Saudi Arabia is following the unrest in Iran with intense interest, hoping it will force its regional rival to turn inward. The Saudis have little capacity to influence Iranian domestic developments, however, and share many of the same problems as Tehran. The Iranian question is unlikely to help resolve Riyadh’s biggest foreign policy challenge: the expensive quagmire in Yemen that is only getting worse.
Since the start of the protests Dec. 28 in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest and holies city, the state-controlled media in Saudi Arabia has followed the protests closely. The protesters’ call for Iran to spend more money at home and less on foreign adventures in Syria, the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Yemen especially has gotten much attention in Saudi media outlets. The Saudis have been fighting to combat Iranian advances in all these states for years with little success, so they hope that domestic unrest will constrain Iran, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Saudi media has expressed concern about the sustainability of the unrest. Media articles in the country featured CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s public estimate that the unrest is likely to continue because of the weakness of the Iranian economy. At least one Saudi commentator has expressed concern that the unrest not produce another failed state in the region, which would create too much turmoil. Better to have enough disruption to keep the Iranians focused internally.
The Saudi government has been more quiet when it comes to on-the-record statements. It can scarcely endorse the protests’ calls for democracy and freedom of expression and protest. The kingdom is an absolute monarchy married to a theocracy. Opposition to the royal family, even within the family itself, is ruthlessly repressed; 11 princes were arrested on Jan. 4 for protests at the royal palace in Riyadh. The government said they were protesting utility bills but Saudi dissident sites reported the princes were protesting the demotion and house arrest of former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
The kingdom also shares with Iran the same fundamental economic problem: low oil prices have flatlined growth. King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud announced new measures to cushion the impact of ricing prices recently as the government strives to both implement Saudi Vision 2030, which seeks to reduce dependence on oil, and avoid austerity measures that would spark domestic unrest in the kingdom. It’s a daunting challenge.
Saudi Arabia has been reaching out to Iranian opposition groups in the last year, including Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. Arab and Baluchi dissidents have also been approached but there are few details about the contacts; these are fringe elements in Iran, not threats to regime survival.
Most Iranians despise the Saudis. That’s why the Tehran authorities are eager to blame the Saudi government for allegedly paying for the protests. The most effective way to discredit the protesters is to paint them as puppets of the Wahhabi and Saudi system. The king’s intensely sectarian policies at home and abroad have only reinforced Shiite Persian distaste for Saudi Arabia. His son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is portrayed in the Iranian media as an upstart who has huge ambitions.
The kingdom’s biggest national security challenge is the war in Yemen that started almost three years ago. The Saudi government blames Iran for the war, but Riyadh spends far more than Iran does as each backs their allies in the civil war. Indeed, Iran’s expenses in backing the Houthis are a pittance of the war’s cost to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis also get almost all of the international blame for the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen because of its blockade. Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, last week said Yemen is approaching the “apocalypse” due to famine and disease caused by the blockade. He warned Yemen soon will be the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years” if the war continues.
By Bruce Riedel