Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

What are the Saudis Thinking?

Two stories made a big splash today, suggesting US-Saudi ties are fraying and that Riyadh is hugely disappointed by U.S. policies. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan is at the center of both the Wall Street Journal and Reuters articles. European diplomats reportedly met with Prince Bandar (pictured) over the weekend. He made it perfectly clear to them that Riyadh was ready to scale back cooperation with the U.S. on Syria and arm rebel factions now fighting the Assad regime. Sources told Reuters that Saudi Arabia would reconsider arms deals with the U.S. and oil sales just days after the Kingdom rejected a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Three recent developments have inspired Saudi Arabia to beat its own path of late. With this post, I’m trying to capture the logic driving Riyadh. This post is deliberately sympathetic because the media has largely failed to express their views. Saudi leaders haven’t articulated them carefully, either.

Start with Syria. For two years the U.S. has hinted at arming rebels but held back. These hints hardened into explicit promises in June, when the Obama administration first accused the Assad regime of using chemical weapons and crossing the president’s “red line.” In response, the White House pledged to arm rebels. Even then, the goal was not to oust Assad, but to create a stalemate that would force both sides to negotiate.

Countless stories since then have made it clear that rebels are not receiving enough arms or aid from the U.S. and that allies have withheld aid so as to not anger Washington. As reported by Greg Miller on October 5, an ongoing CIA training program “is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces [.]”

The August 21 chemical attack on a Damascus neighborhood changed everything—it seemed. With 1,400 dead, evidence mounting, and outrage rising, the Obama administration prepared to strike Syria. Warships were positioned off the coast and the White House appeared deadly serious. It encouraged the Saudis to rally Arab opinion at the Arab League and beyond. Saudi officials made the case for war and, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Knickmeyer, they even asked for target lists to study, so that they could join an attack.

But the strikes never came. British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to secure enough votes to intervene. In the U.S., Obama decided to seek congressional authorization after a brief public debate turned against an attack. The Saudis, for their part, made their case loudly and in many venues, even offering to pay in full for an expanded effort to oust Assad rather than teach him a lesson. They did so with confidence that the U.S. would follow through and were subsequently humiliated by the U.S. climbing down. Settling for a Russian deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, while pursuing a deeply flawed peace process in Geneva and not punishing the regime in any meaningful way, has created a sense of abandonment in Riyadh.

This may sound absurd to those who hate Saudi Arabia because they think the system is morally bankrupt—but there is a moral component to Saudi foreign policy in Syria. Their support for rebels is not simply a cold calculation to cut off Iran’s right hand in the Arab world. Leaders like King Abdullah see a country under siege from outsiders, both Sunni jihadists and Iranian agents, and a brutal regime defended by Russia and China at the United Nations. They believe the only way to save Syria and stop the killing is to remove Assad by force.

Then there’s Iran. It’s widely assumed that the Saudis fear a “grand bargain” that would allow them to dominate the region. According to this reading, a comprehensive nuclear deal would really be a prelude to a regional security agreement that lessens the burden on the U.S. and gives Iran more breathing room. This fear isn’t new. It dates back to before the Shah fell. Gulf Arab leaders worry that Iran—with its larger population, stronger military and formidable nationalism—could dominate the neighborhood unless outsiders help secure the Gulf.

But why would the Saudis be unhappy with nuclear deal that satisfies the rest of the world? What they’re most alarmed by, I’m guessing, is the public outreach that creates immense pressure to reach a deal even if it’s flawed. A thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations is not out of the question for Saudi Arabia. It’s easy to forget, in a time of heightened sectarianism and bloody proxy battles, that the Saudis have an embassy in Tehran and the two sides occasionally do business in spite of mistrust.

Egypt is another point of contention. The Saudis genuinely believe they backed a popular uprising in Egypt this summer, when the democratically-elected president, Muhammad Mursi, was ousted by a military supported by millions and millions of Egyptians. The ensuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Mursi belonged, has killed over one thousand people. Thousands of others are in jail. But the general who led the coup is hugely popular and could win the presidency if he ran for office today. This is good enough for Riyadh.

