Iran is dangerous—but Saudi Arabia is even worse

A region on the brink.
A region on the brink.
Image: Reuters/Danish Ismail
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Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr was designed to provoke Iran into an expansion of military engagement. That’s an unsettling strategy–but true nonetheless.

The initial reaction to the kingdom’s decision was relatively minor—a few Molotov cocktails were lobbed at its embassy in Tehran. But a chain reaction of diplomatic fallout has unfolded over the past few days. Saudi Arabia severed all diplomatic relations with Iran; oil allies Bahrain, Sudan and Djibouti quickly followed suit. Perhaps more surprisingly, other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies like Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates opted for the less drastic measure of recalling their ambassadors.

Each act of incitement, however, including Saudi Arabia’s allegedly deliberate targeting of the Iranian embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, is further indication of Riyadh’s desperation to demonize Tehran in the court of world opinion. It is an exercise in futility, and one that casts doubt over the kingdom’s own stability and sensibility. The United States’ longtime ally is losing its iron-fisted grip over both its people and the region. This fact, coupled with Saudi Arabia’s staggering arsenal and unprincipled ruling ideology, makes the kingdom incredibly dangerous–arguably more so than infamous Axis of Evil member Iran.

Saudi Arabia contends that its provocations of Iran are a principled and urgent rejoinder to a dangerous sectarian rival. But the reality is that the kingdom seeks to distract the international community from its own significant internal weaknesses.

Saudi Arabia is in dire economic straits. In 2015, it ran a budget deficit approaching $100 billion, and it is on track for an $80 billion dollar shortfall this year. Riyadh’s decision to boost oil production to enervate competitors like Iran and shale oil producers has driven the price of crude oil down sharply, wrecking its own financial profile. (Last year at this time, a barrel of oil sold for $78; today it sells for roughly half the price.) For a country with an oil sector that comprises 75% of its budget revenues, this loss of income has a serious impact. The kingdom has announced unprecedented austerity measures, including a value-added tax, and has raised the price of gas in the country by 50%.

During the precarious negotiations of the P5+1 nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia told anyone who would listen that Iran was unreliable, untrustworthy, and inherently bellicose. Much to Riyadh’s chagrin, however, Iran has complied with major provisions of the agreement, as with its recent shipment of 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium to Russia. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) 12-year investigation ended with the conclusion that Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, if it existed at all, ended in 2009, expediting the lifting of sanctions on Tehran.

While Saudi Arabia persists in its campaign to paint Iran as an aggressive, expansionist regional force, the kingdom has increased its own military expenditure considerably: $11 billion in ships, $1.3 billion in bombs and munitions last year. Riyadh’s defense budget is in fact five times that of Iran, and the GCC as a whole maintains a 10:1 ratio of military expenditure over its Persian counterpart.  The accumulation of such a large arsenal in a tinderbox locale raises serious questions about who, exactly, is the main destabilizing force in the region.

Stability is the last excuse of the autocrat. The Saudis have expended tremendous resources persuading their Western allies that the steadiness of an authoritarian monarchy trumps democracy, let alone civil liberties and human rights. Yet current changes to the line of succession are challenging that narrative. A paradigm shift of leadership beckons as King Salman, the son of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz Al-Saud, looks to incorporate a next generation of Saudi royalty. The king’s nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, is the crown prince and presumptive heir to the throne. But it is Salman’s own son, Mohammed, deputy crown prince and the world’s youngest defense minister at age 30, who is seen as the country’s eminence grise and successor to his father’s title.

However, Mohammed bin Salman is widely regarded as impulsive and woefully inexperienced. The failure of Saudi policy against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebellion in Yemen lies at his feet. It is hardly a coincidence that on the same day Riyadh executed Sheik Al-Nimr, it unilaterally withdrew from a fragile ceasefire in Yemen. Western allies and regional acolytes alike nervously consider whether Saudi Arabia will be vulnerable to more campaigns of folly or even a palace coup, depending on who next ascends the leadership hierarchy.

If stability is something the Saudis market to its Western allies, it is religious access that the country promotes to the Muslim world. The House of Saud has enjoyed and exploited its moniker of Guardian of the Holy Sites. This status has tamped down criticism by many who fear being denied entry to Mecca for the annual religious obligation of the Hajj.

This is not to say discontent has been quashed in the Muslim world. Increasingly, dissenters have argued that Saudi Arabia has become a liability to Islam. The “Vegasization” of Mecca, with its tall, garish buildings and luxury hotels dwarfing the Grand Mosque; the demolition of historically and religiously important sites in the city; and the debacle surrounding yet another stampede during the Hajj have all caused many Muslims to question whether staying silent on Saudi misfeasance is worth the consequences. Without the presumption of legitimacy from the Muslim world, the credibility of the Saudi regime stands on shifting sands.

Needless to say, the kingdom’s not-so-subtle implosion has important ramifications for the region. Interestingly, it may have even overplayed its hand with the Obama Administration. In response to the execution of Sheikh Al-Nimr and the ensuing diplomatic downward spiral, the White House has called for both sides to exercise restraint—an interestingly neutral tack when dealing with America’s professed central strategic ally and another it does not have diplomatic relations with.

This balanced response indicates a potentially major recalibration in American thinking regarding the Persian Gulf and the two major countries that straddle a geostrategic waterway. It also suggests that after 36 years, Washington is no longer interested in placing all of its regional strategic eggs in one basket, especially when stronger, more stable alternatives are readily available. The erosion of reliability and judgment displayed of late by the House of Saud exposes it as a royal family either unwilling or unable to put its house in order. And in one of the world’s most volatile regions, that is the most provocative act of all.