Bottom Line Up Front
- The Trump Administration is seeking to minimize any U.S-Saudi rift over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in order to preserve Washington’s recently revitalized counter Iran strategy.
- The policies of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (“MBS”) have set back, rather than advanced, the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back Iran’s regional influence in the Middle East.
- The Saudi-led isolation of Qatar has fractured the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is a pillar of any U.S.-led Arab coalition to counter Iran.
- MBS’s policies have failed to reduce Iranian influence anywhere in the region, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or Yemen, while at the same time exacerbating already dangerous humanitarian crises in some of these countries.
President Donald Trump is seeking to minimize damage to U.S.-Saudi relations resulting from the planned October 2 killing in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based Saudi journalist and critic of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. One key argument the administration has used for downplaying the Saudi atrocity is that the Kingdom is vital to Washington’s efforts to isolate Iran and roll back its malign regional influence. However, particularly since MBS emerged as the Kingdom’s key policymaker in 2015, Riyadh has instead become more of a liability than a benefit to U.S. efforts against Iran. A series of drastic miscalculations and strategic blunders by MBS, perhaps instigated by the leaders of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have strengthened, not weakened, Iran in the region.
MBS’s first major mistake was the decision in March 2015 to assemble an Arab coalition to battle the Zaidi Shia Houthi movement in Yemen, a faction which at the time was only loosely allied with Iran. The Saudi command predicted that the war would be won in three weeks. Three and a half years later, the stalemated war has led to thousands of civilian casualties and a humanitarian disaster, and the Houthis are well financed and supplied by Iran, including with short range ballistic missiles that they’ve fired on the Kingdom, as well as the UAE.
In June 2017, MBS and UAE leaders fractured the one Arab alliance that stood as a bulwark against Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf – the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman). Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched an effort to isolate Qatar, largely over Doha’s support for moderate and politically-focused Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which as a principle, eschews violence. The rift remains unresolved because MBS and his UAE partners insist that Qatar accede to all of their demands, however unrealistic. The dispute has repeatedly delayed the administration from holding a U.S.-GCC summit intended to formally unveil a coalition, termed the “Middle East Strategic Alliance” (MESA), centered on the GCC, as well as Egypt and Jordan.
In late 2017, MBS had Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri virtually imprisoned during a visit to Saudi Arabia, which has been a backer of Hariri’s faction and his family. The Saudis pressured Hariri to resign and blame his resignation on Iran and Iran’s main regional proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah, which is the most powerful armed faction in Lebanon. Instead of triggering an anticipated backlash in Lebanon against Hezbollah, the ploy resulted in a clamor in Lebanon for Hariri to rescind his resignation. Hezbollah allies subsequently gained seats in May 2018 parliamentary elections.
Saudi policies have similarly failed to weaken Iranian influence in Syria or Iraq. The rift within the GCC left the Gulf states unable to unify the Syrian opposition to counter the Russian and Iranian support that helped facilitate Assad’s consolidation of power, even in the face of grievous human rights abuses and numerous violations of international law, including the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian civilian population. Saudi outreach to factions in Iraq was not sufficient to extract those factions, or Iraq more generally, from Iran’s political orbit. The net effect of the policies of MBS and his regional supporters has been to entrench, rather than reduce, Iran’s regional influence, the exact opposite of what the Trump administration expected from its investment in MBS.