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    Middle East
     Sep 2, 2006
Saudi bid for influence shattered
By Mahan Abedin

The war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon has exposed deep rifts between Iran and Syria on the one hand and the conservative and US-friendly regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt on the other. This was dramatically underlined by Saudi Arabia's unusually tough stance against Hezbollah at the outset of the conflict.

It is well known that among the West's allies in the region, it is

only the Saudis who can openly criticize US policy without risking their ties to Washington. Therefore, the fact they chose to chastise Hezbollah unequivocally (knowing full well what effect this will have on pro-Hezbollah public opinion in the Arab world) speaks volumes about growing Saudi desperation.

The Saudi stance against Hezbollah has less to do with fears of Iran's growing geopolitical weight than a demoralized reaction to the failure of its foreign policy in Lebanon. However, by choosing to side with the United States and Israel, the House of Saud risks deepening the dynamics that generate divisions and dissent in the kingdom.

Iran and Saudi Arabia: a difficult relationship
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been difficult, and at times openly hostile, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The coming to power of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the subsequent establishment of an Islamic Republic was deeply unsettling for the whole region, in particular the Saudis. The House of Saud's worries were twofold: at one level they feared the impact of the revolution on the kingdom's oppressed Shi'ite minority; but at a deeper level they were terrified by the Islamic regime's republicanism, which was anathema to the traditional monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

There were wider historical and geopolitical factors exacerbating the tensions. Iran and Saudi Arabia had been rivals for regional influence prior to the revolution. But the coming to power of the Islamic Republic lent the rivalry an ideological dimension and transformed it into outright hostility.

However, aside from generating legitimate fears, the collapse of the shah's regime presented the House of Saud with unprecedented geopolitical opportunities. The sudden collapse of Iranian-US relations and Iran's withdrawal from its position of political and military dominance in the Persian Gulf were widely welcomed in Saudi security, military and diplomatic circles. The Saudis hoped to fill the vacuum created by the shah's ouster by moving closer to the Americans and amplifying the threat from the Islamic regime in Tehran.

Iraq's invasion of Iran in September 1980, which heralded the start of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, was greeted with cautious optimism in Riyadh. While the Saudis did not want an outright Iraqi victory, they hoped Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would contain and exhaust the Iranian revolution. It was this objective that informed the kingdom's decision to underwrite Iraq's war effort by channeling billions of dollars to the Ba'athist regime in Baghdad. The Kuwaitis took a similar measure and made substantial contributions to Iraq's war effort.

Hardly any of this money was repaid by Iraq. In fact this financial largess (and the myopic foreign policy underpinning it) backfired against the Saudis and Kuwaitis in dramatic fashion when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

Saudis and the Shi'ites
Throughout the 1980s the Saudi strategy of dealing with the Iranian revolution involved delegitimizing Shi'ism. They founded and funded various anti-Shi'ite publications and outlets that produced countless books, videos and documents attacking the religious and theological premises of Shi'ism. Even today many of the organizations and websites that are exclusively dedicated to attacking the religio-historical and theological premises of Shi'ism can be traced to Saudi patronage.

For their part the Iranians actively aided the long-oppressed and extremely marginalized Shi'ites of Saudi Arabia, who mostly live in the Eastern Province. The main beneficiary of Iranian support was the Shi'ite reform movement in Saudi Arabia led by the highly learned Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar. Although the reform movement was founded in 1975 (four years before the victory of the Iranian revolution), it acquired a higher level of importance and prominence after 1979. Indeed, the uprising in the Eastern Province in 1979 was partly influenced by events in neighboring Iran.

The reform movement remained militant and uncompromising throughout much of the 1980s, with its leaders even refusing to negotiate with the Saudi government, which they regarded as fundamentally illegitimate. [1]

Broadly speaking, the Shi'ite reform movement harbored three core grievances. First and foremost they drew attention to widespread anti-Shi'ite feelings in the kingdom, sanctioned by state ulema (Islamic scholars). Although the Saudi state has always resisted calls for the violent suppression (and even obliteration) of the Shi'ites, it has rarely taken steps to curb public calls by Wahhabi ulema to isolate, harass and even murder ordinary Shi'ites.

Second, they objected to discriminatory policies by the state that made it impossible for Shi'ites to practice their religion freely. These policies included a ban on Ashura processions and the proscription of the Shi'ite call to prayer.

Third, the Shi'ite reform movement strongly objected to the notorious incompetence of the Saudis and their near-total dependence on the United States.

While the Iranians were sympathetic to general Shi'ite grievances, they mostly encouraged the reform movement to attack the Saudis on account of their alliance with the United States, which they identified as its Achilles' heel. The Iranians hoped this would resonate with wider sections of Saudi society who had begun to question the wisdom of Saudi foreign policy, which seemed to be centered on squandering the nation's oil wealth and facilitating US hegemony in the region and beyond.

