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Saudi – Iranian future: 3 games – 3 scenarios

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There is no need to argue on Saudi Arabia and Iran as the two biggest regional powers in the Gulf, the rising tension between the two countries who are engaged in proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and somehow Bahrein had installed a climate of Cold War.2.

How did we get there?

Saudi Arabia existed since 1932 as a Sunni country and the birthplace of Islam. Its history of creation is so unique, mesmerizing and fascinating.

Iran, has a glorious past, with various empires that conquered the Arab-Islamic world at certain period of time.

While the Shah was in power, Iran’s relations with the Arab Gulf States were normalized, Iran’s navy used to act as the policeman of the gulf. The situation has changed when the Iranian Islamic revolution occurred in 1979, with consequences on both countries and on their relationships. Iran’s Ayatollah wanted to export their respective model and undermine Saudi Arabia that Iranian officials see as corrupt and unworthy due to its relation with the United States and the West. The Shia country is also supporting Shia communities in the Gulf which is seen as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.

Not only the leaders of the Iranian revolution see Saudi Arabia as a corrupt country, but they also see them as treacherous and disloyal. The reason behind is more than a Shia-Sunni rivalry; it is important to contextualize the order before the Islamic revolution; an oil embargo was occurring in the world where Iran’s leaders wanted to stop selling oil to Western powers. They called upon Saudi Arabia to do the same in retaliation toward countries who helped Israel in the « Yom Kippur War », but Saudi Arabia didn’t stop selling its oil, and decided to increase the price of the barrel to destabilize the economy of the Western countries that helped Israel, without disturbing their strategic alliance with the United States.

Today, the relationship between the two countries is delayed.

The succession of events from 2011 where Iran wants to seize the opportunity of a possible vacuum of power during the Arab Spring, by supporting the Shia protests that erupted in Bahrein and the idea of a Shia Islamic republic, has proved the ability of Saudi Arabia and the GCC to sends its troops into Bahrain. Was it a symbolic gesture, or a warning for Tehran?

Then it cames to Yemen, Iraq and Syria, where today Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war. The Iranian Nuclear deal with the P5+1, the uncontrolled situation in Yemen, the Hajj crush where Iran claimed more than 400 dead citizens, The execution of 27 Sunnis by the Iranians, the execution of Nimr al Nimr (a Shia Sheikh) by the Saudis, the attack of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, then the cuts of the diplomatic ties between the two countries, and the intensification of the rivalry.

What is for the future to expect?

3 games

3 scenarios

Accommodation game

In this scenario, Saudi Arabia and Iran will have to sit in the table of negotiation and find a com-promise. But how can two rival countries negotiate? common interest if there is any or a mutual threat?

Iran and Saudi Arabia are both rich countries, with large access to natural resources, big territories and their economic model is based on oil. If there is no common interest between the two powerful states in the region, the creation of ISIS constitute a threat to both governments. Iran doesn’t want a powerful Sunni group in Iraq and Syria and ISIS is threatening the Gulf monarchy. However, Tehran and Riyadh seems to have no intention to lower the temperature and talk again for a potential solution toward the defeat of « Daesh », and the rivalry between them is distracting attention from the war against ISIS. If a mutual threat is not enough to push for negotiations what can be the other solution?

As a consequence of the Iranian deal, the Saudis seem to be fed up with the shock therapy that the United States is exerting in the region at a point that they refused a seat in the Security Council. Saudi Arabia is today looking for new partnership with different countries, the latest highest meet-ing of the GCC has proved the lack of confidence of the Saudis regarding their alliance with the United States. With the intensification of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, the Americans show no will to interfere and defend the interest of their historical ally, and Saudi Arabia is being exacerbated by the Washington-Tehran reconciliation.

Recently Saudi Arabia’s King Salman met the Chinese President in Riyadh where they signed a memorandum of understanding on the construction of a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor that can help the growing energy demand for electricity and water desalination in the Monarchy. This will also evolve the beginning of a nuclear program in Saudi Arabia. Actually, Since 2006, The monarchy was projecting to construct and promote a peaceful nuclear capacity program within the GCC, and in 2007 the six Gulf States studied with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) the feasibility for a regional nuclear power, with the assistance of France. Saudi Arabia started singing many international agreements for a nuclear cooperation with different countries as France, Argentina, South Korea, China.

Recently, in June 2015, Russia and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement for cooperation in the field of nuclear energy including the design, construction, operation of nuclear power, education and training and other aspects related nuclear reactors. Now, what if Saudi’s decide to weaponize the use of nuclear? It will have subsequent effects in the region and will lead to an arms escalation of WMD.

Nevertheless, if this situation is unwanted, it can bring back stability in the region, the history has proved it.

During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the United States were expending their ballistic missiles, the Cuban missile crises and the threat of a nuclear war between the two blocs that can destroy Russia and the United States and may be the world, had generated the need for negotiations to find a compromise. Khrushchev was going to dismantle the offensive weapons in Cuba and in exchange the U.S made a public declaration that it would never invade Cuba without a direct provocation, but it also said it would dismantle its missiles from Turkey and Italy. The outcome of the negotiations between the two blocs resulted in the establishment of a hotline between the Kremlin and Pentagon and the beginning of the « detente » period.

