A New Role for Saudi Arabia in the Middle East
Iran’s quest for hegemony in the Middle East has changed the political landscape in the region. The unintended consequence of these actions is that Saudi Arabia, the Sunni rival to Shia Iran, is taking on a more prominent role in regional diplomacy and outreach to moderate Muslims. Iranian mischief in the Arab world has created the potential for a Saudi Arabia-Israel security partnership, as both nations are drawn together around the common goal of stopping Iranian aggression, including its nuclear ambitions. Saudi Arabia is also adding its voice to the fight against Islamic extremism.
Aggressive Iranian support of Shiite groups throughout the Sunni Arab nations has had a destabilizing effect on the region. In Lebanon, the Iranian government actively supports Hezbollah, a widely recognized terrorist organization, with military and financial support. In Yemen, the Ayatollah’s regime supplies the Houthi rebels, a relatively small group trying to subjugate 27 million Yemenis, with arms, training and financial assistance in their fight to overthrow the Sunni government. In Syria, Iran grants an estimated $6 billion a year to the Assad regime while working with Hezbollah to reinforce the Syrian government in the southeast of the country. These Iranian sponsored groups act as proxies for the theocratic Iranian regime around the Arab world.The major unintended consequence of Iran’s actions is that it has strengthened the Sunni-Arab coalition and aligned these states with its enemy in Israel. Checking Iran’s influence is a key security concern for both Saudi Arabia and Israel. During his May visit to the Middle East, United States President Donald Trump remarked on this shared concern and how many Sunni Arab nations are considering Israel as a potential security partner.
In 2015, Israel and Saudi Arabia engaged in secret talks to discuss their common goal of halting Iranian expansion. Two years later, after President Trump’s historic flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to his desire for improved relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia with his tweet stating that he hopes an Israeli prime minister will be able to make a similar flight in the future.
In addition to an improved relationship with Israel, Iran’s aggression has encouraged Saudi Arabia to take steps toward fighting against religious extremism. During President Trump’s visit to the largest and most powerful Gulf state, Saudi Arabia and the United States signed a historic arms deal, supplying the Saudis with the tools to counter Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and for counterterrorism efforts. United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the Saudi Arabian government’s recent anti-terrorism efforts “historic.”
Additionally, President Trump signed a new strategic agreement with Saudi Arabia to fight against financing of terrorists and extremist messaging. Related to this effort, Saudi Arabia is establishing a Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. The Center’s purpose is to monitor and respond to extremist messaging from groups such as the Islamic State. Muslim leaders must take an active, outspoken role in the fight against radical Islam.
Islam can only be reformed from within, by Muslims themselves. As a leading Sunni power in the region, and the home of the two major Islamic pilgrimage sites, Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has a preeminent role to play in this diplomacy and, along with Jordan, Egypt and other Arab states, is an important voice against extremism and the use of religion as a justification for terrorist attacks.
The new reality in the Middle East is that Sunni Saudi Arabia is playing a larger role in promoting regional stability, checking Iran’s aggression and fighting against religious extremism. A new era in Saudi-Israeli relations could be on the horizon and President Trump’s historic direct flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv was an important first step.