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Zero Sum Game - The Unholy Alliance

Saudi has overstretched itself in Yemen, Bahrain & Syria, supporting terrorist groups and totally breaking down its ties with Iran leaving itself in a Zero sum game where negotiations, détente and pragmatism are no longer a viable option

November 9


London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 9 Nov 2017 - Ghassan Matar

In 2002, Arab leaders gathered in Beirut, Lebanon, primarily to discuss a peace plan put forward by the late King Abdallah, then the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, to end the years of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.

Its wider diplomatic intention was to show that the Arab world wants peace and to put pressure on the Israelis. It made a revised version of the Saudi plan an Arab peace initiative and for the first time the Arab world collectively offered Israel peace, recognition and normal relations in return for its withdrawal from Arab lands captured since 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and a "fair solution" for the 3.8 million Palestinian refugees. This Saudi foreign policy achievement was to prove the only success and was to be followed by monumental blunders as described below.

Israel’s response was to prevent Yasser Arafat from attending the summit and subsequently made sure that the decisions of the summit were never discussed or implemented. It would later isolate Arafat until he died of a mysterious illness, a prisoner in his own Ramallah office.

Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, said the term "normal relations" was too vague and rejected any right of return for refugees, though reference to a "fair solution" may leave some room for negotiation.

Mr Sharon has also rejected any full withdrawal from the occupied territories and would not accept a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem.

The fact that the Saudi crown prince was able to get the peace initiative passed was a very interesting development in the sad chapter of Arab diplomacy as it was the first unanimous resolution passed by the bickering sides; who were never able to agree on much; and gave rise to a promising future for the region.

Since that day in 2002, the Arab world went on to slowly disintegrate, beginning with the invasion of Iraq, the wars in Lebanon, the assassination of Hariri, the division of Sudan, the ouster of Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi and the destruction of Yemen and Syria and now the cross hairs are pointing at Iran.

The Saudi Arabia of today is nothing like that of the first few years of this century. The Kingdom had gambled on a strategy that would weaken Iran and prevent the “Shiite Crescent” from expanding or stealing influence from the Kingdom; the strategy went horribly wrong and since 2016, the Kingdom decided to double down on the failed strategy.

In 2016, Saudi Arabia shamefully carried out its largest mass execution since 1980, putting 47 men to death. Among them were at least four prominent Shia activists, including a leader of the kingdom’s Shia minority, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The killings have spurred a new round of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two regional powers.

The senseless executions were enough to provoke a group of Iranian protesters to storm the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Shia Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted there would be “divine vengeance” for the execution of al-Nimr. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani declared that “one does not respond to criticism by cutting off heads.”

After the attack on the Saudi Embassy, Saudi Arabia, along with Sudan, Bahrain and Djibouti broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. The U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning the embassy attack and urged all sides to take steps to reduce tensions in the region.

Unfortunately, it made no mention of the event that set off the crisis — Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr, a peaceful cleric whose death sparked widespread protests not just in Iran but around the world.

It was clear that the rising tension between the two powerhouses in the Middle East would increase sectarian divisions, escalate proxy wars and have disastrous repercussions across the region and that is exactly what happened.

It is important, however, to understand the root causes of Saudi Arabia’s recently more aggressive regional policies lie in its shortcomings and failures of the past four decades which play a fundamental role in guiding Saudi policies today and which are aimed at compensating for perceived losses and a fear of total regime collapse.

