Friday, September 1, 2006

Saudi bid for influence shattered


By Mahan Abedin
Asia Times

"The war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon has exposed deep rifts between Iran and Syria on the one hand and the conservative and US-friendly regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt on the other. This was dramatically underlined by Saudi Arabia's unusually tough stance against Hezbollah at the outset of the conflict.

The Saudi stance against Hezbollah has less to do with fears of Iran's growing geopolitical weight than a demoralized reaction to the failure of its foreign policy in Lebanon. However, by choosing to side with the United States and Israel, the House of Saud risks deepening the dynamics that generate divisions and dissent in the kingdom.

While the Iranians were sympathetic to general Shi'ite grievances, they mostly encouraged the reform movement to attack the Saudis on account of their alliance with the United States, which they identified as its Achilles' heel. The Iranians hoped this would resonate with wider sections of Saudi society who had begun to question the wisdom of Saudi foreign policy, which seemed to be centered on squandering the nation's oil wealth and facilitating US hegemony in the region and beyond.

Saudi Arabia has long sought to curtail the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Privately, Saudi officials share the US and Israeli view that Hezbollah - notwithstanding its impeccable Lebanese credentials - is ultimately an instrument of Iranian foreign policy. However, the Saudis supported Hezbollah's campaign in the 1990s to drive Israel out of southern Lebanon, albeit grudgingly.

The breakdown of the unofficial Saudi-Syrian pact in Lebanon might have benefited Iran, had it not provoked the so-called Cedar Revolution that was dominated by middle-class Sunnis and Christians. This posed a direct threat to Hezbollah and Iran insofar as it championed Lebanon's normalization on Sunni and Christian terms. In short, the Cedar Revolution risked opening Lebanon to US influence and permanent Israeli military and security hegemony. The Saudis stood to benefit as well, as long as their investments in the country were protected.

The strong reaction of the Saudis against Hezbollah must be understood in this context. From the Saudi perspective, Hezbollah has invited terrible Israeli retribution on Lebanon and endangered 15 years of substantial Saudi investment on the volatile country.

Equally worrying for the Salafi-jihadis is the broader resurgence of Iranian-style Islamism. This has been most evident in Iran itself, where the conflict has boosted hardcore ideological forces in the Islamic Republic and revived the "Hezbollahi" spirit that had been dormant since the late 1980s.

Already its controversial stance against Hezbollah has divided opinion in the kingdom. The most important dissenter is Sheikh Salman al-Auda, a former Salafi hardliner, who has come out in support of Hezbollah. More broadly, there is significant grassroots support for Hezbollah, which is seen (as it is seen in other Arab countries) as the only effective tool against Israeli hegemony.

In the final analysis, the Lebanon war has not only imperiled 15 years of Saudi investments, but once again exposed the limitations of the kingdom's foreign policy. More ominously for al-Saud, it has sharply divided opinion in the country and further discredited the official Wahhabi ulema. This is bound to undermine the regime's security and create new forms of challenges and dissent long after the fighting stops in Lebanon. "

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