Official media in Saudi Arabia celebrated the U.S. strike that killed Qassem Soleimani as good news. Soleimani led Iran’s regional activities and frequently targeted Saudi Arabia and its allies. He was a top priority in the Saudi threat perception of Iran. But despite the public display of glee, the U.S.-led operation and its aftermath are not all good news for the kingdom.
The Good News
Washington and Riyadh have renewed their common cause in confronting Iran and its proxies. U.S. President Donald Trump has felt the sting from Iran’s regional activities and taken it personally. For the time being, Riyadh can be reassured that Iran’s regional activities and proxies are a top U.S. priority. There will be no negotiations between the United States and Iran over Trump’s minimalist demand of “no nuclear weapon” and other U.S. priorities such as hostage taking.
Trump’s sudden belligerence, pushing back against Iranian escalation is welcome in Saudi Arabia. U.S. credibility is renewed and, “Khamenei is shedding tears because of Trump!” For Riyadh, its protector has finally shown its teeth after months of hesitation. This escalation will also help boost the U.S.-Saudi military cooperation and arms sales, which are under constant pressure from Congress.
Without an independent Iran strategy of its own, the kingdom counts on the United States to determine the outcome of the maximum pressure campaign. Trump’s lukewarm reactions to previous Iranian escalation, including the attack on the Saudi oil facility, his public invitations for a meeting with Iran’s president, and his quixotic hope for an Iran that has good relations with the United States have exposed Riyadh’s inability to rely on Washington to defend the kingdom from its mortal enemy.
The Bad news
Trump’s bold attack may have made U.S. deterrence credible in the region, but it doesn’t solve Saudi Arabia’s power imbalance with Iran, as Riyadh wishes.
The nature, geographic scope, and scale of Iran’s response to the killing of its general will also determine whether Iran’s proxies will continue to be a top priority on the U.S. agenda with Iran. If Iran continues to use its proxies to target U.S. personnel and assets, then the United States will likely continue to strike those proxies. By weakening Iranian proxies, Washington would be aiding Saudi Arabia’s fight against the very same.
But if Iran chooses to attack the United States through other means, such as in cyberspace, or chooses to limit its retaliation to U.S. allies, then the conflict between Washington and Tehran may do nothing to change the balance of power between Iran and the kingdom.
Iraq’s volatility after the U.S. operation is a threat to Saudi national security as well. Whether U.S. troops stay or are expelled or withdrawn, their departure and the resulting limitation on the international fight against terrorism have serious implications for Saudi Arabia.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State and other terrorist organizations still have thousands of militants in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia is a high-value target for them, both in terms of attacks, but also recruitment. The Islamic State continues to use trending Saudi hashtags and other digital means to infiltrate Saudi Twitter campaigns and reach a Saudi audience. Last November, a Yemeni resident accused of being affiliated with al-Qaeda stabbed theater performers in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has already seen attacks on and across its borders with Iraq, including the 2015 attack on border guards in an attempt to enter the kingdom, and as recently as last June. With foreign forces rolled back or out of the picture, terrorists in Iraq will be able to refocus south and look to recruit and strike at Saudi targets.
Bilateral Relations with Iraq
Trump’s threat of sanctions against Iraq also topples the kingdom’s policy of political, economic, and social re-engagement with the war-torn nation. Riyadh’s policy objective is to pull Baghdad away from Tehran. This policy was lately successful and had more potential after the outbreak of anti-Iranian sentiment in the recent wave of demonstrations in Iraq and across the Middle East. But what once was a budding success has been drowned by anti-U.S. sentiment and violent pro-Iranian mobilization, thanks to the escalation between the United States and Iran following Soleimani’s assassination.
Saudi National projects
A conflict between Iran and the United States complicates the kingdom’s preparations for the G20 meeting in Riyadh at the end of this year. It will also drain resources needed for the ongoing implementation of Vision 2030’s national projects to diversify the Saudi economy. Saudi Arabia has only recently started pragmatic steps to move beyond the self-inflicted imbroglio following the rift with Qatar, the war in Yemen, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, in addition to its hegemonic regional policies that antagonized old friends like Jordan, Egypt and its fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
As the heat and friction between the United States and Iran rises in the region, Saudi Arabia will bear costs at an inconvenient time. Such costs will not be limited to repairing the damage done to potential targets. The plunging reaction of stock markets to Soleimani’s killings show that the political and economic costs of escalation in the Gulf may add to the costs of losing discouraged investors, tourists and VIP residents that Saudi Arabia counts on to realize its economic transformation.
