Madawi Al-Rasheed: Saudi Arabia has the ultimate objective of becoming the arbiter of all regional politics
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
We’re continuing our discussion about U.S.-Saudi relations, and in this segment we’re going to talk about Saudi-Iranian relations and just why Saudi Arabia seems to see Iran as such a mortal enemy, seem to see Shia across the Arab world as such mortal enemy.
Now joining us again from London is Madawi Al-Rasheed. She’s a visiting professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State.
Thanks for joining us again, Madawi.
MADAWI AL-RASHEED, MIDDLE EAST CENTRE, LSE: Thank you.
JAY: So we know from WikiLeaks, we know from various sources the Saudis would like the United States to attack Iran. There’s a direct quote from King Abdullah saying it’s time for the Americans to cut the head off the problem, which meant regime change in Iran. I’ve talked directly to people myself, and other journalists have who have Saudi connections, and the Saudis are probably more serious about wanting to draw the United States into a war with Iran than perhaps even the Israelis are. At least in Israel you can hear from various official sources and retired security intelligence chiefs that they don’t think Iran’s an existential threat, that this is mostly political posturing by Netanyahu, and so on. But the Saudis seem really serious about all this. Why?
AL-RASHEED: Well, there are many reasons. Saudi Arabia has the ultimate objective of becoming the arbiter of regional politics, of being the only power, regional power in the Middle East that the U.S. and others can rely on. And so there is this ambition. And this has been taking place since 1979, when Egypt was removed from the scene, at least metaphorically, as it signed the peace agreement with Israel, the Camp David agreement. And, therefore, since then Saudi Arabia’s been struggling to assert its hegemony in the Arab world.
And also it wanted to be the only power, regional power. And in 2003, Iraq was removed from this Arab world as another regional power that Saudi Arabia was actually worried about. And since 2003, it saw that only Iran now is a real competitor.
Iran itself had led, had pursued policies that are seen in Saudi Arabia as threatening. So, for example, Iran sponsors Hezbollah in Lebanon. That undermines Saudi control of that little country. Iran also has very strong relations with Bashar al-Assad, and it is probably one of the dominant countries that have serious presence in Iraq. So Saudi Arabia feels that it is now surrounded by Iraq from the north.
On top of that, Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of sponsoring and supporting the Houthis in Yemen on its southern border, in addition to, of course, the Bahrain uprising, which in the Saudi official narrative is a purely Iranian conspiracy.
JAY: Can I ask you quickly about that? Because, you know, we talk to journalists who have reported on Bahrain and others who know the situation. They all say that there’s simply no truth to that, that, you know, whether there’s some Iranian influence, perhaps, but they’re not driving it and they’re a marginal influence. Do the Saudis not know that? I mean, do they really believe this is Iran? Or they use this as a way to sort of drum up anti-Shia hysteria?
AL-RASHEED: Well, it is irrelevant whether there is evidence or not. This is political rhetoric. And, for example, the Houthi, with the Houthi Shia in Yemen, we know that several independent reports, for example the conflict crisis report, said clearly that there’s no evidence that Iran is supporting the Houthis in 2009. In Bahrain itself there is the Bassiouni Report, which was an independent report commissioned by the Bahraini king after 2011, the clashes in Bahrain, which said clearly that there is no evidence that Iran is actually supporting the Bahraini opposition.
Of course there is media support. We know that. But these two reports indicate to us that now any kind of rebellion or any kind of uprising that the Saudis do not want to see is immediately attributed to the work of Iran or the conspiracies of Iran.
But we know that Iran does support certain groups, for example Hezbollah. That is clear. And therefore Saudi Arabia uses this kind of Iranian threat in terms of penetrating Arab society, and including Saudi Arabia itself.
JAY: And there is some truth. I mean, Iran is not some kind of Switzerland. Iran does want to be a regional power and have influence.
AL-RASHEED: Absolutely. I mean, what we are seeing now is a competition between two regional powers that are trying to partition the Arab world. And on top of that, if you remove the word Iran and replace it with Muslim Brotherhood, you’ll see that both the Saudis and, for example, the United Arab Emirates use the same sort of language to describe any threat. So if you remove the word Iran and the Shia and apply all the accusations to the Muslim Brotherhood, you see that the Saudis have replaced the Iranian threat with the Muslim Brotherhood threat.
