Saudi Arabia is directly and indirectly waging a war on practically all fronts, whether declared or not. In doing so it has the moral and practical backing of many of its fellow Gulf Arab governments and of its principal defense and security ally, the United States.
To its north, Saudi Arabia has conducted airstrikes in Iraq against targets from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and is associated with disaffected Sunni Arabs periodically resisting the government. Further north, Saudi Arabia is funding and arming some anti-regime Syrian fighters. To its east, it has deployed armed forces to defend the Bahraini leadership and could do so again. The Jordanian border to the kingdom’s northeast is relatively stable but fear of ISIL penetration is a constant. In Yemen, to its south, Saudi Arabia has conducted a six-month air war and is increasing its currently modest ground force contribution.
Then there is the war inside: ISIL has a proven capacity to target Saudi security forces and to use violence to aggravate sectarian divisions in the kingdom, and the Houthis may increasingly focus on mortar attacks and cross-border raids.
Saudi Arabia argues that it is waging an existential struggle, not so much for its own survival, but on behalf of the Arabs against Iran. From the Saudi viewpoint Iran is the common denominator on all fronts. Iran is fighting for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and therefore, reasons the kingdom, by hurting Sunni Arabs it enables ISIL to violently assume their representation. Iran is propping up the Shia-dominated Iraqi government that similarly breeds Sunni Arab disaffection upon which ISIL also capitalizes, in both cases to the detriment of Saudi security. The Saudis allege that Iran is still aiding the Bahraini Shia opposition, despite the current low level of revolt. And crucially, from a Saudi perspective, Iran is aiding the Houthis in Yemen.
So what is to be made of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and U.S. President Barack Obama’s perfectly amicable early September chat about regional issues and business opportunities during which the Saudi monarch let it be known that Riyadh is actually okay with the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran?
Partly this is Saudi realpolitik. The deal is done and is internationally popular. The United States appears serious about wanting the nuclear agreement enforced and has recently reaffirmed that it will be onside in tackling any malign Iranian actions in the region, not to mention any direct territorial threat to the Saudis or other Gulf states. The Saudis could not wage war in Yemen without the assistance of U.S. intelligence and logistical support. Furthermore, Saudi airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq, while currently dormant, were conducted as part of a U.S.-led coalition, while Saudi support for rebel groups in Syria is on a largely agreed basis with Washington, which has long-standing and close connections with the kingdom’s Interior and Defense Ministries.
So what’s the problem? For one thing the kingdom remains angry with the United States, and to some extent Europe, that Assad is still in office. Arguably it is even angrier with the United States than with Russia or even Iran, since Washington is supposed to be a trusted friend, Moscow is at best pragmatic, and Tehran is expected to be malign. It is also resentful at the limited change in Iraq, something that has encouraged a de facto pullout from participation in aerial assaults against ISIL even as it relishes the current intra-Shia political fallout. Saudi Arabia recently risked humiliation by receiving the Syrian regime’s intelligence chief, Brigadier General Ali Mamlouk, as part of a Russian-promoted (with U.S. connivance) attempt at restarting the Syrian “peace process.” Britain is talking about bombing ISIL in Syria, by implication without hurting the regime, to give a mooted six-month transition process a chance. Although just an idea as yet, it seems little more than warming up the old and failed Geneva process.
Saudi Arabia is backing some militant Sunni Islamist groups in Syria whose contribution to blowback should make everyone worry. Saudi Arabia has previously suffered at home when its nationals fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sensible Saudi advisors want the Syrian state, or what is left of it, preserved. Yet Saudi funding of some of the most capable armed groups in parts of northern and southern Syria, together with the uncoordinated support for such fighters by Turkey and Qatar, does not benefit Syria’s territorial integrity. ISIL holds on territory in northern Syria and western Iraq already make talk of a Syrian and to some extent even an Iraqi “state” erroneous. The “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force,” which Weber saw as the defining characteristic of the state, is not being managed from Damascus and is barely held in Baghdad. This is not good for an essentially status quo power like Saudi Arabia. Although the kingdom can seemingly contain its external and internal threats, it is not comfortable with them. The current Western obsession with Syrian refugees does not really compute for a kingdom whose raison d’etre has been to smash the Assad regime, long seen as being in the Iranian camp.
In Yemen, the sudden increase of troops from Gulf Arab states and Egypt (in addition to Egypt’s Red Sea naval contribution) is intended to assist the Yemeni “anti-rebel” factions in retaking relatively oil-rich Marib, Taiz, and the capital Sanaa. However, it also suggests a future in which the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia, are sucked into another irresolvable Yemen conflict as the United States, Britain, Egypt, and Russia have all been at various times before. If the Houthis are obliged to redeploy further north, possibly divorced from their tactical, pro-Ali Abdullah Saleh allies, they may increasingly hit out against their Saudi enemies across the border.
The Saudis are in a double bind: The Yemeni fighters need more than Saudi aerial support and the training provided inside the kingdom. Armored vehicles sent across the Saudi-Yemeni border have helped, but the Yemeni forces the Gulf states are backing are not a coherent, disciplined fighting force. Saudi Arabia’s inexperience in ground combat, and its political neuralgia about deploying Saudi infantry units to garner such experience, means that the Emiratis and now seemingly the Qataris are gaining more kudos with anti-Houthi Yemenis as a result. The Saudis have lost some soldiers but their role on the ground is largely special forces and periodic border penetration by their National Guard. Their air role has aided the anti-Houthi struggle but at a high price for Yemeni infrastructure and lives.
Saudi Arabia has arguably had success in Yemen, however two-edged that “victory” may prove to be. A shrinking of Houthi options amidst declining territorial control in Yemen is for the most part a good thing for Saudi security.
The kingdom has also spent big on security. The reining in of capital projects as oil revenue declines is a current fact but not one, yet at least, at odds with the maintenance of national security.
Iran may be helping to destabilize territory to Saudi Arabia’s north, but ISIL is not at the gates of the kingdom even if it can sometimes operate behind them.
War may be bloody, but is not yet that deadly for Saudi Arabia.
Neil Partrick is the editor and main author of Saudi Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation, which is due to be published by IB Tauris on December 18. He is a freelance contributor to the Economist Group’s online analysis and is a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs.