By David Schenker, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The views expressed are his own.
The November 19 double-suicide bombings of the Iranian embassy in Beirut may have looked shocking in the headlines – they killed 23 people. But they also should not have come as a surprise.
Since 2011, Tehran has earned its karma in Lebanon. The attack, whose victims included an Iranian diplomat, was likely payback for the Shiite theocracy’s unwavering support for the Bashar al-Assad regime’s brutal repression of the largely Sunni uprising in Syria. Aided by Iranian troops, weapons and its Lebanese Shiite proxy militia Hezbollah, over the past three years, al-Assad's government has killed nearly 130,000 mostly Sunni Syrians.
The real question is what comes now – and I expect a surge in regional violence. Paradoxically, the international “first step” nuclear agreement with Iran increases rather than diminishes the chances that the Shiite theocracy in Tehran will take steps that exacerbate the regional sectarian conflict.
By Becca Wasser, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Becca Wasser is a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. You can follow her @IISSBecca. The views expressed are her own.
Saudi Arabia’s careful silence in the immediate aftermath of the deal struck with Iran on its nuclear program at the weekend should have come as no surprise. From disagreements over how to handle Syria and Egypt, to its rejection of a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, the Kingdom has been clear about its displeasure with Washington’s strategy in the Middle East.
The current head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud, met recently with European diplomats in Riyadh to notify them of a “major shift” in U.S.-Saudi relations, while former Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki has for his part given several interviews suggesting that the Gulf States will become more independent.
Saudi Arabia’s public displeasure is largely a reaction to the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, perceived U.S. inaction over the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, differences over Egypt’s future, and a lack of support for Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies. The U.S.-Iran rapprochement in particular has shaken Saudi trust in the United States, and Saudi Arabia is not alone among the Gulf States in fearing that warming of U.S.-Iran ties risk coming at the expense of their own relationship. And while Saudi Arabia has been publicly quiet over the Iran deal, a senior advisor to the Saudi royal family has reportedly said the Kingdom is willing to steer a more proactive foreign policy course in future.
By Nawaf Obaid, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Recent discussion in the wake of Saudi Arabia's refusal to accept a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council has prompted bewilderment – and renewed questions about the Kingdom’s foreign policy. Yet accusations of irresponsibility are inaccurate and misleading. Indeed, despite the criticisms leveled by commentators including Fareed Zakaria on these very pages, the fundamentals of Saudi foreign policy have not changed in decades, and are based on consistent and clear foundations.
As the “senior player” in the Arab world, as the Kingdom was recently described by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Saudi Arabia works to promote economic stability and political security via a moderating energy policy and careful strategic posture that is aimed at countering and neutralizing the upheaval that has been tearing the Muslim and Arab worlds apart.
This approach has been on display in recent Saudi actions.
By Ellen Laipson, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ellen Laipson is president and CEO of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are her own.
Following recent meetings in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Our relationship is strategic, it is enduring and it covers a wide range.” But his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, politely acknowledged differences with the United States, stating that “a true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness.”
The Saudi foreign minister tried to tamp down talk of a major rift, based on recent pronouncements by senior Saudi officials that conveyed a deep frustration in Riyadh about international cooperation on the key issues facing the Middle East: the Syrian crisis, the Palestine question and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The Saudis have staked out positions on each issue that do not align with major world capitals, highlighting the limits of the kingdom’s efforts to shape the regional environment and project Saudi power and influence. And, as the kingdom expands its global role and seeks recognition as a more independent actor, its reliance on the United States is understandably under stress.
By Fareed Zakaria
The Saudi regime fears that any kind of empowerment of the Shi'ites - anywhere - could embolden the 15 percent of Saudi Arabia's population that is Shi'ite - and happens to live in the part of the country where most of its oil reserves can be found. That's why the Saudis sent troops into neighboring Bahrain in the Arab Spring of 2011, to crush the Shi'ite majority's uprising.
Saudi royals have been rattled by the events in their region and beyond. They sense that the discontent that launched the Arab Spring is not entirely absent in their own population. They fear the rehabilitation of Iran. They also know that the United States might very soon find itself independent of Middle Eastern oil.
