by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
A Look at Saudi Arabia and Their Fight with Iran
Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you guns. The Saudis have been spending plenty of their oil money on weapons, wars and more. There are even rumors the Saudis have already put money towards nuclear weapons. Yet, time and again, the Saudis have watched Iran score victories against them: proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, relations with the United States, and in the nuclear realm. Therefore, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is doing more and expanding their fight with Iran to keep Tehran from becoming the top power in the region. For example, in late February Saudi Arabia held a massive military exercise which involved the participation of 20 countries, including Turkey. Was that a sign of assertiveness, or desperation? Many are asking just how far would the House of Saud go…and what might that mean for the oil-rich Middle East?
The Manpower Problem
For a country as advanced and wealthy as Saudi Arabia, it’s not surprising that they wield a good share of influence in the Arab world. It’s also not surprising that they seek to build coalitions of nations when one considers one of their primary concerns: manpower. Two experts from an Israeli think tank both listed the human element as a roadblock to the Kingdom’s military ambitions. Yiftah Shapir, Senior Research Fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), said in an interview with The Mideast Update that the Saudis have managed to acquire the top weapons money can buy. In that respect, they are ahead of Iran.
Unfortunately for the Saudis, what they lack are people to use those weapons. “I think they are very wary of direct confrontation with Iran, because the Iranian military is much more capable and much larger than they are,” said Shapir. “Although of course they have the modern weapons that the Iranians don’t have, the best weapons in the world, but that’s not enough; you need the people to operate these weapons.” In general, societal and industrial concerns are key reasons why Shapir does not see the Saudis as the dominant regional power in a decade, along with the aforementioned manpower problem.
Speaking of which, Shapir highlighted a creative but unpredictable way that the Saudis have tried to address that concern: outsourcing. Shapir said Pakistanis serve in the Saudi military, while Europeans work in medical positions, Americans assist with training and Chinese help with ballistic missiles. “The Saudi Arabian military is heavily dependent on foreigners,” said Shapir, noting those foreigners could leave the country if it ever gets too dangerous—which would be devastating. “The Saudi military, as far as I know, cannot function without them,” said Shapir.
Contrast all of this to Iran. The Iranians have a sizable, if a bit run-down, military. They have long-range missiles and have sought to upgrade their technology in missile defense and drones. They also have a huge paramilitary organization in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that is so interwoven into the regime that it essentially is something of a shadow government under the theocratic leadership that heads Iran. The IRGC is known for its involvement across the Middle East, and even the world, in terrorism and arms smuggling. That’s not counting their terror proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, believed to have tens of thousands of missiles of their own.
Furthermore, the Iranians, however behind and sluggish they may appear due to sanctions, have managed to develop a workable crop of scientists and weapon developers that have upgraded their armed forces and helped build a nuclear program. While they, too, have societal concerns after the civil uprising of 2011 (known as the Green Movement), they have largely crushed them; and their economic boosts coming from ending sanctions will alleviate at least some of the dissatisfaction of the populace.
That is another area where Saudi Arabia has to find new solutions to counter Iranian steps forward—diplomacy.
The Friends Problem
The House of Saud gets quite a few of their most advanced weapons from the US and the Americans have long tried to maintain a stable relationship with the oil lords of the Middle East for economic and diplomatic reasons. However, starting in 2011 and continuing until today, the House of Saud no longer believes they can depend on the US.
Dr. Ephraim Asculai, Senior Research Fellow at INSS, told The Mideast Update that the trust “has been diminished” between the Saudis and the US since the so-called Arab Spring revolutions. Shapir pointed to the American decision to back the removal of dictator Hosni Mubarak from Egypt as a turning point in American–Saudi relations, saying that since then the Saudis have been “very critical of US policy towards the region.”
The Egyptian leadership had long been a stable, pro-Western regime that opposed the Iran–Hezbollah–Syria axis of evil. However, the Mubarak regime also wasn’t really democratic and had enough abuses so that it was toppled in 2011. That the US openly backed the revolution, part of the Arab Spring movements, didn’t sit well with the Saudis—who themselves are no democracy with few human rights concerns.
More importantly, however, the American openness to connecting with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt—a one-time actively violent terror group that helped spawn Hamas in Gaza—was a sign to the Saudis that the status quo may be changing. Then came the real shocker—the nuclear pact with Iran. According to one Saudi diplomat who spoke last summer with The Washington Post, the Saudis considered the deal to be “extremely dangerous.” Suddenly, the Americans aren’t so reliable and may even warm up further to Iran.