As Iran considers how to make good on its threats to respond to the U.S. attack on its general, it may consider several options that directly strike at Saudi Arabia, an important U.S. ally. Sabotaging current negotiations between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia is one good Iranian option. Saudi Arabia is keen to freeze, if not resolve, the costly conflict in Yemen. Yet Houthi leaders have condemned the U.S. strike and called for a “quick response.” The kingdom already convened a meeting on January 4 with “friendly nations” to develop a deterrence strategy against Iranian retaliation via its Houthi allies.
Saudi Arabia’s Shia community
Iran also has a long and violent history of meddling in Saudi Arabia’s national security and harmony, capitalizing on the grievances of its Shia minority in the kingdom’s eastern province. The stirring up of these grievances, as well as the activation of pro-Iran networks, represent yet another option for Iran to target Saudi Arabia. The pro-Iran Shia extremist organization, Hezbollah al-Hejaz, issued a statement that calls for a revenge that includes targeting the U.S.-supported Saudi rulers. The day after the U.S. operation, an editor-in-chief of an influential Saudi newspaper called for the kingdom to tighten control on what he calls Iran’s “sleeper cells” amid ongoing arrests in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province before and after Soleimani’s death. As is often the case, statements on these arrests accused the suspects of operating “in response to the dictates of external enemies.”
The window of opportunity
Though Soleimani’s death was met with jubilation in the Saudi press, the official public reaction was more cautious. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement didn’t mention Iran, unlike its previous statements. Instead, the ministry condemned “terrorist” activities but “in light of the rapid developments, call[ed] for the importance of self-restraint.” The Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, reiterated this in a tweet “to save the countries of the region and their people.”
Al-Jubeir’s tweet came after the U.S. State Department issued a readout of Secretary Mike Pompeo’s call with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman, during which he “thanked” the crown prince for “Saudi Arabia’s steadfast support.” The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ readout of the call, however, described a de-escalatory tone, saying that they discussed efforts “to defuse tensions in the region.” Furthermore, Saudi sources denied in the press that they had prior knowledge of the strike, and the Saudi minister of foreign affairs, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, reiterated that Saudi Arabia is “very keen” on de-escalation. This was no doubt one of the message carried to Washington by the deputy minister of defense, Prince Khaled bin Salman, for his January 6 meeting with White House officials.
That Saudi officials want de-escalation in the Gulf is new evidence of an evolving strategy for a more pragmatic management of regional challenges. In the aftermath of the September 14, 2019, attacks on Aramco, the crown prince expressed a similar de-escalatory tone in a TV interview. Yet this new pragmatism seems not to have factored into the U.S. calculus, as the assassination of Solemaini has put the kingdom in Iran’s crosshairs.
The impact of recent Saudi steps to stabilize its regional environment by solving ongoing issues with Qatar, Kuwait, around the Red Sea and the Houthis in Yemen has been thrown into jeopardy by Trump’s aggressive attack. It was Riyadh’s hope to create a more pragmatic Saudi foreign policy and rehabilitate Saudi leadership of Gulf politics. Those steps should be continued, despite the latest U.S. escalation. But the incompatibility between the U.S. narrative about de-escalation versus its actions should push the kingdom to create a real Iran strategy based on its current pragmatic recalculations of its regional policies. Saudi Arabia can no longer afford to outsource its foreign policy on Iran to the United States, given the U.S. strategy’s unpredictability and uncertainty. Riyadh wants to regain the international community’s trust, prevent an uncontrolled escalation on its soil, and influence the outcome of the U.S.-Iran game. Iraq is a good place to start. That leaves no time to waste.
Correction: The paragraph about Saudi Arabia’s Shia community has been clarified to reflect changing facts on the ground.