A series of decisions under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has led the Kingdom down a path of irrelevance.
During the initial years of the civil war in Syria, many described it as a sectarian proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even though restricting the complex nature of the war to this narrow view is misguided, ten years on, it is clear that Saudi Arabia has lost.
With the inauguration of the Trump administration and the changes within the Saudi dynasty, Saudi Arabia counted on the United States to act on its behalf and lined up behind the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia has now lost in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. Now with an end to the Qatar blockade and a possible rapprochement with Turkey, Saudi Arabia could come back into the game.
With the announcement of the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran, Saudi Arabia put their faith in words over actions and reduced its efforts to limit Iran. The belief in the Kingdom was that Trump will succeed in reversing Iranian expansionism alone and they could focus on internal matters and follow the UAE's lead.
Four years later, this policy outlook from Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman proved to be devastating. Trump’s strategy managed to limit further Iranian expansion, but it could not hold it or even reverse Iranian progress on the ground.
A withdrawing Saudi Arabia, an increasingly influential UAE that focused on Turkey and Qatar, and the continuing Russian-Iranian cooperation made Saudi Arabia the primary loser of the geopolitical chess game in the Middle East. From Syria to Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s role was relegated to a footnote.
At one point Saudi Arabia was the primary supporter of the biggest armed rebel union in Syria, the Islamic Front, and was on the doorsteps of Damascus with its favorite local rebel group, Jaysh al-Islam, now the Saudi role has no signifcance.
The Saudi foreign minister used to openly threaten toppling the Assad regime if it did not implement political reforms and actively engage Iran in a proxy war. The Saudi-supported rebel groups in Syria were some of the fiercest anti-Iran groups.
Today, Iran is listed among the main actors in Syria, but Saudi Arabia is not. The Kingdom reversed its support for the Islamic Front which collapsed and Jaysh al-Islam, once the second-largest single armed group, is now one of many armed groups in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army.
Moreover, while Saudi Arabia would actively use tribal links to encourage engaging Iran-linked Shia militias, now they arbitrarily send envoys to calm tribes and convince them to cooperate with the YPG terror group.
Saudi Arabia has always been regarded as the main protector of Lebanon's Sunni Arabs and has enjoyed huge sway over the politics of the country. However, since the abduction of Saad Hariri, their influence has consistently waned.
For a long time now, it has been Turkey, not Saudi Arabia, that is enjoying growing influence and support among Sunni Arabs and the Lebanese people in general. Iran has manifested its grip on the country via Hezbollah. The entire Syrian-Lebanese border is now controlled by Hezbollah, where once Syrian rebels held that territory.
When Saudi Arabia first intervened in Yemen, most of the Middle East supported the armed intervention as a move to counter Iranian expansionism. Among others, Turkey and Qatar were outspokenly supportive. However, this support was short lived.
Saudi Arabia has committed several crimes and failed to tackle the Iranian-backed Houthis. Over the years, Saudi Arabia has been backstabbed by the UAE’s support of a separatist movement in the south. Saudi efforts to secure its borders in the south have also failed miserably.
By entrusting its interests to others, namely the Trump administration, the Saudi Kingdom has compromised its position, lost its influence and failed to counter Iran. Iran is stronger than before and the incoming Joe Biden administration will not inspire much hope in the House of Saud.
Turkish-Saudi cooperation on the horizon?
The recent Turkish-Saudi rapprochement and the end of the Gulf crisis clears a path out of the current debacle for the Kingdom. Depending on the Saudi monarchy's sincerity, Turkey and Saudi Arabia can effectively work together where interests overlap. As history and the present show: where Turkey is, Iran isn’t.
With the exception of Yemen, Turkey has increased its role and influence where Saudi Arabia has reduced its role. Turkey has huge soft-power assets in Lebanon and a standing army as a local partner in Syria. Seeing this opportunity, Saudi Arabia can enter the game through Turkey. Moreover, Saudi Arabia can use the results of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to increase its presence next-door to Iran.
In Syria, the Syrian National Army provides Saudi Arabia with a golden opportunity. Saudi Arabia can renew its support to the political Syrian opposition, invest in the army, and upgrade its role in the conflict.
Knowing that the Syrian people have suffered heavily from Iran and are in fierce opposition to the Islamic Republic, increasing their role in the political process and the future of the country will function as a natural bulwark against Iran.
Nonetheless, it has yet to be seen if Saudi Arabia will pursue its interests by its own means, bandwagon behind the UAE or through new US policies containing empty promises for the Kingdom.
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