At the same time, the Saudis sees the growing insurgency in Sinai and Islamists resorting to terrorism as proof that violence is part of the Brotherhood’s DNA. The Saudis are quick to frame their support for Egypt’s military as a response to this threat.

In an effort to bolster the interim government, discredit the Brotherhood, and improve Egypt’s fiscal standing, the Saudis have committed $12 billion in aid along with Kuwait and the UAE. By contrast, the U.S. decided this month to strip Egypt of military aid, leaving the Saudis to scratch their head in astonishment. Such confusion could have been avoided if the U.S. acted decisively in the early days of the coup and withdrew aid immediately. But the delayed reaction has only complicated the relationship. Why do it now when the worst of the crackdown is over and terrorism is a serious threat gaining momentum?


What other factors are driving Saudi policy today? Please comment.


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Saudi Diplomats in the Crosshairs

Saudi Deputy Consul Abdullah al-Khalidi, held captive in Yemen since March 2012 (Source: Al Arabiya)

Americans were shocked and saddened by the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stephens last year in Libya. The Saudis can sympathize. A quick review of the past two years reveals no less than six separate episodes in which Saudi diplomats were killed, kidnapped or threatened while serving the Kingdom abroad.

May 2011 (Pakistan): Hassan al-Qahtani was killed when four attackers on motorcycles opened fired on his car. The consulate Qahtani worked at–in Karachi–was the target of a grenade attack just two days prior, although no one was hurt. Later that year, David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote that U.S. and Saudi officials were suspicious of the circumstances and believed that the assassins were linked to Iran’s elite Qods Force. Details remain scarce.

October 2011 (United States): The case of Manssor Arbabsiar was odd in every sense. A used-car salesman and general failure, Arbabsiar was not an ideal candidate for coordinating an international assassination plot that hinged on hiring Mexican drug cartels to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington. Arbabsiar pled guilty in October 2012. The U.S. Department of Justice maintains that the scheme was  approved and directed by Iranian officials. As I wrote last year, the plot’s sloppiness is no reason to dismiss it outright.

March 2012 (Bangladesh): Khalaf al-Ali, the head of citizens’ affairs at the Saudi embassy in Dhaka, was robbed and killed outside of his apartment. Last month, five men were sentenced to death for his murder. The circumstances of Ali’s death were murky at first. Some speculated that he was another victim of a foreign conspiracy instead of criminals.

March 2012 (Yemen): That same month, Saudi Deputy Consul Abdullah al-Khalidi was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda outside his residence in Aden. Khalidi has since appeared in at least three Al-Qaeda videos, in which he asks King Abdullah to recognize the terror group’s grievances and release prisoners in exchange for Khalidi’s freedom. Saudi Arabia has released some female prisoners but Khalidi has not been freed yet.

April 2012 (Egypt): Mass street protests against the detention of an Egyptian doctor inside Saudi Arabia forced King Abdullah to recall his ambassador and briefly shut down the Saudi embassy in Cairo last year. Considering the danger faced by Saudi diplomats the year before and what happened in Bangladesh and Yemen the month prior, it’s easy to see why King Abdullah decided to shut the embassy and protect staffers.

Interestingly, the episode was first seen as a major setback for Egyptian-Saudi relations, which were just beginning to thaw after Mubarak’s ouster and the Muslim Brotherhood’s assumption of power. (Riyadh has historically been suspicious of the Brotherhood.) 113 Egyptian officials, led by Muslim Brotherhood heavyweights, visited Riyadh a week later in order to convince the King that Egypt was safe enough for diplomats (and worthy of further investment and loans). The embassy re-opened days later.

The April fiasco may have been embarrassing for Egypt’s new rulers but the Brotherhood’s sympathetic response calmed the situation quickly. However, Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi’s style of bare-knuckle politics may have erased any goodwill earned last spring. Saudi officials were alarmed–like many observers–by his November decree, in which he granted himself temporary but unlimited power, and the way in which the flawed constitution was rushed to referendum in December. For the purposes of this post: we can simply acknowledge that the protests increased anxiety among Saudi leaders.

November 2012 (Yemen): Khaled al-Anizi, an assistant to Saudi Arabia’s military attache, was killed by gunmen along with his Yemeni bodyguard.


