This article was published in collaboration with POLITICO Magazine.
The level of turmoil in the Middle East is greater than at any other time in my nearly fifty years of watching this region. Amid this perfect storm comes the most dramatic shift in Saudi policy since at least World War II—marking a critical turning point in Saudi Arabia’s relations with its historical protector, the United States, and with its neighbors in the Middle East. The Saudi regime’s insistence on seeing threats to the Kingdom in fundamentally sectarian terms—Sunni vs. Shia—will put it increasingly at odds with its American patrons and could lead the Middle East into a conflict comparable to Europe’s Thirty Years War, a continent-wide civil war over religion that decimated an entire culture.
Driving the Saudi strategy is fear of Iranian regional hegemony. This wariness of Iran is nothing new, but, since the early days of the Clinton administration, Saudi Arabia has been able to rely on Washington to contain Iran. The United States surrounded Iran with its bases and troops, and imposed ever-increasing economic punishment on the Iranian revolutionary state. This policy began after the George H.W. Bush administration completed its brilliant military victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces, and as the Soviet Union was collapsing, leaving the United States as the sole military power in the Persian Gulf.