There was big news on the Arabian Peninsula in late January, some of it good and some of it very bad. The Saudi royal family managed a smooth succession following the death of King Abdullah, 90, with power passing to the new King–his half brother Salman, 79–and the new crown prince, Muqrin, 69, who are expected to largely carry on the policies of the late King. More notably, the al-Saud royal family advanced to deputy crown prince a relatively young next-generation prince who is seen as friendly to the U.S. The appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, puts the first grandson of the founder of the al-Saud dynasty, Abdul Aziz, in line for the throne after more than 60 years of rule by a succession of the founder’s sons. In short, a much-feared family feud that could have destabilized the kingdom has been avoided.
But elsewhere in Arabia, things went from bad to worse. The Saudi-supported government next door in Yemen collapsed, costing Riyadh a key ally and leaving Iranian-backed Houthi tribesmen threatening U.S. counterterrorism efforts there. Thus another Middle Eastern country devolved into chaos–in this case, one that President Obama had cited as a U.S. success story only months earlier.
Meanwhile, conflicts raged on in Syria and Iraq and instability continued to engulf Libya, where mobs in late January attacked the national bank. Elsewhere, jihadis from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) beheaded a Japanese hostage. Just another week in the continuing descent into chaos and death that is rending the Middle East and increasingly threatening the West.
While the installation of the new leadership trio in Saudi Arabia is intended to send Saudis and their neighbors a clear message of stability and strength, the reality is that the regime is threatened from all sides and faces mounting domestic pressures from both fundamentalists and modernizers. Saudi Arabia has been unusually independent and assertive in its foreign policy in recent years, and that is likely to continue–if only because the kingdom no longer trusts its longtime U.S. protector to defend its interests in the volatile region, particularly against the growing power of Iran. In short, the al-Saud regime has decided how to fill the seats in the throne room, but skeptics worry that this is a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Three Body Blows
The Middle East has never lacked for confusion and conflict. But rarely, if ever, have its divisions run deeper or in more directions than today. Nor have they ever seemed less amenable to resolution.
The region’s fault lines include those between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, a division that goes back nearly 1,400 years to a dispute over the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Going back at least as far are conflicts between Arabs and Persians, the forefathers of modern Iranians. Another divide, of course, is that between Arabs and Israelis.
Across the region, there is also bitter competition over what model of governance, if any, will replace the largely secular but often ruthlessly authoritarian one that in recent decades kept a lid on domestic discord in most Arab countries. As these Arab strongmen have been toppled–in Iraq by the U.S. military and in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya by popular movements–the competition to replace them has been largely between what we think of as the liberalism of the Arab Spring and the rigid, often violent versions of Islam exemplified by ISIS. The Saudi monarchy, one of the few stable regimes remaining, is determined to survive by treading a cautious path that avoids both outcomes. It won’t be easy.
But among those many intersecting fault lines, the one that dominates and sublimates all the others is the fierce struggle for regional influence between the Middle East’s two most powerful nation-states: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both rivals are authoritarian, Iran ruled by its mullahs and Saudi Arabia by its al-Saud monarchs. Each sees itself as the center of the Islamic world. Yes, Iran is majority Shi’ite and Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni, but their rivalry has less to do with Islamic sectarianism than with pure power. Each is exploiting the internal weaknesses of fragile states like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain to expand its political influence with competing, and often warring, factions within those broken countries.
As the collapse of Yemen’s shaky government to the Houthi tribesmen indicates, Iran is winning this pivotal struggle–in Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon and in Iraq, which is increasingly coming under Iranian influence after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. This is a nightmare for Saudi Arabia, its few remaining Arab allies and, if unchecked, for Israel. The historic Sunni-Shi’ite divide is simply a weapon that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are wielding in their power struggle and not the primary cause of the region’s bloody divisions.
After all, Iran sought from the birth of its theocracy in 1979 to export its Islamic revolution abroad. But the region’s Arab states proved resistant. In the 1980s and ’90s, ethnic and religious divisions–always present in most Middle Eastern countries–were repressed by largely secular, often ruthless strongmen. The prototype was Saddam Hussein in Iraq. His overthrow by the U.S. in 2003 not only removed Iraq as the longtime Arab counterweight to neighboring Iran but also unleashed Iraq’s long-repressed majority Shi’ites against their minority-Sunni oppressors.
