The Gulf region has witnessed several developments that have left a major impact on regional security and stability. The year 2020 once again underlined the pressing need to take a different approach towards regional security and the management of crises seeing as the current tactic has proven ineffective.
At the beginning of the year, the region was on the brink of full-scale war due to months of tensions in 2019 that saw attacks on shipping lanes in the Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb Straits and rocket and drone attacks against civilian locations and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. The situation came to a head in January 2020 with Washington’s killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraq deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The novel coronavirus pandemic added health and economic challenges to the strained political and security situation. Adding more strain was the drop in oil prices.
The year was capped off in November with Joe Biden’s election as US president. He will bring in a new approach to the region. How will all of the above impact Saudi policy? What sort of precautions should Riyadh take to confront the challenges and changes in the region?
Saudi Arabia has main strategic interests in the Middle East, especially the Arabian Peninsula. These interests and goals will not change in the foreseeable future. They are: countering Iran’s influence in the region; expanding and deepening relations with countries – not just in the Gulf, but the wider region - that share Saudi Arabia’s view; and maintaining the security partnership with the United States.
Iran remains the top threat to the region. It should be noted that while the Trump administration’s policies on Tehran were largely welcome in Saudi Arabia, doubts remain over how much of their declared and undeclared goals can be achieved. Moreover, some uncertainty remains over the shape of American-Gulf ties in the future.
Of course, Gulf and regional security are Saudi Arabia’s main strategic goals. Such stability demands a united Gulf Cooperation Council, a stable Iraq and peace and prosperity in Yemen. The Kingdom believes that a more stable and prosperous region will rein in and diminish Iran’s threat.
On the internal scene, the Saudi leadership is keen on ensuring the success of its Vision 2030 so that it can be fortified amid a region that is rife with failed states.
Areas for negotiations
Some issues are negotiable, while others are not. I believe that the singular most non-negotiable issue is countering Iran and its militias in Saudi Arabia’s vicinity. Moreover, it is important at some point to avoid dialogue and rapprochement with the current Iranian leadership because it is futile and will send the wrong message to the world.
In order to achieve peace in Yemen, the Iran-backed Houthi militias may be part of a future government there, but they will not be allowed to impose their hegemony over the country or eliminate other partners. Furthermore, Iran must not have any role in Yemen’s reconstruction.
Saudi Arabia will continue to strengthen its coordination with regional allies, such as the United Arab Emirates. It will also be open to negotiations with other parties that share interests with it, such as the size of the United States’ security role in the region.
Other players are also present in the region, such as China, Russia and major European countries. China here appears to be on the rise, while Russia is on its way out. These countries all know that they cannot play the same role as guarantor that the US is so skilled at without deploying military forces to the region. This strongly applies to Russia that has failed to achieve this goal for decades.
Large room to maneuver is expected during talks over the nature of the future political settlement in Yemen and the reconstruction in Syria and Iraq. Iraq will inch closer to Saudi Arabia, which will help limit Iran’s threat. Such rapprochement, however, needs time.
Riyadh will also seek to reach broader regional consensus over more effective strategies to fight terrorism. Significant also are the major changes in the Palestinian-Israeli file and peace process. These changes will likely continue during Biden’s term.
Exasperation from the region
The year 2021 will reveal the extent major powers are exasperated from the region. This despair, exhaustion and impatience may push Washington to be hasty in striking a nuclear deal with Iran in order to reduce the number of its forces in the region and shift its focus towards Asia.
Iran, however, should be the first to make concessions given the low number of options its regime has compared to the US. Such concessions seem logical to help it ease the stifling crisis it is enduring. It will not be easy, however, due to the fierce rivalries within the Iranian regime not only between the reformists and hardliners, but the hardliners and conservatives as well. The not-so-distant past has shown the Iranians that they end up on the losing side each time they opt to hold negotiations and offer concessions by reaching understandings with the West and US. Iran’s pressing need for the return of the nuclear deal could trump these concerns.
Moreover, Iran’s interference in Yemen will be too tempting to avoid for the regime. It is the file in which it can offer the greatest concessions in order to make political gains. Yemen is not part of the Fertile Crescent region that Iran is eying to expand its influence. Tehran must not expect Riyadh to make any concessions to it in Yemen even with international pressure. There seems to be a misunderstanding over the impact the West has on the war in Yemen. All the West has offered is some defense support to Saudi Arabia. This support is not expected to change.
The international pressure must be coupled with an effective United Nations role in Yemen. This has not happened as the Houthis continue to ignore the organization’s peace efforts in the country.
The main countries in the region will carve up their influence, but the main security foundation will remain weak. China’s rise in the region will not alter this equation in the near future. It will also be difficult to reach reasonable and satisfying understandings between main regional and international players in the Middle East given the sharp divisions already present there.
It is necessary to differentiate between what is beneficial and desired and what is possible. These are two different issues. Brute force will remain the most effective way to shape understandings in the region. Confidence-building measures will not be enough to ease tensions and resolve conflicts. The conflict in the region is not about trust alone, but it also revolves around Iran’s rocket capabilities that should be confronted. This threat is more pronounced now than when the Obama administration struck the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.
Despite this, an influential bloc in Iran believes that traditional weapons are not enough for it. It believes that the country will eventually develop nuclear weapons in order to alter the balance of power in the region. Such a development will prompt other countries to pursue nuclear weapons, including the Gulf.
Dr. Hesham Alghannam is a Saudi political scientist and senior research fellow at the Gulf Research Center, Cambridge.