What’s worse, the Saudis have been disappointed by local allies too. They’re battling Iranian allies in Yemen, and Shapir noted that the Saudis had hoped more Arab nations would send troops. Aircraft and bombs are nice, but Shapir notes that the Saudis are having a problem in Yemen with troops on the ground. This has translated to the results on the battlefield. “Right now they are fighting a proxy war [in Yemen] and they are not very successful at it,” said Shapir.
Ironically, the Saudis’ most useful and reliable “ally” now might very well be Israel. Technically the two nations aren’t on peaceful terms, but The Sunday Times reported in 2013 that they were working on a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear program. In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that he thinks the Saudis “see Israel as an ally rather than as an enemy, because of the two principle threats that threaten them,” referring to Iran and ISIS (ISIL). Netanyahu also said that when the Saudis ask “‘Who can help us in this battle that threatens our very future?’ Obviously Israel and these Sunni Arab states are not on opposite sides, and that’s natural” (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
Still, when one of your most dependable allies is technically a secret relationship, that’s not the best situation; and that’s not even the Saudis’ biggest problem.
The Saudis’ Nuke Problem
If the Saudis are already having trouble keeping up with the Iranian military and diplomacy, the threat of a nuclear Iran makes the situation significantly worse. A nuclear Iran would make them a real rival to Israel for most powerful war machine in the Middle East and a terrifying danger to the House of Saud. In any event of conflict with the Saudis, the Iranians would always have the ultimate final say because they could threaten the Saudis with annihilation and it’s unclear what the Saudis could do to deter that.
That’s where the money could come into play. Dr. Asculai, who spent decades working in the nuclear field, speculated that the Saudis have been cooperating with Pakistan to help that Muslim nation develop nuclear weapons, although he noted there is “very little concrete evidence” relating to the Saudis’ nuclear weapons activities. He said that cooperation has mostly been financial. The question is what did they get in return for that aid? There have been rumors that the Saudis may try and acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan, or that they already have. For example, in May 2015 The Sunday Times cited American sources who claimed the Saudis had made the “strategic decision” to get nukes from Pakistan.
While a Saudi defense official called that report “rumors and speculation” to CNN, in January The Independent cited a CNN interview in which Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir refused to comment on reports on the same topic of obtaining nukes, citing confidentiality regarding talks with allies. Dr. Asculai doesn’t think the Saudis worked out a deal with the Pakistanis to give them nuclear weapons in exchange for their help. Rather, he thinks it more likely that they sought a nuclear guarantee from Pakistan to use their nuclear weapons as a deterrent on behalf of the Saudis if the Saudis are attacked, although he said it’s unclear if that’s the case or not.
Dr. Asculai noted that the Saudis are “probably looking into” developing nukes of their own, but even with their noteworthy finances it will “still take them years and years to achieve anything.” Dr. Asculai believes the Saudis aren’t capable of developing the weapons on their own at this time. He said they would probably need “outside expertise” due to the Saudi limitations in terms of scientific and technical capabilities. “And that’s not a simple matter,” noted Dr. Asculai.
A nuclear arms race in the Middle East has long been a fear of the West, and having two of the most powerful and oil-rich nations threatening nuclear apocalypse would be a potential game-changer that could throw the global economy into chaos. For the Saudis, that’s obviously secondary to survival. They see the Iranian nuclear program as a very serious threat. “If the Iranians came out and let’s say carried out a nuclear test, for the Saudis it would be almost a declaration of war, and they would do anything in their power to either have a guarantee from someone or try to get the Pakistanis to try to declare something,” said Dr. Asculai.
The Saudis’ Solution?
All these problems aren’t just problems for the Saudis. Iran is a threat to Israel and ultimately the West as well. The Israelis, reportedly, get that. Their secretive cooperation with the House of Saud is taking a big picture approach. But the United States and Europe have been blinded by their hopes that Iran is warming up. In an effort to pursue peace, the rush to befriend Iran—or at least tone down tensions to a minimum—has put much more than just the Saudis at risk. And like a canary in a mine, whose sensitivity to deadly gasses was used as the telltale sign that danger was present, the Saudis’ anxiety towards Iran should serve as a wake-up call. The question is: Will enough people listen in time?
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