Riyadh summit a watershed moment in regional landscape
Zero-sum conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have pitted Saudi interests together with those of the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey against Iran. Iran has, over the years, exploited and even cultivated instability around the periphery of the Arab Gulf to deepen its regional influence.
Iran has overseen the transformation of Lebanese Hezbollah into a regional actor from a national one, built ties with Houthi rebels that will likely be long-lasting and organised Shia militias from recruits from the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia in extremely effective ways.
Arab Gulf countries, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in particular, are infuriated by Iranian interference in their affairs, especially its support of Shia communities that tend to represent growing opposition.
Until now, Iran has been able to spread its influence by crossing red lines with relative impunity. It achieved these gains while concurrently improving relations with the West following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding its nuclear programme that lifted crippling economic sanctions.
Iran’s strategic relationship with Russia has also been helped by realpolitik as the Kremlin decided to intervene militarily in Syria to change the momentum in a gridlocked civil war that most regional countries thought was becoming an unsustainable burden on Iran.
Iranian strategists will likely feel satisfied but, unsurprisingly from the Saudi perspective, Iran has grown to unprecedented levels — and an effective response to contain and reverse these developments has become highly urgent.
As such, the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh hosted by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was a watershed moment in Saudi efforts to respond to the unfavourably developing strategic landscape.
Saudi Arabia is aiming to create a military coalition of about 40 Islamic countries to fight terrorism. Iran, though, will not be invited to join or participate. This Islamic coalition will be Sunni-dominated and take on the likes of the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, their offshoots and similar terrorist networks but also — Riyadh expects — establish an effective counterbalancing Sunni bulwark against Shia Iran.
Saudi leaders have been indiscrete about charging Iran with being a dangerous and destabilising force as well as being a threat to Arab countries. At the summit, King Salman declared: “[T]he Iranian regime has been the spearhead of global terrorism since the Khomeini revolt and until today.” Days earlier, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz ruled out any possibility of Iran’s participation in the coalition, citing Tehran’s revolutionary objective of controlling the Muslim world.
As Saudi Arabia steps up efforts to counter Iran, Iranian rhetoric has intensified because it is anxious that Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest Muslim country and custodian of the two holy mosques, has several advantages over Iran with its leadership credentials.
Practically, while any Islamic coalition may only be able to posit an indirect check on Iran, it could prove a decisive one. Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels and the collection of Shia militias Iran have been able to assemble, for example, all fall under a definition of terrorist groups Saudi Arabia wants adopted by its Islamic coalition partners.
Saudi Arabia will ensure the focus of the Islamic coalition is not limited to ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups.
Inevitably, Saudi Arabia’s ultimatum to its coalition partners will be “you are with us or against us” — but being too aggressive may jeopardise the initiative altogether. Riyadh is driving its plans for the Islamic coalition forward and will make investments into realising it.
Most Muslim countries — and almost all Asian and African ones — would like a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement but many of these countries remain oblivious to the extent of Sunni-Shia polarisation and the intensity of the Iranian threat as it is viewed by Saudi Arabia and its key Gulf allies. There is a sentiment that any Saudi dialogue with Iran may end up endorsing Iranian gains rather than reversing them, so Riyadh and its partners must first win back lost ground.
As far as the Saudis are concerned, neutrality between Riyadh and Tehran is not the core question. It is whether the likes of Hezbollah, the Houthis and so on can be tolerated when they represent threats to Arab and Muslim countries in some ways just as ISIS or al-Qaeda do.
Still, though the Iranian factor will undoubtedly be an impediment for Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Oman and others, Riyadh sees these challenges as manageable — and Tehran is worried this may well be the case.
Timelines, soft power projection and the benefits of participation offered from Saudi Arabia and its core allies will determine the future of the Islamic coalition, as, of course, will competitive diplomatic coercion from Iran.
Time will tell how well the Saudis, from the inside, and Iranians, from the outside, can restrain one another from influencing the direction of this Saudi initiative — and, ironically, both may end up with an outcome not ideal to their agendas.
To make matters worse for Tehran, Western countries that in other circumstances could have viewed the idea of a Saudi-led military coalition of Islamic countries with scepticism look supportive.
As such, if Riyadh pulls this off as it intends, it may finally have a plan for placing a solid check on Iran and uprooting the gains it has made with its regional influence and Tehran sees this.