Sectarian rivalries in the Middle East: A Machiavellian game
On the way to offering advice to princes who have taken over a principality, Machiavelli offers the following dictum – “People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge, but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.”
Sectarian conflicts and regional rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran have become key features of Middle East politics in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the creation of the Islamic State (IS).
The recent sensational purge of Saudi princes and government officials by the impetuous crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, the unexpected resignation of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the intensification of civil war in Yemen between southern separatists and loyalists who support the ruling president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis, a Yemeni Zaydi Shiite rebel group are just a few examples of a situation in the Persian Gulf region which can spark a broader and bloodier Saudi-Iranian confrontation.
At the centre of this Middle Eastern whirlpool stands President Donald Trump and the new American foreign policy who cheer the palace coup in Riyadh, while laying out an anti-Iranian geopolitical strategy which develops a full-spectrum confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
This appears not only as an unexpected revert from President Obama’s second-term policy of diplomatic engagement to pursue diplomatic paths in order to put pressure on Tehran, but it is also the demonstration of the new US policy in the Middle East through a joint partnership between the Israelis and the Saudis.
This is why Donald Trump cheered the Saudi purge as a gesture which echoes the consolidation of US-Saudi ties.
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Not surprisingly, Donald Trump’s confidence in the rise of Mohammad Bin Salman comes after his trip to Saudi Arabia and the announcement of contracts between Washington and Riyadh which worth more than $380 billion, including a $110 billion arms deal aimed at countering Iran.
The US-led security order in the Middle East comes at a time that Prince Salman is preparing a social and cultural revolution in the Persian Gulf driven by Western-educated royal protégés and American management consulting groups. Moreover, it is said that the Saudi government has confiscated cash and other assets worth as much as $800 billion, which is equal to the foreign exchange reserves of Switzerland, in its extended crackdown on alleged corruption among the kingdom’s elite.
As for Saad Hariri's abrupt resignation from Saudi Arabia, it is closely related to Saudi fears that Hezbollah and Iran could build missile systems that threaten Saudi Arabia from Yemen. That is why the Saudi prince has been attempting to organise a collective Arab action against Iran. Saudi Arabia has called for an urgent meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss Iran’s hegemonic intervention in the region.
This call comes also after the launch of an Iranian-made ballistic missile at Riyadh from Houthi militia-held territory in Yemen on 4 November, and an explosion and fire at a Bahraini oil pipeline.
Consequently, the Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa blamed Iran for the pipeline explosion. According to him, “The attempt to blow up the Saudi-Bahraini pipeline is a dangerous escalation on Iran’s part that aims to terrorize citizens and to harm the world oil industry.”
As a result, the Arab-Sunni and Iranian-Shiite confrontation is more intense than ever before. It seems as if the Saudis are attempting to kill two birds with one stone – that is – preparing for a geopolitical paradigm change in the Middle East and domestic policy reforms.
As for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the main aim is to consolidate a post-IS hegemony in the region by building bases in Syria and having the last word in Iraqi and Lebanese politics through the Hezbollah and its other proxies.
Let us not forget that the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, recently warned the international public opinion that Iran wanted to establish itself militarily in Syria. Also recently, Israel raised concerns of Iran seeking to use Syrian ports for its submarines. When asked whether Israel would use military force to stop such developments, Netanyahu told the BBC: “You know, the more we're prepared to stop it, the less likely we'll have to resort to much greater things. There is a principle I very much adhere to, which is to nip bad things in the bud.”
It is a fact; Saudi-Iranian hostility is escalating into direct conflict throughout the region. If this occurs, Washington and Israel would undoubtedly support Riyadh. As for the Russians, they have been trying to maintain good relations with both Tehran and Riyadh despite their antagonism towards each other. In the same manner as Iran, Putin has been supporting Assad in the war against his opponents. At the same time, Russia, and Putin, is heavily dependent on Saudi oil exports in order to maintain internal stability.
Last but not least, only time will tell us whether the continuation of a sectarian agenda by Iran and Saudi Arabia will include further and direct military confrontation. One way or another, it looks like Saudis and Iranians are both following more than ever the dictum of Niccolo Machiavelli.