Saudi Arabia, facing tough and tougher choices

Despite the old conflict between them, Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed that ISIS is threatening their national security

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi
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Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, titled her memoirs “Hard Choices.” If Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was to consider authoring a book on developments in the region, he would likely have gone with the same title.

Everyone is facing tough choices. The real problem lies in the large number of these difficult choices. Everyone ends up choosing a hands-off approach while events deteriorate further. Forces acting on their own - disregarding the state - decide and implement what they want, while politicians who represent existing regimes face unending tough choices.

In theory, it is in the interest of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the rest of the countries in the region to unite against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with the support of the United States and the international community. However, in reality they have divergent interests and conflicting priorities. They do not even trust each other. Therefore, all of them are facing tough choices that will hamper and delay decision-making when they meet to set up strategies to eliminate ISIS.

Tehran is concerned that its fight against ISIS might move to inside Iran, which is a matter of time

Jamal Kashoggi

Despite the old conflict between them, Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed that ISIS is threatening their national security. However, while Riyadh wants to eradicate the group, it does not want Iran to take advantage of this, since ISIS has succeeded in breaking the “Shiite crescent” from Tehran to Beirut, through Iraq and Syria. Iran has even become unable to supply its ally in Damascus with arms and oil across Iraqi territory.

After Saudi Arabia defeats ISIS...

Moreover, after Saudi Arabia defeats ISIS, it does not want Iran to return to its domination of Iraq, where its sectarian parties prevail. Actually, it would not back all Shiite parties, only ones which share its fundamentalism dreams. It was difficult for Iran to accept the increased pressure to abandon its ally, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, despite all the offers of international and Saudi support for the government in Baghdad to face ISIS.

These offers were in exchange for abandoning Maliki and forming a government of national unity with the approval of the Sunnis and Kurds. Iran accepted the first condition with difficulty, but was unable to accept the second.

Maliki’s successor Haider al-Abadi, a candidate from Al-Dawa party who is also a fundamentalist and friend of Iran, has not yet succeeded in forming a national unity government because he has rejected Sunni demands. It has also failed so far due to the insistence of its allies to control the security apparatus. Iran can change all that, but getting rid of old habits is very difficult, especially when they are mixed with fundamentalist illusions.

It is difficult for Saudi Arabia to intervene directly in the war on ISIS in Iraq, even if it is within the framework of an international coalition. However, it is easy for Iran as it is already present in the Iraqi security apparatuses in relation to arms, training and intelligence. There is even the participation of its own forces, despite its denials.

Tehran is concerned that its fight against ISIS might move to inside Iran, which is a matter of time. ISIS terrorism is threatening Iran as much as it threatens Saudi Arabia, which means there is a need for exchanging security information between the two countries. However, they both need to trust each other.

If the aforementioned option is Saudi Arabia’s tough choices, Riyadh’s position regarding the Syrian regime is a tougher choice. There are signs of two conflicting approaches in Saudi policy. The first approach is to keep rejecting the regime and its restoration for ethical reasons expressed by King Abdullah in his historic speech to the Syrians in Aug. 2011, five months after the outbreak of the peaceful revolution against Bashar al-Assad, in addition to the Saudis patience and silence about Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

Unable to stay silent

Saudi Arabia was unable to stay silent regarding the daily images of killings, so it declared its historical responsibility toward the Syrian people, and urged Syria to stop the killing machine and undertake real reforms, which has not happened. Therefore, there is no justification for the kingdom to change its stance toward Assad.

The view of two Saudi strategic experts underline that even if Riyadh disregarded its ethical commitment and stopped supporting the armed opposition, Assad would not be able to control the whole country and restore stability. This would lead to the continuation of the civil war that is serving ISIS.

The second approach is expressed by the kingdom’s “new and ancient” ally Egypt, which believes that it is crucial to stop supporting the armed opposition and help Assad face extremism in the region. This approach is partially welcomed by Riyadh, but it collides with the moral commitment expressed by the Saudi king in the aforementioned speech.

The United States and France, which are both allied to the kingdom, have clearly said Assad has lost his legitimacy. They believe that any action against ISIS must be arranged in a way that does not benefit his regime.

Direct intervention in the war on ISIS, including airstrikes and a ground war, is the toughest choice. Riyadh resisted the temptation of direct intervention in Syria in the hope that the opposition could overthrow the regime, or that the international community would repeat what it did in Libya.

However, the stability of ISIS as a state along the kingdom’s northern borders, with a growing Saudi presence in the pillars of that state, has pushed Riyadh to have a different reaction this time.

However, the conflicting interests and lack of trust between countries in the region are making it impossible to take any decision today. This is what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was asked to head to the Middle East “to build a coalition” against ISIS, seeks to remedy or at least discuss.

I believe that the kingdom will not rush to choose one of the available tough choices. It is interested first in protecting the internal front, which is now threatened after al-Qaeda and ISIS (for I believe there is no difference between them) became active to victories in Iraq and Syria.

Moreover, Riyadh should wait for the formation of a national unity government in Iraq, and then for the Paris conference to support Baghdad. Afterwards, Kerry will discuss the formation of a coalition against ISIS. The project to eradicate the group is still in its early stages, and for now it is important to protect the internal front.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on September 6, 2014.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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