Friday, April 15, 2011

Reading the Arab Spring Uprisings As a New Power Balancing of Saudi Arabia and Iran

In a country-by-country analysis, and overview article, journalist Patrick Martin frames the current events in MENA as a rebalancing of Saudi and Irani interests in the area, played against those of the United States and Israel. While he is not the only one to do so, I appreciated the graphic representation of the balances of power, and the thought-provoking nature of the analyses and overview.

The above map is a cropped screenshot from the online interactive map that accompanies the country-by country analysis of Saudi-Irani influence in MENA below. The map version with the text below is here, and the larger map, from which this was cropped, with the same text in the side-bar/ pop-up is here.

The country names below are colour coded for greater and lesser Saudi and Irani influence in a given country based on the hatch marks of the print version of the map. I have re-ordered the countries in the text from Saudi at the beginning to Irani at the end, with the others by where they are on the spectrum, and within that, from east to west, to better facilitate the graphic perception of the influences (not least for those with red-green perceptual difficulties).

A country-by-country breakdown of Saudi and Iranian influences in the Middle East
From Friday's Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Apr. 14, 2011 9:00PM EDT

SAUDI ARABIA: Quiet on the home front

Popular opposition in Saudi Arabia placated with financial incentives, including homes and jobs.

Religious puritans oppose the regime for its supposed decadence and Western-orientation. Members of Shia minority, inspired if not supported by Iran, quietly protest for equal rights and opportunities.

No opposition group is sizable enough to make a difference.

Wildcard: Many new jobs are in state security, so the regime satisfies economic needs and provides more protection for itself.

YEMEN: A state in play

Popular protests, with the loss of life, reveal scale of opposition to long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Even Washington, worried about terrorists in Yemen, calls for Mr. Saleh to go.

Saudi Arabia, more worried about Iran gaining influence, is directly involved in mediating a handover of power.

Wildcard: What will militant Houthis do in northwest Yemen? This Shia group is encouraged by Iran.

JORDAN: Oasis of calm

A close ally of Saudi Arabia, Jordan’s King Abdullah has no intention of moving closer to Iran.

Even opposition groups, seeking economic support and political reform, don’t want to change the Hashemite monarchy.

Wildcard: Jordan’s treaty with Israel has not been an issue with protesters. Iran would like to change that perhaps by cultivating Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood.


Hamas rulers in Gaza are happy to take moral and material support from Iran, while Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is closely tied to Saudi Arabia.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is attempting to reconcile his Fatah party with Hamas, the group that drove him out of Gaza, hoping to detach Hamas from Iran and reconnect it to Saudi Arabia.

Wildcard: Will Israel break off ties to the PA over its reconciliation efforts? It opposes Hamas, but it opposes Iran more.

BAHRAIN: Proxy battle

Sunni monarchy makes it a natural ally of Sunni monarchy Saudi Arabia.

But restive Shia majority, encouraged by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, is demanding equal rights and political reform.

Nervous Saudi Arabia sends in troops to bolster Bahrain’s security forces: local dispute becomes a regional campaign.

Wildcard: U.S. Fifth Fleet is based here, and Obama administration would like al-Khalifa royals to resolve the uprising through reforms, rather than a crackdown.

EGYPT: Iran’s new friend?

Ousting Hosni Mubarak costs Saudi Arabia its greatest ally against Iran (and shakes Saudi faith in Washington when Barack Obama supported Egypt’s protesters).

Cairo permits Iranian warships through Suez Canal and announces it is ready to restore relations with Tehran after three decades.

But Egypt can’t afford to burn Saudi Arabia, its biggest Arab backer, and will compete with Iran for regional primacy.

Wildcard: Egyptian Islamists are swelling in number: Will their fundamentalism lead to support of the House of Saud or criticism of it?

QATAR: A delicatbalance

Small emirate lies between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It’s a Saudi ally and host to a large U.S. airbase. Also has excellent relations with Iran, with whom it shares a major underwater gas field.

Seems unaffected by uprisings in the region. Supports Saudi effort to shore up Bahrain, and supplies aircraft to safeguard rebels in Libya. But Iran needs Qatar, its best friend in the Arab Gulf states, as much as Qatar needs it, so balance is intact.

Wildcard: Qatari royal family funds al-Jazeera television, a thorn in the side of many Arab regimes for its support of protest movements.

LEBANON: Powder keg

Saudi-backed Saad Hariri runs Lebanon’s caretaker government; Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s choice, Najib Mikati, tries to form new cabinet.

Mr. Hariri vows Lebanon will not be hostage to Iran’s influence; Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says Lebanon should be proud of an alliance with Iran.

Wildcard: UN tribunal, investigating 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, is soon to name those indicted. If it points to Hezbollah, Saudi allies in Lebanon could benefit.

