“I’m telling you, you can’t compare Saudi Arabia to other countries”
– Al-Waleed bin Talal
The ‘Modern’ Saudi
Saudi Arabia has spent much of the 20th and 21st century asserting a unique form of national identity within the Middle East; one that argues that it is the leader of global Islam and, as such, the spiritual and political head of the Ummah (the Arabic term for the supra-national Islamic world).
This identity, and the need to create this identity, has defined the international relationship Saudi Arabia has had with its neighbours in the Middle East and, although it has managed to give Saudi Arabia some political dominance over the affairs of the Gulf Region and wider world, it has also brought them into direct rivalry with others in the region, in particular Iran, who have a divergent geopolitical vision for the world. This rivalry has never resulted in anything more than proxy conflicts in the past, but Saudi’s continued pursuit of regional political authority may well lead it to conflict in 2016.
The root of its national identity lies in the religious divides that have defined the Islamic World for centuries. Sunni and Shi’a Islam have two opposing interpretations of the religion, rooted in the historical succession to Mohammed, and each have a political proponent in Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively. This rivalry is greater than a simple difference of opinion and it has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. It has created an intractable conflict between two religious identities that, in the modern world, has divided communities as much as it has divided nation states.
Across the Middle East there is now a split between Sunni and Shi’a communities. Iraq, Bahrain, Syria and Saudi Arabia are all split along sectarian lines and whilst Iraq and Syria have descended into violence, Saudi Arabia has managed to contain its own sectarian struggles. However, through its decision to intervene militarily in Syria and Yemen, through its suppression of Shi’a opponents (culminating in the execution of 41 prisoners) and through its continued aggression towards Iran, it has risked its future stability.
In Yemen the Saudi led coalition has targeted Houthi rebels in a war that has pitched the Shi’a rebels (characterised by Saudi Arabia as terrorists) against the ‘saviour’ of Sunni Islam. It has become a nationalist struggle and signals a new period in Saudi Arabia’s military strength, in which it is prepared to commit troops to wars abroad. This all symbolises the ‘new’ Saudi Arabia which is focused on its preeminent role in Middle Eastern affairs.
However, this new foreign policy agenda is provocative. Saudi nationalism has come at the price of Middle Eastern security. It has led to protests from its own Shi’a minority in the East who are seeking greater representation in politics and want to challenge the authority of the ruling Saud family. This resentment from its Shi’a minority has been brutally repressed by the Saudi regime and many of the individuals executed in the most recent round of government ‘justice’ were protestors who argued against government policies.
The restriction of free press has become a part of the new Saudi national identity. It sees the Gulf Region as the centre of a vast battle between the two sides of Islam and with its political future staked on wining this battle against Iran, it cannot allow any threats to go unnoticed. Protest and political criticism is the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia’s stability.
So what could a potential future for Saudi Arabia entail?
If Saudi Arabia continues its pursuit of a supra-national Sunni identity it will come into conflict with Iran. The Sunni-Shi’a split is arguably the most ingrained division in politics, based on thousands of years of history, and it will not be solved simply. When this religious divide is combined with the geopolitical conflict between the Saudi and Iranian desire for regional dominance, the potential for conflict is vast. The two nations are already entrenched in conflicts around the region, supporting opposing sides (although neither side supports Islamic State, despite seeing alternative ways in which to end the conflict) and these positions have already resulted in political controversy, from accusations of supplying weapons to claims that air raids have been used to target political, as well as military, targets.
From here the potential for face-to-face conflict is very real. Saudi Arabia and Iran have begun an escalation of tensions that, unstopped, would only lead to open warfare. This war would be a war for regional dominance and for economic and political superiority. It would determine the future of many other nations in the region, such as Syria and Iraq, and, most importantly, it would confirm who had authority of the Ummah and thus the Islamic world.