  1. The first Saudi policy aimed at Iran was the Kingdom’ support of Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq, during his invasion of Iran (1980-1988), including financial support amounting to billions of dollars with the goal being the disintegration of Iran. This failed, resulting in a belligerent, Saddam, the invasion of Kuwait, hundreds in billions in money paid to the US to defend the Gulf states and an Iran that is more powerful than ever.
  2. The second policy was the Saudi support of Wahhabi Salafist groups in Afghanistan in the form of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, dolling out $11 billion (2017 USD) in official aid between 1980 and 1990. Iran, on the other hand, invested on the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek groups in Afghanistan. Immediately after 9/11, the world witnessed the “the most significant cooperation” between Iran and America since the 1979 revolution, as leaders from Tehran assisted Washington in its mission to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda and form a new Afghan government; but soon used the same groups to undermine the US presence in Afghanistan.
  3. By supporting the invasion of Iraq, a country that has been ruled by Sunnis since its establishment, Saudi have all but handed Iraq to a Shiite dominated regime, even though Saudi Arabia maintains that it was the United States and the United Kingdom that  “delivered” Iraq to Iran.
  4. Saudi Arabia sustained the majority of the despotic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa including Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and others. When the Arab spring exploded, the Kingdom lost most of its puppet leaders and undermined the newly born democracy in Egypt by supporting Sisi, which reversed the revolution and put in place a more despotic leader than Mubarak, all but killing the notion of democracy in the Middle East.
  5. After the collapse of the dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, in March 2011 Saudi Arabian troops crossed into Bahrain to support continued iron-fisted Sunni minority rule in that country. Bahrain’s pro-democracy protesters descended upon the centre of the capital, Manama, marched on government buildings and palaces and called for free elections and equal rights. Even after five years of military occupation, Saudi Arabia failed to manage the crisis in Bahrain.
  6. When the United Kingdom launched a corruption investigation into alleged bribery claims against BAe Systems and Saudi Princes, the Kingdom threatened the UK with the cancellation of various arms contracts if it did not stop the investigation. This totally destroyed the reputation and credibility of the Saudi regime, highlighting to the world the endemic corruption of the ruling royal family.
  7. Saudi then turned its attention to Syria, hoping to convince Assad to shift alliances away from Tehran to the GCC. This was initiated after the Saudi support for Israeli military action against both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon failed to dislodge both and resulted in a technical military defeat for Israel in Lebanon and smeared the image of Israel around the world.
  8. When this failed, it devised a strategy to oust Assad from power by using proxy freedom fighters which it trained in Jordan. The hope was by deposing Assad, Hezbollah would be isolated in Lebanon and break its alliance with Tehran. This strategy not only failed dramatically, but has brought the world on the edge of Nuclear war as the United States and Russia face off. The result has been a nothing short of a growing, open-ended conflict, with devastating humanitarian, strategic, and geopolitical consequences.
  9. The next gaffe was the decision by King Salman to stoke family tensions by promoting his young son Mohammed bin Salman to Crown Prince, breaking with tradition which has underpinned the stability of the Royal Family.

    It was one thing to break with tradition and break the line of succession, but the decision to place all power in an inexperienced young prince can only lead to one sad conclusion.

  10. Since early 2015, the newly appointed crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, ordered the bombing of Yemen, its southern neighbour, hoping to force the retreat of the Houthis. So far, It has killed thousands of innocent civilians in the process and has little to show for it in terms of any actual achievements. It has even been described as Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam. After 2 years of constant fighting, it has led to the death of 1300 coalition fighters (498 Saudis) and has bled the treasury dry. This week saw the first missile fired at Riyadh from Yemen, a major escalation of the conflict.
  11. Saudi Arabia then shifted to economic war by playing a key role in lowering the price of petrol from $120 to $30 ($60 today) a barrel in order to hurt Iran. This farcical decision, has backfired, totally wrecking the Saudi Budget and has resulted in unprecedented austerity measures which will have blow back.
  12. The new crown prince then turned his attention to Qatar and began the process of destabilising the GCC, the crown achievement of the Gulf states, one that underpins the stability of the region. MBS’s decision to tame Qatar, the only other Gulf nation that had the power to outshine the Kingdom and ruled by the young Al-Thani who pursued an independent foreign and energy policy. may well end in the destruction – real if not acknowledged – of the Gulf Cooperation Council
  13. The Saudi King then surprised the world by announcing that the Kingdom was to spend $500 billion on US made weapons; even though they are unable to balance their budget. (see The Illusion of Power & Wealth)
  14. This week, Saudi Arabia went further, by announcing a comical anti-corruption drive that has conveniently targeted individuals who dissented in the appointment of MBS or pose a challenge to this juvenile prince. The anti-corruption drive did not include any members of the Salman clan; even though the young prince himself purchased a $500 million yacht. The purge also seemed to be a money grab by a nation unable to pay its bills.
  15. This Week also saw Saudi Arabia declare war on Iran and Lebanon and forced the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister on Saudi Television by claiming Iran was interfering in Lebanon; totally discrediting its own argument, as the resignation statement simply proves that Saudi Arabia is itself interfering in the Lebanon. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that when he left Lebanon, Hariri had no intention of resigning, that he himself did not know that he would resign and that this resignation had been forced on him by the Saudis.

