On March 11, 2011, Khaled al-Johany, a Saudi religious teacher in Riyadh, was the only citizen to show up in response to a call to protest and demand reform in Saudi Arabia. Many of those who saw al-Johany on TV thought that this public appearance before the foreign media would protect him from reprisals from the authorities, especially that he defied them by raising the slogan: “The people want to go to prison.”
Unfortunately, “the bravest man in Saudi Arabia”, as many refer to him now, was arrested within few minutes of talking to the media. On February 22 2012, almost a year after his detention, he “stood trial before the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, a tribunal set up in 2008 to try detainees held on terrorism-related charges,” according to Amnesty International, his case was adjourned until early April.
But if Saudi Arabia can’t bear, or even ‘tolerate!’ a call to reform from a single person, how can we justify its unconditional support to the Syrian protesters who are facing death on daily basis, just for mouthing the very demands made by al-Johany? More strikingly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, mainly Qatar and UAE, express their support to the Syrian protesters openly, despite the obvious American and Western hesitation and unwillingness to assume an active role in this direction.
Obviously, this Saudi and Gulf support has nothing to do with protecting human rights in Syria, nor with presumably bad feelings towards the regime of Mr. Assad who was, just a few months ago, a close friend of the Sheikh of Qatar, Prince Hamad Al Thani. In fact, many analysts see the escalating crisis in Syria as a ‘proxy war’ between Iran and Arab Gulf States under the leadership of Saudi Arabia; not over Syria alone, but over the future of the of the region as a whole.
From the Iranian perspective, the collapse of the Assad regime means the loss of their most important ally in the region. A weakened Iran, as a result of this scenario would definitely make it more vulnerable to all kinds of pressures to give up its nuclear endeavours. Consequently, this might lead to the collapse of the Iranian regime itself.
On the other side of this stand-off, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries believe that Syria today constitutes the final battle -thus the most crucial episode- in the prolonged struggle with Iran over influence and hegemony in the region. The ‘triumph’ of Iran in Syria, where it stands so firmly with the regime, accompanied by crossing the nuclear threshold as expected, is most likely to grant absolute Iranian dominance in the region. The devastating outcomes of this situation will not just be limited to a dramatic change in military balance in the region. More importantly, it will be the Shiite local minorities that already worry the Arab Gulf States, whom (Shiite) Iran will try to use to disturb the political stability of its neighboring countries, and therefore threaten their unity.
With such ‘zero sum game’, one might safely say that the Syrian crisis takes the shape and character of a ‘Phony War’ (rather than a ‘Proxy War’) similar to the one that preceded World War II. In other words, regardless of the final outcomes of the current ‘undeclared’ war in Syria between Iran -and Hezbollah- on one side, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries on the other side; this war will not remain confined within the Syrian borders.
Therefore, we should be prepared to see other possible ‘Proxy Wars’ erupting between Iran and Saudi Arabia in other countries (Lebanon, and maybe Afghanistan, by using the Sunni-Taliban who recently opened a representative office in Qatar). And this could lead finally to an open and declared regional war that would undoubtedly go beyond the Gulf area.
This article was originally published in Mandag Morden, to read it (in Norwegian) please click here.