But the movement's wholehearted support for Khomeini-style radicalism (as evidenced by the transformation of the reform movement into the Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula, or OIR) did not force the Saudis to make concessions. In fact, it had the opposite effect of strengthening the government's resolve to crack down on a movement that was - at the very least - inspired by the political culture and revolutionary rhetoric of a foreign power.

Moderating reform
In the late 1980s the OIR began to tone down its rhetoric and eschewed aggressive messages and tactics. [2] This process was reinforced by the ending of the Iran-Iraq War in July 1988, which had a depressing effect on Arab Shi'ites throughout the Persian Gulf region.

Thereafter, Sheikh Hassan al-Safar and his most senior colleagues pursued the politics of moderation and compromise. This reached its climax in 1993 when the House of Saud made an unprecedented deal with the Shi'ite dissidents. In exchange for their ending of opposition from abroad, the Saudis promised a range of concessions, including the release of prisoners and a promise to tackle pervasive and institutional anti-Shi'ite discrimination. [3]

While progress on tackling discrimination has been painfully slow (with many of the gains reversed in recent years), the 1993 pact between the followers of Sheikh Hassan al-Safar and the House of Saud remains in force.

Iranian support
The Iranians also sponsored different types of Saudi Shi'ite activism, including groups dedicated to violence. The most important was Saudi Hezbollah, also known as Ansar Khat al-Imam, or followers of the Imam's (ie, Khomeini's) line. This group was founded in 1987 by Sheikh Hashim al-Shukus, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Hubail and Abduljalil al-Maa, among others. [4]

Although the group was ostensibly dedicated to violence (and the Saudis unsurprisingly accuse it of terrorism), there is no reliable evidence of its involvement in any major act of terrorism. The sole exception may be the Khobar bombing of June 1996, which some US investigators believe was perpetrated by Saudi Hezbollah acting at the behest of Iranian intelligence. However, this charge has been seriously discredited in recent years and there is now general consensus in US counter-terrorism circles that the bombing was the work of Sunni jihadis probably linked to Osama bin Laden's network. [5]

Riyadh, Tehran and normalization
Notwithstanding the Saudi desire to sabotage Iranian foreign policy and Iran's active support for the kingdom's oppressed Shi'ite minority, the two countries gradually normalized relations in the 1990s. This process was boosted by the coming to power of reformist president Mohammad Khatami in August 1997, who pursued a policy of normalization with Iran's Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf region. This policy has not changed under the administration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, notwithstanding his different leadership style to Khatami's.

Nearly three decades after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian foreign policy has stabilized around a set of rational policies revolving around the primacy of national interest and harmonious relations with neighboring countries. Absent a collapse in the regional balance of power, Iran and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to revert to the Cold War of the 1980s.

Enter Hezbollah
Saudi Arabia has long sought to curtail the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Privately, Saudi officials share the US and Israeli view that Hezbollah - notwithstanding its impeccable Lebanese credentials - is ultimately an instrument of Iranian foreign policy. However, the Saudis supported Hezbollah's campaign in the 1990s to drive Israel out of southern Lebanon, albeit grudgingly.

To counter Iranian influence in Lebanon, the Saudis invested heavily in the country's reconstruction after the conclusion of the Taif Agreement in 1989. In fact, the Saudis have invested more in Lebanon than all the other Arab countries combined (US$595 million in 2003 alone). [6] The massive Saudi investment in the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and his government also served to shore up Syria's position in Lebanon. Hariri, who held Saudi citizenship and was the kingdom's emissary to Lebanon in the 1980s, was at the center of this Saudi-Syrian nexus.

The Saudis have long favored Lebanon's Sunni middle class. But their relationship with Hariri went beyond this; it was personal. This helps explain the kingdom's strong reaction to Hariri's assassination in February 2005. The reaction was so strong that it unraveled the Saudi-Syrian nexus in Lebanon, making it impossible for the Syrians to resist US pressures for a withdrawal.
The breakdown of the unofficial Saudi-Syrian pact in Lebanon might have benefited Iran, had it not provoked the so-called Cedar Revolution that was dominated by middle-class Sunnis and Christians. This posed a direct threat to Hezbollah and Iran insofar as it championed Lebanon's normalization on Sunni and Christian terms. In short, the Cedar Revolution risked opening Lebanon to US influence and permanent Israeli military and security hegemony. The Saudis stood to benefit as well, as long as their investments in the country were protected.

On the other hand, the demise of Saudi-Syrian understanding in Lebanon freed Hezbollah to undertake bolder actions against Israel. Since Syria was no longer duty-bound to protect Saudi interests and investments in Lebanon, it was more accommodating of Hezbollah plans to punish Israel for its daily violation of Lebanese airspace (and other forms of sovereignty) and secure the release of Lebanese and other Arab prisoners in Israeli jails.

The strong reaction of the Saudis against Hezbollah must be understood in this context. From the Saudi perspective, Hezbollah has invited terrible Israeli retribution on Lebanon and endangered 15 years of substantial Saudi investment on the volatile country.