Saudi Arabia cannot retreat from the world. It’s administration of Islam’s holy sites make it essential to a religion of 1.6 billion people, even if its interpretation of the faith is specific to conditions in Arabia. Riyadh’s interests must be represented around the world if for no other reason than to coordinate the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, which millions of Muslims perform every year. (Some readers might be surprised to learn that Saudi Arabia maintains an embassy in Iran.)

The case for forward-leaning Saudi diplomacy should not be limited to religious obligations, however. Given Saudi Arabia’s place in the global economy, it must also assume the risk of reaching out, because it is both a top oil exporter and source of so much foreign investment for other nations. Millions of expatriates–most from the Middle East and Asia–also work inside the Kingdom, meaning that direct contact is necessary since so many citizens of other countries live and work inside Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh’s rivalry with Iran and struggle with Al-Qaeda make diplomacy both necessary and more dangerous. Americans can relate.

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The Most Important Uprising You Haven’t Heard Of

In red: Saudi Arabia’s troubled Eastern Province

Our guest author today is Matthew Kimmel, who has had an academic interest in the Middle East since beginning his B.A. in Global studies at Arizona State University, where he wrote his undergraduate thesis on Civil Society and Democratization in Saudi Arabia. His experience in the region includes living in Israel and conducting research in Cairo. He has worked at the Institute for National Strategic Studies and received his M.A. in Middle East Studies from George Washington University in 2012.

While the world has watched with rapt attention at the numerous uprisings and wars that have spread across the Middle East in the past two years, one long simmering uprising has escaped most people’s notice. The Shi’a of Saudi Arabia have long had a tense relationship with the ruling monarchy, which has become violent in the past. The most notable case of this was in 1979, when an uprising centered around the town of Qatif resulted in an unknown number of casualties and the Saudi government declaring a state of emergency and calling in the national guard headed by prince Abdullah, who is now king.

Since then, there has been a tense relationship between the Saudi government and the Shi’a highlighted by periods of attempted reconciliation and increased repression. These tensions boiled over again in the months following the start of the Arab Spring. 2011 saw hundreds of protesters arrested, dozens injured, and at least 14 civilians killed (along with 2 security officers). The self perpetuating cycle of protests, violent crackdowns against the protests, and even larger protests against violent crackdowns continued. By the start of 2012, protests were tens of thousands strong and occurring regularly.

Then, on July 8, the Saudi government made a move that sent the protests into a frenzy and may stand out as the perfect example of how not to quell protesters. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, one of the most prominent Saudi Shi’a leaders, was shot and arrested. (The government claims that he was shot during a fight with security forces sent to arrest him; protesters claim he was shot without provocation). Nimr had long been a thorn in the side of the Saudi regime. As early as 2009 he had spoken out in favor of using protests to pressure the regime to enact reforms allowing for increased religious, economic, and political rights for the Shi’a.

As the protests grew in the first few months of the Arab spring, Nimr al-Nimr was one of the only clerics who endorsed the protests rather than urging a return to homes and negotiations. After pictures of the cleric bloody and battered emerged, massive protests erupted and another two Shi’a were killed. Since then tensions in the Saudi eastern province have gone from bad to worse. Another two people were killed on August 3, and protests have continued regularly with the latest one happening on November 9. Violence against Saudi security force has also continued, with a series of attacks against police patrols and stations occurring last month. While these attacks have so far been small-scale and localized, there is the risk that unrest in the region could spread and have potentially devastating effects. Perhaps the best example of this is the massive cyber attack Saudi Aramco suffered over the summer, which many in the kingdom blamed on the Saudi Shi’a.

On August 10, Aramco suffered a massive cyber attack, which crippled the company for several days but, thankfully, did not result in any oil loss. While many have blamed Iran for this act of cyber warfare, the relatively unsophisticated nature of the programming as well as the fact that the attack was carried out by an Aramco employee with access to the network led many in Saudi Arabia to blame the attacks on Shi’a who were working with Iran.

Agents of Iran or Agents of Reform?

