During a delightful lunch in Beirut a few days ago with a good friend and colleague from the United Arab Emirates, during which we discussed a wide range of current developments around our volatile region, he asked me a direct a simple question that is also on the minds of many people: “Who is prevailing in the current regional confrontation between the forces led by the Saudis and the Iranians?”
I took the opportunity of the time I needed to chew well on my mouthful of fine Lebanese hummus, washed down with a refreshing dose of tabbouleh salad, to ponder his important question. I replied, with a smile born of equally deep respect and suspicion about a loaded question, that I could not answer the question as it was posed, because I disagree with its fundamental premise that our region is largely defined by the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
I replied that I did not agree with the primacy of a Saudi- and Iranian-led regional confrontation that has been heavily promoted by many people in the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and therefore by extension by most of the Arab and global media; I thought that analysis was too simplistic to explain the many tensions and armed conflicts around our region, and also that most Saudis and Iranians are too smart to waste their money, blood and time on a futile regional conflict that would only hurt them both by gradually destroying the region.
This destruction is painfully visible every day in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, and Yemen, at the very least. This spectacle of multiple fragmenting states is bad enough; it is made even worse by the latest troubling development—it is too early to call it a trend—which is the spectacle of repeated bomb attacks and killings of government officials and security forces in three of the most important regional powers that should be stabilizing forces in the Middle East: Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Add to this the ongoing war in Yemen, and the erratic battle against “Islamic State” (ISIS) forces in Syria, Iraq and other tiny pockets of ISIS presence around the region, the massive refugee flows and the stresses they cause, and the dangerous sectarian dimensions of some of the confrontations underway, and we end up with a very complex and violent regional picture that cannot possibly be explained primarily as a consequence of Iranian-Saudi rivalries.
A more complete explanation of the battered Arab region today must include accounting for several other mega-tends: the impact of the last twenty-fix years of non-stop American military attacks, threats and sanctions from Libya to Afghanistan; the radicalizing impact of sixty-seven years of non-stop Zionist colonization and militarism against Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and other Arabs; the hollowing out of Arab economic and governance systems by three generations of military-led, amateurish and corruption-riddled mismanaged governance that deprived citizens of their civic and political rights and pushed them to assert instead the primacy of their sectarian and tribal identities; and, the catalytic force of the 2003 Anglo-American led war on Iraq that opened the door for all these forces and others yet — like lack of water, jobs, and electricity that make normal daily life increasingly difficult — to combine into the current situation of widespread national polarization and violence.
Most of these drivers of the current regional condition have little to do with Iranian-Saudi sensitivities, and much more to do with decades of frail statehood, sustained and often violent Arab authoritarianism, denied citizenship, distorted development, and continuous regional and global assaults. Nevertheless, I finally replied to my friend’s question—as we shared some kind of miraculous Lebanese dessert concoction of pistachios and dairy products—that in the existing element of confrontation today between two very loose Saudi- and Iranian-led groups of actors in the region, I suspect that neither side can be seen as “winning.”
Viewing our region today through the lens of a—I believe, largely imagined—Saudi-Iranian rivalry is not the most useful way to analyze this situation, I suggested. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia can claim some tangible successes in their regional strategic situations, in both military and political dimensions, but they also both face serious challenges. Most of their “allies” across the region strike me as being in difficult, sometimes precarious, situations that are often more of a burden than a benefit to Tehran and Riyadh.
Situations on the ground everywhere are changing every week. Fundamental strategic conditions for both regional powers may be on the verge of historic changes, given the likely impact of the Iran nuclear agreement, declining global energy prices, the continued ravages of militarism as a primary political vocabulary across the Middle East, and only selective interventions by global powers and the UN Security Council. Iran and Saudi Arabia have much more incentive to work together for the sake of regional stability and prosperity, than to fight it out in hapless and devastated other smaller countries.
We then had coffee, when we discussed this further, which I will recount in more detail in my next column.
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 ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global