The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, on the right, meets with the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on October 30, 2017. (AP Photo / Dalati Nohra)
The increasingly erratic behavior of Saudi Arabia has raised questions around the world. After decades in which Riyadh kept a low profile and mainly intervened in world affairs by using its oil wealth, the Saudi military and intelligence machine is now conducting a brutal war in Yemen, has put the small Qatar boycott, has He tried to destabilize Lebanon, licking his wounds from defeat in Syria, and is cultivating potential clients in Iraq. At the same time, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is concentrating power in his own hands. The common denominator here is the competition of the Saudi elite with Iran for the position of regional hegemon.
The influence of Iran has gone from almost zero in the 1990s to the predominant one in the eastern confines of the Middle East today. The gently rebellious Shiite Houthi organized a coup in Yemen in 2014 and deepened their control over the country the following year. That was mainly a local development, but Riyadh projected his Iranophobia on him. The pro-Iranian Hezbollah partisan militia in Lebanon has dominated the national unity government of that country since 2016. Another Iranian client, the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad, seems to have won the civil war in Syria, and the Saudi cat's paw there, the extremist army of Islam, has been defeated. Saudi influence in Iraq evaporated after the majority of Sunni Arab majority provinces united to join the "caliphate" of ISIL in 2014, and were later conquered by the central government army and its auxiliary Shiite militias. While Tehran's relationship with Palestinian Hamas has been shaken since 2011, the two appear to be on the road to recovery.
Saudi Arabia's fight against Iran has everything to do with nationalism and security and almost nothing to do with the economy. Both are oil states, both are in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and, therefore, are members of the same cartel. They are not competing for export markets. Iran's return to export oil freely after the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan or 2015 nuclear agreement has helped depress the price of oil, but so has the US oil shale production, and the latter has not caused tensions. between Riyadh and Washington. Rather, this is a nineteenth-century style contest about the territorial spheres of influence.
While it is not irrelevant that Iran is a declared Shiite state and Saudi Arabia has a hard-line Sunni Wahhabi government, the conflict is not primarily over religion. Iran supports the secular, socialist and atheist Baath government of Assad in Syria. Saudi Arabia supports the secular nationalist army in Egypt. Two Wahhabi states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are cornered, in part because of the question of whether they have right relations with Shia Iran, as Doha insists, or treating Tehran as a mortal enemy.
Saudi Arabia, a quarter as populous as Iran and lacking substantial infantry capabilities, can not face Iran head-on in a conventional conflict. While Saudi strategists saw what they saw as a threatening picture, they seem to have come to the conclusion that the only way they could stop Iranian influence in the region was to divide and rule.