By Matthew M. Reed
Back in May the Wall Street Journal printed a story about Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic campaign in search of countries that would stand up to Iran. Many saw Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s Asian tour as a warning to Washington: if America won’t guarantee Saudi security and counter-punch Iran, some thought, Riyadh will ask other friends for help. The story made for good drama but quickly faded. Like other reports, it gave the impression that US-Saudi relations were deteriorating fast. I don’t believe this and have argued against conventional wisdom. I also don’t believe a Saudi realignment of Sunni powers has much chance of success. Like it or not, Riyadh and Washington are destined (or doomed, depending on your view) to cooperate.
Think first about the countries named and the timing. Bandar visited Malaysia, India, China, and Pakistan, and Indonesia was also named as a country of interest. As for timing, the trip followed the Saudi-led GCC intervention in Bahrain in March. Some of the countries Riyadh reached out to had already offered assistance. As quoted by WSJ, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak said “Malaysia [a Sunni-majority country] fully backs all sovereign decisions taken by Saudi Arabia and GCC states to safeguard the stability and security of the region in these trying times.” The article also hinted that cozy Saudi-Pakistani relations might result in expanded military ties, although it’s unclear what form it would take. (The Pakistanis already operate a training mission in Bahrain but did not participate in pacifying the country.)
Like other Gulf States, Bahrain’s foreign labor draws heavily from India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. It would make sense if Saudi reached out to these countries because their citizens were endangered. This may have actually been the primary motivation for the meetings given the negative media attention saturating Manama. I’m not willing to judge the ethical merits of the GCC intervention in Bahrain. But, as a rule, savvy leaders try to make their case before others make up their mind. It’s astounding that this simpler and more plausible explanation has been overlooked.
As for China, let’s stop hyperventilating. Bandar’s visit was most likely a gesture of balance. Visiting the other major regional powers, especially India, required him to visit China. He wasn’t necessarily seeking a new guardian of the Persian Gulf. I say this because the Chinese aren’t interested, can’t project power like the US, and are having trouble laying claim to the South China Sea right now, let alone the Persian Gulf. And don’t forget China’s habitual reluctance leading up to UN votes on Iranian sanctions. It’s no secret the Saudis perceive Iran to be their primary threat. Beijing knows this and isn’t eager to commit itself since conflict is entirely possible. Beijing would rather enjoy the party and let the Americans pick up the tab–which we’ll do for the foreseeable future.
But let’s pretend Riyadh established super-Sunni alliance including Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other central Asian countries. The next question is: What would these countries offer? The answer is very little.
Start with Malaysia and Indonesia, each with sizable militaries and Sunni populations. Since the end of the Cold War, both have provided peacekeepers in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Somalia, to name just three missions. For Indonesia, peacekeeping is a means of rehabilitating the country’s image after Suharto. Malaysia has been active much the same–always keen on bolstering their brand through participation. Judging by the size and duration of deployments in the past fifty years, it’s obvious neither can muster the offensive force needed to hurt or deter Iran. Even then, if they did, they’d most likely do so under the auspices of the United Nations given their preoccupation with international standards of legitimacy. Adventurism and religious ideology motivate neither country’s armed forced.
Pakistan might be more promising. After all, Pakistan is the only country to make the list that actually borders Iran. And relations between the two have historically been positive, punctuated by episodes like the Afghan jihad, which was aided by the CIA, Pakistan’s ISI, and Saudi intelligence. They also maintain over 600,000 active duty personnel (thus ranking them seventh in the world). As is so often the case with Pakistan, however, any optimism would not be deserved. The country is currently under siege thanks to a toxic mix of homegrown and international jihadists. The situation is complicated further by lawlessness in the West, sectarian strife in major cities like Karachi, and a pronounced schism between Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus and the military. Pakistan has other problems, for sure. And they’re all infinitely more troubling than a threat posed by Iran even if it practices a different kind of Islam.
If the Saudis want more friends, good for them. But there’s no replacement for American power in the Gulf. The truth is this: Iran is an afterthought for many countries, no matter what religion they practice. Islam is no substitute for proximity.