A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, January 4, 2016

Can the Escalating Crisis Be Contained?

Due to rain in the Middle East, many social media users posted New Year's photos of rainbows in Jordan, Gaza, and Lebanon. I thought it might be an excuse to make my first post of the new year an optimistic one. But January 1 was a holiday so I didn't post. And then the region went to hell in a handbasket over the weekend.

The  spiraling escalation of the Saudi-Iranian crisis, beginning with the Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the subsequent attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the breaking of relations has happened so quickly that there is cause for concern that the situation could spin out of control. At a minimum, hope for some sort of peace deal in Syria is likely to be a casualty, and the GCC could escalate the proxy war in Yemen. The lack of a common land border makes direct ground clashes unlikely, but in addition to he proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, naval tensions between the two countries could threaten the security of tanker traffic in the Gulf.

Although predictably, much of the analysis focuses on the sectarian angle, seeing the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Sunni-Shi‘ite terms. That isn't wrong, given Iran's revolutionary enthusiasm as a protector of Shi‘ites everywhere, and Saudi Arabia's claim to be a defender of Sunni orthodoxy, but it implies an inexorable rivalry that is not historically the case. A more productive analysis may be to see this as a function of the dramatic change in Saudi policy over the past year. What was once the most cautious of countries has become assertive in the extreme, some would say even reckless.

The year is not beginning well. Toby Craig Jones analyzes Saudi motives here.

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