The kingdom’s authorities often use the claim that the Shi’a are agents of Iran as a means of dismissing the protests in Qatif. Early statements against the protests in the Eastern Province described the protesters as acting “to disrupt security at the behest of a foreign country which tried to undermine the security of the homeland in a blatant act of interference.” Additionally, it has been common for Saudi media sources such as Al Arabiya to hint that Syria and Hezbollah are involved in this unrest, further creating links to Iran. These actions allow for the Saudi government to discredit these protesters.

However, anyone with a decent knowledge of the leadership of the Saudi Shi’a and their goals over the past 20 years knows that they are not anywhere near the agents of Iran that the Saudi government claims they are. It is important to note, however, that, the leadership of the Saudi Shi’a have lost credibility with many of the youth in Qatif as they have continued to call for reconciliation and a stop to protests. This conciliatory tone has enraged many of the region’s youth who see it as proof that the Shi’a leadership does not represent their interests.

Despite Saudi claims, the Shi’a leadership connections to Iran are rather weak. While many of the prominent Shi’a clerics such as Hassan al-Safar did have some religious training in Iran and spent time in the country studying, their ties to Iran have usually been weak. When the leaders of the Shi’a uprising of 1979 were forced into exile, they found themselves in London—not Tehran. Secondly, the rhetoric of these religious leaders has none of the theocratic tones that one would expect from Iranian agents. Much of the Shi’a leadership has been pro-democracy and supported religious pluralism. Finally, the demands of the Shiite’s initial protests were based on simple demands for greater inclusion and spending. While there was some degree of protests against the Saudi role in the clampdown of protests in neighboring Bahrain (the Shi’a communities of these two countries have a good amount of historical connections), initial demands were based far more on local, economic, and religious grievances. This is in keeping with historical precedent in which the Saudi Shi’a have protested for three key areas- greater religious freedoms, greater infrastructure investment, and greater inclusion.

Due to the religious nature of the Saudi government, Shi’a religious activity has been greatly restricted. Shi’a Ashoura ceremonies have traditionally been tightly curtailed and the Saudi education and religious systems are filled with instances of anti-Shi’a propaganda. Additionally, the area around Qatif has traditionally been neglected; they were the last to receive modern sewer systems and many Shi’a activists have complained about the lack of government investment. Lastly, the Shi’a are completely shut out from the higher echelons of business and almost the entirety of the government. As such, the Shi’a see themselves as second-class citizens and are protesting against this fact, not because they are part of some broader Iranian backed “Shi’a crescent” stretching from Iran to the Levant and south into Saudi Arabia.

If the Saudi government is to stop Qatif from continuing to be a center of discontent and from becoming more chaotic they may have to resume the reconciliation process that King Abdullah began after the wave of terrorism that struck the country after 2003. This would relax tensions, and help create a more inclusive kingdom. Given the increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the complex interplay between religion and state in the region, this seems unlikely, especially as protests and arrests continue. Additionally, the Saudi government does have the ability to use increasing amounts of force, and may see violence as preferable to changing the religious and political status quo of the kingdom.

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Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Elections

The American election season is rarely kind to the Saudis. In fact, it can be downright hostile when oil prices are high. In 2008, when Americans last voted for president, a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. cost $4.00 before the economy lurched into a death spiral. Today the price is closer to $3.75, which is still high given the seasonal drop in demand that comes with colder weather.

When the price of crude oil reached record highs in 2008, American politicians turned to Saudi Arabia for help. President Bush visited King Abdullah twice that year, once in January and again in May, hoping that the world’s only swing producer would cut down prices by increasing production. Saudi production increased by 300,000 barrels per day (b/d) in June but the move was quickly overcome by events.

One month later, crude oil sold for a record high of $147 per barrel. Saudi Arabia and OPEC were attacked relentlessly on the campaign trail as a result. “I’m not interested in holding hands with the Saudis! I’m interested in holding them accountable!” Hillary Clinton told rallies around the country, reminding voters that President Bush was widely mocked for holding hands with the Saudi king (see above). Lingering suspicions over 9/11 made the Saudis a convenient villain also.

A similar drama might be expected to play out in 2012. Oil prices are high again and some American politicians want the Saudis to do more. In February, Senator Charles Schumer of New York told Clinton—now Secretary of State—that Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to max out production and make the leap from 10 million b/d to 12.5 million b/d. Schumer’s call for bold action never gained much traction, however, and in spite of similarities between 2008 and 2012, this American election cycle has been much kinder to Riyadh.

For Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, it never made sense to blame foreigners for soaring gas prices. Instead, he unveiled his own energy plan and accused President Obama of failing to unleash America’s potential. He promised to make the U.S. energy independent by 2020 and create millions of jobs in the process. He also accused Obama of holding back the hydrocarbon sector and focusing too much attention—and wasting too much money—on failed alternative energy projects. To blame the Saudis, in this case, would have been counterproductive. Romney’s message was simple: voters should blame President Obama for high gas prices.

For his part, Obama has worked closely with Saudi officials over the past 4 years. Counter-terrorism cooperation–one of the cornerstones of the relationship–has resulted in a number of disrupted plots. And since the beginning of this year, when it became clear that the U.S. and EU were going to sanction Iran and slash its oil exports, Saudi Arabia has played an essential role by making up for lost Iranian crude. The Saudis now pump nearly 10 million b/d—a high not seen in 30 years.

Diplomatically, this administration has been on the same page as leaders in Saudi Arabia, excluding a brief episode in early 2011, when President Obama called for the ouster of long-time ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. We can safely assume the Saudis wanted that situation to work itself out differently, perhaps with Mubarak being ushered from power in a less dramatic fashion. But that disagreement was overstated at the time. And strategic interests—and bigger issues—quickly converged to accelerate cooperation again on a variety of fronts, including terrorism.

In Syria, both the U.S. and the Saudis want Assad out. The Saudis appear more eager to aid rebels, while Washington refuses to offer lethal aid at this point–but the two sides agree on the ultimate goal. Riyadh has worked hard with other Gulf Arab states to isolate the regime in Damascus by cutting it off from the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It has also offered vital aid to countries struggling from revolutions at a time when Washington is not prepared to expand programs. On both counts, the Saudis have bolstered the U.S. position.

On Iran, both Washington and Riyadh believe that the danger is real. Last year’s failed assassination plot targeting the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. made the threat even clearer.  Sanctions would be impossible without Saudi oil and the White House knows this. As prices declined in late summer, Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on more than one occasion, “We also welcome Saudi Arabia’s continued commitment to take all necessary steps to ensure the market is well supplied and to help moderate prices.”

The 2008 election was a tough one for the Saudis but 2012 has been very different. These candidates stood to gain more by blaming each other–and they did so every day for months. During the third and final presidential debate, when the candidates sparred over national security and foreign policy, Romney claimed that Obama had not worked closely enough with our allies in the Gulf—and the Saudis in particular—to hasten the demise of Assad.

Americans have good reason to be exhausted by this election season. But it’s a breath of fresh air for Saudi Arabia.

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New Articles on Iran: Oil Sanctions and Saudi Relations

PBS Tehran Bureau and Inside Iran published my newest articles yesterday. The first, for PBS, is a comprehensive review of the impact of sanctions on Iran’s most vital industry. It is a follow-up to the survey I did in May, which I’m proud to say has held up very nicely. The update breaks down the contract terms and liftings made by Iran’s top customers, the legal and illegal schemes Iran has employed to avoid sanctions, and what arrangements have been adopted in order to keep oil flowing, albeit at a dramatically reduced rate. The entire article is worth reading (I hope) but one point deserves to be repeated:

Most fortunately for Tehran, dramatic export declines were offset by a surge in prices. Brent crude, which is used as a proxy for world oil prices, sold for $95.16 in June — but then jumped to $102.62 in July and $113.36 in August. Remember also that the terms of credit extended to Iran’s customers allow some to pay up to 60 days later. This means that Iran only began counting diminished revenues this month, since sanctions were locked in July 1. Iran’s leaders may not fully understand the impact of sanctions for weeks. It may take several more months for Tehran to seriously reconsider its nuclear posture, which sanctions aim to change.

Sanctions may be two months old but the Central Bank of Iran, which processes oil transactions and reports revenues to the government, is only now starting to gauge their impact. So anyone who suggests that sanctions have already failed because they haven’t worked should know that sanctions only took effect in September. Iran’s commitment to its controversial enrichment program has only just begun to be tested.

