Saudi Arabia is sideshow compared to our real problems in Middle East

Saudi Arabia is sideshow compared to our real problems in Middle East
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It is all too easy to view the Middle East in terms of what has become something approaching the crisis of the day. The odd spectacle of Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, abruptly resigning while in Saudi Arabia and remaining there for two weeks under what seemed to be house arrest on the grounds that he faced an assassination plot originating in Iran is a case in point.

His resignation occurred the same day as a Houthi missile attack on Saudi Arabia from Yemen, and was followed almost immediately by an “anti-corruption” crisis in Saudi Arabia that seems to have been an effort by Crown Prince Muhammad Salman to eliminate key rivals and gain more control over the Kingdom’s private sources of wealth.

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The practical problem for the United States, however, is not the crisis of the day. The practical problem is the steady erosion in the U.S. position in most of the Middle East and North Africa, that U.S. success in defeating ISIS may actually have made the threat worse, and that the United states does not seem to have a clear strategy for any of the lasting problems that challenge its position in the region.

With the possible exception of Morocco, every Arab country in North Africa faces critical economic problems. Libya is torn apart by civil war, and Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia are unable to create jobs and move toward broad development. Egypt has steadily lost regional influence, relied on repression rather than development, and may be tilting back toward Russian arms and security ties. What was once the anchor of the U.S. position in the region is now fragile and uncertain.

Israel does remain the Levant's one success in terms of economic development and military strength, although political corruption and a failure to move forward in the peace process present problems and add to the challenges the United States faces. As for Lebanon, Hariri was never a source of much leadership or strength, and the steady rise of Hezbollah as a military power both helped enhance Iran's influence in Syria and presented a growing risk of war with Israel.

More importantly, the U.S. success against ISIS in Syria was more than offset by Russia’s successful intervention, Iran’s growing role, the impact of the Hezbollah, and frictions with Turkey over the Syrian Kurds. In broad terms, the tactical success against ISIS in Syria has been more than offset by a major series of new strategic problems, where Iran may well establish a growing corridor of influence from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. At the same time, the United States is caught up in another Kurdish crisis in Iraq and one that creates even more tension with Turkey.

Regardless of the success or failure of the Iranian nuclear agreement, Iran continues to be a rising threat by increasing its conventional missile forces, building up the capability to threaten shipping and naval forces in the Gulf, and expanding its pressure on Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen. The U.S. failures to act decisively in Syria and inability to limit Iranian influence in Iraq are only part of the problem. The self-destructive tensions between the Arab states have handed Iran opportunity after opportunity for spoiler operations, and Iran has inevitably taken advantage of every one of them.

As for the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia’s problems with Lebanon are a sideshow compared to the de facto breakup of the Gulf Cooperation Council following Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates boycotting Qatar. Major arms purchases are not creating real world military capability to deter Iran or a stronger alliance with U.S. forces. Moreover, Oman is increasingly tilting toward Qatar, while Kuwait increasingly stands aside. The massive cuts in world oil prices have affected all of the Gulf exporting states, and Saudi reform efforts so far are far more glitz than substance. Put bluntly, the United States is forced to rely on individual strategic partners that are unable to act as real partners with each other.

Finally, the United States cannot separate itself from what seems to be a failed military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen, while Russia is again increasing its influence in the Gulf and possibly selling Saudi Arabia advanced arms like the S400 air missile defense system. The security and stability of the state on the southern coast of the Red Sea also continues to deteriorate, and for good or bad, China is establishing its first base in the region.

None of this makes the ongoing series of “crises of the day” unimportant, but each one is only a symptom of the broader deterioration of the U.S. posture in the region, and of the mix of religious, political, civil and economic problems and divisions that have grown steadily worse over the last decade. It is also all too clear that the United States needs a strategy for the region, and not “crisis by crisis” mismanagement. So far, there is no sign that the United States has such a strategy or any answer to the steady deconstruction of the U.S. position in the Middle East.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.