A string of escalatory moves taken by Saudi Arabia and arch-rival Iran over the past few days suggest the long-brewing cold war between the region’s two rival superpowers could soon grow hot. It began with the surprise resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, announced on Saturday from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is believed to have pressed him to step down in frustration that Mr Hariri, a long-time Saudi ally, had in effect given cover to the Lebanese Shia force Hizbollah, Iran’s top regional proxy, by sharing control of government with them. Hours later, in Yemen, a ballistic missile was fired by Iran-backed Houthi rebels towards Riyadh airport. Saudi Arabia accused Iran on Tuesday of an “act of war” over the incident, and the same day King Salman of Saudi Arabia summoned Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Territories, to a meeting. It raised suspicions that Mr Abbas too was coming under pressure from Riyadh after reaching a power-sharing deal with Hamas, the Iran-backed militant group.
For years, Riyadh watched its regional influence recede while Iran seemed to grow stronger. Tehran’s allies in Iraq and Syria, including President Bashir al-Assad, won a string of victories while Saudi backing of the failed Syrian rebellion fizzled out. Eager to claw back influence in the region, Saudi Arabia has ratcheted up its diplomatic efforts this year, engaging with Shia leaders in Iran-dominated Iraq and visiting a Kurdish-controlled part of Syria where it could make another attempt at curbing Iranian expansion.
But the moves this week show that Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi’s powerful young crown prince, along with its ally the United Arab Emirates, may be shifting towards a more aggressive approach. “All of the activity has to do with an effort at restructuring the geopolitics and geo-economics of the region,” says Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics, a US-based consultancy. “This Saudi-Emirati programme has been in the works for a couple of years . . . Their view is that Iran has its Shia pincer around them and they are going to push back, really hard. It is part of a regional project that includes Syria, Libya, Yemen and also Palestine.”
Regional diplomats, however, view the moves as sudden and destabilising, increasing the chance of renewed regional flare-ups and proxy wars. They fear this could create yet more refugees and raise the already huge bill for regional reconstruction, and are particularly worried that instead of trying to rein in Riyadh, President Donald Trump’s US administration is encouraging it. “It is not just Saudi Arabia whose actions seem unpredictable; the US is not predictable either,” said one Beirut-based European diplomat. “My fear is over what kind of green light Mohammed bin Salman was given, and that he will go too far.” Those concerns were likely to have been heightened by a White House statement on Wednesday that said the US stood by its Gulf allies and their recent complaints to the UN “against the Iranian regime’s aggression and blatant violations of international law”. Many regional observers say Iran left little doubt it was taking the Saudi moves seriously. The missile that nearly hit Riyadh after Mr Hariri’s shock resignation “was a clear message that they are serious”, Mr Karasik said. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, insisted on Wednesday that Riyadh was “wrong to think Iran is not your friend”, but he also made clear the threat of continued aggression: “You know Iran’s might and position and you know those bigger than you could not harm Iran.”
Riyadh is expected to hit back at Iran via Lebanon and its ally Hizbollah. Theories range from the raising of new militias to instigating a conflict between Hizbollah and Israel, who fought each other to a standstill in 2006. Yoel Guzansky, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, says it is still unlikely that Israel or Hizbollah are looking for a fight but expressed concern that a destabilised Saudi Arabia could drag the two into conflict. “If this happens, we will bring Lebanon back to the stone age,” he warns. But any action in Lebanon is likely to be reciprocated in war-torn Yemen, to devastating effect. Already, Riyadh’s fears that the Houthis could, with Iran’s assistance, morph into a Hizbollah-type militia on its southern border became a self-fulfilling prophecy since it launched its military bombardment in 2015. Three years on, 10,000 people are dead, the battle lines are in stalemate, and Houthi forces can now send ballistic missiles reaching more than 1,000km to Riyadh airport. Saudi now says Hizbollah is providing the Houthis with experts and technology to launch ballistic missile such as the one intercepted on course to Riyadh airport. “The Yemen war was meant to be a demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s ability to push back against Iran’s role in the region,” says Peter Salisbury, a researcher at Chatham House, the think-tank. “The opposite has happened though — the Iranian role has expanded and the Houthis have dug in.” Such assessments may explain why regional allies such as Egypt have shown little appetite for Saudi Arabia’s new offensive. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, said in a recent interview with CNBC that he was not planning any measures against Hizbollah.