The second article for Inside Iran is a quick review of Saudi-Iranian relations in a time of revolution. As I argue, Saudi Arabia has gone on the offensive since revolutions started sweeping the region early last year. The country’s “advantage… [is] further guaranteed by its huge investments across the region and the large number of expats who live in the Kingdom. It continues to benefit from a reservoir of shared identity and Sunni tradition that remain off-limits to its Shi’a Persian rival.”

Riyadh’s multi-billion dollar aid packages factor into this equation as well. While it remains to be determined just how much influence can be purchased, at the very least, Saudi Arabia has used aid to kick-start relations with post-revolutionary governments. At the same time, the Saudis deserve some credit for extending help to struggling nations, since much of it will be spent on development projects (silos, water projects, etc.) that will improve conditions for average citizens. Riyadh is also depositing hard currency in central banks around the region in order to protect nations against crippling inflation. (Qatar has done the same.)

The final paragraph addresses the formality of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which I often refer to as “professional courtesy.” I might build this idea up into a serious article since it’s an intriguing angle that receives so little attention:

In spite of deep mistrust, Saudi-Iranian relations—very much like American-Soviet relations during the Cold War—nevertheless retain an air of correctness. Media on both sides demonize the other while embassies conduct business and officials meet when necessary. Even after Iran was implicated in last year’s assassination plot, the embassies stayed open; Iranians filed for Hajj visas. Proximity demands at least some contact.

Blogging has suffered lately because I was writing for other outlets. I planned on writing a retrospective on last week’s protests–with the benefit of hindsight, of course–but Marc Lynch beat me to it with his superb post on “The Failure of #Muslimrage.” Read it.

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Threat Perception in the Gulf

I had an interesting “discussion” on Twitter two days ago with a news anchor from Al Jazeera. Given the 140-character limit of our exchange, “discussion” is too generous a term. But Teymoor Nabili still raised an important question: How can the Saudis possibly feel vulnerable when they spend so much money on military hardware and U.S. forces still surround Iran?

For very good reasons, both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran feel vulnerable today, mostly because their forces are mismatched. Saudi Arabia enjoys a significant advantage in conventional arms and can expect the U.S. to defend it against outside aggression. Compensating for this reality, Iran relies on unconventional tactics and, if conflict erupted, it could target key infrastructure along the coast instead of taking on superior forces directly.

Let’s start with Iran. Even though the American occupation of Iraq is over, 40,000 servicemen will remain in the greater Gulf region, stationed on ships and bases in places like Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. (See Al Jazeera’s map of U.S. bases in the Middle East HERE.) The U.S. maintains one or two aircraft carriers in the Gulf at all times. Support ships—like destroyers and guided missile cruisers—are also deployed to complement combat aircraft. To Iran’s east, 80,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, where they will slowly be drawn down by the end of 2014. Iran’s Arab neighbors have invested heavily in their militaries in recent years. They now sport advanced fighter jets and anti-ballistic missile systems.

Moreover, officials in Washington frequently state that “all options are on the table” when it comes to Iran and its controversial nuclear program. Iranian officials dismiss these threats—saying they are only evidence that an election is being held in the U.S. this year—but America’s presence is substantial and muscular. And so Iran is vulnerable, whether its leaders say so or not. It’s safe to assume that some higher officials fear escalation with the U.S. only because they would not be able to dictate the duration or severity of the ensuing fight.

The Gulf Arab states disguise their enmity at times but recent arms purchases and close cooperation with the U.S. make them a threat to Iran as well, albeit a minor one, since American forces would take control of any conflict that threatened Gulf waters. In 2009, however, General David Petraeus (now CIA director) bluntly stated that the Qatari air force could easily destroy Iran’s. This is still true three years later and it will be true three years from now. Saudi Arabia’s air force is equally capable and could strike Iranian targets as well. Tehran may never admit to being vulnerable but many of their systems are outdated and there’s little reason to believe reservists and paramilitary units could resist or repel a sustained bombing campaign.

