Upon their defeat by the Arab army in 636, the Sassanid Empire’s legendary royal standard, the Derafsh Kavian, was cut and its jewels distributed across the Middle East. The Persian army had fallen in the decisive battle of al-Qadisiyyah to the hands of the downtrodden but now revived Arabs, who catapulted themselves into a golden era, while the Persians retreated in humiliating defeat. After years of life under Persian rule in Damascus, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, the Arabs were finally on top of the regional power structure.
Today, the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are working to restructure and reformulate the regional power dynamics with the goal of reclaiming their status as the power brokers. The pattern of serial battles spanning out across the Middle East are culminating into a larger one: Al-Qadisiyyah.
In the 1980’s, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein referred to his battle with revolutionary Islamic Iran as the “Second Qadisiyyah,” a homage to the proud Arab fighters who conquered the Sassanid Empire in the name of Islam. By invoking Qadisiyyah, Saddam’s strategy was to frame a modern, nationalistic power struggle in the context of a religious schism. Today, the regional dynamics seem to point in the direction of Saudi Arabia, in conjunction with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, pursuing the same strategy to diffuse Iran’s influence and strengthen their own. Nawaf Obaid, visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, says “this new political coalition building to solve regional problems has so far been a success and it's the first time an Arab-created and led political grouping of like-minded states has been formed and has sustained military operations for such a long time.” With the broader region engulfed in several bloody battles, with each competing player backed by either Iran or Saudi, growing Iranian and Arab confrontation is dangerously escalating into a larger battle—could there be a third battle of al-Qadisiyyah?
Riyadh is making significant strides towards expanding its regional theater of influence. Rather than pursue the relaxed policies that marked King Abdullah’s era, King Salman has made several key policy changes that focus on emboldening the Kingdom and more broadly, the Sunni Arab states. With the recent cabinet shakeup that introduced a new cadre of young Saudi leaders, Saudi is reformulating not only its foreign policy, but also its regional role as the leader of the Muslim world. Obaid expanded on this notion: “Iran and Iranian policies are the ones targeted by this new coalition. The Saudi endpoint is very clear: constrain, contain, negate, and ultimately destroy any Iranian influence in any Arab country.” The decision to launch an airstrike campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen is the primary example of Saudi’s ambitions in the context of the new Middle East. Saudi Arabia, and by extension the GCC, are working to rewrite the rules of the game.
The shifting US-Saudi relationship has certainly played a role in reinvigorating Riyadh’s policies. A combination of the United States’ pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, and Iran’s continuing power projections through Shiite militia groups in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq only emboldens Saudi to further reassert itself in the regional power structure. With Washington slowly pulling back, the Gulf states are working to raise the alarm of the threat they fear from Iran. While the United States would rather focus on the real emerging global threat—China—the Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia are all hands in for the United States to remain significantly engaged in the Middle East.
Are the Saudis and the other GCC states capable of posing a significant challenge to Iran’s regional interests? Dr. Abbas Kadhim, senior foreign policy fellow at Johns Hopkins University SAIS, noted that the asymmetric nature of the GCC would prove a formidable challenge in crystallizing the Sunni Arab states’ goals of countering Iran’s influence and capabilities. “The GCC is not as strong as it is trying to project,” he said. “It is not as strong militarily or politically because of the camps located within the GCC. Each country has its own agenda and takes a different stance—ultimately, it is not as unified as it would like to appear.” Invoking Qadisiyyah could serve their interests well, too. Professor D. Gershon Lewental, an expert on the battle, said in an interview that “to an extent there is a capability of the Gulf states to invoke the battle of al-Qadisiyyah, considering that in Syria, a majority of the fighters backed by the Gulf states didn’t relate their struggle to a third Qadisiyyah, but they talked about a second. This was in line with their perception of their struggle, which is an Islamic struggle.”
While the Islamic State (ISIS) remains on the offensive for the time being, especially given the recent takeover of Ramadi in Iraq, regional power transformations will begin to unfold as the group begins to lose territory. Thus far, the United States has be unsuccessful in aiding the fight against ISIS in Iraq, with President Obama saying that there could be more for the United States to do, but that it is up to the Iraqi government to lead the initiative and increase their efforts. In order to fulfill their goals of diminishing the threat and visibility of ISIS, the Saudis must present themselves as assisting legitimate Sunni entities in Syria and Iraq, giving purportedly less radical insurgent groups the opportunity to rebrand and reassert themselves as the legitimate alternative. Saudi was able to launch an attack against Yemen without much pushback from the West because they supported a Western-backed party. It is widely known that the Saudis have contributed significant degrees of support to Sunni militias across the Middle East, which, as Dr. Kadhim notes, has granted Riyadh the capability of empowering Sunnis at the expense of Shiites, effectively promoting their ideology.
The United States is keenly aware of, and subsequently nervous about, the Gulf’s intentions. “The Gulf States are sending a message to foreign patrons, namely the United States, that they are no longer waiting for approval on any actions that they take to enforce our preferences,” said Dr. Kadhim. “They are telling the United States that we are going to do whatever we need to do and we will not wait for authorization.” The message has been received by the United States, and in a joint statement released between the United States and the GCC after the Camp David Summit, it was made clear that the GCC must consult with Washington prior to decisions to take military action beyond their borders.
As the United States works to readjust their traditional role in the Middle East, Washington will think twice before joining a third al-Qadisiyyah.
Miriam Awadallah is a Middle East Policy analyst based in New York. She tweets at @Miradallah