Saudi Arabia and the regional configuration of power

Saudi Arabia and the regional configuration of power
Comment: Since the Arab Spring, regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia, have been struggling to stay abreast of events and contain possible threats to their interests.
8 min read
06 Mar, 2015
Saudi Arabia and Turkey have emerged as regional powers [Anadolu]

Since the Arab Spring began in late 2010, Saudi Arabia has gradually replaced its quiet diplomatic approach with an aggresive one. On many regional issues, Saudi Arabia went as far as to refute the policies of its close US ally, notably on the 25 January revolution in Egypt.

For Saudi Arabia, the Arab spring posed a threat on two levels. First, these uprisings were staged to topple existing regimes. Saudi Arabia has always been hostile to the very idea of uprisings. Post-independence, the idea of revolution was contagious, and the 23 July coup in Egypt moved to Iraq in 1958 and to Yemen in 1962 and Jordan to a lesser extent, in 1957. But the 1979 revolution in Iran really triggered Saudi hostility to revolutions in general.

Although Saudi Arabia faced the Tunisian Jasmine revolution by hosting ousted President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the kingdom only felt a real threat when the revolution moved to Cairo.

For Saudi Arabia, Cairo under Mubarak, had always been its main and most important ally, especially after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. In fact, a revolution in Cairo could have restored the Arab cold war and the Saudi-Egyptian conflict under Jamal Abed al-Nassir at a time when Riyadh sees itself already mired in an existential threat from Iran. For this reason, Saudi Arabia decided to support Mubarak and his regime in the face of the revolts.

For Saudi Arabia, the Arab spring represented an ideological challenge.

Another aspect of the threat which stirred up Saudi concerns over the Arab spring revolutions was the alternatives that appeared. Regime change in the Arab countries , in most cases, brought to power Islamist movements, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

A love affair had begun between Saudi Arabia and these movements in the 1950s when the brothers opposed the Nasser regime. But this love affair turned into hostility when the Muslim Brotherhood stood by Iraq during the Kuwait invasion.

However, this is not only what pushed Riyadh to cooperate with Mubarak's regime to bring down MB rule in Cairo and curb their aspirations to assume power elsewhere. Saudi Arabia stood against the brothers because they refuted the Saudi interpretation of Islam and the Islamic authority of the kingdom.

In addition, the MB's rise gave a strong push to the most successful Islamist-ruled state in the region, Turkey, which acted as if it is the leader of all Islamist movements in the region, thanks to its charismatic and strong Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This Turkish behaviour appeared very clear to Saudi Arabia through Erdogan's visits to the Arab spring countries in 2012, particularly Egypt, despite his advice on the secular identity of the state, the sort of advice that were not appealing to the Brotherhood.

For Saudi Arabia, the Arab Spring therefore represented an ideological and geo-political challenge. The Muslim Brotherhood running a country like Egypt could compete with Saudi Arabia for Islamic world leadership. It would have turned Egypt from an ally to a rival and contributed to reinforcing Turkey's position across the region, at a time when Iran was also expanding its influence.

Riyadh has acted as though it was facing an existential threat and preoccupied itself with winning this battle. But how?

A war on everyone

Saudi Arabia's strategy was bizarre. The kingdom sought to bring down all its allies at once. While confronting the Iranian camp (as represented by the Nouri al-Maliki and Bashar al-Assad regimes, Hizballah militias and the Houthis among others), Saudi Arabia also embroiled itself in an equally fierce battle with Turkey and the MB across the region.

So Riyadh was fighting on two fronts at the same time. Moreover, it conincided with its confidence in Washington dropping to an all-time low after the Americans proved they were willing to abandon their ally, Mubarak, and seal a deal with Iran, a longtime US rival which Washington now appears to respect.

Even though the Saudi war on the MB slowed Turkish regional momentum after the 3 July coup in Egypt, it has ultimately served Iran. The blow directed at the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (the MB offshoot in Yemen) led to the Houthis taking power in Sanaa. Surprisingly, the  military rulers in Egypt also cozied up to the Iranian camp, in a joint show of hostility toward the Islamist movements, including the Brothers, Salafi groups and others.

Saudi Arabia has long strived to take control of Egypt, its indispensible ally amid the regional conflict with Iran and Turkey. Though the kingdom was at ease when the MB rule came to an end, with Yemen's collapse, Riyadh realized Egypt can only do so much to balance Iranian hegemony in the Arab Levant, particularly after the collapse of Iraq and Syria.