The struggle of power in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran is already leading to an arms escalation, and it might be possible for both countries to start a weaponization of nuclear facilities, it doesn’t matter who will start first, as long as the other will follow. Pakistan never wanted a nuclear bomb until India got one. Achieving parity with a rival country would lead to sit in the table of negotiation and the achievement of a compromise. Iran can promise not to get involved in Yemen and in Bahrain while Saudi Arabia would pull-out its intervention in the Syrian conflict, and Iran would join the war against ISIS.

Destruction game

The year 1979 marked the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Iranian theoretical or « spiritual » leader was aiming at exporting the Shia-Islam brand to Shiites minorities within the Middle East, this constitute a threat for the powerful Sunni-Monarchy, as it can undermine the existing equilibrium in the region. The Iranian clerics were urging the Shiites communities of the gulf States to rebel against their rulers, and demonstrations started in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq.

A year later, Iraq attacked Iran, and the two countries engaged in a war that was serving the interests of Iraq, and the Gulf countries, more precisely Saudi Arabia; despite the support by western countries, this war undermining the West’s interests in terms of oil flows disruption. Saudi Arabia with Kuwait were financing Iraq, and the United States was indirectly supporting the Iraqi government by cutting off Iran’s supplies. The Iranian revolution, followed by the war installed a climate of increasing rivalry between the powerful Shia and Sunni countries. With the recent uprising of the Arab Spring, the situation intensified.

Since the conflict in Syria and Yemen seems to offer no political solution, a climate of cold war is installed in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The 3rd round of the Geneva peace talks about Syria, included the participation of delegates from the Saudi-backed opposition, the delegates from the Syrian government, the High Negotiations Committee and other opposition figures to discuss a possible ceasefire, relate of prisoners, humanitarian aid deliveries and the threat posed by ISIS. The problem is that neither the opposition nor the actual Bashar’s government wants to negotiate with each others, and neither Saudi Arabia and Iran are willing to bury the hatchet in Syria.

With the Iranian nuclear deal, the reconciliation between Iran and the west and the failure of finding a solution in Syria and Yemen, the tensions between the two powerful nations in the regions are reaching their peak. One should not forget that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was sufficient to cause the first World War; and today a small incident in the region can have large consequences. Both nations are exacerbated from each others, we can imagine a small event going wrong in Syria or Yemen leading to a direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A war in the region can erupt at any moment, it is certainly the least preferable scenario, but the most likely to happen if the tensions between the two regional powers are not softened. A direct conflict between the two influent States would undermines the west interests, the oil prices, and the economy of the world and will shift a regional war to a Third Word War.

In one side, the United States with the European powers would back Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Golf States; on the other side Russia would back Iran and Syria militarily and financially. Who will be the winner? We can’t tell, but a War is very expensive for both countries and for their allies, especially for Russia that is now suffering economically from its intervention in Syria. What is certain is that a Third World War can leave the economy, culture and politics of Iran and Saudi Arabia completely destroyed, and would change the actual « World Order ».

Conversion

Since the Arab Spring, Iran started increasing its military presence in the Middle East. In Iraq, it has sent its soldiers to fight alongside the Iraqi Army, in Syria the Iranians are financially supporting the Assad’s government, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen are backed by Iran. Can Iran’s rising power destabilize the region stability and create a conversion of power?

As my professor Anis Bajrektarevic well summarized on the Gulf and its surrounding intellectual scenery: “as it solely bridges the two key Euro-Asian energy plateaus: the Gulf and Caspian. This gives Iran an absolutely pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic posture over the larger region – an opportunity but also an exposure! …Nearly all US governments since the unexpected 1979 Shah’s fall, … have formally advocated a regime change in Teheran. On the international oil market, Iran has no room for maneuver, neither on price nor on quotas. Within OPEC, Iran is frequently silenced by a cordial Saudi-led, GCC voting”. Therefore, only now, the United Nations sanctions against Iran are formally lifted, which reconnected Iran to the global economy. The European embargo on Iranian oil is to come to an end and the Iranian banks will re-establish connections with the European banking system and private companies would be able to operate with no fear of a western sanction.

Nowadays, Iran is representing a diverse emerging market in the fields of manufacturing, retail and energy.

The public sphere was demonizing Iran for decades, but with the Rouhani government Iran is converting to a charming country. Jawed Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, gives the image of an open country for negotiations, that is looking for long term solution and for stability in the region and in the world, but also a country that is trying to improve the economical and political situation of its young citizens.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is suffering from a huge deficit in its public financing for the first time. With the crash of the crude prices, the deficit in the resource-rich Monarchy is more than 20% of the GDP that is according to Saudi Arabia’s finance minister around $120bn. To balance the budget, the kingdom needs an oil price of 100$ a barrel, its decision to keep the production high caused the plunge of the oil prices.

The decision of OPEC with the influence of Saudi Arabia to keep the production high, is going to burden the U.S shale oil and put the U.S gas industry under pressure, which can undermine the relationship between the two allies in the region.

The emergence of a prosperous Iran at the international level could serve as a pattern in the region, and shift the attention from the petrodollar monarchy to the « charming » country not far from it. While today Iran is improving its image in the public opinion, changing from the « devil » to « the sexy lady », Saudi Arabia’s model of « Wahhabism » is more and more connected to Islamic extremism and is blamed of causing terrorism.

Iran can use its new charisma plus its energy resources to attract the west, improve the situation in the country, offer a stability in Iraq and Syria and fill all the gaps where Saudi Arabia has failed.

The two regional powers are playing a poker game… Will the winner take it all?

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Middle East

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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