Earlier this week, buried in all of the other news that’s a constant feature of the modern world, there was an unusual pronouncement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Gulf-affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan said Monday that the Lebanese government would be “dealt with as a government declaring war” on his country — raising the specter of a new armed conflict in the already tense region. On Thursday, Saudi Arabia suggested that Saudi citizens leave Lebanon.
It’s the latest point of tension between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, raising an important question: How serious is this tension?
To answer that question, we reached out to Tamara Wittes, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Earlier this week, Wittes walked us through the web of international relationships surrounding the kingdom. We’ve broken it down by country.
This is the proper place to begin, it seems.
“Saudi Arabia’s greatest concern in the region is the rise and expansion of Iranian influence,” Wittes said. When asked about Saudi Arabia’s military actions in Yemen (which we’ll get to), she was more blunt. “Everything that Saudi Arabia is doing outside of its borders — and some of what it’s doing inside its borders — is about Iran,” she said.
The overarching tension worth remembering is that between the two major Muslim denominations, Sunni and Shiite (or Shia). Saudi Arabia is heavily Sunni. Iran is heavily Shiite.
“The Saudis [believe] that the Iranians are instigating dissent and activism in the Shia population of Saudi Arabia,” Wittes said. “In the eastern province, the Saudis have been engaged in security operations in Qatif for a couple of years now, trying to deal with regular unrest. How much of it is domestically generated and how much of it is Iranian-instigated, I don’t know. But the Saudis believe that it’s Iranian-instigated.”
Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca, the holy site to which Muslims are expected to journey at some point in their lives, a pilgrimage known as the hajj. That’s another point of tension.
“The Iranians constantly allege that the Saudis discriminate against or mistreat Shia pilgrims,” Wittes said. “Shia pilgrims have upset people when they’ve engaged in Shia rituals as part of the hajj and venerated certain sites that Shias venerate that Sunnis think are idol worship. So there’s that dispute as well.”
That’s the inside-the-borders tension. The outside-the-borders tension is largely about influence.
Bringing us to Lebanon.
It’s not necessarily right to say that Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have a tense relationship, Wittes said, given that Lebanon doesn’t have a unified foreign policy, since it doesn’t have a unitary government. That muddies the sense of brewing conflict between the two countries as independent states.
What this is about, she said, is Iran.
“Until a week ago, the prime minister of Lebanon was a close ally of Saudi Arabia,” Wittes said. That prime minister was Saad Hariri, son of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The younger Hariri resigned Saturday, meaning that Saudi Arabia lost an ally in a position of power in the country.
“Iran has a major foothold in Lebanon through Hezbollah,” she said, referring to the Shiite political and military organization that the Trump administration recently warned was aiming to attack the United States. “For a long time, Saudi Arabia worked to balance Iran in Lebanon through its support” of the Hariris, she said.
“But over the course of the last several years,” Wittes said, “the Saudis kind of pulled back on engaging in Lebanon. They cut off aid for a period of time and basically left Lebanon without a government for two years and left [Saad] Hariri out in the cold.” Hariri then “cut a deal” with Hezbollah to return to power, she said, leading Saudi Arabia to ask him to resign.
“They pulled Hariri out of the government so they could say, ‘Look, this government is controlled by Hezbollah,’ ” she continued, “and now they want to pick a fight but they have no leverage.”
“They are raising tensions with Iran and Iran’s proxy in Lebanon,” she said, not really with Lebanon itself. Wittes described the claim of a state of war as “rhetorical.”
Yemen has been a focus of U.S. military attention as a base of operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Earlier this year, Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens was killed during an operation in Yemen, one of the first raids of its kind during President Trump’s administration.
Saudi Arabia is also active in Yemen, leading a coalition of countries in the hopes of influencing the outcome of a civil war in the country initiated by a Shiite faction known as the Houthis. The coalition intervention has included airstrikes and ground troops, with hundreds of casualties on both sides. Last week, a missile fired from Yemen was intercepted as it neared an airport in Riyadh; shortly afterward, Saudi Arabia intensified its blockade of Yemeni ports.