Given these trends, it is possible that Saudi Arabia worries that a seat on the U.N. Security Council might constrain it from having maximum freedom of action. Or that this position could shine a light on some of its more unorthodox activities. Or that it could force Riyadh to vote on issues it would rather punt on or ignore. It is also possible that the Saudis acted in a sudden fit of pique. After all, they had spent years lobbying for the seat. Whatever the reason, let's concede that, yes, Saudi Arabia is angry with the U.S. But are we sure that's a sign Washington is doing something wrong?
By Fareed Zakaria
If there were a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy it would surely be awarded to Saudi Arabia. It is the nation most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world. Over the past four decades, the kingdom's immense oil wealth has been used to underwrite the export of an extreme, intolerant and violent version of Islam preached by its Wahhabi clerics.
Go anywhere in the world–from Germany to Indonesia–and you'll find Islamic centers flush with Saudi money, spouting intolerance and hate. In 2007, Stuart Levey, then a top Treasury official, told ABC News, "If I could snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia." When confronted with the evidence, Saudi officials often claim these funds flow from private individuals and foundations and the government has no control over them. But many of the foundations were set up by the government or key members of the royal family, and none could operate in defiance of national policy; the country is an absolute monarchy. In a December 2009 cable, leaked by WikiLeaks in 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that Saudi Arabia remained a "critical financial base" for terrorism and that Riyadh "has taken only limited action" to stop the flow of funds to the Taliban and other such groups.
By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been working overtime arming rebel groups in Syria. But events of the last month suggest these American allies have been throwing their lots in with radical, hardline Islamists.
Some observers are bullishly optimistic about the foreign policies of America’s Gulf allies, suggesting Saudi Arabia backs “the least Islamist component of the rebellion” and Qatar’s young new emir is displaying a more “mature” foreign policy that seeks to avoid controversy in places like Syria. However, there is worrying news coming from Syria’s Raqqa Province, now controlled by the al Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Hateful books described by several different sources as the area’s new academic curriculum, reportedly originate from Saudi Arabia.
Ali al-Ahmed, who directs the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, has conducted previous reviews of official Saudi textbooks. He told me that although the seal from Saudi Arabia’s education ministry has been removed from the books, they otherwise appear identical to the ones he has reviewed. Al-Ahmed said that the two collections being brandished in Raqqa are “toxic,” promoting extremism and the dehumanization of non-Muslims.
But this isn’t the only development that appears to shed light on Saudi and Qatari objectives in Syria.
By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a Democratic professional staff member covering Middle East issues at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are his own.
When Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal in Paris this week, he likely got an earful of complaints over Syria. There was no public news conference after their meeting, which makes sense given that the Saudis often prefer that their sensitive consultations with the United States remain hidden behind closed doors. However, Kerry’s announcement earlier in the day of a conference to boost the Syrian opposition was probably intended in part as a sop to the Saudis.
Barely one week earlier, Kerry came out of another meeting with Saud al-Faisal trumpeting that the United States had Saudi Arabia’s support for military action against Syria. This was an understatement. Riyadh was downright aggressive in its push for an American-led intervention after the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack that U.S. officials say killed more than 1,400 people in Ghouta, Syria.
The Saudis badly wanted to see a strike on Syria, and they have grown frustrated with America’s fitful diplomacy since then. Recently, they have seemed less willing than usual to submerge their disagreements with Washington from public view. And there is undoubtedly a real sense of urgency to their efforts.
By Nawaf Obaid and Jamal Khashoggi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Jamal Khashoggi is the editor in chief of the Al Arab Satellite News Channel. The views expressed are their own.
While the U.S. media spends countless hours discussing the vagaries of American non-involvement in Syria, little is being said about the conflict's ramifications for the stability, borders and realpolitik of the Middle East – or the changing role of outside nations in the region's affairs. Yet there are massive, historic and intensely important implications that we need to understand. Indeed, the Syrian civil war is but a catalyst for numerous shifts taking place in the regional and global power structure.
