Something is happening in the Middle East, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, but we don’t know what it is. Perhaps this is because in a region where we expect properly plotted political explosions – civil wars, assassinations, stolen elections and coups – the variety of incidents, their timing and their mysterious linkages are blowing our epistemological circuits.
In September, there was the referendum in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region. The outcome was an overwhelming victory for those who wanted independence. The aftermath was a disaster for the Kurds and has thrown them back on the mercy of their enemies – and their friends. The Iraqi security forces, supported by the Iranian-backed Shia militias of the Hashd al-Shaabi, pushed into many of the areas that the Kurds had held since beating back the Islamic State assaults of 2014, and sometimes beyond. The Kurds’ peshmerga military forces were simply expelled. There was more fighting than many admitted at the time. But without any unified political leadership, the Kurds could not withstand the military assault.
The difficult relations between and within the three leading Kurdish political parties have become increasingly bitter. Many in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran Movement, particularly the younger generation, blame the region’s former president Masoud Barzani, who resigned at the end of October, for overreaching. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in turn, blames its political rivals for selling out to Iran and Baghdad.
Barzani was reckless. He was warned that he would not have international support if he went ahead with the referendum. It is also true that Baghdad and more importantly Iran, through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, played a role. They exerted huge pressure on PUK and Gorran leaders to abandon the regional capital, Erbil (and by extension Barzani’s party), surrender the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and withdraw their forces from other disputed areas.
Shia militias were quick to claim credit for securing Kirkuk. They continue to consolidate around the city of Tal Afar and advance south along the border with Syria towards al-Qa’im. On the Syrian side, pro-regime forces announced that they had retaken Deir ez-Zor and were closing in on Abu Kamal, al-Qa’im’s sister town and one of Islamic State’s last urban strongholds in eastern Syria. Multinational Shia militias have posted a video of their joyful meeting at the border.
Next, there was the spectacular announcement by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (MBS, as he is widely known), at an investment conference in Riyadh, at the end of October. He revealed plans for Neom, a new hi-tech city in the north-west of the kingdom, where it meets Jordan and Egypt (and – whisper it not – almost meets Israel), and unveiled Sophia, the first robot to gain citizenship anywhere in the world. There was a story that Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser, had sat up all night with the crown prince swapping stories – and maybe making plans.
Shortly after that, on 4 November, we woke to the startling news of a wave of arrests of senior princes, current and former ministers, top business figures and former officials on corruption charges. The Saudi authorities have continued to make arrests and have reportedly commandeered hotels to accommodate the detainees.
At the same time, in an extraordinary broadcast from Riyadh, where he had been summoned, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, announced his resignation. The alleged reason was threats against his life – by implication from the Lebanese Shia militia group Hezbollah, widely believed to have been behind the assassination of his father, Rafiq, in 2005.
On top of all this, a ballistic missile fired from Yemen by Houthi rebels, whom Saudi Arabia has been fighting since leading an international coalition into the civil war there in 2015, was intercepted over Riyadh. The Saudis announced that they considered this an act of war by Iran – which backs the Houthis in Yemen – and that Hezbollah’s acts of aggression constituted a declaration of war by Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the US have instructed or urged their citizens to leave Lebanon.
The Kayhan newspaper in Tehran, often seen as reflecting the views of regime hardliners, claimed that it was the Houthis who would “decide the next target for long-range ballistic missiles… The Saudis may increase their attacks against cities in Yemen, but they will certainly change their adventurism when they discover people who live in glass houses can’t throw stones.”
It suggested that Dubai was next in line. The editor was quickly slapped down by more moderate voices but remained unrepentant. And Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister and now a senior adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, announced during a visit to Aleppo in Syria: “The resistance line starts from Tehran and passes through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut to reach Palestine.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the dissident Ahwaz movement inside Iran was reportedly assassinated in The Hague, stirring unpleasant memories of the last time Iran felt truly unconstrained.