Wittes said that Saudi Arabia’s interest is not in uprooting terrorists. It is, again, about Iran.
“The Saudi government has long dealt with a lot of political upheaval in Yemen on its southern border,” she said, “and AQAP has been in Yemen and has been a threat to the Saudi kingdom and to the United States, for sure. But what prompted the Saudi intervention was a sense that the Iranians were getting more deeply engaged supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and they wanted to intervene to curtail and, if they could, push out that Iranian influence.”
“And they are now stuck in a quagmire,” she said.
Earlier this year, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar spiked after quotes emerged in Qatari media that were attributed to the latter country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. Among other things, those quotes praised Hamas and called Iran “an Islamic power.” It later emerged that those quotes were probably fabricated, placed in Qatari media by hackers from the United Arab Emirates, according to U.S. intelligence. Despite that revelation, Saudi Arabia and its allies (including Egypt and the UAE) have engaged in a boycott of the country.
Again, though, the tensions run deeper than what happened this year.
“There is a long-standing family argument within the gulf Arab states, in which basically Qatar is on one side and the Saudis are on the other,” Wittes said. “The Iran component is that Qatar is among the gulf states that has maintained a relatively more open relationship with Iran.”
But in this case, Iran isn’t the main issue, she said. The main issues are, first, an effort by the Saudis to “impose discipline” on Tamim and, second, frustration with Qatar’s perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood — which the Saudis and Emiratis see as threatening their power.
“The Qataris are on the side of the upstart movements that have played a role in popular uprisings and revolutions, and the Saudis and Emiratis are on the counterrevolution side,” she said. “That’s the big dispute there.”
Among the countries that experienced a popular uprising was the small nation of Bahrain. The islands of the Bahraini archipelago are mostly Shiite, but the nation is led by a Sunni monarchy. During the Arab Spring of 2011, there was an uprising, and it was Saudi forces that helped quell the unrest.
There are still “ongoing” tensions in the country, Wittes said.
Part of the reason that Saudi Arabia has been particularly active of late, Wittes suggested, was that Egypt used to be a prominent counterweight to Iran in the region. It, too, is mostly Sunni, and about a fifth of Arabs are Egyptian. But unrest in that country has limited Egypt’s role in the region, and political developments there have put Saudi Arabia on edge.
“The Saudis were very upset by the fall of [President] Hosni Mubarak” during the Arab Spring, Wittes said. “They were very alarmed by the victory in the first free elections in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood and the elevation of a Brotherhood candidate to the presidency. They were very supportive of the coup that overthrew [Mohamed] Morsi and brought [Abdel Fatah] al-Sissi to power.” Sissi, she said, has strong ties to Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudis have sunk billions into keeping the Egyptian economy afloat and supporting Sissi,” she added.
The dominant military conflict in the region of late has been in Syria, where Iran again seeks to expand its influence.
“At the rhetorical level and at the level of private financing, a lot of money has flowed from Saudi Arabia to the opposition militias, Sunni militias fighting [President Bashar] al-Assad,” Wittes said. The revolution in Syria arose at the same time as the tension in Bahrain, prompting Saudi Arabia to highlight the Sunni-Shiite rift at play in the Syrian conflict. As the fight fragmented over time, with some groups aligning with terrorist groups and against one another, the country stepped back.
One of the most interesting relationships is between Saudi Arabia and Israel. “I would say it’s sort of an alliance of interests,” Wittes said — with those interests relating, again, to Iran.
“The Saudis and the Israelis share a common enemy in Iran and a common sense of threat,” Wittes said. “They both see Iranian expansionism in the region and both see it as an existential problem for them.” That’s manifested in several ways, including, recently, a quiet push by Israeli diplomats to bolster Saudi Arabia’s efforts in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia and Israel are also concerned about the decline of U.S. influence in the region, a feeling that they shared when Barack Obama was president and that continues with Trump in the White House. Both, she said, have an interest in bringing the U.S. back into a more prominent role.
Wittes’s explanations offered two common themes. The first is that the Saudi-Iranian relationship is the central undercurrent to most of the recent news. The second is that understanding the intricacies of Saudi politics demands a much more thorough background than most Americans possess.