Iran was quick to exploit this Sunni-Shi’ite strife to exert influence inside Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran was also strengthening its relationship with Bashar Assad’s Syria, once more amenable to Saudi influence. Score two rounds for Iran.
The third body blow to the Saudis came in Egypt. An already nervous Saudi Arabia grew apoplectic when Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was toppled by street protests in 2011 while the U.S., a longtime supporter of Mubarak, stood by. Was this how the U.S. treated valued allies? To make matters worse, the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamist group with tentacles inside Saudi Arabia, won power in Egypt’s first free election, demonstrating to Riyadh that conservative Islam could prevail at the ballot box. In 2013, of course, Egypt reverted to military rule under General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, which was far more compatible with the Saudis, who have since assumed the burden of bankrolling his regime. But the U.S. role in Mubarak’s fall continues to sting among the al-Saud rulers.
The Homegrown Challenge
When anti-assad protesters took to the streets of Syria in 2011, the Saudis–already feeling vulnerable and undervalued by the U.S.–became unusually assertive in their determination to overthrow Assad and at last deliver a major defeat to their nemesis Iran. Instead of quick victory, the Saudis now find themselves bogged down in a protracted proxy war in Syria with ever more risks to themselves. The al-Saud regime was further appalled when Obama suddenly retreated from his own red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. As the bloody Syrian civil war has dragged on, a virulent group of Sunni jihadis once known as al-Qaeda in Iraq spread in Syria under the name of ISIS, declaring their determination to create a new Islamic caliphate in the region. While the rise of ISIS and its fight against Shi’ites in Iraq and Syria would seem a threat to Shi’ite Iran, in fact it presents a much more immediate danger to the Saudis.
Here’s why: ISIS’s claim to re-establish an Islamic caliphate encompassing all Muslims means, by definition, reclaiming the two holiest sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina, both inside Saudi Arabia. In other words, it means taking over or at least dismembering the Saudi kingdom.
So today, Saudi Arabia is encircled by turmoil in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, a country with which it shares a long and very porous border. The al-Saud regime is threatened both by a Shi’ite Iran and a Sunni ISIS that delights in killing Shi’ites. The old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend no longer applies.
But the kingdom’s problem is homegrown too. Young Saudis–officials acknowledge at least 2,000–have fled their oil-rich kingdom to join ISIS even though the government has issued a decree that sets mandatory prison sentences for any Saudi who joins the ISIS jihadis and dares to return. A Saudi imam told me during a recent visit to the kingdom that his 18-year-old son is begging to go fight with ISIS in Syria or Yemen. “I don’t forbid it,” he said. “But I tell him he isn’t yet learned enough in Islam to do the right thing in all the situations that will arise in Syria.” This subtle warning not to risk misinterpreting Islam and thus endangering his entry to paradise has so far proved effective. But the imam notes that his son is just one of many young men coming to him for a blessing to go away and fight. And, chillingly, this imam says it is “exciting” to contemplate the establishment of an Islamic caliphate–and thus, in effect, the end of al-Saud rule.
In Riyadh, a Saudi mother confides that her 18-year-old son has already left for Syria to join ISIS. This deeply devout woman is calm about the fact that her son can’t come home again and likely will die in a Muslim-vs.-Muslim civil war. “He is at peace,” she says. “I just want him to die in the right way.”
Having promoted the severe Wahhabi vision of Islam for decades, the Saudi kingdom rightly fears not only an ISIS beyond its borders but also the appeal of ISIS to domestic fundamentalists like the imam and his flock.
Saudi security officials express genuine awe at the high quality of ISIS recruitment videos on social media and their emotional appeal to young Muslims. Western experts on terrorism, including the Rand Corp.’s Brian Jenkins, say ISIS is rapidly becoming a fad among impressionable young Muslim males. The Saudi kingdom, beyond instituting mandatory punishment for Saudis who go abroad for jihad, is seeking to occupy young Saudis at home both by improving job opportunities and providing more sports clubs and other outlets for youthful energy. Just last June, the late King named his nephew Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad general president of youth welfare. He told me in November that the King had charged him with not only improving Saudi sports teams but also curbing jihadi inclinations among young Saudis.