First and foremost, the Syrian tragedy is a turning point in the long established tradition of Western intervention in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. The quagmire has brought to the fore the new reality that the United States and its European allies no longer have the political and economic stomach to openly engage their militaries in another regional conflict. While the so-called Arab Spring brought with it huge expectations to the Arab world of freedom and democracy, the dawning era of Western military disengagement from the region is going to have even more widespread implications as shifting borders and military alliances usher in a transition phase.
Absent outside intervention, the Syrian conflict has the potential to continue for many years. Given the support that the al-Assad regime is receiving from Russia and Iran, and arms being delivered to the rebels from the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the United States and France, one is reminded that the Lebanese civil war lasted for 15 years.
By Geneive Abdo, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Geneive Abdo is a fellow at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of the New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of Shi’a-Sunni Divide. The views expressed are her own.
Of all the items optimists are placing on their wish lists for newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, one stands out as among the least probable: reconciliation between his Shi’a republic and rival Sunni monarchies in the Gulf.
Shortly after his election, Rouhani said the Persian Gulf has “strategic significance” for Iran, as well as political and economic importance. “We are not only neighbors, we are brothers,” Rouhani said of Saudi Arabia. “We have had very close relations, culturally, historically and regionally.”
Yet although Saudi Arabia congratulated Rouhani on his election – a far cry from 2008, when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz encouraged the United States to confront Iran in order to “to cut off the head of the snake” – relations between the two countries are worse than ever. Indeed, Rouhani’s statements ignore the fundamental changes that have occurred since the Arab uprisings began. Indeed, fourteen years since the historic day in 1999, when former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami became the second highest-ranking official to visit Saudi Arabia since the 1979 Islamic revolution, there is much that divides Iran and its two neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
By Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Suad Abu-Dayyeh is the Middle East and North Africa consultant for Equality Now, an advocacy group for the human rights of women and girls around the world. The views expressed are her own.
Three years ago, 12-year-old Fatima was "sold" into marriage to a man more than four times her age. Her father, unemployed and addicted to drugs, sold her into wedlock for about $10,500, money that he then used to buy himself a car. You might be asking yourself how this possible. The answer – because there is no minimum age of marriage law in Saudi Arabia.
But Fatima didn’t give up. With the help of Equality Now, her uncle and our Saudi partners, Fatima beat the odds earlier this year to secure something many thought was impossible given the cultural norms she was pushing up against – a divorce. And with new regulations being considered that would effectively set a minimum age for marriage of 16, Saudi Arabia may finally be taking the steps necessary to ensure that children like Fatima are spared a similar ordeal.
After years of debate, the Ministry of Justice has drafted regulations setting 16 as the minimum age of marriage in the Kingdom. If a girl is under 16, her mother’s approval must be received. If a male guardian applies, a designated court of marriage must also approve the marriage before consent can be given. The girl must also be medically and psychologically fit, and there is a provision that the marriage must not be expose her to danger (although these requirements are not elaborated on). The proposals will now be discussed by the Shura Council (the consultative assembly), the cabinet and various governmental committees. A timetable for their passage has not been announced.
By Madhav Nalapat, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Madhav Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University in India. The views expressed are his own.
Despite the 2008 economic crash and lingering possibility of a Eurozone collapse, the West still clings to its one-size-fits-all mentality – especially when it comes to political systems. Democracy is still almost inevitably defined in terms of the Western model, with periodic elections to choose representatives to a parliament or head of state. Local variants, such as Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga system, are dismissed as not really democratic. But this “universalization” of the Western approach – especially for countries embarking on the path of democratization – is misguided.
I was an early believer in the Middle East democracy project, with the caveat that first there needs to be a comprehensive reform of school curricula. The present fare offered to young minds, especially in Saudi Arabia, is a mishmash of confused ideas cloaked in theology. The result is that the education system fosters minds that are in many cases unable to properly grasp reality, ones that instead too often focus on vague concepts that get superimposed onto the real world. It’s little wonder that conspiracy theories are so prevalent in the region.