In trying to determine what the next stage for the Iran – Saudi relationship might be, one must first look at similar relations between other states to see if they might contain clues.
What do these other states share in common, what factors might be different, and how did these states approach these conflict areas in an effort to either mitigate the problems, eliminate them altogether, or to just simply accept that they exist and move forward peacefully? In reviewing which states could lend an insight into the Iran-Saudi conflict we must first identify some of the factors that contribute to the problem. The following are some of the sources of conflict that weigh into the relations between the two nations:
- Religious sect differences
- Desire for regional hegemony
- History of armed conflict/invasion
- Cultural differences
- Presence of outside powers
- Territorial disputes
Considering these factors, there are a number of state conflicts that qualifies in one or more of these categories. During the great colonization periods England, France, and Spain had numerous clashes over issues such as regional hegemony and territorial disputes. More recently we’ve seen clashes between Pakistan and India caused mainly by religious differences, Germany against other nations during the World Wars in its desire for global hegemony, as well as two Asian powerhouses (Japan and China) that center around a number of factors such as cultural differences, historical resentment, and territorial disputes. Of these conflicts, some evolved where the nations now work collectively on many fronts. Others continue with strained relationships marked by periods of armed conflict such as between Pakistan and India. And yet others exist still as an uneasy stalemate with periods of muscle-flexing and posturing but devoid of any real military confrontation.
Looking at the examples of England, France, Spain and ultimately Germany we see nations that have had long histories of armed conflict, resulting in clashes both on home soil as well as via proxies. This is very much like Iran and Saudi Arabia today. Yet now these European nations are almost completely at peace with one another and work in unison with one another to overcome regional issues covering economics, immigration, and security. How did these nations, once committed to the destruction of one another, overcome those obstacles to get to this point and could this hold relevance for Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Since the end of World War II the nations of Europe have enjoyed a long period of relative peace. One major factor working in these nations’ favor was, ironically, the existence of the Cold War and reliance on the United States for military protection. The existence of NATO helped keep the peace by keeping the Soviet Bloc out of Western Europe as well as limiting each individual country’s ability to pose a threat to its neighbors. Another major factor is certainly the deterrence factor of nuclear weapons. Both France and England possess nuclear capabilities so an outbreak of such warfare has the potential for dire consequences. Additionally, factors such as the new wealth these nations were unwilling to risk, democratic governments which were more accountable to the will of the people as opposed to an individual leader’s whims, and largely open borders that led to more transcultural understanding across all of Europe, all contributed to greater peace and less tension.
In Pakistan and India we see two regional powers that are largely at odds due to their religious and territorial differences, just as in the Iranian-Saudi conflict. Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the two countries have engaged in numerous territorial, cultural and religious disputes, and as well as three instances of outright war. These disputes have mainly centered on the Kashmir region and again, like the case with Iran and Saudi Arabia, is the scene of local insurgents being used as proxies in the fight. Numerous periods of peace have occurred only to be broken by violent outbursts, such as the Mumbai terrorist attacks. A parallel can unfortunately be drawn to the mosque bombings inside Saudi Arabia, where they were ultimately attributed to Iranian-influenced groups inside Saudi territory.
In China and Japan we see regional powers with a long history of conflict that centers on their own desires for regional hegemony. What we also see that is similar to Iran and Saudi Arabia are factors such as territorial conflicts, economic conflict, the presence of US interests, and one nation claiming the cultural high road over the other. The presence of the United States in Japan and its deepening economic ties/interdependence with China helped to settle some of those military tensions, although they still do have areas of conflict over territorial claims. Economic transformation has basically shifted the tension from a once intensely military-based engagement to one more predicated on global positioning and diplomatic leverage. This is in fact a great positive sign of progress.
In 2006, after Prime Minister Abe assumed office in Japan, relations underwent a period of improvement as the two nations became more committed to high-level discussions. In an important symbolic gesture, Japan showed a willingness to admit and atone for some of its wartime atrocities against China. The two countries have also entered into joint ventures in oil and gas exploration, instead of competing for these resources inside disputed territorial areas. These two regional powers have grown to become two of the largest and most influential global economic powers. Their mutual economic interdependencies have provided a stable base upon which they are able to work on more productive overall relations. Economic collapse via war would be catastrophic to both nations so this interdependence has been a huge contributor in resolving differences.
