The Saudi Arabian Government is contemplating the purchase of American littoral combat destroyers that could be fitted with ballistic missile defence capabilities. It comes on the heels of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, which, along with the growing regional influence of Iran, has made strategic security in the Middle East a priority for Saudi Arabia and its major Western ally, the United States. American-built Saudi destroyers would help to contain Iran and address US interests in the region, but the acquisition, should it go ahead, may lead to increased military involvement by other states with regional interests.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have often been bitter rivals in the Middle East, a factor that has led to the Iranian Government’s support of Shia movements in Iraq and Lebanon, such as Hezbollah. Iran has also increased its influence through its support for groups in the Palestinian territories. The recent uprising in neighbouring Bahrain, led by facets of that country’s Shia population, also makes Riyadh wary of potentially increased Iranian involvement there.
The Saudi Government sees the need to contain such influence, which it sees as a threat to its sovereignty, for two key reasons. First, there is the sectarian difference between the two countries. The prevailing form of Islam in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism/Salafism, while Shia Islam is dominant in Iran. Second, and perhaps most important, Iran’s initiatives for strategic influence in the region have been partially for the purpose of constraining Saudi Arabia. Lebanon and the Palestinian territories are adjacent to Saudi Arabia’s west, while Iraq, whose Shia population is highly influenced by Iran, lies to its north. Bahrain, which faces the potential of increased Iranian influence, is on Saudi Arabia’s east.
Any Saudi acquisition of US-built ships would help to increase Washington’s influence in the region. The US is Saudi Arabia’s top Western ally, meaning that American-built Saudi naval vessels would help to address US regional strategic and energy security interests. The idea follows the instability in Yemen, where the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has traditionally had friendly relations with the US, and the continuing instability in Iraq. These factors help to make the sale of destroyers to Saudi Arabia an attractive proposition for the US.
Although the possible transaction would benefit both Saudi Arabia and the US, the presence of US-built Saudi destroyers in the region’s waters may lead to increased regional military involvement by other nations. France, which established a base in Abu Dhabi in 2009 to help address its interests in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, may seek to increase troop and artillery numbers there should it perceive its interests as being undermined. China may also increase its military presence in the region, possibly via Pakistan. Pakistan acquired four Chinese-built F-22P frigates between 2009 and 2011. Beijing may look to build on that and offer to sell more ships to Pakistan, if it feels that its own strategic and energy security interests are at stake due to the presence of more US-built Saudi destroyers.
Bruno de Paiva
FDI Indian Ocean Research Programme