At least a dozen different dynamics shape the deteriorating situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the consequences this will have across much of the Middle East for some time. The crisis is being analyzed through a dizzying array of lenses. These include, notably (take a deep breath here), relatively recent Sunni-Shiite sensitivities, the rearing of wider Middle Eastern sectarian heads, long-standing geostrategic rivalries in the Gulf region, reactions to big power policy changes in the Middle East, assorted domestic challenges, an evolving regional ideological landscape with multiple proxy battles (mostly in Arab lands), the long-standing face-off between Arab conservatism and revolutionary populism, and the impact of the last five years of popular uprisings and the subsequent counter-revolutions and civil wars in some countries.
The situation is made all the more complex by the fact that all of these forces and several others around the Middle East, as well (social marginalization of some groups, economic disparities, environmental distress), usually all converge. They converge in regional ideological confrontations like this one, or in conflicts within single countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, or Lebanon.
Most of the contentious issues in play reflect manmade policies and decisions that can be reversed or tempered, thereby resolving both regional clashes and local confrontations. I leave it to both sides and their many supporters and public relations consultants in the region and in Western capitals to hash out the specific grievances, concerns, threats, and fears they all express against one another. The history of the modern Middle East has seen such active confrontations ebb and flow, occasionally exploding into war but usually being defused after just a few local bombings, burned flags, really shrill media editorials, and emptied embassies.
Such abatement of tensions usually happened due to the intervention of either a major regional power like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, or, in the past, Syria and Egypt, or one of the global powers acting unilaterally or through the UN Security Council. Here is the most striking and troubling aspect of the current Iranian-Saudi tensions: This Middle Eastern face-off between two regional powerhouses, whose mutual accusations spill over into many local conflicts within Arab countries, is taking place as traditional global powers that once kept our region in check watch from the sidelines, protect their interests, and wonder what they can do.
The big new element in today’s Middle East is the continued emergence of decisive leadership, unilateral interventions, and diplomatic and military initiatives by the three major regional powers of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. These three states’ concerns and actions on the ground now have immense impact, parallel to the deeds of global powers and Israel that traditionally influenced major regional trends.
The short-term destabilizing impact of this is evident in the many conflicts and fragmenting states across the region. It reflects two interlinked and simultaneous historic dynamics: Big powers like the United States and Russia are recalibrating their relationships and interventions across the region, while the regional powers step up their involvements in other countries to fill the few voids or the new threats created by the big powers’ shifts.
The immediate big winners in this situation are political science and international relations professors, who have a bounty of material to analyze on how regional powers, smaller states, and even sub-national groups all enhance their political impact, as global powers recalibrate. Beyond Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, some of these actors with considerable new agency and impact in the Middle East include Salafist and tribal Sunni groups in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq.
The Middle East has never known such a situation in which regional and global powers alike, along with empowered local groups, all engage energetically in political and military actions in half a dozen different battlefields; they do this while also enjoying the capabilities of modern weaponry, alongside the fertile environments of some weakening and collapsing states. Neither global nor regional big powers are available this time to step in and restore order, because they are all in the ring punching away.
Our best hope to step back from the brink of wider regional conflagrations is for sensible and responsible people in all concerned lands, especially around the Gulf region, to grasp the catastrophes that will engulf much of the Middle East if current trends continue. The whole world is also threatened, should energy flows be disrupted. A frightening warning sign of this is the current fighting for oil installations in Libya between “Islamic State” troops and assorted Libyan groups. The dangers of something like this occurring in the Gulf region are becoming too great to ignore. I know that our societies are as capable of spawning sensible diplomatic initiatives that could calm things down and resolve the issues that aggravate relations, as they are of undertaking dramatic military and diplomatic moves that express their real fears. We shall soon find out.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global