Of course, there are deeper motives behind the kingdom's posturing. Clearly the Saudis are no friends of Hezbollah and have long resented their successes, especially against Israeli occupation forces. But the kingdom's reaction is, first and foremost, driven by the collapse of its policy in Lebanon. There (as elsewhere) Saudi policy is too often driven by a lack of strategic planning or the ill-conceived and irresponsible sponsorship of local players. This strategy rarely succeeds, as has been seen so dramatically in Lebanon.

Enter al-Qaeda
One of the more important long-term consequences of the war in Lebanon is its potential impact on the relationship between Salafi-jihadism and Hezbollah.

The Salafis (as opposed to the Salafi-jihadi movement, of which al-Qaeda is a part) have already scored an own-goal by caving in to Saudi pressure to issue fatwas against Hezbollah. Both Abdullah bin Jabreen and Hamid al-Ali (a Kuwaiti-based Salafi cleric) issued fatwas repeating the usual insults and accusations against Shi'ites, namely that they are rafida (rejectors) and stand with the enemies of Islam. The absurdity of this position (at a time when Hezbollah is engaged in a decisive conflict with Israel) is a reflection of Saudi desperation, and not a knee-jerk reaction by Wahhabis.

The fatwas of Jabreen and Ali have reinforced Iranian propaganda that the Salafi-jihadi movement in general (and al-Qaeda in particular) are aligned with US and Israeli interests. Indeed, the imagery is damning: while the Salafi-jihadis slaughter defenseless Shi'ite laborers in Iraq, Hezbollah successfully tackles the Israel Defense Forces, arguably one of the most powerful military forces in the world.

A spurious accusation
But of course propaganda is always deceptive.

The contention that Salafi-jihadis are aligned with Israel is as spurious as neo-conservative claims that Hezbollah merely acts on behalf of Iran and Syria. To understand the Salafi-jihadi position on the Lebanon war it is best to refer to Salafi analysis of the conflict.

Arguably the best analysis was posted by "Barbarossa" on the Tajdeed.org.uk forum. The author blames the conflict on rivalry between the "Safavid-Sasanid enterprise and those of the Zionist-Crusaders in the Islamic world ... And the criminal group in Tehran exploits the Arab Shi'ites as a tool to realize their ambitious designs. Thus in Lebanon they exploit the spirit of revolution ... and in Iraq they exploit the spirit of revenge and reprisals," [7] the author explains.

Therefore, according to Salafi-jihadist propaganda both protagonists are un-Islamic powers that are fighting their war on Arab lands.

A surprise for the Salafi-jihadis
While it is difficult to determine to what extent Salafi-jihadis believe their own propaganda, it is clear that they have been taken aback by the war in Lebanon. The inability of the jihadis to attack Israel is a serious disadvantage. The late Jordanian leader of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, alluded to it immediately before his death, claiming that Hezbollah is a "shield" for Israel.

While the Salafi-jihadis are hoping for an outright Israeli military victory, they stand to lose in the long term, as Hezbollah's prestige and influence have been boosted by its single-minded resistance against overwhelming Israeli force.

Equally worrying for the Salafi-jihadis is the broader resurgence of Iranian-style Islamism. This has been most evident in Iran itself, where the conflict has boosted hardcore ideological forces in the Islamic Republic and revived the "Hezbollahi" spirit that had been dormant since the late 1980s.

But arguably the biggest loser is the House of Saud.

Already its controversial stance against Hezbollah has divided opinion in the kingdom. The most important dissenter is Sheikh Salman al-Auda, a former Salafi hardliner, who has come out in support of Hezbollah. More broadly, there is significant grassroots support for Hezbollah, which is seen (as it is seen in other Arab countries) as the only effective tool against Israeli hegemony.

In the final analysis, the Lebanon war has not only imperiled 15 years of Saudi investments, but once again exposed the limitations of the kingdom's foreign policy. More ominously for al-Saud, it has sharply divided opinion in the country and further discredited the official Wahhabi ulema. This is bound to undermine the regime's security and create new forms of challenges and dissent long after the fighting stops in Lebanon.

1. Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, Palgrave, New York 2001, page 198.
2. "The Shi'ite Question in Saudi Arabia", Middle East Report No 45, September 19, 2005, International Crisis Group.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Author's private discussions with numerous American counter-terrorism experts and former officials, Washington, DC, October 2004-September 2005.
6. Tony Badran, "Saudi-Syrian relations after Hariri", Middle East Monitor, Vol 1: No 1, February 2006.
7. Chris Heffelfinger, "Jihadi Web forums revel in Lebanon confrontation", The Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Focus, Vol 3, Issue 28, July 18, 2006.

(This article first appeared in SaudiDebate.com. Published with permission.)

(Copyright 2006 SaudiDebate.com.)

Fleeing the wrath of Hezbollah (Sep 1, '06)

Al-Qaeda (and US) eclipsed by rise of Iran (Aug 30, '06)

Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah look to make up (Aug 25, '06)


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