Emboldened Autocracy and the New (Middle Eastern) Cold War

Part 2 of a series: Geopolitical Jabber


By Jose Davila IV


[dropcap]A[/dropcap]merican support for the House of Saud, the ruling family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, stretches all the way back to a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, in 1945. For fourteen successive presidential administrations, supplying and supporting the Saudi monarchy has been a key tenet of American policy in the Middle East. This agreement, a compromise between American and Saudi interests, became intrinsically more important after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. In exchange for money and oil, the US would give the Kingdom the latest weaponry and an ally in its struggle against the Shiite revolutionary regime so long as the ruling family did not commit egregious human rights violations or otherwise embarrass the US on the global stage.

However, the fourteenth administration has, at times, transformed this relationship into a bromance between President Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (who has taken to referring himself as MBS), the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. There is not even a formal ambassador to Saudi Arabia; instead the job of cultivating the relationship has fallen to President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner as a part of his wider job description of producing “peace in the Middle East.” Under this new special relationship free of consequences, Bin Salman has had the freedom to do what he pleases without having to worry so much about the American arms and cash flows drying up.

The Crown Prince first specifically liberalized on key social issues. He allowed movie theaters to open in April of this year, and, in June, he granted women the right to drive. Also, recently, he has traveled all over the world to meet with business and political leaders in order to show them that Saudi Arabia was liberalizing and diversifying quicker than ever before. Bin Salman’s charm offensive has allowed his Western allies to defend policies like the “sheikhdown” at the Ritz-Carlton, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in the Yemeni Civil War, and, most strikingly, the premeditated killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi critic and Washington Post contributor, inside of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Just two weeks ago, to deflect a question about how Khashoggi’s killing would affect US-Saudi relations, Kushner praised Bin Salman’s social reforms.  

Yet, the most dangerous behavior that Washington has enabled is Saudi Arabia’s newfound activism toward Iran. Anticipating its eventual defeat in Syria, the Saudis believe now is the time to step up its game in dealing with the threat of Iran. This overarching idea has led to the disastrous bombing and blockade in Yemen that has not demonstrably turned the tide of the war toward the Hadi government, the blockade of Qatar that has placed the united Gulf front against Iran in peril, and the thawing of relations between Riyadh and Baghdad. All three of these actions have escalated tensions and proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Any further escalation of the emerging cold war between the two Islamic powers presents a grave danger to the world and the global economy. On one level, the two sides already benefit from traditional Western and Eastern allies. The Saudis will continue to be backed by the US, if not the West as a whole, and the Iranians will move closer toward Russia and China as Trumpian rhetoric toward Iran grows increasingly more bellicose and controversial. Therefore, any conflict in the region automatically has the power to become a proxy war within a proxy war. Furthermore, any hot war between the two Middle Eastern powers would have a detrimental impact on the world’s oil-based economy as the two would—and do—vie for control of the Strait of Hormuz, a vital chokepoint through which 20% of the world’s petroleum supply flows.

Saudi Arabia, along with its Gulf allies, has long been the dominant oil-producing power in the Middle East, but Iran can now challenge that hegemony. With this view, the current struggle between the two is more of a geopolitical battle than a sectarian one, but the respective governments of each country have emphasized that religious difference to their own populations to build support for the cause.

The West’s over-reliance on Middle Eastern oil and American indifference (or sometimes encouragement—read the tweets) toward the active and authoritarian nature of Saudi Arabia have exacerbated the new cold war in the region. With increasing oil production at home and the advent of legitimate electric technologies, does the US now have the bargaining power to rein in the Saudi regime and stymie the competition between the two powers? It is an idea worth exploring, but not until the US first builds boundaries regarding its relationship to Saudi Arabia, and in a wider sense, to Iran.


Jose is a first-year in Morse College. You can contact him at jose.davilaiv@yale.edu.