At the moment the China-Japan case offers less hope for Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the present day one is hard-pressed to see economic opportunity building close interdependence between the two countries. The JCPOA accord may also end up only increasing tension over the short-term as Iran begins to gain greater global influence and establish more economic stability and prosperity for itself. This could engender a reflexive counter-balancing reaction from Saudi Arabia. Some would even argue it has already begun such economic strategies in the past two years by keeping the price of oil low. This is the opposite of what we have seen with China and Japan, where economic development on a global scale brought them closer together.
Analyzing these strategic conflicts shows that there are lessons to be learned that could lead Iran and Saudi Arabia along a path of conflict resolution. As is often the case, the devil is in the details. The presence and actions of a global superpower in the region (like the United States) can be an enabler of peace or an exacerbator of conflict. Trade and economic interdependence can break down prejudices and barriers and increase transcultural understanding, but that tends to be a slow process requiring patience from all parties involved. Communication and an element of trust, however, are essential across all of the conflict cases. If the opposing sides are unable to communicate, either through third parties or directly, then it becomes nearly impossible to develop the trust necessary to resolve issues. At the moment that still remains the biggest single obstacle between Iran and Saudi Arabia: a failure to communicate.
Saudi Arabia’s Entertainment Plans: Soft Power at Work?
Saudi Arabia recently broke ground on its ambitious “entertainment city” known as Qiddiya, near Riyadh. The splashy launch, attended by 300 dignitaries from around the world, highlights a frequently overlooked aspect of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan: the entertainment industry as a growing economic sector. As the kingdom diversifies its economy away from reliance on petro fuels, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been keen to showcase the increasing openness of his country, promoting festivals, concerts and sports events and ending the country’s 35-year ban on cinemas.
These projects are partially intended to bolster the economy and attract FDI—but not only. Saudi Arabia is also playing catch-up with other regional actors, such as Qatar and the UAE, in terms of cultural output and cultural participation. With Qiddiya and the other cultural projects in the works, Saudi is now carving out a road for itself to become a regional culture hub.
Thefirst phase of Qiddiya, which includes high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area, is expected to be completed in 2022. Saudi officials hope the park will draw in foreign investment and attract 17 million visitors by 2030; the final phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2035, by which point the entertainment resort will be the largest in the world, dwarfing Florida’s Walt Disney World.
Beyond these financial incentives, however, the Qiddiya project is Saudi Arabia’s answer to events like the Dubai Expo 2020 or the Qatar World Cup 2022 and suggests that the kingdom is trying to position itself as the next big destination for lucrative events – which also add to the idea that entertainment, culture, and innovation are key to Saudi Arabia’s economic vision and success.
Vision 2030’s emphasis on entertainment raises a key question: is Riyadh attempting to increase its soft power across the region in a constructive and proactive way? The answer to that question is yes.
In the immediate future, Qatar and the UAE will remain the region’s foremost entertainment and cultural hubs. From Qatar’s Islamic Museum of Art, which famous architect I.M. Pei came out of retirement to design, to Dubai’s theme parks, including a $1 billion behemoth which is the world’s largest indoor theme park, these two Gulf states are demonstrating their prowess to develop an arts and culture scene. In Doha, Qatar is exemplifying its unique outlook towards world affairs by emphasizing humanitarianism and fourteen centuries of history. Qatar is also hosting the World Cup in 2022, intended to bring Doha center-stage in the sports world. Abu Dhabi’s Louvre has been referred to as “one of the world’s most ambitious cultural projects”, while advertisements throughout the emirate insist that the museum will cause its visitors to “see humanity in a new light”.
Despite these Gulf states’ head start on developing vibrant entertainment sectors, there is still room for Saudi Arabia to offer something new. For one thing, some of its neighbors are dealing with trouble in paradise: Qatar’s once-strong economy is under increasing strain as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt boycott it; meanwhile, the company which owns many of Dubai’s largest theme parks lost $302 million in 2017.
The Qiddiya project also represents a particular vision that’s distinct from neighboring countries’ cultural programs. Qiddiya is designed to mix desert heritage and the ethos of the past with the technological advances of the future. The intended result is to be a fusion between aspirations and building on those achievements from desert to post-modernity, on a colossal scale.
The project is crafted both to satisfy domestic demand—it includes plans to build 11,000 homes to serve as vacation homes for Riyadh residents— and to compete directly against Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the Gulf. With two-thirds of the Saudi population under the age of 35, building a thriving entertainment sector is particularly important.
