Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other Gulf emirates have a lot to contend with from Israel’s failure to subdue Hizballah.
The hardest pill for them to swallow is the triumphal self-congratulations of the Lebanese Shiite group and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus.
In the course of the conflict, it was an open secret that they were all looking forward to Hizballah being thoroughly clobbered, even at the price of an Israeli victory, which they would of course have ritually condemned. There was open talk in the Gulf’s corridors of power about the secret messages passing from some of the emirs and their intelligence chiefs to Israel, with requests to step up the military pressure on Hizballah.
A Hizballah rout was sought not only because it represented a blow to Shiite military power – a motive strong enough for the Saudis to back Hamas and other Palestinian organizations in Lebanon from the 1980s – but in the hope of breaking the back of the Tehran-Damascus axis.
The Saudi King Abdullah, the ruling Kuwaiti al Sabahs and King Abdullah of Jordan were looking forward to a Hizballah defeat for finally pulling the Syrian president Bashar Assad away from his close ties with Tehran, Hizballah’s main sponsor. This would have finally removed Syria as a perennial threat to Lebanese sovereignty and erased Iranian footsteps in the country.
Stubborn unconfirmed reports maintained that to achieve this objective, certain military and intelligence sources in the Gulf region were prepared to go so far as to hand Israel useful secrets about Hizballah’s military set-up in Lebanon.
Now there are signs of bitter disappointment in Riyadh, Qatar, Cairo and Amman over Hizballah’s success in standing up to Israel. Their hopes of Hizballah, Syria and Iran being cut down to size have been dashed and their war stance discredited, while the line Iran and Syria took in Lebanon has won the day.
Arab princes lost face by seeking Hizballah’s defeat
Assad makes speeches day after day, thumping himself on the chest as the great champion of “Arab resistance” against America and Israel. This is a popular theme on the Arab street – unlike the stand against Hizballah taken by the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf emirates, which has cost them loss of face at home.
In their countries, Hizballah’s popularity is spreading – and not just among Shiite Muslims. The Shiite minorities scattered around the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are especially proud of Nasrallah and his Hizballah and are drawing on them to boost their standing vis-a-vis the Sunni dynasties and governments.
In Bahrain, for instance, Shiites staged victory celebrations in two Shiite villages south of the capital on Aug. 12.
In Saudi Arabia, Shiites of the Eastern Provinces demonstrated in solidarity with Hizballah in the course of the war. Publication of these rallies was banned by the authorities.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources report that these demonstrations were the biggest Saudi Shiites had ever dared hold. Many of their leaders were taken into custody.
Suddenly, the Shiites of the Arab realms, always treated as second-class citizens, are raising their heads. They are preparing to demand improvements in their status and may even be encouraged to gain them by violence.
At the same time, their Sunni masters are capable of exploiting the Shiite backlash to prove they are not too weak to subdue Shiite minority unrest.
While the general public is gratified by any Arab battlefield successes against Israeli might and its sophisticated Western weaponry, the government-controlled media and pundits are more equivocal.
The Saudi Al Watan, for instance, goes along with the street assessment of a Hizballah triumph, but at the same time asserts that Iran and Syria do not deserve a share in this success.
Kuwait’s Arab Times goes further and maintains Hizballah was defeated in the conflict.
Its editor, Ahmad al-Jarallah, ran articles in the last days of combat arguing that Hizballah was not victorious and lambasting Syria and Iran for riding to glory on the back of an illusory victory.
These domestic difficulties and ambiguities are within the competence of the Gulf emirs to handle. The most daunting challenge they face comes from the posture struck by Iran and Syria in the wake of the war.
Tuesday, Aug. 15, President Bashar Assad delivered a speech in which he derided the downfall of the American bloc in the Middle East. This was a broad derogatory hint at the pro-Western moderate Arab nations. He then announced the formation of a counter-alliance headed by Iran and his own regime.
A Syrian guerrilla war to gain Golan might infect Arabia’s Shiite minorities
In the Gulf, Assad is regarded as immature or even puerile. But now some of its rulers are getting worried. For the first time, they are sitting up when he declares that the war against Israel has just begun and “Syrian hands” will liberate the Golan. Until now, they ignored his bombast as half-baked rantings. But the chance of Damascus trying to mount a guerilla campaign Hizballah-style against Israel on the Golan is a source of anxiety in Riyadh for two good reasons:
1. Saudi rulers understand that the first round of warfare in Lebanon which was cut short by the August 14 ceasefire will almost certainly be followed up at some point with more fighting. Beirut, one of the great centers of Arab finance, might then be rocked by destabilizing forces.
2. The spreading guerrilla war strategy may prove contagious and infect Shiite populations across the kingdom and the Gulf at large.
Iran is a dominant theme of Saudi foreign and security policy.
The Islamic Republic’s persistence in developing a military nuclear program is taken as an extreme menace to the regimes along the Persian Gulf and a constant headache for their rulers. They regard the outcome of the Lebanon war as hastening Iran’s progress to attaining a nuclear device.
As a nuclear power, the Shiite Islamic Republic will hold the whip hand in the region, be in a position to weigh in on overall regional oil policy and influence the internal affairs of fellow-Gulf regimes.
On the assumption that Iran is unstoppable in its progress toward a nuclear capability, certain steps are deemed unavoidable:
One, Saudi Arabia must step up its own nuclear program
Two, some emirates may think of jumping on the Iranian bandwagon.
Three, Riyadh and some of its Gulf allies may seek friends in new pastures.
For instance, this week, King Abdullah paid a visit to Turkey, the first by a Saudi crowned head in 40 years. He left no doubt that he was ready to start viewing Turkey as a potential ally in the context of Iran’s new posture and the possibility of reckless moves by Syria.
Four, notwithstanding the reservations entertained in Riyadh and the emirates about the Bush administration’s regional policies, they are unlikely to stray too far from the American orbit.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the rest are still dependent on their ties with America and would rather cooperate with Washington than bow to dictates from Tehran.
While ostensibly keeping their distance from America in deference to popular sentiment, these Arab rulers may unobtrusively and for lack of choice accede to an American military action to abort Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.
None of them sees any real alternative to the United States as a patron. The prospect of Iran becoming master of the region is viewed as a direct threat to their regimes’ survival, in contrast to the United States which stands out as a protector.