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How Saudi Arabia can contain Iran – and other benefits from Syria's turmoil

Saudi Arabia is facing its biggest foreign policy obstacle (and opportunity) yet – one whose outcome matters deeply to the US. How the kingdom handles Syrian turmoil will determine its leadership standing in the region and its containment of Iran.

By Bilal Y. Saab / August 31, 2011


All of a sudden, Saudi Arabia finds itself facing a historic opportunity to greatly enhance its strategic position in the Middle East and perhaps even assume an undisputed leadership role in Arab politics.

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And this is hardly just an internal Saudi matter.

The regional status of the kingdom is a matter of some importance to the United States and its policies in the Middle East. Given the (still solid) strategic alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia, it goes without saying that a more influential and assertive Riyadh helps Washington achieve its overall foreign policy goals in the region, most urgent of which is checking Iran’s power and preventing it from becoming a nuclear power state.

So what is this new Saudi opportunity all about? It starts in Syria

Earlier this month, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued a strongly worded statement against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for his brutal crackdown against Syrian protestors, asking him to stop the “killing machine and end the bloodshed.” He also pulled his ambassador to Syria out of Damascus.

Mr. Abdullah’s statement is worth paying close attention to because it reflects not only the kingdom’s foreign policy shift toward relations with Syria but also its new regional approach toward this period of uncertainty and upheaval that has been rocking the Middle East.

Saudi priority No. 1: Contain Iran

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia has focused all its efforts on fulfilling a single task in foreign policy: the containment of Tehran’s power and influence in the region. Saudi Arabia’s rulers saw (and continue to see) the world, almost exclusively, from the prism of the “Shiite octopus.” Always reacting to Iranian moves, Saudi Arabia seemed behind, trying to limit Iranian advances and minimize costs as much as possible.

Containing Iran was never easy because Tehran had done a masterful job projecting its power onto the Levant and Arab Gulf where the kingdom had vital political and security interests. After the 2003 Iraq War, containing Iran became much more difficult because the elimination of late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of the Iranians, offered Tehran a huge opportunity to dominate the politics and security of oil-rich Iraq. Iran’s rise after the fall of Baghdad prompted leaders in the region, including King Abdullah II of Jordan, to speak of a “Shiite Crescent.”


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