The kingdom is hoping to use its idea of mixing the past with the future in Qiddiya to significantly alter the flow of tourist revenues in the Gulf. The UAE, Qatar and Bahrain rely on tourists from the Gulf and beyond for essential cash inflows—including the $30 billion a year Saudis spend on tourism abroad every year. By providing new entertainment options in-country for Saudi Arabia’s citizens and residents, who pay more than any other country’s citizens while on vacation, Riyadh aims to redirect some of this overseas tourism spending back into the kingdom. It’s set up concrete goals to this effect, hoping to increase domestic spending on culture and entertainment from about three percent of household income to six percent. Saudi Arabia also likely hopes that Qiddiya will attract significant international tourism as well—one senior official tied the park’s creation to the goal of making Riyadh one of the top 100 cities in the world to live.
Of course, it is likely to be a long wait before the kingdom itself starts producing the cultural output that will make it a real entertainment hub; after all, Saudi public schools still do not teach music, dance and theater, and the kingdom lacks music and film academies. But by taking the first steps of embracing the vast economic potential of the entertainment sector, the kingdom may well be on its way there.
Israel, Ukraine, and U.S. Crack Down Against Press
On Wednesday, May 16th, Russian Television reported recent crackdowns against the press, on the part of both Ukraine’s Government and Israel’s Government. One headline story, “9 journalists injured by Israeli gunfire in Gaza ‘massacre’, total now over 20”, reported that Israel had shot dead two journalists:
“Yaser Murtaja, 31, a cameraman for Palestinian Ain Media agency, died on April 7 after he was shot by Israeli forces the previous day while covering a protest south of the Gaza Strip. He wore a blue protective vest marked ‘PRESS’.”
“Ahmad Abu Hussein, 24, was shot by Israeli forces during a protest in the Gaza strip on April 13. He died from his injuries on April 25. He was also wearing a protective vest marked ‘PRESS’ at the time.”
The other 18 instances were only injuries, not murders, but Israel has now made clear that any journalist who reports from the Palestinian side is fair game for Israel’s army snipers — that when Palestinians demonstrate against their being blockaded into the vast Gaza prison, and journalists then report from amongst the demonstrators instead of from the side of the snipers, those journalists are fair game by the snipers, along with those demonstrators.
Some of the surviving 18 journalists are still in critical condition and could die from Israel’s bullets, so the deaths to journalists might be higher than just those two.
Later in the day, RT bannered “Fist-size gunshot wounds, pulverized bones, inadmissible use of force by Israel in Gaza – HRW to RT” and presented a damning interview with the Israel & Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch.
The other crackdown has been by Ukraine. After the U.S. Obama Administration perpetrated a very bloody coup in Ukraine during February of 2014, that country has plunged by every numerical measure, and has carried out raids against newsmedia that have reported unfavorably on the installed regime. The latest such incident was reported on May 16th by Russian Television, under the headline, “US endorses Kiev’s raid on Russian news agency amid international condemnation”. An official of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) stated there: “I reiterate my call on the authorities to refrain from imposing unnecessary limitations on the work of foreign journalists, which affects the free flow of information and freedom of the media.” An official of the CPJ (Committee to Protect journalists) stated: “We call on Ukrainian authorities to disclose the charges and evidence they have against Vyshinsky or release him without delay. … We also call on Ukrainian authorities to stop harassing and obstructing Russian media operating in Ukraine. The criminalization of alternative news and views has no place in a democratic Ukraine.” However, as reported by RT, Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General called the editorial policy of the anti-regime RIA Ukraine “anti-Ukrainian” in nature, amounting to “state treason.” So, the prosecutor is threatening to categorize and prosecute critical press under Ukraine’s treason law.
The U.S. regime is not condemning either of its client-regimes for their crackdowns. (It cites Ukraine’s supposed victimhood from “Russian propaganda” as having caused Ukraine’s action, and justifies Israel’s gunning-down of demonstrators and of journalists as having beeen necessary for Israel’s self-defense against terrorism.) In neither instance is the U.S. dictatorship saying that this is unacceptable behavior for a government that receives large U.S. taxpayers funds. Of course, in the U.S., the mainstream press aren’t allowed to report that either Israel or today’s Ukraine is a dictatorship, so they don’t report this, though Israel clearly is an apartheid racist-fascist (or ideologically nazi, but in their case not against Jews) regime, and Ukraine is clearly also a racist-fascist, or nazi, regime, which engages in ethnic cleansing to get rid of voters for the previous — the pre-coup — Ukrainian government. People who are selected individually by the installed regime, get driven to a big ditch, shot, with the corpses piling up there, and then the whole thing gets covered over. This is America’s client-‘democracy’ in Ukraine, not its client-‘democracy’ in Israel.
