Iran. Islamic State. Cheap oil. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has his hands full
▶ ▶ The setback in relations with Iran is just one of Saudi Arabia’s many problems ▶ ▶ “They’re surprised when people have a negative reaction”
The collapse in Saudi relations with Iran after the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric marks a grim start to the new year for Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. Since succeeding his half-brother, Abdullah, who died in January 2015, the 80-year- old Salman has gone to war in Yemen, faced Islamic State-backed suicide bomb attacks inside his borders, and watched rival Iran sign an historic nuclear accord brokered by the U.S., the kingdom’s strongest ally for the past 50 years. Crude oil, the lifeblood of the Saudi economy, has remained cheap, depriving the country of billions in revenue.
On Dec. 28 the Saudi finance ministry announced big spending cuts for 2016. According to Luay al-kahtteeb, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, one item that did increase was military spending, rising to 25 percent of the budget (vs. 18 percent in the U. S.). A week later, the kingdom executed 47 prisoners it labeled terrorists, including the Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-nimr. Days later, Saudi Arabia’s already strained relations with predominantly Shiite Iran were in tatters. After protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the kingdom cut relations with the Islamic Republic.
Some analysts say al-nimr’s execution was a way to bait Iran into overreacting. That would help the Saudis isolate the rival nation, as well as give them an excuse to slow down peace talks on Syria, which the United Nations has tentatively scheduled for Jan. 25 in Geneva. Now that Russia is at the table, the Saudis are concerned that any deal will leave the Iran- and Russia-backed Syrian President Bashar al-assad in power, as forces coalesce around the goal of defeating Islamic State. The Saudis see Assad as a puppet of Shia Iran who rules over a Sunni-majority country. Since the embassy was attacked, Saudi Arabia has expressed continued support for the peace talks.
Those who know the Saudis best think it’s unlikely they planned very far ahead. “I actually don’t think the Saudis calculated what the impact would be on the region,” says James Smith, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2009 to 2013. The Saudis lack a certain self-awareness,