Saudi Arabia's only concern appears to be a confrontation with Iran, which is seen as the Kingdom's number one enemy. That's what we can conclude from the Saudi media mobilisation against the Islamic Republic. However, Saudi policies on the ground are almost all serving the interests of Iranian projects. Saudi hostility towards Iran has been described as being similar to Iran's hostility towards the US and Israel; adversaries in public and allies in private. Of course, Iran benefits a lot from its understandings with Israel and America, while Saudi Arabia is losing a lot in its relationship with Iran.
Looking at Saudi policies, we find that they do not serve anyone as much as they serve Iran, even if unintentionally. The lesson is always in the results on the ground, starting with Lebanon and going on to Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Why did Saudi Arabia lose and Iran win in these countries?
It is a well-known fact that Saudi Arabia played a pivotal role in overthrowing the former Iraqi regime and took it upon itself to provide a large part of the funding to do so. However, instead of establishing itself in the new Iraq, it lost all of its cards there, allowing the country to become a vital territory for Iranian influence, if not quite an Iranian colony. Iran has the final word in the former Mesopotamia, along with the Americans; perhaps even more so. It is worth noting that Iran did not help the US in the invasion of Iraq as the Saudis did, but it still reaped the fruits of the invasion, while the government in Baghdad has become an enemy of Saudi Arabia. Some Iraqi officials linked to Iran have even threatened to invade Saudi Arabia several times. Where is the strategic Saudi thinking about a neighbouring Arab country that is very important to its own national security? Iranian diplomat Amir Al-Mousawi said a while ago that Saudi Arabia is sowing and Iran is reaping the harvest, which is what has happened in Iraq.
Even in its backyard of Yemen, Saudi Arabia seems to be losing the battle. What has it achieved after more than three years of war against the Houthis, Iran's allies in Riyadh's southern neighbour? It has lost billions of dollars and won the hatred of the Yemeni people, while Iranian influence in Yemen is strengthened by the Houthis.
Moreover, seven years after its intervention in Syria, Saudi Arabia is also losing its battle against the Iranians there. None of the groups that it backed are left on the ground; in Ghouta, for example, it lost its ally Jaysh Al-Islam, which was forced to move up north after Russia's attacks and Iran's encroachment. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia spent a lot on its battles in Syria, but it lost them all. What's more, it is strange that Saudi Arabia's number one ally in the Gulf, the UAE, is allied indirectly with the Iranians in Syria in favour of the regime. In a recent interview, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad did not accuse the UAE of conspiring against his country. It is as if he were saying that the Emiratis and the Iranians are one and are supporting him.
We must also not forget that when the rebels were close to the presidential palace in Damascus, they retreated in disarray after Saudi Arabia entered the fray, as if it had come in support of the regime and the Iranian militias. Indeed, didn't all of Saudi Arabia's plans in Syria ultimately serve the interests of Iran? Aren't the Shia militias taking over Syria from every direction while the Saudi-backed groups have fallen apart? Why did the Kingdom turn on its groups and hand them over to Russia and Iran on a gold platter under the pretext of supporting the political solution in Syria? Is this strategic thinking or foolish thinking?
Matters are even worse in Lebanon, as Saudi Arabia lost its final card in the recent elections and its favoured group lost. Meanwhile, the supporters of the Syrian regime and Iran won more seats in the new Lebanese parliament, making Saad Hariri and his coalition look like orphans at the table. This happened because Saudi Arabia did not know how to deal with its allies in Lebanon. Detaining Hariri last year and forcing him to resign in a humiliating manner had the reverse effect on the Kingdom's allies. Riyadh lost a lot as a result of this foolish action, and instead of enhancing and reinforcing the Sunni alliance in Lebanon, it created new groups there, as if it were trying to tear apart the Sunni ranks. This was clear in the election results, with supporters of the Syrian regime and Iran winning even in Sunni areas linked to Saudi Arabia.
The different between Saudi Arabia and Iran is very simple. Saudi Arabia is not only poor at attracting allies, but also really good at driving a wedge between its allies and throwing them under the bus. It sometimes even alienates them and provokes them with its policies that can only be described as stupid. How can we expect Saudi Arabia to support the Sunnis in the Arab world if it has conspired against the Wahhabi movement, which kept the Saudi regime in power for nearly a century?
It is noticeable that while Iran has gathered all of the Shia factions in the region under its wing and uses them to advance its own interests, Saudi Arabia is alienating anyone who might stand by its side. It has targeted all of the Islamic movements in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and the region in general, with the result that it is left without any significant supporters or allies. Indeed, the government in Riyadh has reached the point of besieging its neighbours and forcing them to ally with others against their will. Look at how it conspired against Turkey and, in doing so, basically forced Ankara's rapprochement with Iran. Few could compete with Saudi Arabia in shooting itself in the foot, despite having moral and financial privileges that no one in the region can compete with. The Saudi GDP is almost double that of Iran's, and it has the advantage of hosting the two holiest cities for Muslims all over the world, but either it does not know how to invest its resources or it is simply a proxy for foreign powers that do not even care about Saudi Arabia itself.
It is time for Saudi Arabia to reconsider its policies if it is really serious about confronting and thwarting Iranian expansionism. If it continues to adopt the same approach, it will find many people asking whether Saudi Arabia really is a rival of Iran's or simply a lever for Tehran's regional projects. We must not look at politicians' words, but at their actions. In Saudi Arabia's case, aren't its actions in the region all in favour of Iran, both directly and indirectly?
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 14 May 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.