There is a war going on in the Middle East.
Yea, shocking, I know.
But it’s not the one you’re thinking of. No, not that one either. No not that one.
The big struggle in the Middle East is between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
And Saudi Arabia is winning.
The conflicts in Bahrain and Syria are genuine expressions of popular rebellion and reflect a sincere desire for dignity and freedom, but external powers are trying to twist them into sectarian struggles that fall along Sunni/Shi’a lines as part of a larger power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia
If Assad falls – (more a matter of when, actually) - Iran loses their strongest ally in the Arabian Peninsula. Alternately, if the Bahraini royal family were to lose their monopoly on political authority it would put an unpredictable neighbor in Saudi Arabia’s back yard (which is already untenable by benefit of Iraq’s continuing instability, and is becoming more so thanks to Yemen’s ongoing collapse).
The Saudis have been trying to peel assad away from the Iranians for years using their favorite tool – cash. They’ve been ramping up their investments in Syria for quite some time and they’ve been careful not to denounce Assad during the past few months of protests, despite the degree to which the collapse of his regime would favor Saudi Arabia (Having a weak and threatened Assad-led Syria align with Saudi Arabia would be even better for the Saudis than a Syria with no Assad)
The good news here is that no matter what happens, Hezbollah will probably come out on the bottom. (unless, of course, the potential loss of power spurs them to ambitious military action in Lebanon, in which case we will likely see a resumption of the Lebanese civil war)
Regardless, a major power shift in Syria will cause serious problems for Iran, and right now Iran – or at least the Iranian government - is tearing itself apart. This might sound like good news, but the removal of Ahmadinjad’s power base won't make the government less conservative, it'll just make them conservative in a different way. In the long run this may be good for the reformers (if the process of weeding out Ahmadinejad's loyalists leaves the pro-Kameni religious hard-liners with a less than stable base) but frankly, when this sort of thing starts to go down it impacts everyone that’s not in the winner’s tent – the Mensheviks didn’t get a pass just because Stalin was purging the Trotskites.
That said, Saudi Arabia is a serious and much more real problem for America than Iran. This has been the case for years, but due to a variety of public policy issues, no one in the state department can say this publicly. Not only can they cripple the US economy with little more than the twist of an oil pump, they spend millions of dollars in dozens of countries to propagate their hyper-fundamentalist Wahabist brand of Salfi Islam. (I’ve got a post on Salafism coming up soon) Worst of all, however, is Saudi Arabia's ongoing sponsorship of violent extremist groups throughout the muslim world, something that they are notorious for (and on a scale far greater than anything Iran has ever aspired to)
Saudi Arabia and their UAE lapdogs want the Middle East revolutions to end post-haste, and they’ll do whatever needs to be done to stop the spread of anything even vaguely resembling democracy. As part of this effort they’ve invited Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC ) which currently includes Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.
Why would two countries that don’t border the Persian Gulf be invited to join a gulf focused organization? Because Saudi Arabia is trying to form a bloc of states that will support each other in the face of domestic unrest. (they could change their name from the GCC to "The Nondemocratic Arabic-speaking Monarchies of the Eastern Hemisphere", but it doesn’t have the same ring to it)
At this point the die has not yet been cast.
Meanwhile, the maverick in the GCC is Qatar, who seems far more invested in social change than their fellow members. Qatar is still pumped from the goodwill of the Arab street (thanks to the fact that they host Al Jazeera, an integral component of the arab spring). Additionally, they’re bursting at the seams with cash from high oil prices (and the less money you have to spend bribing and repressing your own citizens, the more you have to spend on other things) has decided that “up with people” is their watchword (though it’s a bit muffled when it comes to Bahrain).
Kuwait also seems to be trying to project a pro-proletarian image, pushing for global health initiatives. Clearer evidence of Kuwait’s reticence to toe the Saudi line can be seen in their recent diplomatic resolution with Iran (though this is causing some problems in the Kuwati establishment) Kuwait, however has its own problem, and some strange power plays are underway right now...
Even Saudi Arabia may be developing a bit of a problem, however.