Could Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lead Saudi Arabia into becoming the gendarme of the Persian Gulf?
By Luciano Arvin
As mounting evidence points to Iran’s role in the attack against two Saudi Arabian oil facilities, the world waits on tenterhooks for retaliation from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de-facto leader, His Majesty Mohammed bin Salman. While the attack ratchets up hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it could also signal the beginning of an even more significant change: a shift in the security framework of the Persian Gulf region.
Under the Carter Doctrine, a set of foreign policy initiatives set forth by American President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 State of the Union address, the United States became the unofficial gendarme of the Persian Gulf region. Carter’s declaration was put forward at a critical juncture in the development of the modern Middle East. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, bringing about the fall of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, signalled the end of an era. For the United States, this was the end for the Nixon Doctrine, a security framework designed to support Iran as a regional surrogate to guard Western interests in the Middle East.
In addition, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan posed a dire threat to the energy security of the United States, whose reliance on imported oil from the Persian Gulf reached its highest point in the late 1970s. To meet this threat, Carter announced that “any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary including military force.”
A study by Roger Stern estimates that from the inception of the Carter doctrine to 2010 the United States has spent approximately $7 trillion on insuring the stability of the Persian Gulf region. With American oil production and exports at record levels, and the overwhelming majority of oil from the Persian Gulf going to Asian markets, many question whether this doctrine has outlived its utility.
One such person is President Donald Trump, who in 1987 purchased a full page in three American newspapers for an open letter criticizing America’s foreign policy and asking why the United States should subsidize the security of oil-exporting nations like Saudi Arabia and oil-importing nations like Japan. At the time, the Persian Gulf was a war zone, embroiled in the “Tanker War,” a conflict resulting from the spread of the Iran-Iraq war from the land to the waters of the Gulf. The[TH1] United States military protected every non-Iranian tanker in the Gulf and had entered into open conflict with Iran, in 1988 culminating in the largest post-Second World War sea-air battle in the Gulf .
A tweet from President Trump on Monday September 15th declared that the United States is “locked and loaded [on Iran] depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed.”
This is suggesting some degree of deference to Saudi Arabia on how the United States should respond to the attacks.
Over the past fifty years, the Saudi military machine has burgeoned with imports of highly advanced military hardware and foreign technical advisors. Technologically, Saudi Arabia is more than capable of retaliating against Iran, or against one of the proxy militia groups in Iraq or Yemen, who have not yet been discounted as suspects in the attacks.
An attack by Saudi Arabia would signal not only an intent to respond directly to purported Iranian aggressions in the Gulf, but also its intention to set a new course for security in the Persian Gulf. Given Trump’s previous dissatisfaction with the Carter Doctrine and his perceived deference to Saudi Arabia in the response to these recent attacks, the Kingdom may soon be in a position to represent American interests in the region. Under a rekindled Nixon Doctrine, it is not inconceivable that Saudi Arabia would be afforded carte blanche for sophisticated armaments and technological expertise. Furthermore, the United States would likely turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and might even tolerate a Saudi nuclear program designed at rebuffing Iran.
On another level, an attack against Iran led by Saudi Arabia, rather than the United States, could change Mohammed bin Salman’s image, both at home and abroad. Support at home could be invigorated through retaliation against Iran, and by placing distance between the Kingdom and the United States — the latter perceived in some Saudi circles to be a colonial force influencing Saudi foreign policy.
Abroad, it would signal to other nations, particularly Asian oil importing countries, that Saudi Arabia, rather than the United States, is charged with the safety of their energy. This could radically alter the manner in which countries like China and Japan interact with Saudi Arabia, linking their two destinies together.
There are clear detriments to a Saudi-led attack against Iran. Tehran’s asymmetrical defence doctrine has fostered the growth of large and powerful militia groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. An attack could result in an increased offensive by these groups against Saudi Arabia, thus permitting Iran to have plausible deniability in the eyes of the international community. Alternately, a Saudi attack against Iran could galvanize support for the latter by nations such as Qatar, which is currently embroiled in a diplomatic row with the Kingdom over its ties to Iran. Another factor worth considering is whether a retaliatory attack by Iran could delay the upcoming initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company whose privatisation will fund the ambitious economic plans of Mohammed bin Salman.
Ultimately, the attacks have come at a critical juncture, with a president who is eager to decouple the United States from the security of the Persian Gulf and a Saudi leader who is eager to prove himself at home and abroad. With the eyes of the world upon him, Mohammed bin Salman is now faced with making a decision that could change the course of history in the perpetually incendiary Persian Gulf.
Luciano Arvin is an independent scholar based out of Peterborough, Ontario. His work has been published in the Huffington Post, the Diplomat and the Asia Times Online.