Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 6, No. 3, March 2018
By Anders Corr, Ph.D.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) met British Prime Minister Theresa May in London on March 7, the first leg of his worldwide tour to get trade deals and improve diplomatic support for Saudi Arabia’s growing proxy conflict with Iran. It is unfolding in Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen. This trip’s agreements with Britain include $2 billion in trade deals, not least of which are Saudi Arabia’s purchase of 48 Typhoon fighter aircraft from BAE. While protesters have raised human rights concerns, and Saudi Arabia does have more than its fair share of religious extremists, the government of Saudi Arabia is actually a moderating influence in the Middle East, and a close ally against the growing alliance of China, Russia, and Iran.
MBS is promoting his economic and social reforms, including religious toleration, freedoms for women, measures against corruption, and shifting Saudi Arabia’s economy away from dependence on oil exports. This last reform is particularly salutary not only for Saudi Arabia’s future financial solvency, but to decrease a global oil glut that does not help the fight against global warming.
London protesters greeted the Saudis, as Saudi Arabia has been accused of human rights abuse, for example civilian casualties in its war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, including from the Saudi air bombardment of the capital, Sanaa. But Saudi Arabia in Yemen and elsewhere is under tremendous pressure by Iran’s expansionism, which is backed by Russia and China. While some Saudis have reportedly supported the spread of Wahhabism worldwide, an ideology that inspires Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, that should change with MBS’ crackdown on corruption and extremism, and his continued sharing of intelligence with the U.S. and U.K. to counter international terrorism.
A more serious threat to the U.S. and U.K. is Iran’s alliance with Russia and China, and its expansion of influence in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. While the fight against Islamic State is important, it is of lesser importance according to Senator John McCain, certainly relative to defeating the alliance of China, Russia, and Iran. Attacks on Islamic State by Iranian-backed forces such as Bashar al-Assad, Shiite militias, and a non-democratic Iraqi capital of Baghdad, often kill more civilians than do Saudi attacks in Yemen. These Iranian-backed forces use terrorism as an excuse for Iran’s expansion of influence towards the Mediterranean, and disproportionate attacks on Sunni villages in Syria and Iraq that lead to mass refugee flows into Turkey and Europe.
Saudi Arabia has long been an important ally to Britain and the U.S., and deserves our continued support, and the support of our European and Asian allies. The solution to the conflict in the Middle East is not to withdraw support from Saudi Arabia, but to pressure Iran to desist from supporting groups such as the Houthi rebels, Hezbollah terrorists, and the brutal Syrian dictator, Assad. The instability that these forces are creating weaponizes refugees and threatens the unity of the European Union. Saudi Arabia should also desist from tactics in Yemen that cause refugees. But at the country, especially with MBS at the helm, deserves continued diplomatic and economic support from the U.S., U.K., and our allies as a moderating influence regionally.
Anders Corr is publisher of the Journal of Political Risk. JPR status: opinion.