He has only been on the throne in Saudi Arabia for a few weeks, but King Salman is boldly reaching out to other Sunni Muslim leaders to unite in the fight against Iran and ISIS.
“The Saudis think maybe, if the Sunnis are on good terms, we can confront this. Salman is trying to consolidate the Sunni world and put differences over the Muslim Brotherhood on the back burner,” said an Arab diplomat in the Gulf.
Riyadh’s bigger concern is Shi’ite Iran. Its fears about the rising influence of its main regional enemy have grown recently as Tehran’s Houthi allies seized swathes of Yemen and its commanders have aided Shi’ite militias fighting in Iraq.
Prospects are also growing of a deal between world powers and Iran on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program, which might lift pressure on the Islamic republic. Saudi Arabia has watched nervously as its key ally, the United States, has reached out to pursue an agreement with Tehran.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reassured the Saudis on Thursday that he was seeking no “grand bargain” with Iran, but Riyadh’s worries over Washington’s long-term commitment to the region underpin its desire for more Arab unity.
The second overarching concern for Riyadh is Islamic State. IS has called on Saudis to stage attacks inside the kingdom and some of its sympathizers assaulted a Shi’ite village in November, killing eight.
Riyadh fears the group’s strong media messaging and appeal to strict Muslim ideology could appeal to disaffected young Saudis and challenge the ruling family’s own legitimacy, which partly rests on its religious credentials.
But in seeking broader unity across the Arab world on the issue of political Islam, Saudi Arabia must address a deep regional rift. It runs between Sunni states who accept a Muslim Brotherhood presence, such as Qatar and Turkey, and those such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates who, like Riyadh, describe it as a terrorist organization.
Those differences have come in the way of building a coherent response to regional crises, as attempts to address one problem after another have been diverted into arguments over Islamism.
Salman has sought to renew relations between Saudi Arabia and nations such as Turkey, while assuring allies like Egypt that new alliances would not come at the expense of older ones. The monarch has even expressed a willingness to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood in arenas outside of politics, as long as the organization agrees to speak out against Shiite groups like ISIS and the leadership in Iran.
Salman has already proven to be more conciliatory than his predecessor, King Abdullah, but it remains to be seen whether this new approach will help stem the tide of the most pernicious evil emanating from the Middle East.
Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock / Jiri Flogel