Der Spiegel reports: No previous US president had been made to suffer such an indignity when visiting America’s supposedly closest ally in the Arab world: When Barack Obama touched down at the airport in Riyadh in mid-April, King Salman opted to remain in his palace. The most powerful man in the world was received by the governor of Riyadh instead. There was no pomp or ceremonial reception and state-controlled television declined to broadcast the arrival. Obama seemed slightly at a loss on the tarmac before trying to cover up the affront with a broad smile.
The message was clear: Saudi Arabia feels as though it has been left in the lurch by America and is not afraid to show that it isn’t happy.
The story of the failed reception is more than just an anecdote from the international diplomatic stage. It serves to illustrate the massive geo-political shift and the growing conflict that has gripped the entire Middle East. It has become the Cold War of our era, pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran, the two rivals that are striving for supremacy in the region. And it is not entirely clear which side the US is on.
The Middle East as we have long known it is changing dramatically. And no matter where one looks, Tehran and Riyadh are standing behind at least one of the parties involved in the conflict. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, host and protector of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, sees itself as the home of Sunni Islam, to which the majority of the world’s Muslims belong. The Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shiite theocracy, claims leadership of the Shiites, which make up roughly 13 percent of Muslims worldwide. For both regimes, religion is an important tool of power.
Today’s bloodiest civil war, the conflict in Syria, is entering its sixth year and has thus far cost the lives of more than 250,000 people — and the cease-fire that has been in place for the last two months doesn’t look as though it will last much longer. In Syria, and also in the conflicts in Iraq and in Yemen, the fighting fronts run primarily along confessional lines: Sunnis against Shiites. A fragile peace holds in Lebanon and Bahrain, but it is one that could be shattered at any time by confessional unrest.
All of these proxy wars and confessional conflicts have unleashed a wave of migration among those who have been displaced: more than 6 million people from Syria and Iraq along with almost 3 million from Yemen. And out of the rubble of the Middle East, hydra-headed monster has risen that seeks to terrorize Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and the rest of the world: Islamic State. In an irony of history, the Sunni terror militia sees both Iran and Saudi Arabia as its enemies.
At its essence, the escalation in the Middle East also has to do with America and its changing role in the world. After decades of enmity with Iran, US President Barack Obama wanted to restart a dialogue with the country and he negotiated a nuclear treaty with Tehran. The hope is that the deal will limit Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon while making it possible for the country to do business with the West in return.
At the same time, though, the US would prefer to withdraw from this complicated, crisis-plagued region of the world. Current developments are also a product of this trend.
Iran, meanwhile, following decades of isolation, would like to revert to its former position of regional importance. The more Middle Eastern countries there are under the control of Shiites, the stronger Iran feels — and the more hard-pressed Saudi Arabia feels, a country whose rulers once rose to power by way of a pact with Sunni fundamentalists, the Wahhabis.
This new Cold War affects the entire world, making it vital to search out its causes and to scrutinize what is pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran to continue on the path of escalation. A team of SPIEGEL reporters went to both countries to investigate and spoke with politicians, religious leaders, activists, intellectuals and normal people on the streets. [Continue reading…]