And then we’re worried that when Egypt elected its Muslim brotherhood president, Egypt was going to also become part of the Iranian expansionist sort of desires and conspiracies. And they were worried that Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood would drift towards Iran. Obviously–.
JAY: Now, let me understand something, ’cause I thought the Muslim Brotherhood was quite closely connected with Qatar, which is a kind of a split between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Was the Muslim Brotherhood not closer to Qatar than it is to Iran?
AL-RASHEED: Absolutely. But from the Saudi perspective, there was this worry that once Egypt is ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, it would have a free kind of decision to become closer to Iran in order to minimize its dependence on Saudi Arabia. But we all know that the Muslim Brotherhood is supported by Qatar, which is also a problem for Saudi Arabia. And we know recently Saudi Arabia, together with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. And one of the main reason that was given by the Saudi regime was Qatar’s continuous support for subversive forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
And therefore the Saudi-Iranian relationship is very, very complex, in the sense that both countries want to expand even more in the Arab world, but without both of them being able to emerge as the only arbiter of Arab politics. I think both regimes, in Tehran and Riyadh, underestimate the level of awareness, the level of resistance that Arabs have actually demonstrated over the last three years. And, yes, they may use these two regimes, use the economic sort of deprivation of countries like Egypt or others in North Africa in order to expand even more.
But at the end of the day, we have actually seen the first wave of resistance to authoritarian rule. And both the Saudi regime and the Iranian one do not offer a viable model for the Arab masses to emulate, for the Arab masses to have inspiration from. And therefore both of them are actually fighting a lost battle, ’cause at the end these youth that have demonstrated and paid a high price in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere, they are not going to be easily co-opted. I think we have just seen the first wave, where both Saudi Arabia and Iran were trying to manipulate the outcome, and even, in the case of Saudi Arabia, destroy the prospect for democracy in the region.
And as long as this conflict over the regional sort of hegemony in the Arab world continues–hence Saudi Arabia was very worried about a kind of rapprochement with Iran organized under the auspices of Western government that would lead to Iran being brought back to the international community as a respected member. And therefore Saudi Arabia wants to be seen as the only reliable ally. And it has used all its power, its means, in order to achieve that objective.
One worrying strategy that the Saudis have used is the sectarianism. So Saudi Arabia presents itself as the protector of the interest of Sunni Islam and want to gather support from other Sunni monarchies, for example Morocco and Jordan. And Iran presents itself as the country that would secure the interest of the Shia. So we are facing here the degeneration of the Arab world into sectarian conflict that is beginning to actually become–that has reached a very ugly phase. And I can’t see how this can be stopped without these two countries reaching a kind of agreement between them that this sectarian conflict is going to have bad [inaud.] influence in both societies.
JAY: Well, maybe this is part of the way they want to deal with the Arab awakening. If they can involve the societies in sectarian warfare, it’s a way to sidetrack and sideline the more mass opposition to authoritarian rule.
AL-RASHEED: Yes. And also it gives a regime like Saudi Arabia the pretext of suppressing any kind of uprising or demand for democracy on the basis that the alternative is going to be chaos. And, in fact, the Saudi regime seems to be comfortable with the chaos that is still ongoing in places like Egypt or Syria, because it is giving indirect message to its own domestic population that change means chaos; it doesn’t mean change towards the better; in fact, it is worse. And therefore it can absorb any kind of demands for democracy or change and can repress any kind of demonstration under the pretext that this is chaos.
JAY: And the American perhaps rapprochement with Iran–I mean, they haven’t made a deal yet, but it seems they want to. They seem to be headed there. And, of course, it could all fall apart. But do the Saudis see this as an American move to kind of restrict their power and use Iran to sort of play off against the Saudis?
AL-RASHEED: It’s certainly the way it is interpreted in Riyadh. And the Saudis made it very clear through the official media–which is also not a free media, and you can’t find any debate of the Saudi approach, and, therefore, the repetition that this rapprochement with Iran is going to be at the expense of Saudi interest. And it is almost like, you know, if the U.S. moves towards greater understanding or a kind of coexistence with Iran, it is bound to be negatively interpreted in Riyadh.
JAY: Okay. Alright. We’re going to do one more segment, and we’re going to talk about the internal politics of Saudi Arabia amongst the elite, the fight amongst the various princes, and the decentralization of power in Saudi Arabia. So please join us with Madawi Al-Rasheed on The Real News Network.
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