Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 08:58 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 08:58 | SYDNEY

As Riyadh fades, the sharks circle


Rodger Shanahan


18 January 2011 12:44

The collapse of the Saudi-Syrian peace deal designed to solve the political impasse in Lebanon says much about the state of Saudi regional diplomacy.

In 1989, Saudi Arabia played host to the Taif Agreement that set the conditions for the end of the civil war. But two decades later, Riyadh has been unable to persuade Sa'ad Hariri to find common ground with Hizbullah. Tellingly, trilateral negotiations are now being held in Damascus without Saudi Arabia but with Turkey and Qatar joining the fray.

Saudi Arabia also saw its efforts to promote Iyad Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc in Iraq (in the interests of Iraq's Sunni minority) come to nought, as the pro-Iranian Sadrist movement helped Nuri al-Maliki regain the premiership. Riyadh's involvement in the recent Tunisian crisis was limited to providing asylum to the ousted Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali — a necessary circuit-breaker, in the opinion of this editorial.

The decline of Saudi (and Egyptian) regional influence is a cause for concern, given the possibility for political opportunism. No country has been able to fill the vacuum yet, but Iran is proving adept at building influence through Shi'a communities in Lebanon and Iraq, while Qatar seeks a role as a trusted (and wealthy) regional negotiator.

Syria, meanwhile, plays its role as the Levantine courtesan. Whatever the outcome of the latest Lebanese political crisis, Syria's hand in that country will be strengthened — it will get either a politically weakened Sa'ad Hariri (after he accepts a negotiated outcome with Hizbullah) or a very pro-Syrian prime minister, if the opposition nominee gets up. And the first US ambassador for five years has just arrived in Damascus.

Regional diplomatic heavy lifting has traditionally been done by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. With weak multilateral bodies and now two fading heavyweights, the region's ability to resist Iranian inroads or to settle internal disputes peacefully is declining at an alarming rate. For all their chutzpah, states such as Qatar lack the history, sense of place and gravitas to fill the gap.

Photo by Flickr user Jeff Kubina.