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Source: Forbes

Apr 14, 2023

Why Did Saudi Arabia Re-Align Toward Iran And What It Means For Us All?

BY Melik Kaylan

The sudden overture of friendship recently by Saudi Arabia towards Iran baffled everyone. A lot of throat-clearing ensued about China brokering the deal and the US being left out. Some blamed Biden and compared him unfavorably to Trump during whose tenure the Saudis thawed towards Israel. Some played down the Saudi-Iran initiative's significance, not least the White House, arguing that the Saudis will still maintain a distance from Iran, a kind of cold peace. Trouble is, Riyadh has also made moves to re-embrace Syria's Iran-backed Assad regime - and other Gulf states are following suit. Normalizing with Iran and actively re-accepting Iran's closest ally doesn't sound like passive neutrality by Saudi. So what exactly is going on and why are the Saudis realigning the region's power contours unilaterally with their demarche toward Iran?

This column recently touched on the upcoming May 14 national elections in Turkey and their effect on Saudi calculations - certainly a factor in Riyadh's decision. More about that later. But the pivotal factor in the equation has to be Israel, not least the conditions under Netanyahu's new government. After all, the greatest loser in the Saudi maneuver was Israel. Why would the Saudis betray their new-found ally Israel, having squandered so much Arab sympathy by embracing the Jewish state in the first place? Consider the timing of Saudi Arabia's Iran decision: Soon after Bibi Netanyahu crafted a coalition with hard-line Israeli parties and announced annexations on the West Bank.

All through last month the Israeli-Palestinian situation deteriorated violently. The Saudis saw it coming. SA made the public declaration toward Iran at around the same time (March 11) it halted the thaw toward Israel saying full normalization with the Jewish state would be subject to the treatment of Palestinians plus a US-Saudi nuclear security program or guarantee. Here's a New York Times NYT +1.8% article in March triangulating the topics. The fact is, the Saudi Royal family has always worried about its legitimacy, its stability and its hold on the kingdom ever since the British handed them the territory in 1927. Intra-familial, tribal, and religious divisions have constantly threatened the monarchy. Above all, their role as leaders of Islam and to some extent of ethnic Arabs added incalculable pressures. So, yes, they made a historic deal with Israel, hatched under Trump, but only at the cost of exposing themselves to acute criticism whenever Palestinian-Israeli relations went south. As it has done under Netanyahu recently.

Enter Iran as the self-proclaimed protector of Palestinian, therefore Muslim, rights against Israel. This has been Iran's position for decades via its proxies Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria – a relatively dormant one in recent years because of Syria's collapse and Iran's internal problems. Still, Tehran has always remained hostile to Israel. So the resurgent Palestinian uprising favors Iran's pretensions, and threatens SA's role, as the true protectors of Muslims. Muhammed Bin Sultan, the ruler of SA, launched the Israel initiative and is therefore most weakened by the Arab Street's anger. You can imagine the plotting cousins, extreme fundamentalists, and tribal rivals sharpening their knives for a counter-coup as MBS becomes increasingly unpopular among Muslims.

What else has led to the Saudi decision? Some intricate geopolitical balances come into play. Longterm, the US is withdrawing from oil and therefore from the protection of oil allies in troubled zones. That's why Saudi wants a decades-long nuclear commitment from the US. But Washington isn't so interested in offering security or strategic guarantees for fossil fuel states longterm or even midterm. So the Saudis look around and see that, paradoxically, their rivals like Iran and Russia are oil enthusiasts. As is China. In that regard, most crucially, they're on the same side. Morally and politically, they also align as socially conservative and authoritarian. Whereas the US keeps meddling globally in impossible ways to do with sexual or other minority rights. So, for authoritarians, anti-US alignment is the populist way to go - and MBS can use the populist support. Meanwhile, the Erdogan regime in Turkiye is looking rickety after the earthquake debacles.

As I wrote in my recent column, President Erdogan is now deeply unpopular. In a free and open democracy his party would lose the May 14 elections. He will find ways to retain power. The country will resist. Parliament with new parties will try to take back control but the Presidency won't concede. Constitutional crisis and internal strife look likely. Whatever form instability takes, Erdogan himself will be weakened and unable to direct foreign policy unilaterally. So, for example, his posture as champion of Palestine will fade, one that effectively displaced the role of Iran for a decade. His support, along with Israel, for Azerbaijan will also weaken.

Both Turkey and Israel supported Azerbaijan as a regional rival to Iran from the north. For a while it looked like that geo-strategic flanking move might distract the mullah-regime from dominating the Arab regions to the south. Erdogan has occupied large chunks of Syria and leans heavily on Iraq whenever he wants. But Turkey will be unstable whether Erdogan tries to stay or indeed finally leaves and freer chaotic democracy resumes with all the internal haggling and power-sharing involved. Who controls the military in that scenario is anybody's guess, especially in foreign power projection. Sans Turkey in the balance, Iran looks set for ascendancy.

Faced with that complex but negative trending narrative, you can see why the Saudis shifted their allegiance.

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