In the midst of its battle against the MB, Saudi Arabia turned a blind eye to the fact that Egypt has become a weak country and that the price it has to pay to restore Egypt is much bigger than the expected return. Saudi Arabia did not also realize that Egypt could be a burden, not an asset, if it reestablishes an alliance with it.

Saudi Arabia was closer than ever to these facts as the Iranian nuclear deal matured. Barack Obama's administration has manipulated its war on the Islamic State group (formerly known as ISIS) to conduct a deal that will bolster Iran's position in the international arena.

Egypt's chances of confronting Iran

Saudi Arabia must be primarily preoccupied with preventing Egypt from falling under the Iranian-Russian influence, rather than relying on Cairo to fend off this influence. Given the imbalance of power in the region, Egypt is unable to face Iran, with Egypt's overpopulation serving as a burden. Egypt's chances of playing a leadership role in the region are slimmer than ever. Egypt's role has been crippled and this appears clear when we compare the Egyptian experience with the Iranian experience over the past 35 years.

When the 1979 Iranian revolution happened, and Iran came under isolation and an embargo, Egypt had signed a peace treaty with Israel and started receiving $2.2 billion from the United States every year. At a time Egypt freed itself of the conflict with Israel and started reaping the fruits of peace and development, Iran was engaged in the eight-year war with Iraq, costing it millions of dollars and claiming the lives of one million people.

Turkey has also established the most advanced industrial base in the region and the Islamic world.

While Iran was exposed to the dual containment policy, depriving it of economic and industrial advancement, Egypt was receiving international and Gulf aid estimated at billions of dollars for opposing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and contributing to peacemaking by forcing the Palestinians to yield to the Israeli conditions and abiding by the Camp David peace treaty. What was the result after 25 years of Egyptian peace and 25 years of an embargo in Iran?

The result was that with 90 million people, Egypt's GDP went up to $272 billion according to the 2014 International Monetary Funds figures. This places Egypt 41st worldwide after the Philippines, Chile and Nigeria. Egypt is even close to Greece, a country with a tenth of the population, and is suffering from a crushing economic crisis. Nonetheless, illiteracy, unemployment and poverty rates increased, with the military controlling the national economy and distributing awards to its affiliated employees and retirees.

Egypt's role in the Arab world, the region and Africa has collapsed. As a result, even a country like Ethiopia ignored Cairo on the issue of constructing dams on the Nile river.

Now back to Iran, the besieged country with 80 million people according to 2013 statistics, its GDP reached 350 billion USD, ranking it 33rd worldwide.

Despite the isolation and confrontation with the West, Iran has successfully icnreased its power in most places in the region extending from Afghanistan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west, all the way to Yemen and the Horn of Africa. In addition, all the superpowers in the world are discussing the nuclear programme with Iran. Iran has also become very close to acquiring the know how to manufacture nuclear arms. So it only takes a political decision to manufacture nuclear arms in Iran.

Speaking of the scientific research, Iranian universities are among the top universities in the world. This comparison makes it unlikely for Egypt to become a regional balance that is capable of playing a balancing role.

Turkey's chances of confronting Iran

Turkey appears to be the only regional country capable of confronting Iran. With 70 million, Turkey's GDP exceeds $830 billion. The Turkish economy is the 17th largest worldwide and has been maintaining a steady growth of 5-6 percent. Turkey enjoys a stable political regime and an advanced industrial base, as well as educated people.

The Turkish government has developed an ambitious plan to become the 10th biggest economy worldwide in 2023, when it marks the centennial of the declaration of the Turkish Republic. In this case, Turkey will come before South Korea, Mexico, Spain, Australia and even Canada.

Given the current situation, Turkey's economy is two times stronger than the Iranian economy and three times stronger than the Egyptian economy. Turkey has also established the most advanced industrial base in the region and the Islamic world. Its army is the second largest in the NATO after the United States.

Geopolitically speaking, Turkey is located between Europe and the Middle East and Russia. But Turkey's main point of weakness is that it is short of energy resources. But this problem remains under control if the map of political alliances in the region changes, particularly the alliances formed based on the war on Syria, and if Turkey frees itself of Russia and Iran's blackmailing on oil and gas supplies.

For geographic, ideological, military and political reasons, Turkey is the only regional power capable of confronting the Islamic State group (IS) and containing its influence. On the one hand, Turkey is a Sunni country run by an Islamist government that has presented a good model in governance and economy. Turkey has a huge military capacity, allowing it to intervene and run a battle against the IS. Any battle against the group without Turkey's intervention is going to lose. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia must establish close ties with Turkey, even if it loses Egypt.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic website.