Iran’s manpower advantage partially explains why the Saudis are spending so much on defense. The country’s active military is twice the size of Saudi Arabia’s and, if you include reservists and paramilitary forces, Iran’s military is fifteen times larger than its rival’s armed forces. This discrepancy is explained by two factors. First, it is a natural consequence of the population gap (Saudi Arabia has 28 million people while Iran has 75 million). Secondly, the posture of these regimes partially explains why one military is so much larger: Iran’s military played a key role in the formation of the state, going back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is not a revolutionary or militarized regime and so their forces remain limited. Saudi spending should also be seen for what it is: completely predictable. The Kingdom can afford new equipment. Unlike Iran, no international sanctions prevent it from acquiring military technology.

Admittedly, Iran cannot project force like Saudi Arabia. In order for hundreds of thousands of ground forces to threaten the Kingdom, they would have to advance through Iraq or Kuwait first before reaching Saudi territory. We can dismiss that danger. But Iran can still project force into the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia is the most vulnerable. In case of conflict, most assessments hold that Iran would rely on asymmetric tactics, which cancel out Saudi Arabia’s advantage. Swarms of smaller boats, mine-laying vessels, attack submarines, and land-based missile systems would presumably be employed. It’s worth mentioning also that Iran has a more disciplined and experienced force.

Most importantly, a tremendous amount of critical infrastructure can be found along the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. Oil depots, export terminals, and desalinization plants are all within striking distance for Iran. There’s simply no guarantee that the U.S. Fifth Fleet could intercept enough missiles or smaller, speedier vessels, if they were tasked with sabotaging these facilities. Repeated threats against the Strait of Hormuz should also be taken seriously. Iran could mine the Gulf, harass shipping—including Saudi tankers—and attempt to close the Strait, the world’s most vital energy chokepoint, through which millions of barrels of Saudi crude pass each day.

Iran also has the largest and most advanced missile program in the Middle East. This is no secret. While some missiles might be intercepted, the short flight times between Iran and Saudi Arabia make short- to mid-range missiles harder to track and take down. Iran could also try to overwhelm anti-missile systems simply by firing more missiles and accepting that some will not reach their targets. In that case, volume would compensate for accuracy and reliability. One might call it the “spray and pray” method of warfare. Iran would pay dearly for going down this path but it could still do grave damage to Saudi infrastructure or American assets.

Although Saudi Arabia can rely on the U.S. and American-made weapons, Iran can still fight on its own terms, and hit the Saudis where it hurts. All it takes is one lucky strike or a surprise attack. Saudi Arabia could spend twice as much on defense and still be vulnerable.

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King Abdullah invited Iran’s President to Mecca. So What?

The extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is now over and Syria’s membership has been suspended after two days of deliberations in Mecca. The move is purely symbolic. But—when combined with the Arab League’s suspension of Syria in November—it does reflect poorly on Iran, Russia, and China, three countries that have defended Assad even though regional and spiritual institutions are shunning him. Perhaps because the meeting lacked substance, commentators and news outlets were willing to overstate the importance of President Ahmadinejad’s attendance at the summit. (See also this misleading headline about “mending ties.”)

His trip and mere invitation was seen by many as a signal that Saudi Arabia was willing to dial down tensions. Few seemed ready, however, to acknowledge that both countries adhere to certain principles of “professional courtesy,” even when they are locked in a Cold War-style competition for influence in the Middle East. The rivalry has not subsided just because Ahmadinejad was photographed alongside King Abdullah. The bottom line is a simple one: as host of the extraordinary OIC summit, King Abdullah was obligated to invite all members—excluding Syria, since it was part of the agenda.

King Abdullah and President Ahmadinejad at the OIC summit (Al Arabiya)

If we are going to inflate the importance of Ahmadinejad’s trip then we must also concede that his office is weaker than ever. No one should assume that he has the ability to renew ties in the first place. Over the past year, the Supreme Leader has marginalized him, even threatening the presidency itself—not just the president; the majles is stacked with conservatives that hate him; and he is now being criticized at home for traveling abroad days after earthquakes killed more than 300 in Iran.

“Professional courtesy” captures the essence of the Saudi-Iranian relationship. While both sides work to undermine the other behind the scenes, neither is willing to embarrass their counterpart or escalate tensions in person or on an international stage. Indeed, courtesy is the norm even in times of outrage. Last year, for instance, when the U.S. Justice Department announced that Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington was the subject of an Iranian-led assassination plot, the Saudis went to the UN and called on Iran to cooperate with the investigation.

