The turmoil in Syria has reached an inflection point. Vital pillars of the regime, including the military and senior leadership, have fractured, while key supporter Russia has signaled a shift in its position. This evolution in the Syrian conflict will also affect Iran's regional ambitions. Saudi Arabia and Turkey will now begin to reposition themselves to adjust to the new reality in Syria and to take advantage of Iran's ebbing influence in the region.
Turkey, another regional power with a popular Islamist-rooted leadership, has also expanded its role in the region in recent years. Saudi and Turkish interests will likely collide eventually. Already the two are diverging over an eventual transition in Syria. Turkey wants to foster moderate Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis want to do everything they can to limit the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and are supporting the hard-line Salafists, who compete with the Muslim Brotherhood for Sunni votes, as a containment tool. In the longer term, Turkey will become Saudi Arabia's main competition for influence in the Sunni world. While not an Arab state, Turkey has a more diverse economy and a foreign policy approach that more closely conforms to international expectations. It can also work with Libya, which has a historically difficult relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-Iranian Rivalry
Saudi Arabia has been locked in a bitter rivalry with Iran since the founding of the Islamic republic in 1979 and is wary of the expansion of Tehran's role in Iraq since 2003. More recently, Riyadh blamed Tehran for interfering in Bahrain during the 2011 protests and for supporting al Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen. It has also viewed with suspicion Iran's efforts to expand ties with other regional states including Egypt, Algeria and Jordan
, as well as its attempts to enhance its relationship with Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
In Syria, Saudi Arabia is specifically worried that Tehran, unable to salvage the al Assad regime, will support an insurgency, incite chaos and prevent a transition to a Sunni-dominated government. Riyadh also worries Tehran may create problems in Lebanon through its proxies, even as Hezbollah's reliability as an Iranian proxy is coming into question.
Iran would prefer to participate in shaping any post-al Assad government in order to secure its interests. But if the Iranians see that the Saudis — and other actors like Turkey or the United States — are trying to keep Iran completely out of the Syrian transition, they may try to create a protracted insurgency. Tehran knows that if the Saudis and Sunnis get a foothold in Syria, the Iranian position in Iraq becomes vulnerable.
Saudi Arabia has long been wary of Iranian manipulation of what Riyadh views as its natural sphere of influence — the Islamic world — and may be using the emergency summit to help position itself as a leader in the Muslim world, while casting Iran as a sectarian player. It now sees a historic opportunity to seize the leadership of the Arab Middle East and to curtail Iranian influence in the region.
Saudi Arabia already is attempting to become Egypt's principal partner. Riyadh fears the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood because of the impact it could have on groups that oppose the Arabian monarchies of the Gulf. But Riyadh wants a working relationship with Egypt and the Brotherhood because it helps legitimize Saudi Arabia's perceived role as regional leader.
Historical Limitations to Saudi Influence
Despite possessing vast oil wealth — and the influence it buys — Saudi Arabia has never had an opportunity to emerge as the region's uncontested leader. A steady series of geopolitical upheavals, regime changes, invasions, wars and revolutions have embroiled the region and, in nearly every case, posed challenges to Saudi Arabia, which also needed time to deal with internal opposition and to build the infrastructure and economy of a modern society.
From the early 1950s, when oil revenues first topped $200 million, Saudi Arabia faced the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab nationalist political ideology and the challenge of Egypt's involvement in the Yemeni civil war. Both challenged Riyadh and the ruling al Saud by calling into question their political legitimacy — and in the case of Yemen, by posing a real security threat on Saudi Arabia's southern border. The 1979 signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty alienated Egypt from much of the Arab world and might have created an opening for Riyadh to assert its leadership. However, the Iranian Revolution then triggered a surge in Shiite nationalism across the region — especially in the oil-rich Shiite-majority eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia.
Shiite nationalism also challenged the Saudi regime's legitimacy, which is based on a strict Wahhabi branch of Islam. The Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and efforts by Saudi jihadists to return home from Afghanistan made Riyadh even more cautious, inwardly focused and constrained in its foreign policy options.
Meanwhile, Iran has spent the last 20 years building its regional position with proxies such as Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia. The events of 9/11, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the United States' subsequent temporary alignment with Iranian interests allowed Iran to expand its influence in Iraq — a nightmare scenario for Saudi Arabia, which found itself facing its main rival both across the strategic Persian Gulf and on its northern border.
Saudi Arabia's Constraints
Saudi Arabia must also contend with several domestic issues. The monarchy was not prepared for the widespread upheaval in Arab countries and undertook a massive social spending program to counter potential domestic unrest. Internally, an increasingly vocal youth population has become more willing to openly criticize the government — though not the king or the royal family.
The royal family also faces a succession crisis. The senior leadership consists primarily of the surviving sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al Saud, almost all of whom are at least in their 70s. King Abdullah has moved several third-generation princes — especially his own sons — into second-tier positions of power. He also recently named Prince Bandar bin Sultan, longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States, as intelligence chief. Prince Bandar will also keep the national security portfolio
, specifically handling Saudi concerns regarding Iran.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could present a similar challenge to that of Arab nationalism. Though the Egyptian military remains the state's key power broker, the nominal political gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood will embolden similar Islamist political movements in the region. Already Jordan's monarchy has had to offer concessions over new electoral laws due to the reformist movement largely backed by the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. The United Arab Emirates has adopted a no-tolerance policy, arresting local Brotherhood proponents and even exiling activists it deems too troublesome.
Saudi Arabia also must limit Qatar's influence and role in the region. Though a much smaller state, Qatar has been able to exert outsized influence due to the massive wealth garnered from natural gas exports. It is also more agile in its foreign policy than Saudi Arabia and has more room to maneuver in relationships with Iran, Libya, Lebanon and Hamas. Doha and Riyadh have worked together to back the rebels in Syria, but that cooperation will have its limits.
Many Arab and Islamic countries also resent Saudi Arabia for its wealth and for the high-handed attitude its leadership assumes when dealing with poorer states. Riyadh has found it difficult to assert leadership even over the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council — especially Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Furthermore, it is far from guaranteed that a transition in Syria will result in a government antagonistic to Iran, or that Iran will not succeed in fomenting an insurgency that creates enough chaos to prevent a Saudi-aligned Sunni government from taking power. Hezbollah may be feeling vulnerable for now, but it remains aligned with Tehran and will not want to see its patron excluded from a post-al Assad Syria.
The Iranians are very likely viewing the Saudi summit as Riyadh's attempt to establish dominance in a post-al Assad Syria. It will be interesting to see whether Iran is invited and if so, whether it attends. Saudi Arabia wants to isolate Iran in the Islamic world, where there is tremendous support for a new regime in Syria. Iran will resist this and do what it can to block the Saudi efforts.