Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Is Iran a better US ally than Saudi Arabia?

President Obama can try cozying up to Iran all he likes, but to pretend it’s a better ally than Saudi Arabia will make the steady Kingdom think twice.

An Iranian woman looks at a mural drawing of spearmen bearing the faces of (From L to R): Saddam Hussein, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a masked man, US President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and German Chancellor Merkel in Tehran  (AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

Saudi Arabia is a spent force and an unreliable US ally. As such, Washington should replace Riyadh with Tehran, or so goes the thinking inside the Obama administration.


Brian Katulis, a think tanker with close ties to the Obama team, penned a piece in The Atlantic under the title “The twilight of Saudi power,” in which he put out what seems to have become common wisdom inside the White House and among its friends.


Former National Security Advisor Zbig Brzezinski echoed Washington’s bias toward Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia at a congressional hearing. He said that he and another national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, who visited Riyadh with President Obama, share the idea that Iran “is beginning to evolve into a very civilized and historically important country.” Brezezinski then launched a scathing attack against other governments in the region.


Brzezinski’s comments mirrored Obama’s interview with Bloomberg Views in March, in which the president said that if you “look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits.”


Saudi Arabia is one of the least-understood governments. Compounding the problem are writers who are divided into two camps: apologists, who depict Saudi rulers as superheroes; and enemies, who depict Riyadh as the pit of evil, ruled by ailing monarchs and rife with royal divisions.


Neither of these camps is correct. Since 1932, the Kingdom has seen six of the smoothest power successions at its helm. While some might underestimate such harmony, it should be noted that in most Arab ruling families, it is rare to see a succession between two brothers without a schism that often turns into competition, and even war, like the military standoff between late Syrian President Hafez Assad and his brother Rifaat in the 1980s.


Saudi Arabia’s founder has left behind some three-dozen sons and hundreds of grandsons; rarely are any of them voices of dissent. Instead, the House of Saud has managed to organize its competing ambitions into a harmonious process that many of us do not comprehend and that is probably based on a combination of seniority and consensus.


Blaming the Kingdom for relying heavily on its oil wealth has also been one of the unfair attacks. Money is power, and handling such enormous amounts of wealth — despite how it may seem — is not easy. Just look at other sovereigns whose petro powers have made them delusional. From Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, power corrupts and creates a sense of invincibility. Both Hussein and Putin thought that they could bully the world with their oil-founded power until reality caught up with them and they found themselves isolated and their wealth shrinking.


Iran, too, despite calls by Ali Khamenei for the diversification of the economy, has been blinded by its oil-generated power. Under the current sanctions, however, Iran has come crashing down and would have fallen apart completely had it not been for the friend it has found in Obama and the lifeline he has thrown Tehran in the form of sanction relief.


As in every world capital, there are petty politics and power jockeying in Riyadh. But unlike capitals in which rulers use populist anti-Western slogans to beat domestic rivals or shore up popularity, the Saudi government has refrained from such shenanigans. And unlike Tehran, where a shadow government of hawks calls the shots behind a puppet president, the Saudis have one authority that keeps its word and delivers on its promises.


The Saudi government has been stable for over eight decades. It has shown prudence in handling its oil wealth. Its leaders have lived through various upheavals and regional wars in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that Saudi stability is at stake or that the Kingdom faces threats in the medium or long term.


Like the rest of the region, Saudi Arabia faces a wave of fanaticism that sways many of its young men, but on a per capita basis, Saudi youth joining the Islamic State (ISIS) hardly top the chart. Riyadh outlaws Islamist groups and is an avowed enemy of ISIS and Al-Qaeda — unlike Tehran, whose rulers openly fund and support groups on America’s list of terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, and other groups that openly call for “death to America,” such as the Houthis of Yemen.


Since its inception, Saudi Arabia has been steady. While successive kings have demonstrated varying styles of rule, continuity has been the nation’s defining policy, and there is no reason to predict major developments or shakeups after the most recent succession.