President Ahmadinejad only reinforced this habit of “professional courtesy” during his recent trip. According to President Abdullah Gul, who represented Turkey at the OIC summit, Iran’s outspoken president avoided any undue attention at the two-day meeting. Instead of criticizing the Saudis or Qataris for supporting Syrian rebels, he stayed quiet. Turkey’s state-run news agency quoted Gul, who said Ahmadinejad never mentioned the Syrian crisis, or offered prescriptions for resolving it. (Note: OIC meeting transcripts are unavailable.)

Ahmadinejad denied this when he arrived at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport following Syria’s suspension at the OIC. According to Iran’s IRNA news agency, Ahmadinejad said Iran’s “position was clearly and properly explained.” Why Gul would lie is a mystery; Ahmadinejad’s silence makes more sense, considering that Syria’s suspension was predetermined before the summit and showmanship would not affect the end result. (I say this because the Saudi-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution which condemned Syria on August 3 was backed by two-thirds of the OIC. The remaining members were absent or abstained so it was clear Saudi Arabia could collect enough votes in Mecca to suspend the regime. Only Syria and Iran voted against the UN resolution, while Syria was unable to vote at the OIC yesterday. It was reported that only Algeria and Iran voted against the suspension.)

In his remarks at the airport yesterday, Ahmadinejad also emphasized the importance of Saudi-Iranian relations. “It is very important to regulate the Iran-Saudi Arabia relations, which have always had a significant influence over regional developments,” Ahmadinejad told IRNA. “I hope that some important events will take place in the relations of the two countries in the future.” But quotes carried by Mehr News took a harder edge, balancing Ahmadinejad’s positive statements with criticism of Arab monarchs. In a meeting on the sidelines of the OIC summit, Ahmadinejad told reporters that he said, “I was surprised that some countries’ kings talked against Syria while the majority of people in their countries do not want them [in power].”

Comments made by Ahmadinejad at the Mecca summit (and quoted by Iranian media) are generally cautious. They do not insult any country specifically—especially not his Saudi hosts—but instead warn against intervening in other countries’ affairs. “Today, all of us have entered into a [conspiratorial] plan without realizing it, a plan that has been devised by the enemy [i.e. the U.S. and Israel]. We are showing hostility toward each other [i.e. fellow Muslims] without any clear reason and perhaps based on false information [i.e. Western propaganda] and under various personal, ethnic, historical, and even religious pretexts,” Ahmadinejad complained.

The gap between what Ahmadinejad said at the summit and what he said after returning to Tehran is clear. What the Kingdom and Islamic Republic are unwilling to say to each other directly, they will say to reporters and a domestic audience at more convenient times. They will not, however, breach that code of conduct which I refer to as “professional courtesy.” And with good reason: their neighborhood is small; proximity gives them no option but to do at least some business, especially since Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two holiest sites.

Consider also the last time Ahmadinejad visited Saudi Arabia. In 2007, he was received by King Abdullah at the airport, with the explicit goal of curbing sectarian tension which was then out of control in Iraq and Lebanon. The meeting failed by its own measure. And to this day, both sides continue to play favorites as they jockey for advantage in a region suffering from widespread unrest. The 2007 trip was more important because it was a bilateral meeting between two heads of state and dedicated to one issue. But it did not change either country’s strategic interests or senses of vulnerability.

This week’s trip was no different. Ahmadinejad’s attendance, even his presence at King Abdullah’s side, does not make the competition any less severe. Pressed to explain Ahmadinejad’s seat beside the King, I agree that it was clearly a “good will gesture.” But it was offered by a monarch who has seen Iran’s standing decline recently, his own country remain largely stable, and revolutionary governments accept billions of dollars in Saudi largesse while Assad—Iran’s key ally—stares into the abyss. Could it be that the Kingdom feels that the Arab uprisings have empowered Saudi Arabia? Might Iran’s weakness be reason enough to sit down with the country’s president, if indeed Riyadh believes it is in a position of strength?

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