There is also a more insistent drumbeat of stories out of Israel about military preparations on its north-eastern border. Israel is offering support to Druze communities on both sides of the border with Syria, and the army recently destroyed another Iranian-made Hezbollah-operated drone over the Golan Heights. It is likely that Israel leaked recent details – including a picture – of the previously anonymous Hajj Hashem, the Hezbollah commander in southern Syria. Hashem took over from the notorious Mustafa Badreddine, who was indicted in 2011 by the special tribunal for Lebanon for his involvement in the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 and was killed last year in an explosion in Damascus. The message was clear: Israel will not tolerate the establishment of a permanent Iranian/Hezbollah/Hashd al-Shaabi presence on its borders. And it knows who and – more importantly – where they are.
This ties in with the continued Israeli strikes on weapons convoys and, in September, an alleged Hezbollah-connected chemical weapons and missile factory near Hama in Syria. Talks continue with Russia about establishing a buffer zone between Israel, Iran and its proxies. But they do not seem so far to have made anything other than tactical progress.
All this is leading some to claim that we are about to witness a new general war in the Middle East, involving Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states on one side and Iran, Hezbollah and its other subalterns on the other. Are we? And are accounts of the strain that this is putting on Saudi Arabia’s internal stability reasonable?
First, it is true that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are profoundly concerned about the seemingly unchecked advance of Iranian influence and, in some cases, control across the northern tier of the Middle East, from the Mediterranean to the Iraq/Iran border. To balance Iran, Saudi Arabia has started to develop a proper policy of engagement with Iraq. It is seeking to build alliances not just with Sunni politicians but also with Shia figures, such as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Muqtada al-Sadr and the senior Shia clerics in Najaf, where it has announced it will open a consulate general.
Saudi Arabia has seen Lebanon as another battleground with Iran for more than a decade. Its problem has been to find a satisfactory replacement for Rafiq al-Hariri as the patron of the Sunni community. Riyadh never really believed that his son Saad al-Hariri was up to the task. Under his premiership, Hezbollah started to abandon even the pretence of being simply a national liberation movement in Lebanon.
The Saudis have alternately hectored and ignored Saad al-Hariri. They even let his Saudi-based construction company, the foundation of his personal wealth, seek emergency debt restructuring this summer. Whatever the truth of the stories about the pressure that the Saudis have exerted on him and their alleged preference for his elder brother, Bahaa, they may have decided simply to cut their losses.
It is also true that the latest Kurdish disaster in Iraq is far more consequential than previous ones. This is not simply about the Kurdistan regional government: it is about the Middle East as a whole. The failure of the Kurdish referendum project has given Iran in particular an opportunity to weaken the one part of Iraq that has consistently been pro-Western and open for business. And it has given Iran the ability to shape Kurdish politics not just inside Iraq but also in Syria, where the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have led the ground assault against Islamic State, will have drawn lessons from President Barzani’s apparent abandonment by the US and the UK – and inside Iran itself.
The Kurdish failure gives Iran leverage inside Turkey, through the links it has cultivated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. And it has strengthened some of the key sectarian militias inside Iraq. It has shown Turkey that the US will not stand with the Kurds if it has bigger interests at stake, a lesson that Turkey will apply in north-western Syria, where it is seeking to make an extension of Kurdish control impossible.
The problem for the Saudis in dealing with all this is that they don’t have many cards to play. They have helped stabilise the situation in Bahrain, where some small Iranian-backed groups continue to seek openings, but the authorities have the security situation more or less under control. They have locked down the parts of their Eastern Province where most of the popular Shia unrest is concentrated, but they are no nearer a conclusion to the war in Yemen, where the Houthis remain defiant and Iran can keep its modest but still significant military supply lines open. There are no particularly good options for them in Syria and Iraq, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guards make no secret of their presence or long-term intent.
The same applies in Lebanon, where Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, is now posing as the voice of reason, responding to al-Hariri’s resignation with a gentle exhortation to him to come back to Beirut and sort out his political difficulties there with the president and his cabinet colleagues. There will be financial consequences from any prolonged Gulf boycott. But the governor of Lebanon’s central bank and his staff are skilled at dealing with monetary crises: heaven knows they have enough experience of them.