LIBYA: Potential for intrigue

Moammar Gadhafi supported Iran in its 1980-88 war with Iraq, so few Arab states support him in his battle for survival.

Saudi Arabia has allies among the more religious elements of the rebels and may be supplying them.

Wildcard: Don’t expect Saudi Arabia to take in an ousted Col. Gadhafi as it did Tunisia’s former president.

IRAQ: One foot in the Iranian camp

Iran’s allies have upper hand in this Shia-majority country, which concerns Saudis.

The Obama administration says it will accept request to keep some troops in Iraq, but Iran ally Muqtada al-Sadr vows to prevent any extension of U.S. “occupation.”

Wildcard: United States plans to double the size of its already large embassy next year to 18,000 personnel.

SYRIA: Under threat

Popular protests continue to roil this Iranian ally.

President Bashar al-Assad, who hails from minority Alawi sect, a Shia-related group, is cracking down violently against protesters – while doling out incentives to Kurds and Sunni Islamists.

Should the regime fall, Iran loses the country that gives it a direct connection to Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza.

Wildcard: Saudi Arabia, covering its bet, carefully shows public support for Mr. al-Assad, but may decide its interests are better served by the protesters.

IRAN: Suppressed on the home front

Iran’s opposition, reeling from questionable results of 2009 presidential election, is brutally suppressed.

That opposition is said to serve as a model for protesters in the Arab world.

While Tehran’s means of disposing of it is a model for many Arab countries’ leaders.

Wildcard: Iran fears that its own opposition will be reinspired by the successes in the Arab world and will return to the streets of Tehran.

Arab uprisings scramble regional power structure of Saudi Arabia, Iran
From Friday's Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Apr. 14, 2011 6:48PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Apr. 15, 2011 10:12AM EDT

The Arab uprisings of 2011 are having a profound effect beyond the borders of the individual Arab states. For the regional powerhouses, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the events are shaking their alliances and altering the course of their foreign and domestic policies.

Saudi Arabia, a long-standing Arab leader, has the most to lose with its influence weakened already in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, and its interests threatened in Bahrain and Yemen.

Persian Iran, starting with little, has the most to gain in the Arab world. It has made inroads in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, and has increasing influence in Bahrain. But its interests also are vulnerable in Syria and, consequently, in Lebanon and Gaza.

Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was believed to be as securely ensconced as the pyramids. When he was ousted from office, Saudi Arabia lost its greatest ally in the campaign to keep an ambitious Iran in check, and Iran gained an opening into a country with which it had not had diplomatic relations in three decades.

When popular protests unexpectedly challenged even the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the linchpin to Iran’s regional sphere of influence was suddenly threatened, and a glimmer of hope appeared for greater Saudi influence in Damascus.

For these two Gulf giants, the popular Arab protests have become a battleground with both countries scrambling for position. Each is trying to shore up its alliances and is hoping to exploit any openings that come about from vacuums of power.]

The United States, Saudi Arabia’s greatest protector (and the Iranian regime’s greatest critic), is in a bind.

Strategically, Washington is committed a) to the protection of Saudi Arabia (as well as its Gulf allies) and their oil, and b) to the secure existence of Israel.

To those ends, the U.S. seeks to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons and regional hegemony, and to promote political reform that would empower people in the region (at least in certain countries in which it finds it necessary).

However, in promoting political reform, Saudi Arabia and Israel worry, the United States may diminish Saudi (and Israeli) allies and strengthen the very Iranian regime it seeks to stop – unless, of course, the U.S. administration also succeeds in promoting political reform in Iran.


To what extent do you agree/ disagree with framing the current events in MENA in this paradigm?
To what extent do you agree/ disagree with the details of the analyses and overview?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?


Susanne said...

Interesting! I know many people are glad to see Syria as part of this uprising as they never expected it to spread there. But people are finding their voices. :)

Aziz Mahmoud said...

The Irani menace continues to
encroach and interfere in affairs that are none of its concern. The utter hypocrisy in its efforts to champion the various uprisings peppering the Arab world yet curbing ( with heavy handed brutality ) its own popular movement not two years ago. This parasitic regime had best learn that it needs to maintain its stance to billigerent calls and hostile threats through its media mouthpieces, else its end would be rather swift. Many a time had the Irani regime threaten to overwhelm or use brute force but it knows it can not take on a multitude of enemies at any one time.

What astounds is that it continues down the warpath in a rather vocal fashion, not realizing that sometimes the concealed blow is the most lethal, hopefully this is one that would be dealt to it soon.
The sooner this unclean regime is purged can we across the gulf go about our lives and the Irani people go about theirs and we can go back to how things were in the Pre Shah days as my parents lived through, respect but indifference to one another.


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