Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s aggressive speech against Saudi Arabia at the UN General Assembly is not just an instance of Iran-Saudia rivalry that has strong sectarian-cum-ideological underpinnings; it also signifies the new height this rivalry has gained subsequent to Iran’s nuclear deal.

Ahrar al-Najran Movement is calling for “independence” from Saudi Arabia
Ahrar al-Najran Movement is calling for “independence” from Saudi Arabia

The struggle for power between the two States is not something new; Iran’s rising influence, however, is.

As Iran’s economy is set to take huge leap forward once sanctions are lifted, Saudi Arabia faces a remarkable failure of its foreign policy, the cornerstone of which was Saudi political supremacy across the Middle East.

While Saudi Arabia has certainly failed to strangulate Iran’s economy, it has also failed to contain Iran’s influence in the region that the former wanted to achieve through systematically engaging Iran in one conflict (Syria) after the other (Yemen).

Saudi Arabia feels “betrayed” by the US in providing a “final solution” to the Iranian ‘problem.’ Russia’s aggressive entry in the Mid-Eastern affair is also turning out to be a huge set-back for them.

I am not sure if the Saudis had contemplated such a scenario. If they had, they would not have been trying to make use of “all available options” as they are doing now.

Instead, they would have had a certain policy direction. For instance, Saudia’s decision not to cut production of oil has now backfired. As oil prices continue to fall, Saudi Arabia has been forced to offer Russia full membership in OPEC to stabilize the oil market.

The irony is that one of the main purposes behind Saudi knocking oil prices down was to hurt, on the West’s behalf, Russian economy as much as possible.

While offering Russia full membership is just one instance of how Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is playing against itself, the Saudis are having to face a lot of trouble with regard to the goals it set to achieve in Yemen.

For example, when Saudi Arabia launched its war against Yemen in March 2015, it presumed that a short, quick, and clean air war would be enough to break the alliance and defeat the forces of Houthis and those loyal to former President Saleh, thereby giving the Saudi-backed government of former President Hadi the necessary space to regain control of the country.

However, that simply has not been the case. In fact, not only has the Saudi campaign not achieved these objectives, it has instead precipitated a much more dangerous war which has now spread to Saudi Arabia itself.

Initially, Hadi’s rise to power in Yemen was part of a political arrangement led by the Saudi kingdom to reduce the internal pressure of the opposition movements in Yemen and to work on the construction of a political order in the country least inimical to Saudi Arabia’s interest, especially with regard to the control of Gulf of Aden.

However, as Saudi Arabia tried to perpetuate Hadi’s rule in Yemen, disruptions started to take place. With Houthis starting to ascend in Yemen, Saudi Arabia was left with ‘no choice’ but to attack.

Yemen’s case is also a glaring example of how Saudi Arabia’s two-edged policy actually played out on the field. While its “peace time” strategy meant installation of friendly regimes in countries such as Yemen, its “war-time” strategy meant toppling unfriendly regimes and groups from countries such a Syria and now Yemen.

While Saudi Arabia did certainly aim at toppling Houthis, a number of political problems, especially the emergence of home-grown movements, have started to create a “civil-war” like situation within the country. Hence, an all-around trouble scenario for the House of Saud.

Among such developments, the formation of militias committed to waging war against the House of Saud may be the single most troubling development for Riyadh. Perhaps the most significant of these is the so called Ahrar al-Najran Movement that is calling for “independence” from Saudi Arabia.  It is important to note that this movement is a direct off-shoot of Saudi aggression against Yemen.

Abu Bakr Abi Ahmed al-Salami, a leader of Ahrar al-Najran, is reported to have said that the movement, which brings together different tribal groups, is set to launch its first battle in parts of south Najran occupied by the Saudi army. Areas of Najran, where members of the movement hail from, were originally part of Yemen’s territory which was occupied by the Saudis in 1934.

