Three countries were on top of the agenda for the many Saudis I met with in Riyadh last week. Again and again, and in passionate terms, Saudi political leaders were keen to stress the importance of arming Syrian opposition players, bombing Iran’s alleged nuclear facilities, and unflinchingly supporting the al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain. In their minds, these are not political options, but rather realities on the ground that they worry Washington does not understand.
Car bumper stickers in Riyadh called for arming the Free Syrian Army. Such an open display of support for military intervention in another country cannot be expressed in Saudi Arabia without government and broader public backing. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, is on record calling for the arming of Syrian fighters. At meeting after meeting, the U.S. government position was heavily criticized by our Saudi friends. I was struck by two points: First, when asked what would happen after Assad fled or was removed, most Saudis I spoke with fell silent. Much like the Syrian opposition, their Saudi supporters have yet to put in place a concrete, viable plan to help Syrians rebuild after the fall of this deeply entrenched Baathist state. Second, no consideration has been given to what might happen if Saudi citizens were to rise in protest against the House of Saud. Does a military intervention in Syria not set a direct precedent for Saudi protesters in the Eastern Province? If those protesters were to be armed by outside powers, would Saudi Arabia’s government accept U.S. support for anti-government Saudis?
To most Saudis, though, the Syrian conflict is not just about Syria. It is also about Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy: Iran. While it is disputable whether Iran’s nuclear program is for weapons-development purposes, most Saudi officials I spoke with, much like the American public, are convinced that Iran is headed toward developing weapons. Tellingly, Saudi concern was not about an attack on Israel, but on Saudi Arabia itself. At the highest levels of government, there was genuine fear that Iran intends to attack Saudi Arabia, and that the United States simply does not grasp the depth of the Iranian threat to the Kingdom, and beyond.
If I found myself disagreeing with Saudi friends on Syria, and still thinking about Iran, I was impressed by Saudi resolve and clarity on Bahrain. They cited Iranian support for the Shia cleric Ayatollah Isa Qassim, who had been in exile in Qom before returning to Bahrain in 2001. The fall of the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain would result in Qassim’s political party, al-Wefaq, taking control of the country’s institutions. With pro-Iranian clerics at the helm, Shia control of Bahrain would have unprecedented consequences, encouraging agitation among Saudi Arabia’s Shia population, but also resulting in a pro-Iran government in the GCC with access to Saudi Arabia’s joint oil fields with Bahrain. During my time in Bahrain, I met with the main opposition party and other political forces—on the basis of the evidence I saw, including claims by Shia opposition members of being verbally and physically attacked by supporters of Ayatollah Isa Qassim, I found myself in agreement with Saudi analysis. I will be writing in greater detail about Bahrain separately.
While Saudi concerns about Iran are not new, Iran’s direct meddling in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan give our Saudi allies every right to worry anew about Iranian imperialist influences. In the name of creating a democracy, the West helped hand over Iraq to the Iranian sphere of influence in the modern Middle East. That mistake cannot be repeated in Bahrain—and it won’t be for as long as the Saudis are standing.
I disagree with our Saudi friends on Syria and I am unsure on Iran, but I know they are right about the risks in Bahrain and the consequences of not supporting the al-Khalifa monarchy as it introduces reforms. The U.S. government is right to station its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.
As the appetite for greater involvement in the Middle East dissipates in Washington, it is worth remembering the famous saying attributed to Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” The cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is real. Bahrain is on the front line of that war.
(My next post will address Saudi domestic concerns.)