Saudi Arabia’s multipronged strategy to clip Iran’s wings in Arab countries

Lebanon is a prime example of why Saudi Arabia must remain cautious as it works against Iran’s agenda.
Saturday 20/07/2019
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) during a meeting with Lebanon’s former prime ministers Tammam Salam, Fouad Siniora and Najib Mikati (from L to R) in Jeddah. (SPA)
Re-engagement. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) during a meeting with Lebanon’s former prime ministers Tammam Salam, Fouad Siniora and Najib Mikati (from L to R) in Jeddah. (SPA)

Riyadh has, at times, flexed its military muscle, such as in Yemen, or opted for rapprochement, such as in Iraq. In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia has sent mixed messages on how to deal with Hezbollah.

Riyadh’s policy concerning Yemen has been consistent. It has remained committed to restoring the internationally recognised government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and preventing Iran’s “criminal interference in Yemeni affairs,” a recent statement by Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman said.

As such, Riyadh’s military intervention, which began in 2015, will continue until the Iran-backed Houthis cease to be subservient to Tehran and commit to Yemen’s national interest. This must start with them implementing agreements already signed, including the Stockholm ceasefire deal, which calls for troop pullback from the flashpoint port of Hodeidah.

Knowing that Riyadh and its regional allies will not accept defeat in Yemen, the Houthis are left with few options.

Their main backer, Iran, is struggling under a “maximum pressure” campaign imposed by Washington that has left Tehran’s economy squeezed to almost nothing. This means assistance provided to the Houthis will also dwindle, leaving them alone in the face of the Arab military powers they are pitted against and the growing international backlash to their policies and practices described by humanitarian organisations as war crimes.

As the sands shift in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s strategy to contain Iran in Yemen will bear fruit but this could take some time. Meanwhile, Iran and its Houthi allies are hoping to buy time, desperately hoping that US Republicans will lose in the 2020 elections and a new American policy could give them new life.

Riyadh is aware of this strategy and has been working to clamp down on Iran’s expansionist ambitions across the region.

In Iraq, Saudi Arabia has tried to build bridges. Following a flurry of visits by top officials, Saudi Ambassador to Iraq Abdul Aziz Al Shammari made a landmark announcement: The long-closed Iraqi-Saudi border would reopen October 15.

The reopening of the Arar entry point, which was closed in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, is intended to strengthen relations between the two neighbours and boost trade.

Riyadh hopes that such a move will help Iraq return to the Arab fold and steer clear of Iran’s destructive influence, which has propped up sectarian militias outside of state control.

This strategy of rapprochement, beginning in 2015 when the kingdom reopened its embassy in Baghdad after a quarter-century break, could allow it to secure stronger economic ties, making it more independent and regain a stronger stature in the region.

The fruits of this effort are already beginning to show. Last April, the United Arab Emirates announced it would finance a $50 million project to rebuild Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri, a landmark famous for its leaning minaret that was destroyed by the Islamic State. In October 2017, two months before Iraq declared victory over the terrorist group, the Iraqi-Saudi Joint Coordination Council was established to help rebuild devastated areas in Iraq.

This is not enough to forge a different path in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and its allies need to concentrate efforts on reducing Iraq’s dependence on Iranian gas, electricity, refined petroleum products and non-energy exports that provide revenue streams for Tehran, helping it to limit at least some of the economic damage resulting from US trade and investment restrictions.

Riyadh also needs to assist the Iraqi government’s efforts to rein in Iran-backed Shia militias to curtail their influence over some of the economy and their control of checkpoints in some provinces.

Equally critical is Iran’s influence in Lebanon, via its most important international proxy: Hezbollah.

With Lebanon dogged by rampant corruption, political fragmentation and the influence of Hezbollah, Riyadh has been hesitant to lend financial help, concerned that money could end up in the hands of the Iran-backed Shia group.

Saudi Arabia could be changing tunes, though, after a July 15 meeting between King Salman and three former Lebanese prime ministers in Jeddah.

While no concrete measures were announced, the meeting was viewed as a positive sign that Riyadh is committed to re-engaging with its traditional ally, backing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to counter Hezbollah and preserving the country’s delicate political balance.

During the meeting, Lebanon’s former prime ministers voiced concern that Hariri was growing weaker as Saudi Arabia disengages. “We feel that the prime minister is being targeted and weakened,” said Tammam Salam, one of the three former prime ministers who met King Salman, along with Fouad Siniora and Najib Mikati.

Lebanon needs more than Riyadh’s political support to get back on its feet. For the country to confront Iranian influence, a more active Saudi-led role is needed in the security, economic and military fields. There is also a need for broader, more cohesive cooperation with Lebanon to restore its balance of power.

Lebanon needs to take the initiative to return Saudi Arabia into its fold, not simply wait for the country’s financial assistance.

Indeed, Lebanon is a prime example of why Saudi Arabia must remain cautious as it works against Iran’s agenda. Exerting pressure can take different forms but should not in any way alienate the countries Riyadh is cooperating with.

Saudi Arabia has achieved some of its objectives but the path remains quite long and difficult, requiring renewed cooperation and solidarity between the Arab countries that hope to see the Middle East regain stability and peace.