Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey 2019.

The anguish and rage of Sunni majority capitals on Iran’s role

Raed Barqawi

Kim Ghattas

In 2015, an Iranian MP close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei boasted that Iran had control over three Arab capitals - Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut - with Sanaa soon to follow. His statement wasn’t inaccurate. Iran had and still has a lot of clout in these capitals, more in some than others, via allies, proxies and militias. But Iran’s ability to hold sway is not unbridled: in Lebanon it must navigate the complexities of a political system with no clear majority, in Iraq it has to contend with continued American military presence, while in Syria it is essentially in competition with Russia.

But the statement amplified the anguish and rage in Arab capitals in countries with a Sunni majority about Iran’s role in the region. The decade that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which indirectly unleashed Iranian power, was an era of lamentations in the Sunni world amid warnings of a Shia crescent.

The Jordanian king was the first to speak of this crescent in 2004 stretching from Iran to Lebanon via Iraq as a potentially destabilising development for Gulf countries and the whole region. While the dispute is not one driven by sectarian differences, religion has been used by both sides to whip up sentiments and define the camps in opposition to each other.

During the Obama presidency, the insecurity of Arab states was further exacerbated by his negotiations with Iran on the nuclear programme and unwillingness to act forcefully to curb Iran’s expansionism. The response in the ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey to the question of who is a rising power in the region in 2020, five years after that statement by that Iranian legislator, is therefore fascinating: Iran was only seen as a rising (non-Arab) power by 14 per cent of respondents across the region, meanwhile Saudi Arabia received the vote of 39 per cent of respondents and the UAE got 34 per cent.

There is however a key player here: the US. In the survey, Iran and the United States were grouped in the category of non-Arab countries with the US gathering the most votes (46 per cent) as the country that gained most power in the last five years. In other words, the answer about Iran is determined by people’s perceptions of America’s role in the region today, under President Trump who has rolled out a policy of maximum pressure on Iran with further sanctions and tough talk.

In addition, the survey was conducted soon after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in an American strike on his convoy in Iraq, as he was leaving Baghdad airport. His death was met with quiet jubilation in places such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as open celebrations in parts of Lebanon and Iraq, where Iran’s role has begun to grate and where it has faced protests since last autumn, but also in Syria where Iran’s support for President Assad has come at high cost for the civilian population. Even so, opinions about the US are very divided with 43 per cent viewing it as an enemy. Perceptions of power are not necessarily proportional to how much a country is seen as a friend or an enemy, since Iran, though seen as powerful by only 14 per cent, is described as an enemy by 64 per cent of those surveyed.

It would have been fascinating to ask the question without separating Arab and non-Arab countries or at least to group Iran with regional countries, to see precisely how Iran’s regional power is seen, not in opposition to the US but in comparison to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Because a turning point did indeed come five years ago, when Saudi Arabia decided to flex its military muscle in an unprecedented way and retake the initiative by launching Operation Decisive Storm against Houthi rebels in Yemen in March 2015. The rise of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has also added to the impression that the Kingdom is gaining power: MBS has broken with the tradition of compromise that has long dominated Saudi foreign policy and has been much more forceful with his actions.

The UAE has also taken on an increasingly more forceful role in parts of the region, including militarily from Yemen to Libya. Combined with Trump’s bombast against Iran, the apparent campaign of covert operations of sabotage inside Iran targeting nuclear facilities, ports and other infrastructure, and now, the normalisation of ties between the UAE and Israel, there is no doubt that the sense of powerlessness vis-à-vis Iran that has pervaded some Arab capitals since 2003 has eased.

Perceptions of power matter greatly in geopolitics though the reality of life on the ground remains dismal for millions of people, no matter which regional power they cheer for, from the humanitarian disasters in Syria and Yemen to the economic collapse of Lebanon, from the repression in Egypt to the rapid devaluation of the Iranian currency. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to people’s despair and the shrinking of regional economies, but has not altered the growing sense of confidence that Saudi Arabia and the UAE feel with regards to Iran. However, that confidence may ebb dramatically if a Biden administration returns to a policy of US engagement with Iran, unless it is a part of a wider dialogue that properly addresses the concerns of America’s regional allies.

Kim Ghattas is a journalist, author and analyst with more than 20 years of experience in print and broadcast media, covering the Middle East, international affairs and US foreign policy. She has reported for the BBC, the Financial Times and de Volkskrant. Ghattas was part of an Emmy award winning BBC team covering the 2006 war in Lebanon. She is currently a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Forty Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion and Collective Memory in the Middle East (January 2020, Henry Holt) and of the New York Times best seller The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (February 2013, Henry Holt). Ghattas is a regular contributor to The Atlantic and commentator on MSNBC, NPR, CNN and others. A dual Lebanese-Dutch citizen, she was born and raised in Beirut. She serves on the board of trustees of the American University of Beirut and on the board of directors of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).