In addition, it is inconceivable that Riyadh, whatever discussions may have taken place in private, will be able to rush Israel into launching a war against Hezbollah in or outside Lebanon, or against Iranian forces inside Syria. Egypt is characteristically reluctant to get involved. And in any case, Israel is the only actor with the ability to take them on in any serious way, for reasons of geography, capability and competence. Although Israel constantly plans for the next conflict and is determined that Iran will not threaten its borders, it is unlikely that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wants war now, any more than Hezbollah or Iran does. They all have other priorities and may not have decided yet whether it would make sense to fight each other directly at any point in the short to medium term.
It may be that Saudi Arabia doesn’t want war, either. Recent polling tells us that most Saudis – like most Emiratis, Bahrainis and Qataris – see Iran as the major threat to their country, and there is huge support for pushing back Iranian influence. However, the costs of conflict, even if someone else does the fighting, would be very high. And – as we have seen in recent developments – Mohammed Bin Salman has many domestic challenges. It’s not just princes, courtiers and business people whom he has arrested. The first wave of arrests in September was of religious scholars – many associated with the “Islamic awakening” movement of the 1990s – and liberal critics of the government.
If his ambitious plan for the kingdom’s transformation is to succeed, he will need fundamentally to restructure the relationships between the ruling family, the administrative elites, the religious authorities that have guaranteed the kingdom’s legitimacy since the 18th century and ordinary Saudis.
To make all this happen, the crown prince needs to channel the power and charisma of his grandfather, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz, whom he physically resembles. To send the message that he is serious about achieving this, Mohammed Bin Salman is apparently prepared to disrupt everything. That is what alarms outside observers, while capturing the imagination of a significant number of Saudis – particularly the young, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population.
The crown prince is acting as disruptor-in-chief internationally, too. He has decided that Iran has been allowed to make too many gains since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003. In this he agrees with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi and most ordinary Sunni Arabs in the Gulf and wider region.
But the key to success in both the domestic and external parts of this enterprise is not war. Instead, it is lining up a powerful array of supporters internationally who can back his reform programme and help him time a push-back against Iran with the same determination that Iran has shown over the past 30 years. Israel is a part of this: we saw an interesting glimpse of co-ordination recently with the leak of briefing instructions to Israeli embassies to back up the Saudi line with their host governments.
But the most important partner remains the United States. And it may be that what Mohammed Bin Salman is doing is, in essence, what Donald Trump has done over the past year: disrupting the status quo in order permanently to shift the point of
political equilibrium. It is not just Western commentators who don’t know what to make of all this. The Iranians and Hezbollah don’t seem to know, either. That may be how he likes it.
What we are seeing is the belated eruption of a previously submerged rivalry between an expansionist Iran and a historically cautious and reactive Saudi Arabia that has been years in the making. The rivalry flows through most of the Middle East, from Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq, across to Bahrain, Oman and Yemen and up the Red Sea. It also affects Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It was Richard Nixon who mused to Henry Kissinger that the way to keep the Soviet Union off balance was to appear impulsive, even reckless. Israel has for decades wanted to be seen as prepared to do anything to protect itself, even if that means bringing down the temple on its own head – the “Samson Option”. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took much the same line while he was Iran’s president. Now it’s the turn of Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. This accounts for the theatricality of much of what he has been involved with: the announcement of Blade Runner-like cities; the row with Qatar; the public displacing of the previous crown prince; other errant princes being openly humiliated, instead of being allowed to back out of the limelight gracefully; the Lebanese prime minister being summoned at short notice to make major announcements and then allowed to modify them in subsequent, equally mysterious circumstances; the Palestinian president also being summoned for a severe talking to.
The success of this enterprise will depend on the reactions of others, notably in Washington but also in Tehran, Cairo and Tel Aviv. Some of those other countries will need to learn to read what is happening in a new way. How much this has already been prepared we shall see in the coming months. The US administration is developing what may – or may not – be a strategy of renewed political, economic, financial and military pressure on Iran. Israel continues to seek to push Iran and its proxies out of southern Syria. And all sides in the Syria conflict, including Turkey and the Kurds, are recalibrating their policies to take into account the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syrian regime gains and the evolving position of Russia. This will be the moment to ask what the score is in this most complex of modern Middle Eastern conflicts.