President Obama can try cozying up to Iran all he wants. But to play favorites by pretending that Iran is a more stable, less Islamic, and all-around better ally than Saudi Arabia is not only unfounded, it will make Washington’s allies — now and in the future — rethink their ties with an America that often grows bored of its friends, seeking instead the company of its seemingly more intriguing enemies.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain

Tehran openly funds and support groups on America’s list of terrorist organizations. (AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

Money is power, and handling such enormous amounts of wealth — despite how it may seem — is not easy.”

  • Kia

    One big difference between these two countries is that one have a semi-liberal society and a self serving regime which see Islam simply as a tool to expand its power in region and one have a fanatic society with a regime that tries to keep the balance between western powers and inner popularity, between Mecca and Oil wealth. Why is this difference exist? why Iranian society has a different view to Islam than sunni people? The answer of this question is very complex, but if I just want to put it in one sentence it is as follows: Arabian identity was born in Islam, but Iranian did not.

    May 25, 2015

  • arash.haghiri

    The article doesnt take into account that , that Saudis owe their survival to being a CASH COW to the west, apart from that they serve no other purpose, United States and other Western Countries have been selling the Saudis top dollar state of art weaponry many of which are still in crates, unopened...the saudies are used for symbolic reasons and never militarily since they are accustomed to swords rather than 21st century weapons. They are however active in financing the terror groups across the world, since they need others to do the battle on their behalf, the country is still stock in stone ages with no aspirations, a recent survey asking Saudies what they would do if the oil run out, the result came in as " WE would go back to our Bedouin way of life!. The reason Obama Has tilted towards Iran is simply Iranian aspiration for regional hegemony, they have boots on the ground in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and maybe Yemen right under the nose of the Saudis who can only cry Wolf to the US administration. Mr Obama has made the right decision in backing the winner in practicality than the losers in their tents!.

    February 7, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    (cont'd)... and embraced by Saudi society from all the way up within the ruling tribe circle.

    February 3, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Here are three reasons I disagree with Abdul Hussain: 1- Saudi Arabia represents the vast expanse of Sunnis around the world. As such their secondary stakeholders (Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt and all the Arab countries, etc.) are by far more complex and difficult to manage from an American perspective. Iran is essentially a lone Shia entity, lording it over pockets of minority Shia here and there that are nowhere as difficult to manage. In other words, it is a lot easier and simpler for Washington to deal with Iran than it is to deal with Saudi Arabia. All colonial empires had a predilection for managing their colonies through smaller indigenous minorities. As a post-modern colonial power, the United States is no different. 2- Yes, the oil factor matters. Oil is in decline worldwide, and within the foreseeable future oil is likely to give way to a pleiotropy of alternative energy sources. For once, the conspiracy theories aficionados have to change their tune: America's thirst for oil has been quenched. 3- Saudi Arabia stable? Whichever way the future of the Wahhabi kingdom turns, it does not look good: Internecine, inter-tribal, religious barbarism remains unchecked, social change pressure, and even climate change could transform the absurd Saudi entity into something as yet undefined. On the other hand, Iran has been Iran for as long as one can remember, a homogenous yet diverse country, and even it today its theocracy sends shivers down the spine of liberals, it will not last. Which means that yes, Iran, on the long term, is a more appealing ally than the dinosaur Saudis to the Americans. Of course, we all despise Hezbollah and the Huthis and all the Shia neanderthals that have sprung from under the Iranian nuclear mushroom over the past two decades... But they pale in comparison to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and other assorted Sunni barbarians and their respective curriculum vitae of terrorism that were nurtured, schooled, funded and embraced by Saudi soc

    February 3, 2015

  • allang

    Why do so many journalists get the Iranian negotiations wrong. The exaggeration, that Washington & Tehran will end up as allies. And the paranoia that the US will discard it's own strategic interests. Just to allow Tehran more influence in the region. Is so childish & so full of Arabian conspiracy theories. It actually doesn't deserve the right time of day. Here's a little pretext. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is bi-polar. One Saudi Sheikh says they have a fight with Radical Islam. His younger half-brother, secretly ships millions in cash to an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria or Iraq. And this holds true for both Kuwait & Qatar. Tehran is no spring chicken either. She openly smuggles advance missiles to Hezbollah & provides military support to the Butcher in Damascus. It's obvious to anyone without a brain disorder. That the US can't possibly trust any of these schizoid regimes. No matter what geopolitical power and logic is applied...

