Given its location, resources and religious significance, Saudi Arabia should have developed into one of the world’s great powers: a Norway in the Middle East, perhaps, or a South Korea on the Arabian Peninsula. At the very least, someone at the top should’ve realized the good times wouldn’t last—eventually the oil would run out, superpowers would move on, and the country would have to stand on its own.
Apparently not. Modern Saudi Arabia finds itself in desperate circumstances, which call for desperate measures. The kingdom’s last best chance may be the one nobody saw coming: an alliance with Israel.
Decades of distrust
In 1979, the very same Soviet Union that had bankrolled Saudi Arabia’s former nemeses, including Nasser’s socialist Egypt, invaded Afghanistan. The world’s most powerful land army was now a hop, skip, and a jump away. Saudi Arabia partnered with Pakistan, the United States, and local Afghan forces to make sure the Soviets never made it farther.
Meanwhile, earlier in 1979, the pro-Western Shah of Iran—a fellow absolute ruler of a compliant petrochemical power—was replaced by the self-declared Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia and Iran almost immediately clashed, beginning a decades-long adversarial relationship. Making the first move, Saudi Arabia, her Gulf Cooperation Council allies, and the United States backed Saddam Hussein’s brutal invasion of Iran. Iran survived, scathed and angry, but also contained.
9/11 and America’s decision to topple the Taliban (which only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates had recognized) changed this. Not only was that a failure, and horribly executed, it had two terrible side effects for the Saudis: It removed Iran’s principal regional opponent and exhausted America, her principal superpower patron. More about this later.
In early 2011, a popular uprising toppled Tunisia’s longtime dictator. This was vaguely ominous, but when the contagion spread to Egypt, it became downright terrifying. The largest Arab nation, mostly Sunni Muslim like Saudi Arabia, could not be allowed to become a democracy. The convulsions reached Yemen to the south, and fellow Gulf monarchy Bahrain off Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast.
When the dust had settled, Saudi Arabia and her allies had managed to avoid democracy in Egypt, crushed popular hopes in Bahrain, and launched a devastating war against Yemeni rebels. The Middle East seemed to be at peace once more, while the Arab Spring in Syria meant Iran’s major regional ally, and conduit to Hezbollah, was tied down.
To keep her neighbors from democratizing, however, Saudi Arabia was spending vast sums of money on their stability, even while burning through cash domestically. In such a precarious situation, any one new development can threaten catastrophe.
There have been three.
Barack has left the building
Right as Saudi Arabia was about to go to war with Yemen, Riyadh asked erstwhile ally Pakistan to pitch in. It seems the kingdom may have assumed that the region’s largest military, and only Muslim nuclear power, would happily sign up. But Pakistan’s parliament, smarting from years of sectarian warfare, was in no mood to find itself in the middle of an Iranian-Saudi proxy war, and voted no.
Busy signing a nuclear deal with Iran, despite Israeli protestations and Saudi anxieties, US president Barack Obama was also not particularly interested. Add to this America’s rising energy independence, and the Middle East became an afterthought in Washington.
Even worse news came just weeks after the deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program was signed. Russia escalated its involvement in Syria, backing the Iranian ally. After nearly collapsing before a Sunni coalition, the Assad regime now had a lifeline: troops, hardware, and aircraft from one of the world’s most powerful nuclear nations. The end result? Iran now may have the superpower backing Saudi Arabia once did.
Saudi Arabia’s principal concern is preventing Iran from dominating the region. But, of course, Iran and Saudi Arabia are not equals. Iran is militarily far stronger, economically far more capable, and strategically far more sophisticated. Despite suffering years of sanctions, Iran has spread its influence across the region—and without these sanctions, will of course be more powerful. Despite enjoying years of cash windfalls, Saudi Arabia finds herself remarkably isolated.
The kingdom has put down tens of billions to keep Egypt on her side. Impoverished, struggling with an insurgency and governed by the same incompetent military elites who oversaw the country’s decline from powerful regional player into irrelevancy, Egypt is more liability nowadays than asset.
This leaves GCC allies, who might be eager to help Saudi Arabia but they’re too small to make a substantial difference.
A desperate Saudi Arabia has fewer and fewer options when it comes to counterbalancing Iran, none of them particularly suited to the task.
The four potential horsemen
Turkey might have seemed promising, with its NATO membership, shared interests in Syria, large military and Sunni Islamist government. But Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president is likely to restart a Kurdish insurgency and, anyhow, Turkey is well aware that Russian forces are to its north (Ukraine) and south (Syria), and now violating its airspace. Turkey’s next moves will be hard to predict.
China’s certainly powerful enough, but why would China intervene in a regional proxy war on the wrong side of Russia and Iran and the same side as America? Sure, China has energy needs—but China also doesn’t need its own Afghanistan.
India’s not as wealthy or powerful as China, but has a shared interest in combatting Islamic extremism. Too, under its far-right government, India’s been tilting towards America and, more importantly, Israel—but India has a huge Muslim minority, many whom are Shia, and has few good reasons to get bogged down in a sectarian war.
Which brings us back to Israel, the Middle East’s sole nuclear power. With the Netanyahu government’s increasingly open hostility to even the idea of Palestinian statehood, the Saudis would seem unlikely to openly embrace Tel Aviv. But there is already tacit Israeli-Saudi cooperation, including talks and, in the GCC at larger, tentative steps towards trade and normalization, which have gradually come to light.
There will be more such cooperation, and more openly: Saudi Arabia and Israel already find themselves on the same side of issues. They are both opposed to the Iran Deal, dislike the idea of Assad’s surviving in power, have different reasons for detesting Hezbollah and aren’t very keen on Moscow backing up an Iranian proxy responsible for more deaths and more brutality than even ISIS. When the enemy of your enemy is also your enemy, you’ve no choice but to determine who you’re less afraid of.
Welcome to the new Middle East.