Is The Saudi-Iran ‘Cold War’ About To Heat Up?

August 31, 2012Middle Eastby

Is The Saudi-Iran ‘Cold War’ About To Heat Up?

Saudi Arabia has gone on the offensive against Iran to protect its interests.  Their involvement in Syria is the first battle in what is going to be a long bloody conflict that will know no frontiers or limits.

Ongoing disorders in the island kingdom of Bahrain since February last year have set off alarm bells in Riyadh.  The Saudis are convinced that Iran is directing the protests in Bahrain; and fear that the problems will soon spill over the 25-kilometre long King Fahd Causeway into Saudi’s oil-rich province of Al-Qatif, where the bulk of its two-million strong Shia population is concentrated. While, the Saudis have not had to deal with demonstrations as serious as those in Bahrain so far, a success uprising in the island kingdom could encourage protestors in Saudi Arabia to become more violent.

Related: Bahrain Sunni / Shiite Strife Echoes Throughout "Oil Gulf"

Related: Saudi Bahrain Intervention Provokes Gulf Shiite Anger

The first concern of the Saudi government has always been to protecting its oil. Oil is the sole source of the nation’s wealth; and is managed by the state-owned Saudi Aramco Corporation.  The monopoly of political power by the members of the Saud family also means that all of the wealth of the kingdom is their personal property.  Saudi Arabia runs almost like a company-country, whereby the 28 million citizens are the responsibility of the Saud Family rulers.

In the past, the customary manner of dealing with a problem by the patriarchal regime was to always bury it with money.  At the height of the Arab Spring, King Abdullah announced that he was increasing the national budget by $130 billion – to be spent over the coming five years – while government salaries and the minimum wage were also raised.  Furthermore new housing and other benefits are to be provided; and at the same time, King Abdullah plans to expand his security force by 60,000 men.

The “Shia Crescent” Threat

Still, despite adding more government benefits to sooth the unrest among the general population, the Saudi king will not grant any concessions to the 8 percent of his population who are Shia. King Abdullah takes seriously the warning of his fellow monarch in Jordan, who warned back in 2004 of the danger of a “Shia Crescent” that would extend from the coast of Lebanon to Afghanistan – Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, and the Shia controlled government of Iraq formed the links in this chain.

So when the Arab Spring finally reached Syria, the leaders in Riyadh were also given the weapon to break the chain.  Appeals for assistance from tribal leaders under attack in Syria to their kinsmen in the Gulf States could not be ignored.  The various links between the Gulf States in several Syrian tribes means that Saudi Arabia and its close ally Qatar have connections that include at least three million out of the Syria’s population of 23 million people.  To show how deep the bonds go, the leader of the Nijris Tribe in Syria is married to a woman from the Saud Family.

It is therefore no wonder that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in February that arming the Syrian rebels was an “excellent idea."  He was supported by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani who said: "We should do whatever necessary to help [the Syrian opposition], including giving them weapons to defend themselves." 

The intervention has such the nature of a family and tribal issue that prominent Saudi cleric Aidh al-Qarni has turned it into a Sunni-Shia War by promoting Assad’s death.

The Saudis and their Qatari and United Arab Emirate allies have pledged $100 million to pay wages to the resistance fighters in Syria. Many of the officers of the Free Syrian Army are also from tribes connected to the Gulf; in effect, the payment of wages is practically paying members of associated tribes.

Here however, the United States is not a welcomed partner, except as a supplier of arms.  Saudi Arabia sees the role of the United States limited to being a wall of steel to protect the oil wealth of the Kingdom, and of the Gulf States, from Iranian aggression. In February 1945, President Roosevelt at a meeting in Egypt with Abdel Aziz bin Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, may have pledged to defend the kingdom in exchange for a steady flow of oil; but since those long ago days when the U.S. was still trying to establish a Pax Americana, the Saudis have lost their trust in the wisdom or the reliability of American policy makers. 

The Saudis urged the U.S. not to invade Iraq in 2003 only to have them ignore Saudi interests by maintaining an Iraqi buffer zone against Iran.  The Saudis then asked the U.S. not to leave a Shia dominated government in Baghdad that would threaten the Northern frontier of the Kingdom, only to have the last American soldiers depart in December 2011.  With revolution sweeping across the Middle East, Washington abandoned President Mubarak of Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s favorite non-royal leader in the region.

Worried by the possibility of Iranian sponsored insurrections among Shia in the Gulf States, the Saudis are asserting their power in the region while they have the advantage.  For thirty years, they have been engaged in a proxy war with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Syria is to be the next battlefield, but here, there is a critical difference from what were minor skirmishes in Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere.  The Saudis with the aid of Qatar, and the UAE is striking at the core interests of Tehran; and they have through their tribal networks the advantage over an isolated Islamic Republic.

The Ties That Bind (& Divide)

Tribal and kinship relations are being augmented by the infusion of the Salafi vision of Islam that is growing in the Gulf States.  Money from the Gulf States has gone into the development of religious centers to spread the fundamentalist belief.  A critical part of the ideology is to be anti-Shia.

Salafism in Saudi Arabia is promulgated by the Wahhabi School of Islam.  The Wahhabi movement began in the eighteenth century and promoted a return to the fundamentalism of the early followers of the Faith.

The Sauds incorporated the religious movement into their leadership of the tribes.  When the modern state of Saudi Arabia was formed, they were granted control of the educational system and much else in the society in exchange for the endorsement of the authoritarian rule.

When the Kingdom used its growing wealth in the 1970s to extend its interests far from the traditional territory in the battle against the atheistic Soviet Union, the Wahhabi clergy became missionaries in advancing their ideology through religious institutions to oppose the Soviets.  More than two hundred thousand jihadists were sent into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet forces and succeeded in driving them out.

There is no longer a Soviet Union to confront. Today, the enemy is the Islamic Republic of Iran with what is described by the Wahhabis as a heretical form of Islam and its involvement in the Shia communities across the region.  For thirteen centuries, the Shia have been kept under control.  With the hand of Iran in the form of the Qud Force reaching into restless communities that number as many as one hundred and six million people in what is the heart of the Middle East, the Saudis see a desperate need to crush the foe before it has the means to pull down the privileged position of the Saud Family and the families of the other Gulf State rulers.

Related: The Shifting Sands of Power In The Middle East: George Friedman

Related: Post-Arab Spring: Can The Arab World Revolutionise Their Economies?

The war begins in Syria where we can expect that a successor government to Assad will be declared soon in the Saudi controlled tribal areas even before Assad is defeated.  The territory is likely to adopt the more fundamentalist principals of the Salafists as it serves as a stepping stone to Iran Itself.  It promises to be a bloody protracted war that will recognize no frontier and will know no limits by all of the participants.

By Felix Imonti,

The Endless War: Saudi Arabia Goes on the Offensive Against Iran is republished with permission from

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