The death last week of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the respected statesman who had been foreign minister of Saudi Arabia for 40 years until this spring, prompted comment about the kingdom’s apparent transition from diplomacy behind the scenes to a policy of confrontation with Iran, the Sunni Arab realm’s Shia and Persian rival for regional hegemony.
There is some truth in this. Prince Saud was by instinct a bridge-builder. Saudi foreign policy at the moment seems to be burning a lot of bridges. King Salman, who succeeded the late King Abdullah in January and recentralised power around himself and his family, served notice in March that he would fight Shia fire with Sunni fire.
The ruling House of Saud, legitimised by the kingdom’s absolutist strain of Wahhabi Islam, had watched in appalled paralysis as Iran and its proxies exploited the mayhem unleashed across Arab lands — from the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the Arab spring after 2011 — to forge a Shia axis from Baghdad to Beirut.
In March the Saudis launched an air war in Yemen, claiming Iran was behind an attempt by Shia Houthi fighters to overrun the country. Three months of futile and indiscriminate bombing later, this multi-sided contest for a failed state is no closer to resolution. The Saudis, who have never managed to do much about their ungovernable southern neighbours except bribe a varying combination of tribes, know full well that Tehran has played little more than a peripheral role in their recent protagonism. The war in Yemen is more a signal of deep unhappiness at the deal the US and world powers have struck with Iran over its nuclear programme. The bombing started in late March just as the two sides worked on a framework agreement in Lausanne.
In the interim, the regional menace of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis) has not stopped the Saudi government fixating primarily on Iran and the Shia — but that was true long before the death of Prince Saud.
The veteran Arab diplomat had warned the Bush administration what would happen in Iraq and the region if it went ahead with the 2003 invasion. But it was also Prince Saud, Arab officials say, who told John Kerry, US secretary of state, last summer after Isis surged back from Syria into Iraq, that “Daesh [an Arabic acronym for Isis] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa”, the Shia Islamist party that has dominated Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni regime — with varying degrees of support from Washington and Tehran.In depthIran under Rouhani
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Isis is, of course, a physical threat to Saudi Arabia, where online polling suggests it has alarmingly high support. But the main fear of Saudi rulers is of being outflanked on the religious right by the jihadi extremists. The competition, therefore, is between Wahhabi absolutists and the Sunni supremacists of Isis as to which of them is a more credible scourge of the Shia — branded in both ideologies as polytheist heretics and rafidah (“rejectionist”).
The speeches of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared Isis caliph, are often marinated in pieces of Islamic lore ripped from their context and always threatening. But they repay examination. In mid-May, he labelled the Yemen operation, which the Saudis called Storm of Resolve, “the kick of a dying person”.
He mocked the Saudi air strikes as “a storm of delusion” and spoke of “the Muslim public in the Arabian Peninsula rallying around the Islamic State since it defends them against the rafidah”.
Picking up on reports that Saudi Arabia had held meetings with Israel to discuss the consequences of an Iran nuclear deal, the Isis leader said the al-Saud were “not people of war” but “people of luxury and extravagance, people of intoxication, prostitution, dances and feasts . . . accustomed to the defence of the Jews and Crusaders”.
Isis has a record of following up such rants with action. It bombed two Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province in May and then sent a Saudi suicide bomber to kill Shia in a mosque in Kuwait City. This sectarian carnage shows that, while the Wahhabis marginalise the “rafidah”, Isis exterminates them. Such attacks also show the limits of Saudi control, in the part of the kingdom that contains most of its Shia and nearly all its oil. But if the authorities move towards conciliating the Shia, that plays very well for Isis too.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy dependent on the Wahhabi clerical establishment, is purportedly a vital ally in the fight against Isis. Yet the kingdom is hoist with its own petard of religious absolutism at a time when the crumbling region around it needs the emerging detente with Iran to become eventually an entente — something Saud al-Faisal would instinctively have grasped.