Since Saudi Arabia’s King Salman became monarch last year, he has taken steps to proclaim that he will be a tough, strong, conservative ruler. He has adopted a truculent, provocative approach toward Iran. During hajj, after Saudi negligence murdered perhaps 2,500 worshippers in a stampede, he lied brazenly to the Iranians, who lost nearly 500 dead. He told them everything but the truth. To this day, those responsible have refused to offer a credible account. This was a crass, brutal insult to the victims and the rest of the Muslim world. But Salman didn’t care. He thought he could just ride it out.
In Yemen, he’s committed to a war to counter a supposed Houthi-Shiite threat. His merciless air bombardment has killed hundreds of civilians and children, but done little to root out the rebellion the King so fears.
Saudi Arabia also embraced a tacit ally it would never have in past decades. The authoritarian regimes of Israel and the Saudis see common enemies everywhere: in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Despite being Islamist and Jewish, they have much in common. The leaders of both countries define their national identities as based on religion. They see their enemies primarily through the prism of religion as well. The Saudis funded a $1-billion campaign by Israel to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists, foment rebellion among Iran’s Sunni minority, and sabotage its nuclear program. Israeli and Saudi security chiefs are in regular, though covert contact.
Despite the fact that Israel tramples on the rights of Muslim worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif, the House of Saud cares little for that. It’s primary concern is to preserve it own power and its sway over the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina. Jerusalem? Not so much.
Saudi Arabia, with oil prices in steep decline and the overall prospect for the oil economy in the coming decades dim, promises to grow increasingly irrelevant in the international context. Nor are developments in the region working in the Saudis favor. The U.S. and Iran have concluded a major nuclear agreement. The gradual improvement in relations and concurrent development of commercial ties with the west bodes well for Iran as a rising power in the region. Iran’s economy, while fueled to an extent by oil, has many other elements. Not to mention a highly intelligent, skilled, and well-trained workforce capable of participating in technology and other emerging sectors.
The execution of the Kingdom’s most prominent Shiite imam is yet another sign of the new King’s desperate need to assert legitimacy and power. Salman sought to rub Iran’s nose in it by snuffing out al-Nimr’s life. Unfortunately, Iran fell into the Saudi trap by rampaging through the Kingdom’s Tehran embassy and setting it alight. Iran reacted with dutiful rage at violence it itself incited and cut relations with Iran. Despite the ominous parallels to the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy, the world understands who is most wronged and who has done the most wrong.
As with Saudi Arabia, Israel’s star is also in gradual geostrategic decline. Like the Sunni kingdom, it too is developing abundant new energy reserves, but the wealth generated will trickle into the mouths of the 1% oligarchs and ex-generals, not the roughly one-quarter of the Israeli population living in poverty. Israel’s albatross is an endless Occupation which corrupts, like power, absolutely.
The future in the region belongs not to the perfect state, for there is none here. Rather, it belongs to the states least encumbered by ancient prejudices and hate. It belongs to those who embrace the future and turn away from a past mired in war. To those most nimble, innovative and flexible. At present, that looks increasingly like Iran and less like Israel or Saudi Arabia.