Risks but also opportunities for Saudi Arabia amid heightened Gulf tensions
The beginning of 2020 has hardly been quiet for Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies.
Fallout from the United States’ killing of Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s al-Quds Force, posed serious challenges for the Arab Gulf and the broader region and has driven concerns of a widening conflict.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have avoided direct involvement in the dispute. They steered clear of actions that could escalate the situation and prompt Iran to pursue open conflict or disrupt the flow of oil through the vital gateway, the Strait of Hormuz.
Riyadh denied having been consulted by the United States prior to the strike on Soleimani and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud spoke of the need for reduced tensions in a phone conversation with Iraqi President Barham Salih.
However, despite Riyadh’s measured reaction, there is no doubt that Soleimani’s death lifted a heavy burden from its shoulders. Saudi Arabia, perhaps more than any other country, has suffered from the designs of the military chief who was the architect of Iran’s disruptive foreign policy across the region.
At the helm of al-Quds Force, Soleimani built a network of pro-Iran militias throughout the region and handpicked people who would be most militarily loyal to Tehran. As a result, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps developed a network of proxies directly under its control.
During this time, the number of Iran-backed terrorists surged even in Bahrain, leading to violent attacks against security forces and civilians. The more dramatic development came in Yemen, from where Iran-backed Houthi rebels attacked oil installations in Saudi Arabia.
While the Houthis claimed to be acting on their own, Riyadh provided evidence that the attacks were planned, prepared and executed under Iran’s command. These revelations exposed the nature of Iran’s missions through its proxies in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere. Tehran no longer has the luxury of deniability that once helped it avoid retaliation.
Some would argue that US President Donald Trump has given Washington’s Arab Gulf allies a precious gift by ordering the killing of Soleimani but that assessment is too simplistic.
While the elimination of Soleimani or any Iranian official involved in plotting violent acts across the region is good news, it entails risks, particularly for Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries.
Those countries could fall victim to drone and missile attacks, either by Iran or one of its proxies. Saudi Arabia knows that, if all-out war does break out, it would be in the crossfire. This explains why it is attempting to bring down the pressure.
While Saudi Arabia remains in favour of clipping Iran’s wings, it is prioritising national security. That policy shift began about a month ago when reports emerged that Riyadh was engaging in indirect talks with Tehran and having peace talks with the Houthis.
There is a delicate balance to maintain but Saudi Arabia seems satisfied with the policy, which has led to a decline in attacks against it and its allies.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is not ready to give up its role as a regional heavyweight and, to effectively deal with the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, it knows it is important to maintain, if not strengthen, its alliance with Washington.
What is the best way for the kingdom to proceed?
The Saudis have distanced themselves from the killing of Soleimani, meaning that Iran has no excuse to target Riyadh or any neighbouring Gulf country in retaliation.
Riyadh can pursue three strategic goals: cornering Tehran and giving the mullahs no excuse to target Arab Gulf countries, devising a more pragmatic approach to regional challenges and showing the world that Saudi Arabia is an advocate of peace, not war.
Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz took steps in that direction during a January 6 trip to Washington during which he met with Trump and British Defence Minister Ben Wallace to discuss regional challenges.
After delivering a message from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to Trump, Prince Khalid reportedly discussed issues such as stability in the Middle East, oil prices, security and military matters. The visit shows that Riyadh wants to stay in the game and is reassured by Washington’s commitment to confronting Tehran and its proxies.
Despite possible repercussions of Soleimani’s killing, Saudis know that their ally in the White House is more aware than ever of the threat posed by Iran. Perhaps even better, Trump now takes Tehran’s destabilising activities personally.
If the fallout is contained, the US-Iran flare-up could be a blessing in disguise for Riyadh, paving the way for stronger US-Saudi military cooperation and arms sales, further isolating the regime in Tehran and ending its meddling in Arab affairs.