The Gulf stare down continues
Tension between the nations is high, but war doesn't appear to be on the cards, despite escalating Saudi rhetoric
"Saudi Arabia has the right to defend itself and take what measures it deems appropriate to do so," wrote a columnist in the influential Saudi daily al-Riyadh in February. The article was headlined: "What if a Saudi rocket was launched towards Tehran?". The author was commenting on the interception of missiles fired by Houthis in Yemen towards targets inside Saudi Arabia. The Saudis accuse Iran of supplying the rockets and instructing the Houthis in their use.
There's no indication that Saudi Arabia plans to retaliate by firing missiles at Iran. But the rhetoric from the Saudi side has gone up a gear. Things are beginning to look dangerous. In the view of Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, "Saudi Arabia is salivating for a war with Iran, with American lives at the front". Reconciliation is nowhere on the horizon. Only around the table at Opec meetings do the two countries interact in a polite and civilised way.
The problem is that there's not much further that the rhetoric can go without a military option being brought into consideration. If it becomes even a possibility, expect global oil prices to soar. If it happens, expect Saudi oil supply to the global market to dry up; the kingdom's export facilities on the Gulf coast would be targeted by Iran and the Strait of Hormuz closed. But war isn't an imminent danger.
Nevertheless, these are precarious times in the Gulf, made more so by Saudi Arabia's frustration at the way it feels the world—Trump's US excepted—can't understand the threat Iran poses by regional meddling in the region. "Berlin, Paris and London are repeating Obama's excuses," wrote Eyad Abu Shakra, editor of Saudi-owned daily Asharq Alawsat, "refusing to acknowledge Tehran's active role in aiding and abetting even extremist Sunni Muslim groups worldwide."
Saudi Arabia won't let up on Iran while Tehran maintains its current regional policies and nuclear industry. Trump is in no mood to restrain the kingdom. Maybe the best hope lies with Saudi Arabia's new oil ally, Russia, and the chance that Vladimir Putin might extend his Middle East reach by keeping these two energy giants from each other's throats.
This article is part of an in-depth series on Geopolitics. Next article is: The volatile 10