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Saudi Arabia and the Soleimani assassination

  • Giorgio Cafiero
  • 20 Jan 2020

The US killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani serves as a reminder to the GCC that when push comes to shove, they are all in the same boat.

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el Sisi, Saudi Arabia's King Salman and US President Donald Trump at the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology” in 2017. ( AA )

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s media welcomed the brazen assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani earlier this month. In many ways, this was unsurprising. Riyadh had long associated Soleimani with the perceived Iranian threat. 

Prince Turki Al Faisal recently told CNBC that the assassination was a “wake-up call to the Iranian government and the Iranian leadership that they can’t get away with” activities in the region such as the missile and drone strikes on Aramco facilities in September. This view is that the Kingdom’s security guarantor — the United States — finally confronted Iran more aggressively in the region while asserting itself as a superpower. As many Saudis saw it, this was a long-overdue development in Washington’s foreign policy in the Arab region.

In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani, Saudi Arabia does not doubt that the US administration is determined to settle scores with the Islamic Republic. For Riyadh, such an alignment between the White House and the Kingdom is welcome following years of the Obama administration not taking (what the Saudi leadership believed to be) sufficient action to counter Iran’s expansion of influence. 

Moreover, in light of the Aramco attacks of September 2019, in which the Trump administration did not respond with the kind of force that Saudi Arabia’s government would have favoured, there has been some restoration of credibility on the part of the US leadership from Riyadh’s perspective. 

The sudden military action against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iraqi Shia forces in Iraq and Syria in late 2019 and early 2020 has left Saudi officials more confident that Trump will back up his anti-Iranian rhetoric with actions.

Concluding that Saudi Arabia’s government has no major concerns about unintended consequences and blowback, however, would be misguided. In fact, Riyadh’s initial response suggested that the Saudi leadership was unsettled by Trump’s decision to have Iran’s top military commander killed given the grave dangers that the Kingdom faces in terms of Iranian revenge. Significant was the fact that the Trump administration did not consult with Saudi Arabia or other allies in the Middle East before taking this action.

Rather than cheering Soleimani’s demise, Saudi Arabia issued an official statement that called “for the importance of self-restraint to ward off all acts that may lead to aggravating the situation, with unbearable consequences.” 

Riyadh’s chief diplomat took to Twitter to further clarify this statement, emphasising the “Kingdom’s view of the importance of de-escalation to save the countries of the region and their people from the risks of any escalation.”

To be sure, Riyadh has spent years urging the US to do more in terms of countering Iran. Yet, like the other five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Saudi Arabia does not want to see the US start a full-blown war with Iran. 

The consequences would be devasting for the Saudis. Last year’s Aramco attacks showcased Tehran’s ability to ensure that Saudi Arabia’s economy suffers to an extreme degree. There is hardly any doubt in Riyadh, or anywhere else in the region, that if the Americans would bomb Iran, Washington’s close GCC allies would likely be some of Iran’s first targets. Having invested heavily in Iran’s missile program, Tehran is in a position to make mincemeat out of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure.  

At the same time, pro-Iran Shia groups in the Kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province have carried out acts of subterfuge against the Saudi government in the past, and officials in Riyadh are not naive enough to conclude that this could never occur in the future. 

Although it is not clear what is fact or fiction, the Saudi media has often reported that past Houthi missile/drone strikes against Saudi Arabia were carried out in coordination with local actors in the Shia-majority Eastern Province, underscoring Riyadh’s concerns about how anti-regime elements in this part of the Kingdom could possibly coordinate with, or act on behalf of, the Islamic Republic if an all-out war erupts in the Gulf. 

As Yasmine Farouk recently wrote, “the pro-Iran Shia extremist organization, Hezbollah al-Hejaz, issued a statement that calls for a revenge that includes targeting the US-supported Saudi rulers” in response to the assassination of Soleimani.

Iraqi-Saudi relations

The future of Iraq matters a lot to Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom hopes to improve relations with its neighbour and deepen Saudi-Iraqi economic links through more cross-border trade. Inevitably, a full-scale US-Iran war fought in Iraq would have significant implications for the Kingdom as well as all of Iraq’s other neighbours. 

Even if such a nightmarish war does not break out, the escalation of violent chaos in Iraq following the assassination of Soleimani will severely threaten vital Saudi interests. If such chaotic conditions in Iraq give Islamic State (Daesh) more opportunities to re-emerge, there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia will become increasingly vulnerable.

Beyond the Daesh factor, Iraq’s deep divisions — both between the government and citizens as well as within the government — were already creating major problems in Iraq before Soleimani’s death. 

Politically, the assassination’s timing was extremely unfortunate for Iraq given all its dysfunctionality leading up to this new crisis which has severely damaged Washington-Baghdad relations. Now with the Iraqi government in a far weaker position to balance its alliances with both the US and Iran, Saudi officials are naturally concerned about pro-Iranian actors in Iraq taking full advantage of these circumstances to bring Baghdad closer to the Islamic Republic.

The GCC and a new Saudi approach to Qatar?

We have yet to fully realise how the assassination of Soleimani will play out in the Middle East. Yet it is clear that many in the Arab Gulf region are nervous about how events could unfold. It is a safe bet that Iran’s missile strikes against Iraqi bases hosting US forces in Erbil and al Anbar province will not mark the end of Iran’s retaliation for Soleimani’s demise. 

Understandably, the Arabian Peninsula’s monarchies — for all their differences, especially regarding Tehran — have communicated to Washington that de-escalation is their preference during this period of soaring tensions between the US and Iran.

Whereas Kuwait City, Doha, and Muscat usually urge dialogue, restraint, and moderation when friction heats up in the Gulf, these three capitals’ calls for de-escalation came as no surprise following Soleimani’s assassination. Yet it was notable how Riyadh and Abu Dhabi basically echoed their points. 

As Hussein Ibish recently wrote, GCC states’ reactions to the consequences of Washington and Tehran’s game of chicken in 2020 have provided a “salutary reminder of how much the Gulf Arab countries still have in common and how strongly their interests can converge in times of crisis.”

One of the critical questions to ask is how the Soleimani assassination will impact Saudi-Qatari relations. The Saudi media used the event to defame Qatar by alleging that the strike was launched from al Udeid and that Doha had supported Soleimani simultaneously. This was to imply that Qatar had been playing a deceitful role as a double-dealer.

Nonetheless, the Soleimani killing could possibly give Riyadh more reason to see itself in the same boat as Doha regarding concerns about a full-scale US-Iran war, increasing the chances of the Saudis lifting — or at least easing — the blockade of its neighbour. 

Ultimately, Saudi Arabia may conclude that improving relations with all of its fellow GCC members, including Qatar, would best position Riyadh to address increasingly dangerous threats posed by actors from outside the Council of Arab Gulf states.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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