Alleged Iran plot is ratcheting already tense ties with Saudi Arabia
An alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Egypt has been getting much media attention, despite being hard to verify. Another Saudi-related story, however, is getting much less attention.
It is difficult to verify any of the details of the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Egypt, Ahmed Qattan, reported on Tuesday by two Saudi-owned newspapers. There have been no official statements on this by the Saudi government and now Egyptian sources are denying the report as "totally divorced from reality." But whatever the reliability of the report, it is hard to believe that two rather credible and pro-Saudi papers as Al Hayat A-Sharq would be publishing this story if powerful elements in the Kingdom had no interested in further ramping up tensions with Tehran.
Meanwhile, another Saudi-related story is getting much less attention – the ongoing protests in the Shia town of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, apparently being dealt with a heavy-hand by the Saudi police. It is hard to say for certain how serious if at all these protests are, since almost all the recent reports have come out in the Iranian media and it isn't even clear what they are protesting about. The most recent report by a reliable western news organization I could find was by the BBC nearly three months ago on the death of a protestor in Qatif, but this report a month ago, by Human Rights Watch, gives some context.
Anyone protesting for human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia certainly has a legitimate cause, but the fact that these are Shias, on the coast of the Persian Gulf, with at least unofficial backing of the Iranian regime (at least its media outlets) does lead to some tentative conclusions, at least in the mind of Saudi leaders. I wrote here yesterday and on Monday that the growing tension between Iran and the Sunni Gulf states could very well soon become another flashpoint, in addition to the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions, the ambassador assassination plot, whether or not it happened, and the protests of Shia minorities (majority in the case of Bahrain) around the Gulf, are making this seem inevitable.
For the Saudis, internal trouble is just another headache as they try to rebuild their alliance with post-Mubarak Egypt. Both countries are increasingly wary of each other as the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian parliament has condemned the arrest of Egyptian lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawi two weeks in Jeddah – violent demonstrations over the arrest outside the Saudi embassy in Cairo caused its closure and the recall of the ambassador. On the other hand, today's demonstration outside the Defense Ministry in Cairo in which at least eleven have been killed by "army sponsored thugs" were originally called by Salafist activists, protesting against the disqualification of their presidential candidate. The Salafist al-Nour party is reported to have received significant funding from Saudi sources.
The Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) currently ruling in Cairo, is doing all it can to reassure the rulers of the oil-rich kingdom which only last month agreed to give $2.7 billion in emergency aid to Egypt, but the Saudis are getting increasingly worried of their Muslim Brotherhood rivals increasing control.
Iran is no friend right now of the Brotherhood either, as the main forces threatening their ally Bashar Assad are the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but anything that applies more pressure on the Saudis is good for them.