Saudi Arabia’s Free Ride Reply

Saudi Arabia gets a pass while Israel keeps its greatest rival in check.

By: J. Dana Stuster

The Saudi monarchy may be the luckiest or the most brilliant leaders in the Middle East, or both. Despite half a century of persistent escalated tensions, first with Egypt, then Iran, Saudi Arabia they have kept their wars cold and their people in line, surviving multiple waves of popular upheaval. And their luck, or cagey brilliance, I’m not sure, is holding. Saudi Arabia’s biggest rival is being buried in sanctions and faces the threat of a major military strike, and the Saudis don’t have to lift a finger.

So are they lucky, or are they just that good? Probably both.

It’s not that Saudi Arabia couldn’t fight a conventional war with Iran. A conflict between the two countries would be fought on and above the Persian Gulf; even if Iran wanted to conduct a ground war, it lacks the logistical airpower to move its forces on the necessary scale, making Iran’s military manpower advantage (potentially three times greater than that of Saudi Arabia) largely moot. The Royal Saudi Air Force has a huge fleet of F-15s, with more than a hundred mothballed F-5s in reserve, but this has traditionally been a deterrent force, that, if I understand correctly, has been used in anger once in the past twenty years, to bomb the Houthi rebellion in North Yemen. Iran has a force of a handful of MiG-29s and Su-24s, but mostly F-14s and F-4s that they’ve nursed without U.S. replacement parts since the Shah was in power, and only 60% of its total force may be functional at any given time. Iran’s air defenses may be trapped in a Vietnam War era of obsolescence, while the Saudi surface-to-air arsenal provides considerably more protection. The Saudi Navy is fairly small and consists mostly of 30 year old patrol boats, but while the Iranian Navy is better equipped, it still allegedly relies on small vessel swarm tactics. At sea, the Saudis would have the additional benefit of American support – the U.S. government has stated repeatedly that it will not allow Iran to close Strait of Hormuz and it would help secure the Gulf to allow the free flow of commerce. Land war is unlikely, though the Saudis’ distrust of Iraq and where they fall in the geopolitics of the region would probably bring tanks to sit on the border.

The Saudis have a distinct, though not overwhelming advantage in a conventional war with Iran, but through their joint defense agreement with their partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council that would compel the other peninsular countries to join with Saudi Arabia in the event of it being attacked, there is probably more than enough additional capability to skew the scales. The U.A.E. alone has a force of over 140 F-16s and Mirage 2000s.

The Saudis could fight a war against Iran, but as long as the geopolitics of the Middle East remain such as they are, it will never be a necessity. It’s not that Saudi Arabia doesn’t feel threatened by Iran – they absolutely do, even to the point of paranoia. (“It’s not that the Saudis think that there’s an Iranian spy hiding under every stone, it’s that they think they’re hiding, camouflaged as the stones,” is the way an official once explained it to me, but with Iran willing to blow up Cafe Milano to whack the Saudi ambassador to the United States, this seems sometimes justified.) Saudi officials have pressed the United States for a military strike against Iran since 2008, and there is speculation that Saudi Arabia has a secret deal with Pakistan to have access to one of their nuclear weapons in the event that Iran develops a bomb. But unless events reach that precipice, and Israel and the United States are intent that things never get so far, Saudi Arabia won’t have to lift a finger. Israel can effectively keep Saudi Arabia’s biggest rival in check.

It’s the best of all possible worlds for the Saudis. The only thing the Saudis have to do is open their airspace to Israeli jets, and even in this they’ve managed to maintain some culpable deniability. (Besides, the northern route is supposed to be the more likely approach, potentially using Azerbaijan as a staging ground.) Even while the Saudi government was supposedly making deals under the table with Israel, King Abdullah supposedly told French Defense Minister Hervé Morin that “There are two countries in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel.” The Saudis get to maintain their public and private opposition to Israel while free riding on their security concerns. The Saudi cold war with Iran stays cold – limited to assassination attempts, Syrian proxies, hacking, and bickering, and covered with enough of a veneer of civility that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can attend a summit in Mecca. And that’s the smart part – by maintaining that pretense, Saudi Arabia can disown the fight against Iran while still having a stake in the outcome.

Saudi Arabia’s lucky, for certain, to share the Middle East with a country that is more invested in the Iranian threat to regional security than they are, but the Saudi royals are wily enough to pretend it’s not their fight.

J. Dana Stuster is a Senior Editor at The Jerusalem Review.

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