May 16th also was the day when the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee voted 10 to 5 to approve as the next CIA Director, Gina Haspel, the person who had headed torture at the CIA’s black site in Thailand where Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and blinded in one eye in order to get him to say that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks; and, since then, Zubaydah, who has never been in court, has been held incommunicado at Guantanamo, so that he can’t testify in court or communicate with the press in any way. “The U.S. Government has never charged Zubaydah with any crime.” And the person who had ordered and overseen his torture will soon head the agency for which she worked, the CIA.
Whether the U.S. regime will soon start similarly to treat its own critical press as “traitors” isn’t clear, except that ever since at least the Obama Administration, and continuing now under Trump, the U.S. Government has made clear that it wants to seize and prosecute both Edward Snowden and Julian Assange for their journalistic whistleblowing, violations of “state secrets,” those being anything that the regime wants to hide from the public — including things that are simply extremely embarrassing for the existing rulers. Therefore, the journalistic-lockdown step, from either Israel, or Ukraine, to U.S., would be small, for the United States itself to take, if it hasn’t yet already been taken in perhaps secret ways. But at least, the Senate Intelligence Committee is strongly supportive of what the U.S. Government has been doing, and wants more of it to be done.
JCPOA in Post-US Exit: Consequences and Repercussions
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal signed by the P 5+1 in 2015 was widely hailed as a landmark achievement made possible by sincere dialogue and diplomacy. Indeed, the agreement is to a greater extent an achievement of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that helped checked the increasingly disturbing power symmetry in the Middle East which in return has managed to contain the transformation of low intensity conflicts into all out wars. A relative stability is the hallmark which resulted from JCPOA in the Middle East which is extremely volatile region of the world. A vital question is: how these achievements are going to be affected by the US withdrawal from it?
The US withdrawal from JCPOA will adversely affect the aforementioned three areas of its accumulative achievement with variant degree. First, it has negative consequences for the norm that negotiated settlements in international arenas has the potential and lasting credibility to minimize violence or other coercive means led by war. The momentum and confidence the diplomatic means have garnered in post- JCPOA scenario will come to the crushing halt. The sealed and mutually agreed upon agreements in international arena especially in which the US is the potential party, will come under extreme scrutiny leading to an environment of gross trust deficit. Therefore, on the first instance this withdrawal has negative lasting consequences for the diplomatic norms in itself.
Secondly, US exist from the deal does not augur well for the nascent nuclear non-proliferation regime. This regime has a dearth of good precedents like the JCPOA which has deterred a nation from acquiring and operationalizing nuclear weapons as is the case with Iran. Keeping in view this backdrop of this institution, JCPOA has been its glaring example wherein it has managed to successfully convince a nation to not pursue the path which leads towards the nuclear weapons. Therefore, the US withdrawal has shaken the confidence of the non-proliferation regime to its core. It has engendered a split among the leading nations who were acting as sort of de facto executive to enforce the agreements on the nuclear ambitious states. Therefore, this US withdrawal has undoubtedly far reaching repercussions for the non-proliferation as an institution. This development may affect the nature and its future development as an institutional mechanism to deter the recalcitrant states to change their course regarding the nuclear weapons.
Thirdly, in relation to the above mentioned negative consequences on diplomacy and nuclear non-proliferation regime, the US withdrawal from the deal has far serious security ramifications for the volatile and conflict ridden Middle East. It has multiplied the prospects of all-out war between Iran and its regional rivals on one hand and Iran and Israel on the other hand. Just tonight the announcement of Trump exiting JCPOA and the Israeli aggression on Syrian military bases substantiates the assertion that there exists a correlation between this US withdrawal and the Zionist regime`s regional hegemonic designs. It has extremely positive message for the Saudi Arabia. The impulsive and overambitious Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) went on extended tours in the US and Europe to convince Western leadership that Iran should be contained. Therefore, element of stability in the region – contained low intensity conflicts – got serious motivation to turn into all-out-wars with non-exclusion of nuclear options at the disposal of Zionist regime in the Middle East. The Middle Eastern region with this exit of the US is going to observe substantial turmoil in the months to come which will have some extra regional ramifications.
As a conclusion it could be argued that the US exit has some far reaching repercussions for the diplomatic norms, non-proliferation regime and above all for the volatile Middle Eastern region. All these ramifications resulted from the US withdrawal will also in return have some serious consequences internally and externally. The status of the US as the sole super power of the world will be diminished with this decision. It will create an unbridgeable gap in the West. Henceforth, the EU foreign will be more autonomous, integrated and autonomous in her conduct.
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