For years, the rulers of Saudi Arabia did not have to worry about life too much: As an oil-rich, ultra-conservative country, its leaders had the convenience to be able to suppress its people and still be an American ally.
But days of peacefulness in the “Wahabbi oildom” are over, as the country’s influence slowly fades: Along the border with Yemen, fights have erupted over the last couple of weeks. The Houthi a rebel force has recently made a lot of trouble, reportedly even occupying a Saudi border town. 250,000 people in Yemen have fled the violence, as Yemen’s leadership seems to lose its grip on the different factions in the country.
Behind this lies a deeper conflict: Saudi Arabia fears the influence of Shiite Iran, as the Houthi are Shiites themselves, feeling suppressed by the Yemeni government. The rebels claim not to be allied with any foreign force, but Saudi Arabia’s fear is Iran is secretly backing them. It may be the other way around, as some suggest: The Houthi trying to drag Iran into the fight to get Tehran’s support.
As strange as it sounds, Saudi Arabia acts as a force of peace in the region: It fears Al-Qaida infiltration through Yemen, at the same time, the royal family knows know that a destabilized region with strong non-state forces like Hamas and Hezbollah, who are both being backed by Iran, will in the long time lead to more strife and a possible violent conflict between Sunni and Shiite muslims that could set the region on fire.
As observers point out, Saudi Arabia therefore tries to caress Syria, which is mostly Sunni. Damascus could act as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran to negotiate about its nuclear programme, but also about the Palestinian question.
But this could come at a price which is much higher than the money that will be spent to aid Syria: It may mean Saudi Arabia has to leave Lebanon to fall under the influence of Damascus again.