“Smoke Billows From An Aramco Oil Facility In Abqaiq After A Drone Attack On Saturday Morning” Chulov 2019).
The events of the Middle Eastern region are filling the pages and screens of world media. The tensed climate is not far from what could be seen as the “The second Cold War”. The stalemate between two explicit adversaries the United States and the Iranian Islamic Republic reflects on other actors as well. The recent escalation can have an impact on Saudi Arabia and its security as well as oil revenues. (Diansaei – Behzad 2018)
Saudi Arabia has been historically a very important ally of the United States. Their alliance has been based on the oil industry, finance, and military cooperation. The geopolitical, economic and military advantages of this alignment are obvious. It is no coincidence that President Trump chose Saudi Arabia as a destination for his first official visit in the role of leader of the USA in May 2017 (BBC 2017).
So far Trump administration confirmed the major weapon deal, emphasized the continuing importance of the battle with terror and encouraged strict steps against radicalization. The huge military sale of weapons and defensive systems is yet another confirmation of the role Saudi plays in US foreign policy (De Young -Rucker 2017).
The fact that Israel was the second stop does not leave any doubts about the direction of future policy for the region during Trump’s administration. On the other side, Saudi Arabia and Iran are regional rivals since the beginning of the 80ties due to ideological differences as well as economic and geopolitical competition (Clayton 2019; BBC 2017).
The relations between the USA and Saudi were disturbed after the signing of the JCPOA under Obama´s administration. Saudi Arabia was strictly against any deals and negotiations with Iran. Until now Saudis consider Obama´s era the worst time of bilateral relationship in history. The election of Trump into office was a step forward in this damaged alliance. Saudi Arabia was pushing for the abandonment of Iranian nuclear deal and restoration of the economic sanctions. Saudi Arabia saw the deal as a disruption of the regional security balance (Al Jazeera 2019a).
The change came with Trump´s 120 days ultimatum and then final decision to leave the nuclear deal. It proves that the USA is once again listening to the wishes of Saudis and Netanyahu’s Israel (Roberts 2018). The Nuclear deal is not the only clash of Saudi and Iranian policies in the region. The conflicting interests of the Saudi-American alliance and Iran forces are clearly visible in their active agenda in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen.
The prevailing proxy war in Yemen is a good example of growing tension and severity of the animosity between regional rivals. Iranian support for Yemen Houthis was supposed to balance the scales of influence at the beginning of the conflict. With the withdrawal of JCPOA, this proxy war became of higher importance for Iran as the unique opportunity for revenge. Iran’s support for Houthis in the war with Saudi Arabia is led by a simple plan. Iran provides support in order to lead the Saudi to bleed out of their resources and damage its position in the region. Saudis wealth and position of biggest oil producer are the main reasons Iran can not reach the status of the geopolitical leader of the region. With Saudi wounded and deprived of the oil money Iran could be growing in the influence.
In response to the worsening situation in the Yemen alliance between Saudis and the USA was strengthened. In November 2019 Trump’s administration sent American troops over to Saudi Arabia to help with defense of the country and contribute to the security of the region. The United States deployed 2 combat units including the support personnel, 2 batteries of Patriot air-defense and unit to operate this missile system. All together approximately 3000 people. These soldiers were deployed to Saudi despite Trump´s strong commitment to withdraw all American units from the Middle East. This undeniable show of support for Saudis is also a political tool to intimidate Iran. At the end of 2019 there are 14 000 American soldiers deployed in the Middle Eastern region (Schmitt, Sanger 2019).
Apparently Trump’s administration is even willing to risk some political “brownie” points at home to ensure the alignment and influence in the Middle Eastern region. Not even the unfortunate tragedy of Pensacola shooting during which Saudi air force student shot dead 3 American soldiers at the Naval base (Mazzei – Gibbons-Neff eds. 2019). This incident could have distorted the political significance of the Saudi-American relations but in fact, this did not reflect on their cooperation (Saab 2019).
Victory or nothing
Saudi Arabia sees the victory in Yemen as vital for its hegemonic ambition. On 5th November 2019 Saudi signed the Riyadh Agreement in order to unite anti-Houthi front containing Saudi Arabia-backed government of president Mansur Hadi and southern rebels supported by the United Arab Emirates (Guldogan 2019; Salacanin 2019).
The official formation of this block and power-sharing shall end the war in a shorter time and make it harder for Iranians to provide military support for Houthis. Although this alliance is going to be hard to implement it is an important next step forward after the Saudi and UAE Security Pact from 2018 (Al Jazeera 2019b).
These new regional alignments are based on the growing fear of the unpredictability of Iran, the amount of threat its missiles and potential nuclear program poses for other states in the region not only Saudis and Israel. The drone strikes on Saudi oil fields in September 2019 were claimed by Houthis however Iran is blamed for the support of this attack and there is a strong belief that Iranians not only provided drones but as well at least participated on the strike (Fahim – Mufson 2019).
Though these charges were not proved and details of the strike are probably never to be convincingly confirmed the consequences for Saudi oil production were alarming. Iran could only benefit (The Guardian 2019).
What happens now
General Suleimani´s assistance and military support for Houthis is the repercussion for US policy on Iran. Iran’s financial costs in Yemen are low so far. Thus the biggest blow Iran suffered is the assassination of Suleimani by Americans. The American strike will probably cause the escalations in Yemen and Saudi Arabia is the most likely to be the one facing Iran´s direct retaliation for Trump’s course of action (BBC 2020).
Saudi Arabia can intercept Iranian´s missile as well as it does with the Houthi ones. Saudi can deal with collateral damages. Saudi can even manage to do the damage containment when their oil production is massively impacted as it was in September 2019. Saudi Arabia and the USA are not significantly affected by Iranian blockades in Strait of Hormuz either.
However, all these preservation steps are quite costly and in a long-term perspective can cause Saudis to bleed out. Another even more pressing issue is the ideological influence and support of the radicalisation in the region. The last issue does not concern only Saudi but Americans as well. The prospective threat for Saudis is the possibility that Iran will actually proceed with its nuclear programme with success.
That is a justifiable reason for Saudi to pursue its own nuclear program. Not only as of the means of development and dislocation of its future revenues, a replacement for prospective diminishing oil production and sustainable energy source but also as a deterrent vital for the preservation of its own leadership position in the region. Saudi nuclear ambitions are currently the topic of negotiation with the USA. Undoubtedly Saudi Arabia began its path toward civil nuclear energy programme. (Lister, Qiblawi; 2019)
The USA may not fully support their decision. Unfortunately, if the USA denies aid in this matter as the consequence Saudi Arabia could turn for help to China or Russia. The would-be fatal for geopolitical balance. Furthermore, the lack of American support for Saudi pursuit can result in other Middle Eastern states misunderstanding the message. In that case, these states would perceive this as a confirmation that Saudi already possesses at least a basic nuclear deterrent to counterbalance Iran (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2019).
The current position of Saudi Arabia is definitely affected by American foreign policy toward Iran. Nevertheless, Saudi-American alignment and its advantages have proven to be vital for the security balance of the Middle East. The development in the region depends on American willingness to de-escalate the tension with Iran and Saudi capabilities to prevail in the fighting the proxy wars in the region.
Author: Lenka Martínková
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