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The tilting balance of power in the Gulf

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Two and a half years ago, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could still boast of being a power capable of changing the strategic situation in the Middle East, thanks to its wealth and its alliances. 

It was the time when the new president of the most powerful country in the world (the United States of America) granted him his first visit abroad. This was the time when it was thought that the privatization of the national company Aramco could bring in some $2 trillion, immediately to be invested in new technologies. This was the time when Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS) boasted that he had the means to carry out military operations on Iranian territory.

None of this is any longer the case today. The Kingdom appears to be the “sick man” of the Middle East. Its weakness, military, political and diplomatic, is spreading. 

Militarily, it has just suffered three major setbacks. Its strategic oil installations were successfully attacked by drones and cruise missiles on 14 September. The Houthis claimed responsibility for this attack as a response response to the bombardments they were subjected to by the Saudi Air Force. 

The Houthis are Shia mountain people from northern Yemen. They seized the capital Sanaa in September 2014 and MBS decided to wage war with them in April 2015. Despite its expensive military equipment, the Saudi army has proved incapable of reducing these warriors to mere people in sandals. It has just failed on its border where one of its brigades was ambushed by the Houthis, who took hundreds of prisoners.

Politically, the Saudi Kingdom could have rallied a significant number of Yemenis to its cause and restored to power the properly elected President Mansour Hadi, who had fled to Riyadh. Indeed, the Houthis are only a minority in Yemen. But by its indiscriminate bombing of Sana’a, by committing blunder upon blunder against schools and hospitals (and most recently a prison where Saudi prisoners of war were held!), by causing famine in the country, the Saudis have alienated the Yemeni population. 

The Kingdom is also politically weak in its own country. It no longer benefits from the loyalty of the Shia minority who live in the east of its territory, where the oil fields are located. The Saudi Shiites have never forgiven their Sunni princes for executing their Sheikh, Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, in January 2016. This Ayatollah had certainly lacked reverence for the Saud royal family, but he had not committed any bloody crimes.

Diplomatically, the Kingdom has lost the unconditional support of the United States of America, something it had enjoyed since 1945. After the attacks of 14 September (which the US State Department attributes, without irrefutable evidence, to Iranian forces more than to their Houthi friends), President Donald Trump merely encouraged Saudi “self-defence”. He was, in essence, telling them: “Rely on your own strength!”

Since the barbaric assassination of Jamal Khashoggi – a CIA protégé who wrote for the Washington Post – at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, the Kingdom has become very unpopular in the USA. The Americans have no desire to wage war to protect the Saudis’ Wahhabi monarchy.

MBS, who has proven incapable of protecting his own territory, no longer boasts of being able to wage war on Iran. He even says that it would be a disaster and begs the international community to take notice. 

In his own region, he is increasingly isolated. The Emiratis now only support him in words. In South Yemen they play a different game from his; and they send delegations to Tehran to maintain contact with Shia Persia. 
Through his own fault, he has quarrelled with Qatar, a country he tried to turn into a vassal state and on which he imposed a blockade.

This small country has held its ground, re-activating its old alliance with Ankara.

Riyadh’s weakness has shifted the balance of power in favour of Tehran in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians demonstrate remarkable hybrid warfare qualities, with material that seems undetectable. The question today is whether the mullahs will be able to turn this slight shift to their advantage. 

If they try to push their military advantage further, they risk awakening the American eagle and falling prey to it. If they can find a way of remaining reasonable, their patience will pay off. Because Trump, who respects their determination and strength, dreams of concluding a great deal with them…

This article was first published in Le Figaro.

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