to punish Iran and cut Hezbollah down to size. Israel would lead the way with full support from Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Short of seeking actual war, Saudi Arabia has, at a minimum, backed a campaign to fuel the idea that war is always possible. But such a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would upend still more lives in a part of the world where the recently displaced number in the millions, the dead in the hundreds of thousands, and where epidemics of disease and malnutrition strike with depressing regularity. Short of direct war, Riyadh’s machinations will likely produce a destabilizing proxy war.

If Hariri were a savvier politician, he could have used different words; he could have refused to resign, or insisted on doing so from Beirut. But he is an ineffective leader in eclipse, unable to deliver either as a sectarian demagogue or a bridge-building conciliator. Saudi Arabia’s plan to use him to strike against Iran will fail. Just look at how willfully it has misused and now destroyed its billion-dollar Lebanese asset. It’s a poor preview of things to come in the Saudi campaign against Iran.

Iran and Saudi Arabia double down on Cold War neither can win

Posted January 10th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a mass execution of 47 people has further ignited a regional rivalry between Iran and Riyadh. Photo: MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/GETTY

[Published in Newsweek.]

The recent tit-for-tat clashes across the Middle East have made the first days of 2016 seem a lot like 1979. That was the year Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led Iran’s transformation from an autocratic state ruled by the Shah into the Islamic Republic. Violence wracked the region in the immediate aftermath of the changeover. Mobs overran embassies, and Sunni Arab governments swore to turn their backs on the new theocratic regime in Tehran. Oil-rich despots throughout the region poured money and weapons into proxy conflicts all over the Middle East, unleashing a wave of destabilizing, sectarian violence that eventually died down but never went away.

The event that turned back the clock and made an already roiling situation boil over took place on January 2, when Saudi Arabia killed a dissident Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, in a mass execution of 47 people. Iranian mobs attacked Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad. A flurry of escalations followed: bombings in Yemen, diplomatic relations severed, promises of retaliation by both Riyadh and Tehran.

Although they’re an alarming throwback to 1979, these incidents are just the most recent round in a long, destructive struggle between two powers apparently set on pulling the entire region into a struggle between a Sunni bloc and a Shiite crescent. Both are seeking a winner-takes-all victory. “All the sectarian rhetoric is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for these regimes who love to play the sectarian card,” says Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemen analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The Saudis feel betrayed, and now they feel like they must do something, even if it’s the wrong thing.”

The two oil-rich theocracies—one Shiite and one Sunni—are vying for regional dominance. The feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia has fueled sectarianism, resulted in an increase in the flow of weapons and funding to extremists, and spawned numerous militant movements.

Neither side shows any sign of backing down. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised “divine justice” after al-Nimr was executed. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, meanwhile, put out the word through allies that “enough is enough” and that it would no longer hesitate to stand up to Iran.

But even more of a threat to the region than this Iran vs. Saudi Arabia contest is the likelihood that the two countries are lashing out at each other not from positions of strength but of weakness—and in their efforts to dominate each other they could cause the entire region to fracture and spin out of control. The two autocracies appear set on ratcheting up their clash, consequences be damned. But it also seems clear that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can control the wars, proxy militias and ideological movements their conflict has unleashed. Even if Tehran and Riyadh calm down, the armed groups they have spawned could continue fighting throughout the region.

If there is a single event that sparked this flare-up, it was the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which saw Iran agree to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The agreement was clearly good for global security, but it also dramatically changed the region. Saudi Arabia, which views itself as the Sunni world’s banker, oil baron and spiritual chief, felt abandoned by its most important ally, the United States, widening a rift that opened in 2011 when Washington supported popular uprisings against Arab tyrants during the Arab Spring.

When the Obama administration was pursuing its nuclear accord with Iran, Saudi Arabia felt betrayed, and now the U.S. was preparing to help the Saudis’ biggest regional rival by lifting sanctions. At almost the same time, oil from fracking and other sources has made the U.S. a major oil state, no longer directly dependent on Middle Eastern—particularly Saudi—oil.

