Analysis | Is Saudi Arabia Losing at its Own Game? 

Analysis | Is Saudi Arabia Losing at its Own Game? 

Pascal Hensel

- MENA Affairs Specialist
- Graduate in Foreign Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Virginia in Charlottesville
- Former DoS Policy Analyst Intern

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The Saudi Gaffe over Qatar

Saudi Arabia has recently made headlines for its foreign policy maneuvers surrounding its cold relations with Qatar.  In June, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, suddenly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, imposed a blockade, and issued a thirteen-point list of demands.  The main grievance cited by Saudi Arabia and others was Qatar’s support of terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.  Meanwhile, some demands, including demands to shut down Al-Jazeera and other news agencies supported by Qatar, in many ways reflected an aggravation with the small country punching above its weight in political and cultural influence.  Perhaps the most interesting Saudi grievance, and as discussed in The International Scholar’s MENA Deep Dive podcast series, is Qatar’s friendly diplomatic and economic relations with Iran.  Though the Gulf crisis has since further developed, with the Saudi-led bloc scrapping the thirteen demands and effectively replacing them with six “principles” in mid-July, Saudi Arabia’s contentious political maneuvers have played straight into the hands of their longtime regional enemy, Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s strategy was simple: pressure Qatar to abandon Iran by cutting diplomatic and economic ties.  Yet, and predictably, pushing Qatar away did not bring Qatar any closer.  As Bassima Alghussein and Jeffrey Stacey of Foreign Affairs write in their article, cutting off trade with Qatar and thereby requiring food and other imports from elsewhere opened the door for increased trade and diplomatic relations with Iran.  

It is important to acknowledge that Iranian support of Qatar is and will continue to be limited.  As Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times explains in his article, Iran sees little strategic value in Qatar and does not want to provoke a war over this crisis.  Instead, Iran would rather just assist Qatar with its food shipments and allow Saudi Arabia to continue its self-harming policies.  In other words, Iran would rather sit on the sidelines and let Saudi Arabia lose at its own game.

Notably, the Gulf crisis is not the first time Saudi Arabia appears to have overplayed its hand and let Iran reap the benefits.  The civil war in Yemen, often overlooked in our current discourses of Middle Eastern crises, presents another such example.

Following a troubled political transition in Yemen in 2011, a rebellion led by Yemen’s Zaydi Shia minority culminated in the takeover of the capital city of Sanaa in the fall of 2014 and the subsequent ousting of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.  The Zaydi rebels, known as the Houthis, then teamed up with their former enemy, former President Saleh, who had lost his power to Hadi in 2011.  Fearing another Hezbollah and the expansion of Iranian influence, and because the Houthis had been receiving some assistance from Iran, a Saudi-led coalition waged a powerful air and land campaign against the Houthis in March of 2015 and set up a naval blockade.  The ongoing war in Yemen between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition combined with the blockade have caused a humanitarian catastrophe as well as areas of anarchy where terrorist groups such as AQAP and ISIS expand their control.

Although Iran’s hatred of the western-dominated world order as well as its backing of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah fuel genuine concerns of Iranian belligerence, it is easy to overstate Iran’s role in Yemen.  As discussed in Foreign Policy (read more here), the Houthi insurgency was driven more by regional grievances than by an Iranian plot to expand its influence into the country.  Indeed, Iran’s support to the Houthis had been rather inconsequential to the overall capabilities and lethality of the Houthi rebellion.  According to Thomas Juneau of The Washington Post (read more here), Iran likely began supplying the Houthis with a modest amount of weapons in 2009, many years after the Houthis had originally formed as a separatist rebel group.  Once the Houthis took over Sanaa in 2014, Iran began increasing support to the rebels with more weapons, more money, and train and equip programs led by a small amount of IRGC officers.  However, though Iran has been increasing support since the beginning of the conflict, Houthi decision-making is still largely independent of Iran, as evidenced by the Houthis’ rejection of a plan for a permanent Iranian military base in Yemen (read more here).  Furthermore, as Juneau argues, the weaponry supplied by Iran could only alter the playing field so much when compared to the massive resources expended by the Saudi-led coalition.  Yet, as the war drags on, the Houthis only become more and more willing to accept more and more Iranian aid.  The Yemeni civil war, similarly to the Qatar crisis, became a convenient tool for Iran to dip its toes into a conflict and tip the scales to aggravate and bog down Saudi Arabia. 

Iran in many ways has pursued an opportunistic foreign policy.  In both the Yemeni civil war and the Gulf crisis, Saudi Arabia overplayed its hand in its hubris, favoring pressure and force over diplomacy and a compromise.  As a result, Iran seized the opportunity to wiggle its way into crises and expand its influence.  Saudi Arabia’s contentious foreign policies therefore seem not only to perpetuate and aggravate conflicts and regional discord, but they in many ways allow for Tehran to patiently wait and let opportunities arrive on a silver platter.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


Banner Photo Credits:

  1. Photo by Maher Najm, Flickr, North Side Of Riyadh City
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/mahernajm/19635135252

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