A new season of “Game of Thrones” is well underway in the Middle East, although the real-world version carries none of the fanfare surrounding the HBO show. Still, its consequences could be profoundly significant across the region. The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in January has signaled an understated reordering of the Kingdom’s strategic priorities as his successor, King Salman, prioritizes creating a Sunni Muslim united front against Shia Iran and its allies. To be effective, that would require an easing of Riyadh’s recent campaign to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and curb the influence of its regional allies.
Saudi concerns include Iran’s leading role in the fight against the Islamic State movement (commonly called ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq, Tehran’s Yemeni allies overthrowing the government in Sana’a, and by the emerging diplomatic rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran.
As a result, Reuters reports “Saudi Arabia is pushing for Sunni Muslim Middle East countries to set aside differences over political Islam and focus on what it sees as more urgent threats from Iran and Islamic State.” Finding common ground against Iran and ways to “to work around disagreements over the Muslim Brotherhood” has been the focus of King Salman’s flurry of summit meetings with Gulf Arab leaders, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey over the past two weeks, according to Reuters’ Angus McDowall and Amena Bakr. They write: “Saudi Arabia’s deep-seated mistrust of the Islamist group is unchanged, diplomats say. But King Salman’s approach to it is more nuanced than that of his predecessor King Abdullah, who died in January, and may include being more indulgent of allies who allow its members space to operate.”
The most immediate target of a Sunni united front against Iran would be Yemen, which shares the Arabian Peninsula with Saudi Arabia and where Iran’s Houthi allies have taken over the capital. Expect to see the Saudis take a lead in efforts to create a new political order in Sana’a.
But the alliance would also be expected to limit Iran’s gains from its leading role in fighting ISIL, and to coordinate efforts to topple Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Regional media have reported anxiety in the regime of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi in Cairo over the new thinking in Riyadh, and specifically over Saudi Arabia’s apparent rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar, which have been criticized by Sisi as backers of the Brotherhood.
Sisi’s government is heavily dependent on financial aid from Gulf Arab countries in the Saudi camp, and as Al-Ahram put it, Egyptian officials have been told “previous regional dynamics that were based on the confrontation between two confronting axes, Egypt–Saudi Arabia–United Arab Emirates versus Qatar-Turkey, are coming to an end.”
The paper reported that “retreat of anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment in Riyadh is not at all reciprocated in Abu Dhabi” but that the Emiratis are likely to fall in line with the Saudis. As a result, wrote Al-Ahram, “Egyptian authorities seem to be reconciling with the fact that they will have to rework their ‘war on the Muslim Brotherhood’.”
Nobody’s expecting that Riyadh will rehabilitate the Brotherhood, which it branded as a “terrorist organization” last year. But according to Reuters, “Salman is less concerned than was Abdullah about the Brotherhood's role in other parts of the Middle East, such as in Yemen's Islah party or among Syrian rebel groups. He is also more willing to allow the Brotherhood a role outside politics, for example by not stopping preachers affiliated to the movement from making public speeches on religious or social issues.”
Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the key organizing principle of Saudi Arabia’s regional role has been its animus toward Shia political power in Tehran, Beirut, Baghdad and, more recently, Manama and Sana’a — and toward Tehran’s allies in Damascus. Saudi Arabia has been on the back foot for most of the past decade — since the U.S. invasion of Iraq gave a massive boost to Tehran’s regional influence by eliminating its most dangerous enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. And Iraqi democracy has empowered that country’s Shia majority, which has voted in Iran-allied governments since the first free elections in 2005.
But the 2011 Arab rebellion forced open a “second front” of anxiety for the Sunni monarchies — the new democratic spaces opening up across the world not only threatened the monarchic principle, but they empowered the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology of political Islam also challenged the religious legitimacy claimed by the monarchs.
Alarmed and outraged by the willingness of Barack Obama’s administration not only to accept the ouster of stalwart autocrat allies like Hosni Mubarak, but also its newfound willingness to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood on the basis of its popularity among Arab electorates, Riyadh organized its own response.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE were major supporters of the military coup that ousted the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo, and more recently have reportedly backed Egypt’s support for Libyan strongman Gen. Khalifa Heftar — now defense minister of the Tobruk-based government — who has vowed to rid Libya of political Islam.
The region-wide offensive against the Brotherhood also put Riyadh and its allies at odds with Turkey and Qatar. Now, a move to repair that relationship and ease pressure on the Brotherhood, in the interests of closing ranks against Iran, potentially changes the regional dynamic. (Less so, perhaps, in Egypt than in Syria and Yemen, where Brotherhood-aligned parties could be given a greater role in battles against Iran’s allies.)
And then, of course, there’s the Palestinian case, where curbing limited Iranian influence would require reiterating Hamas’ Brotherhood roots, and reconciling the movement with President Mahmoud Abbas.
But just as “Game of Thrones” reminds us that power is wielded across an always fluid and shifting terrain by a number of competing centers in changing constellations, no shift in regional alignments can be counted as permanent.