King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, took an uncharacteristically confrontational approach with the U.S. His inner circle lobbied against the Iran deal, and in March—over strenuous American objections—Saudi Arabia launched a massive assault on Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. By the time the nuclear deal was inked in July, the Saudis were dangerously close to a rupture with Washington.

Some Western diplomats said the Saudis’ decision to execute al-Nimr—when they knew full well it would antagonize Iran (and the U.S., among others)—seemed specifically designed to thwart the major Syrian peace conference scheduled for January 25 in Geneva. Peace talks without Saudi Arabia and Iran, powerful backers of opposing sides in the war, would be a waste of time.


Iranian protesters chant slogans during a demonstration against the execution al-Nimr, January 4. Photo: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/TIMA/REUTERS

Saudi Arabia’s bellicose maneuvers have strained its relationship with Washington. U.S. diplomats and security officials say they are angry about citizens of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries financially backing jihadis in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the region.

But the Saudi royal family, if it is to survive, must keep the country’s powerful extremist Sunni (or Wahhabite) clerical establishment on its side. That means that the monarchy wants to persuade Washington that Saudi Arabia is a firm counterterrorism ally while demonstrating to its subjects at home that it will protect the conservative religious core of the Wahhabi sect.

The execution of the Shiite cleric was “local politics,” says one Arab analyst who works closely with the Saudi government and spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to anger officials. “They don’t want to lose more support to ISIS, so they need to show they can be more hard-line than ISIS. That’s why they killed Sheikh Nimr.”

The execution was also a way for Saudi Arabia to block what it sees as Iranian ascendance. After almost five years of stalemate in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been winning back territory, thanks to significant military support from Tehran and Moscow. Iraq, a Shiite-majority neighbor, has also become an Iranian ally. In Lebanon, the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah is stronger than ever, and the nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers will greatly boost Iran’s revenues and reintegrate the Islamic Republic into the global economy and the international community.

But a closer look suggests all is not so rosy for Iran. Abroad, it has lost much of the support and soft power it cultivated directly after its 1978-1979 revolution. In the mid-2000s, Iran’s so-called axis of resistance—an informal coalition of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Sunni-dominated group Hamas—enjoyed widespread popularity among Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Today, polls show that Iran’s popularity in an increasingly polarized region has evaporated. Like Saudi Arabia, with its backing of rebels in Syria and its military campaign to support the government in Yemen, Iran has overreached and become inextricably involved in wars that are unlikely to have an outright victor. Hezbollah openly took sides with the Assad regime and has lost its Pan-Arab luster.

And Iran, despite the considerable resources of its expeditionary Quds force and the fearsome reputation of its commander, General Qassem Soleimani, has been unable to guarantee the survival of the Syrian regime, in spite of the recent military successes of Assad’s forces and their allies. In Yemen, the side Iran supports, the Houthis, is steadily losing ground in the face of the Saudi-led assault.

“Iran and Saudi Arabia have managed to establish a mutually destructive cycle of conflict in which both sides are damaging their future regional position,” says Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and co-author of a recent article titled “The Limits of Iranian Power” in the journal Survival: Global Politics and Strategy.

“While most assume that Iran is much better positioned, it is much more isolated than is generally recognized,” says Hanna, who argues that Iran’s alliances are under extreme strain. “Its soft power in a majority Sunni Arab world has collapsed, and it is now limited to exercising hard power in sectarian conflicts.”

Whatever happens in this round of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, things promise to get worse, not better. “The policies of the Saudi regime will have a domino effect, and they will be buried under the avalanche they have created,” said Iranian Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Hossein Salami on January 7, according to Iran’s state-run Press TV. “If the Al-Saud regime does not correct this path, it will collapse in the near future.”

Both sides frame their competition more and more in absolutist, sectarian terms, and both sides have proved less and less able to manage the endless crises in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia are doubling down on a war neither can win.