Saudi moves against regional rivals bearing fruit

Growing hostility from the “triangle of evil” is a sign that Saudi- and US-led efforts to crack down on terror and extremism are making progress.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Consolidating stature. Young Saudis waving the national flag next to a poster of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. (AFP)
Consolidating stature. Young Saudis waving the national flag next to a poster of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. (AFP)

Over the past ten years, the Middle East, one of the most troubled regions in the world, has gone through drastic changes. This does not only mean that the regional scene is one of fluctuating dynamics but also that the game of influence has become more sophisticated with Saudi Arabia emerging as the leading pivot of power.

In contrast to the Saudi regional ascent, Riyadh’s rivals have been going through hard times. For example, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, once hailed as an economic model for the region, is undergoing painful austerity measures to mitigate soaring inflation rates.

The popularity of Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, as a result, has sunk right along with the lira, presenting the ambitious leader with one of his greatest political challenges.

It was recently reported that Erdogan had resorted to cutting vegetable prices to woo voters ahead of municipal elections. This shows how desperate the Erdogan-led government has become: It is selling spinach, tomatoes and peppers at makeshift stalls at almost half the market price to combat their political rivals.

In neighbouring Iran, the situation is not much better. The value of the rial has dropped drastically following the reimposition of US sanctions last November.

The country’s leaders are embarking on a diplomatic offensive to break the isolation and salvage what they can. With their hands tied by sanctions, they are looking mainly to war-ravaged Syria and Iraq, hoping to secure economic thresholds and recover some of their losses.

This will not be an easy task. Turkey and Iran, both using political Islam to advance expansionist agendas, have been confronted by traditional heavyweight Saudi Arabia over their alleged support for extremism and political Islam in the region.

Indeed, over the past four years, Riyadh has doubled down on its stance against terror and political Islam, while seeking to enact progressive reforms at home.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz laid out this vision for a more open society in a 2017 interview with the Guardian, saying: “We are simply reverting to what we followed — a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. [With] 70% of Saudis… younger than 30, honestly, we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

Riyadh’s bold approach is refreshing when compared to the duplicity of its rivals but it requires aggressive efforts to clamp down on their influence.

To clip the wings of those supportive of political Islam, Saudi Arabia has paid special attention to Iran, which supports extremist proxy groups throughout the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the Badr Brigades in Iraq.

It has also targeted Turkey, the lead sponsor of Sunni political Islam and the de facto base of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is viewed by many countries as an extremist group that aims to use democratic values to prop up caliphates around the region.

Given the Brotherhood’s historical connection to some of the world’s most violent organisations, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), there is reason for them to share this concern.

Saudi efforts to contain its regional threats — through exerting pressure on Iran, Turkey and Qatar and directly intervening in Yemen — have steadily paid off.

This has resulted in a weaker Islamist government in Turkey, an isolated Qatar that has become more wary of its fate than that of its affiliated Islamist groups and, of course, a more tense Iran that is facing unrest at home and isolation abroad.

In Yemen, the Houthis are also on the defensive, receiving less aid from Tehran and increasing pressure from the Saudi-led alliance. The World Food Programme said the Houthis have resorted to diverting shipments of food and selling humanitarian aid on the open market in Sana’a.

In Lebanon, the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement is reportedly increasing its criminal operations, including drug dealing and human trafficking, to secure much-needed funding.

ISIS and al-Qaeda have also been held back thanks to Saudi efforts to crack down on the groups’ funding and access to arms.

And, last but not least, Qatar is in a world of trouble. It remains caught in an absurd fight against the windmills of isolation and the repercussions of a regional mess that is of its own making.

While we are witnessing the gradual downfall of what the Saudi crown prince called the “triangle of evil,” it is critical that Riyadh and its allies remain patient and vigilant.

Saudi Arabia and the United States should brace for growing hostility from their foes in the Middle East due to their aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood and counterterror efforts.

All of this explains the relentless media and diplomatic campaign by Qatar, Turkey and Iran to weaken the US administration and contain Saudi Arabia. They have even exploited the plights of Palestinians, Middle Eastern Christians, Yemenis, Yazidis, Uighurs, Rohingya and other minorities across the globe for political points, gaining sympathy from those oblivious to their collective disdain for political freedom, human rights and minorities.

The good news is that growing hostility from the “triangle of evil” is a sign that Saudi- and US-led efforts to crack down on terror and extremism are making progress. However, to secure a better and more stable future, Riyadh should not let up the pressure.