A string of escalatory moves in the Gulf in recent days suggest the long-brewing cold war between Saudi Arabia and its regional arch-rival Iran could soon grow hot. It began with the surprise resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, announced on Saturday from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is believed to have pressed him to step down in frustration that Mr Hariri, a long-time Saudi ally, had in effect given cover to the Lebanese Shia force Hizbollah, Iran’s top regional proxy, by sharing control of government with them. Hours later, in Yemen, a ballistic missile was fired by Iran-backed Houthi rebels towards Riyadh airport. Saudi Arabia accused Iran on Tuesday of an “act of war” over the incident, and the same day King Salman of Saudi Arabia summoned Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Territories, to a meeting. It raised suspicions that Mr Abbas too was coming under pressure from Riyadh after reaching a power-sharing deal with Hamas, the Iran-backed militant group. For years, Riyadh watched its regional influence recede while Iran seemed to grow stronger. Tehran’s allies in Iraq and Syria, including President Bashir al-Assad, won a string of victories while Saudi backing of the failed Syrian rebellion fizzled out. Eager to claw back influence in the region, Saudi Arabia has ratcheted up its diplomatic efforts this year, engaging with Shia leaders in Iran-dominated Iraq and visiting a Kurdish-controlled part of Syria where it could make another attempt at curbing Iranian expansion.
But the moves this week show that Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi’s powerful young crown prince, along with its ally the United Arab Emirates, may be shifting towards a more aggressive approach. “All of the activity has to do with an effort at restructuring the geopolitics and geo-economics of the region,” says Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics, a US-based consultancy. “This Saudi-Emirati programme has been in the works for a couple of years . . . Their view is that Iran has its Shia pincer around them and they are going to push back, really hard. It is part of a regional project that includes Syria, Libya, Yemen and also Palestine.”