This was not simply a geopolitical setback for Riyadh. The Saudi leadership believes that increased Iranian power will lead to political mobilization by Shia inside the Sunni-ruled Gulf states. The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf remain certain that Iran meddles directly in their domestic affairs, but they are also convinced that Iran’s heightened regional role will inevitably inspire Shia discontent, which makes Iran’s ascendance an indirect threat to the stability of the Gulf monarchies.
It was through this lens that the Saudis viewed the sustained and peaceful demonstrations in 2011 against the Sunni monarchy in Shia-majority Bahrain, even though there was no objective evidence of an Iranian role in the protests. The Arab Spring also brought down Riyadh’s most important Arab ally, Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. But there was one bright spot for the Saudis amid the regional upheaval. The uprising against Assad in Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, represented the best chance in a decade for Riyadh to roll back Iranian power.
For the Saudis, therefore, Obama’s refusal to take action against Assad was seen as another example of Washington’s inability to appreciate both the dangers and the opportunities of the Arab Spring.