After all these blunders, could the Kingdom do anything worse, well the answer is yes.

Israeli media is awash with rumours that a Saudi prince visited Israel last week and held consultations with senior Israeli officials. A few outlets and journalists have alleged that the prince in question was none other than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS, in common parlance), the most powerful figure in Saudi Arabia.  

An Israeli source confirmed to Diplomatico that there was a high-level Saudi visitor and said that it was possible that the prince met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though he couldn't confirm this definitively, nor could the source confirm that it was, in fact, MBS.

If the future Saudi king did indeed visit Israel, it would be a monumental development in Israel's relations with the Arab – and specifically Sunni - world. Though there have been such secret visits in the past (there was one, for example, in 2013), they've been intelligence chiefs or military officials. But never a future head of state.

There are obvious and less obvious implications of the visit. The obvious: it marks a heightening of the Saudi-Israel bromance which has seen a growing confluence of interests in their joint campaign to isolate Iran and other Shia forces like Syria's Assad and Hezbollah.  

While Netanyahu has been quick to trumpet this as the breakthrough Israel has sought in Israel-Arab relations since the founding of the state in 1948, that is a vast overstatement. The joint understanding involves only one rather narrow issue, which is essentially Iran.

It does not necessarily have wider implications as Israel and the Trump administration have suggested. For example, both have boasted of a Saudi solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

By entering into an alliance with Israel, King Salman, or his inexperienced young son MBS have just rendered a century of Arab suffering pointless. The Kingdom’s inferiority complex and paranoia in relation to Iran and the inability to accept that the United States is no longer the same super power it once was, has blinded it to the realities on the ground.

The alliance is very understandable from their point of view because Israel like the Saudi Kingdom, has pursued the same pointless policies against the very same “Phantom Enemies” and both countries derive their power from a dying empire, namely the United States.

However, like all previous blunders; this new unholy alliance will end badly for both sides. Over the past 24 hours, the drumbeat of war in the Middle East has risen to a fever-pitch. Saudi Arabia has provoked both an internal domestic, and a foreign crisis to permit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to realise his grandiose vision of the Saudi state. Netanyahu also desperately needs a distraction. A war against Lebanon is just the ticket. It would do wonders to unite the country just long enough to see the charges evaporate into thin air.

But there would be a major difference in this coming war: Saudi Arabia will join this fight specifically to give Iran a black eye. So attacking Lebanon will be only part of its agenda while attacking Iran directly will be the real Saudi goal.

With Israel joining the fight, the two states could mount a regional war with attacks launched against targets in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, possibly sparking counter-attacks against Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Gulf states.

One can only hope that the military strategists in Riyadh and Tel Aviv aren't mad enough to contemplate such a scenario. But given the gruesome history of Lebanon, and its role as a sacrificial lamb in conflicts between greater powers, one cannot rule it out.

Riyadh needs to understand that these real problems need real solutions. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia’s top geopolitical goal has been to maximize its power at Iran’s expense.

To address all of its self-created problems, the House of Saud has always pursued one solution: blaming Iran. But the reality is that Saudi Arabia has overstretched itself in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, supporting terrorist groups and totally breaking down its ties with Iran leaving itself in a Zero sum game where  negotiations, détente and pragmatism are no longer a viable option.

Saudi Arabia needs substantial reforms in its domestic and foreign policies. The fact is that Saudi Arabia is a failed regional power, and if it continues with its failed traditional policies sooner or later it will collapse; probably well before 2030, so much for Crown Prince Salman’s Vision 2030.


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