Yet the heart of the challenge is modernity itself. Young Muslims in the Middle East, now connected to one another and the outside world through social media, no longer are willing to simply obey authoritarian parents and autocratic rulers. They seek a greater say in their lives and futures. For some, this means joining ISIS to re-establish what they see as Islam’s glory days, even if that leads to the beheadings of fellow Muslims and of infidels whom they blame for supporting the autocratic regimes they believe have suppressed Middle Eastern nations for decades. For others, it means attending Western universities and pressing for more individual liberty and modernity. For still others, it means seeking change that will allow them greater freedom to practice Islam as they choose and to press for governments that are less corrupt and more transparent, and which grant their citizens more individual dignity and human rights.
The third group may be a silent majority, but the emphasis is on silent.
The Oil Weapon
Faced with all those challenges, the new Saudi leadership team, if anything, is likely to be even tougher on domestic dissent and on Iran. Unlike the Obama Administration, the Saudi leaders are exceedingly unlikely to seek deals with an Iranian regime they deeply distrust and fear. King Salman has long been close to the Wahhabi religious establishment, which sees Shi’ites as apostates to be destroyed, not dealt with. And Prince Mohammed bin Nayef is the kingdom’s longtime antiterrorism leader. The first test of their resolve to confront Iranian proxies will be Yemen, where growing Iranian influence and the risk of terrorism’s spread into the kingdom may soon require Saudi military intervention.
What can or should the U.S. do to deal with a region trapped in intertwined religious, ethnic and political divisions, all exploited in a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia? Despite the temptation, it is not wise for the U.S. to wash its hands of the Middle East mess or to think it is in America’s interest to simply watch Muslims continue to kill one another. Benign neglect is not a policy, nor is launching occasional drone strikes across the region or limited bombing runs against ISIS.
Yet the U.S. should also resist the temptation to jump in and try to untangle the Middle East morass. As Singapore’s wise former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has said, “Only Muslims themselves–those with a moderate, more modern approach to life–can fight the fundamentalists for control of the Muslim soul.” He predicted that this inevitable battle would be joined “when the Islamic terrorists seek to displace their present Muslim leaders, as they must if they are to set up their version of the Islamic state.” That is precisely what the world now faces with ISIS challenging the leadership in Iraq, Syria and, by extension, Saudi Arabia. In short, the U.S. should engage patiently and quietly using any means necessary to back moderate Muslims when they merit such support by their actions.
The U.S. has two key interests in the Middle East: the defense of democratic Israel and of the free flow of oil from Saudi Arabia. These aren’t new priorities; what is new is that both Riyadh and Jerusalem deeply distrust the Obama Administration to defend those traditional pillars of U.S. Middle East policy. Securing a nuclear deal with Iran has become Obama’s primary regional goal. Both Riyadh and Jerusalem fear that the Administration will sign a sham deal this spring that essentially papers over Iran’s determination to secure nuclear weapons and thus gives Tehran the best of both worlds–the opportunity for a nuclear breakout and a big boost in its drive for dominance in the region.
As 2015 opens, Saudi Arabia is using its oil production to penalize Iran. The kingdom’s willingness to let oil prices fall to maintain its own market share is punishing Iran and its Russian ally in Syria far more than Saudi Arabia itself is suffering. Score one for the Saudis. There are those who believe that Iran’s economic weakness will force it to abandon its nuclear ambition rather than risk new economic sanctions. But that almost surely is wishful thinking.
Whether or not Obama succeeds in getting Iran to sign some kind of deal, the odds hold that Iran will become a nuclear power. If so, Saudi Arabia–likely assisted by Pakistan–will not be far behind, thus raising the competition between the two regional protagonists to an even more dangerous level. In this most likely scenario, we all will be losers.
House is the author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines–and Future
This appears in the February 09, 2015 issue of TIME.