Jan 12, 2019 10:25 UTC

The year 2018 ended on a note of disaster for Saudi Arabia, despite its massive support by the US, according to the British daily ‘Guardian’, while the Islamic Republic of Iran continued to consolidate its gains, in spite of the American sanctions.

The following is excerpts of an article titled: “Saudi Arabia weakened, as Iran consolidates gains”. 

The Yemen war as well as the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi have put pressure on Saudi Arabia that shows no sign of letting up in 2019.

If 2018 was the time of Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi Heir Apparent, 2019 is likely to be anything but. It started swimmingly for the rash 30-odd year MBS; buy-in at home to a so-called reform package, support from abroad to a bellicose regional agenda, and an ongoing bromance with another powerful 30-something, Jewish American Jared Kushner, whose father-in-law, Donald Trump, had anointed Saudi Arabia as the Middle East’s pre-eminent power.

The momentum fell apart in seven minutes; the time it took to kill a dissident inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October. The shocking assassination has led nearly every aspect of MBS’ agenda to be scrutinised, and its central planks to be challenged by allies and sceptics who had initially warmed to the Heir Apparent.

As the New Year starts, the US Senate has withdrawn support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen and openly held MBS responsible for ordering the hit on Jamal Khashoggi – a claim set to haunt a path to the cherished dream of kingship that had seemed so assured three months ago. The blockade on Qatar, another of MBS’ projects, is also looking less secure, along with a petty feud with Canada and domestic cultural and economic reforms that were meant to be harbingers of a new accommodation between citizen and state.

The Yemen war looks particularly troubling for MBS, whose commitment to deterring Iran from securing a foothold on Saudi Arabia’s eastern flank has bled Riyadh’s coffers, left large numbers of an already impoverished country facing malnutrition and disease, and done little if anything to ward off its arch foe. If the ceasefire in Hodeidah holds, pressure will grow for a permanent settlement.

Iran’s presence continues to loom large over Saudi Arabia’s east, as it does in Iraq, and Lebanon, where elections last May remain unresolved – the democratic process subsumed by political wrangling that has less to do with domestic considerations than regional agendas. In Beirut, Hezbollah has been unwilling to accede to the formation of a government that doesn’t give its allies increased representation. In Iraq, the essential defence and interior ministry portfolios remain unfilled. Both power plays could last indefinitely.

Thanks partly to its role in securing Syria for the embattled Bashar al-Assad, Iran has consolidated its influence across the region – a fact it aims to build on in 2019. Alarmed by Tehran’s ongoing rise, the US aims to turn 2019 into the year for troubling Iran. Washington has re-imposed and is tightening sanctions that were lifted under the Obama administration as part of the nuclear deal.

The squeeze targets Iranian allies, including Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, where Iranian influence has remained freely wielded during past crackdowns. The Trump Administration has been largely hands off in the region, apart from a narrow focus on supporting MBS and safeguarding Israel.

But the US withdrawal from Syria, announced by Donald Trump against the wishes of the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, who resigned in protest, effectively ends its alliance with the Kurds against Daesh. It never sat well with Ankara, which fears the collaboration between Turkish militants inside its borders with partner groups inside Syria. Rajab Tayyeb Erdoghan is expected soon to launch an operation that pushes Kurds away from its frontier east of the Euphrates.

Here too, the spectre of Iran is a driving consideration. North-eastern Syria, known locally as Rojava, remains fertile ground for Iranian influence post-Daesh. To the north, Ankara remains relatively well disposed to Tehran – and a potential weak link in the sanctions programme. Giving Turkey what it wants in Rojava in return for what Washington wants vis-a-vis Iran is a centrepiece of a planned reset in US-Turkey relations that have been strained for the past three years.

Assad, and another key backer, Russia, have attempted to cast Syria as stable and open for business, but reconstruction money is unlikely to flow before any sort of political settlement. The United Nations and refugee advocates say that is unlikely to change in the first half of 2019 at least.