The message was about as blunt as it gets. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued a statement on Sunday calling for the Syrian regime to “stop the killing machine.”
“Large numbers of martyrs have fallen, their blood has been shed, and many others have been wounded,” he said. “This is not in accord with religion, values, and morals.” To drive the point home, King Abdullah recalled the Saudi ambassador in Damascus on Monday; Kuwait and Bahrain quickly followed suit.
On the surface, this seems like a strong position taken by one of the region’s most influential Arab governments. After all, at least 2,000 Syrians have been killed since the violent crackdown began in March.
But why did it take five months for the Saudis to speak up? “The Saudis have been leading the antidemocratic transformation in the Arab world, trying to push back the Arab Awakening,” says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “So it’s kind of out of character for them to suddenly join the chorus of people who are pressuring the Syrians.”
The reality is that the harsh message wasn’t aimed only at Syria. The elderly Saudi king was also taking a straight jab at another country: Iran, Syria’s most prominent regional ally. "[The Saudis] want to destroy the single and only foreign-policy success of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, which is [establishing] links with Syria and Hizbullah," Khouri says.
When the Arab uprisings kicked off at the beginning of the year, Iran and Saudi Arabia, both regional heavyweights, staked out their positions carefully. Iranian officials cheered the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and breathlessly counted the days until Hosni Mubarak left Egypt. The Saudis, in contrast, gave Ben Ali refuge and did their best to prop up Mubarak until his last day in power.
But it was the uprising in Bahrain that set the two countries on a collision course. The Iranian regime backed the opposition, who are predominantly Shiite. The Saudis backed the Sunni monarchy, even going as far as sending in more than 1,000 troops in March to help with the violent crackdown. Iranian officials went ballistic. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compared the military deployment to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and said it was “inhumane and unacceptable behavior.”
With the current unrest in Syria, the tables have completely turned: Iran supports the regime, led by Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of Shiism, while the Saudis support the opposition, who are mostly Sunni. With the regime in Damascus faltering, the Saudis saw a good opportunity to regain some of their street cred by supporting one of the Arab revolts—and getting payback against Iran at the same time.
The conservative press in Iran is howling with anger. The daily Kayhan ran an article on Tuesday that claimed, “The Saudi Arabian king's statement comes at a time where they are one of the main supporters of the armed terrorist groups inside Syria.” The semiofficial Fars News Agency got its message out in an interview with Syrian parliamentarian Shehade Kamel. “This conspiracy against Syria is the beginning of a conspiracy against Iran,” he said.
For many ordinary Syrians, the statement by King Abdullah, as well as the removal of the ambassadors, was a welcome move. A video posted on YouTube reportedly shows Syrians living in Saudi Arabia celebrating after the king’s statement. “We were very happy when [Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain] withdrew their ambassadors,” says Saleem Kabbani, a 21-year-old activist who fled Syria two weeks ago and is now living in Lebanon. “It was late, but it will put pressure on the regime.”