Unlike Israel and the US, the kingdom would be on the front line of any retaliatory offensive launched by Tehran.
Tensions are once again ratcheting up in the Gulf as reports suggest US President Donald Trump is looking for ways to heat up its cold war with Iran before President-elect Joe Biden takes power in January.
The first blow in this strategy could have been the targeted murder of chief Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was killed on Friday.
While Israel and the Trump administration are prime suspects, there is speculation as to the role the Saudis may have played.
The killing follows a secret meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week in the northwestern development project, known as NEOM.
While the specifics of what was discussed are under lock and key, it is hard to imagine there was no mention of the planned killing of Fakhrizadeh, whose death risks region wide conflagration, as Iran resists calls by its hardliners to retaliate in kind.
Any hot conflict between Iran and Israel or the US (under the Trump administration), is also likely to put the Saudis in Tehran’s crosshairs and for the time being at least, it’s a situation Riyadh wants to avoid.
According to an unconfirmed report by the London-based outlet, Middle East Eye, the prospect of war with Iran was on the agenda at the meeting between MBS and Netanyahu with the Saudi prince voicing reluctance to involve his country in the conflict.
According to the outlet, which cited unnamed Saudi sources, the prince’s objections reportedly centre around two beliefs. The first is the understanding that such a conflict is not likely to draw the support of the Biden administration and the second is that the Saudis are aware of the damage the Iranians can do.
While the report is unconfirmed, it is consistent with past Saudi statements that it is not seeking war with Iran.
Saudi Arabia believes it got some taste of Iran’s capacity to respond in September 2019 when cruise missiles and drones attacked oil facilities in the east of the country, which temporarily knocked out half of the country’s oil producing capacity.
The attack was initially claimed by the Houthis, but intelligence assessment by the US claimed that Iran was behind the attack- a charge Tehran denies.
Houthi fighters, who are allied with Iran, have themselves launched missile attacks that targeted oil pipelines as far north as Riyadh and an Aramco facility near the Red Sea port of Jeddah.
According to the Middle East Eye report, MBS has taken such incidents as a warning of the economic devastation Iran could bring to its economy.
Furthermore, amid sluggish demand for oil during the coronavirus pandemic, the effects of funding a potential conflict with their neighbour across the Gulf could further deplete Riyadh’s coffers.
A far bigger concern for the Saudis, however, may be its relationship with the Biden administration.
The current escalation with Tehran appears to be an attempt by the Trump administration to worsen ties with Iran to a level the Biden administration will not be able to extricate from.
When Biden takes control of the White House in January, it is unlikely that he will feel much sense of endearment towards states that have egged on Trump’s post election foreign policy adventures.
For Riyadh, there is currently a lot of work to do to get back into the incoming president’s good books. Atrocities linked back to the Saudis in Yemen, as well as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi have helped cement Biden’s perception of the kingdom as a ‘pariah’ state.
Helping to instigate a war with Iran as soon as he takes power will not help change that perception.