    February 3, 2015

  • Elvis

    Where does he go off saying that Iran is not less Islamist than Saudi Arabia? Iran has over a million citizens whom do not practice Islam and practice other religions including over 250K Christians. How many Saudi citizens practice Christianity or other non-Islamic religions. Iran also has over 500 Christian churches, how many Christian churches exist in Saudi Arabia? In fact by law only mosques are permitted in Saudi Arabia. Women are permitted to drive in Iran, to vote, play sports, walk without escorts, and even permitted to dress far more liberally than in Saudi Arabia. Politically, Iran actually has a parliament that participates in lawmaking though subordinate to the Ayatollah. Compare that to Saudi Arabia where all political power is in the hands of the monarchy, and elections are only at the municipal level. As for support for terrorists. Where do you think that the ideologies of the Wahhabi and Salafist came from, why Saudi Arabia. In fact for decades the Wahhabi clerics have been spouting their hate against the West and Jews, without any interference from the regime. On top of that Saudi money from cleric run "charities", from the Saudi intelligence agency, and from Saudi royals has been financing the spread of Wahhabi fundamentalism to countries like Pakistan and Indonesia thru madrassas (religious schools), textbooks, foundations, & satellite/cable TV channels. Let's not forget that the Saudis have also financed & armed various Islamist organizations including Al Qaeda and are still doing so in Syria and Iraq. Last but not least over the last 2 decades, in both quantity (the number of attacks) and quality (the casualty count per attack) it has been Wahhabi or Salafist terrorists whom have brought the wave of Islamist terror to the world and it is they whom have been responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States.

    February 2, 2015

  • Beiruti

    The writer seems to have a blind spot when it comes to Saudi Arabia and its beneficent purposes. He forgets the consequences of the 1979 uprising against the royal family that saw the holy sites at Mecca come under siege. He forgets that though the Saudis and some say the French put down the uprising, that in the wake of the attack, the Royal Family decided to give almost complete autonomy to the extremist Wahabis, and their clerics. Giving them whatever funds they requested. These Wahabis took the funds and started and supported madrassas all through out the middle east that taught their brand of fanaticism. This was the al Qaida, or the foundation of the extremism that now infects the region. The write forgets that most of the team that pulled off 9/11 were Saudis. The write forgets that Saudi Arabia or its citizens have funded al Qaida and its offshoot, Daeg. So, please, the Saudis are not saints. They have at least two faces, one that is shown to the fanatical clerics of the Wahabi sect so that the royal family may retain domestic credibility, and the face that it shows to the West, so that it may keep a western security umbrella. The Royal Family is quite rational and strategic. Its agenda is to retain power by keeping control of the oil fields and keeping control of Mecca. Its at least a two-faced schizophrenic policy and lately the two personalities of the Royal Family conflict with each other. Obama has seen the Wahabi face and decided to go in another direction.

    February 2, 2015

  • casey.harmuth.5

    While I disagree in general, and that an Iran that while theocratic is at least partially democratic and that it does not embrace Wahhism (which has shown to be responsible for many terrorist groups with an avowed goal of destroying the west) and is an adversary of Iran as well, there is ONE phrase which rings VERY untrue. "There is no reason to believe that Saudi stability is at stake or that the Kingdom faces threats in the medium or long term". No long term threats? Its own internal stability is always a question mark, not in the halls of power but on the streets. Iran at least has a nominal outlet for dissent. Saudi Arabia has none. Which pot do you think will boil over first?

    February 2, 2015