There are four main reasons, according to its leader’s reported statements, for the movement wanting to declare independence from Saudi Arabia:

  1.  General dissatisfaction in Saudi Arabia with the way officials in Riyadh handle day-to-day administration of affairs
  2.  Riyadh’s policy to keep the south impoverished
  3.  Aggression against Yemen and the massacre of defenseless people there by the Saudi regime
  4.  Failure of the Saudi government to view the residents of the south as first-class citizens, thus violation of their legitimate rights.

Needless to say, from the perspective of the Saudis, a nascent independence movement within their borders is just about the worst possible outcome of their decision to wage war on Yemen. And considering the already tense situation in the Shia majority province of Qatif, where Ansarullah movement is gaining ground due to Saudi oppression and brutal use of force, it seems Saudi Arabia has become a political powder keg that can implode from within.

It has already started to show its impact. In June, Fars news reported that the Saudi opposition movement said it shot down the Saudi army’s chopper with the help of local tribal forces. Ahrar al-Najran further said that its ‘air defense system’ hit the Saudi helicopter as it was on a patrolling mission.

Earlier in the same month, Ahrar al-Najran announced that it had gained control of a military base in Southern Saudi Arabia. The movement announced that the Saudi military base was located in al-Masha’liya region, South of Najran region. It was also reported to have clashed with the Saudi military men in Khabash region located 10km to the South of Najran Center.

Ansarullah movement is yet another threat the House of Saud is facing from within. Recent months have seen many clashes between Saudi and Shia forces throughout Qatif provinces of Eastern Saudi Arabia, the most violent of which having taken place in the town of Awamiyah.

According to the events narrated by a witness to the Middle East Eye (MEE), these clashes that emerged due to the local people’s protest against Saudi aggression against Yemen continued for many hours causing many injuries and  ending up with many arrests.

“From 4pm to 9pm, the gunfire didn’t stop,” a local activist and Awamiyah resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told MEE.

“Security forces shot randomly at people’s homes, and closed all but one of the roads leading in and out of the village.” “It is like a war here – we are under siege,” he said.

The official news agency said four militants were arrested in the security operation aimed at dealing with “terrorist elements” in Awamiyah village – known for its anti-government protests – and that a number of weapons were seized from militants.

However, according to local activists’ accounts, reported MEE, at least 22 people were arrested, including three relatives of Zuhair al-Said – a man shot dead by security forces in 2012 when they broke up a protest calling for democratic reforms and an end to discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s Shiite community.

This operation, however, was and still is not the only instance of Saudi’s brutal oppression of domestic opposition. The House of Saud knows only one way of handling such “crisis” i.e., the way of force. These arrests took place in April.

In July 2015, a new wave of protests emerged that led to even more arrests. This time, the demonstration in Qatif was organized to demand the release of political detainees, including the Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

It needs to be remembered that the first wave of protests, during the current phase of the conflict, emerged in Qatif in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring” in Bahrain when disruptions took place there but which were eventually crushed with the help of Saudia and other Gulf allies.

Bahrain, Saudia’s neighbour, has a Sunni royal family, but a Shia population majority that connects Qatif’s population to the majority of Bahrain’s.

This “Shia-connection” is thus turning into a big monster for Saudia that the country, given its limited capacity, may find it very difficult to cope with single-handedly. Combined with this connection is the fear of an uprising in the Southwestern region of Najran—a region that has Sunni population in significant numbers.

Were these two movements to combine forces anytime in the future, the House of Saud would certainly be facing what can be called a general uprising, or a civil-war like scenario if it were to spread any further beyond the regions of their origin.

With the House of Saud facing an extremely uncertain situation with regard to Saudi advances in Yemen on the one hand, and the increasing support from Iran on the other, it is becoming clear that the House of Saud is fast losing control over its people.

While the question of a full-fledged uprising in Saudi Arabia appears to be moot, the Yemen war seems to be the spark most likely to set the House of Saud on fire.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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