Analysis: How Saudi Arabia and Iran became rivals

I landed at Baghdad International Airport on January 9, a week after Iranian General Qassem Soleimani had been assassinated in a United States drone strike on the road leading to it.

Already a shrine of sorts had been set up at the site. The dried blood deliberately left behind was turning a dull brown on the ground. Pictures of Soleimani and others killed in the attack adorned the wall and writ large in English, no doubt intended to encourage Western news outlets to take pictures, a sign proclaimed: “The site of the American crime against the victory leaders.”

Soleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran.

He was the public face and the sharp end of the Iranian spear. As the leader of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it was his command that directed Iran’s overseas operations. Operations that took in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in the region alone.

Washington quickly declared they considered him to be the head of a terrorist organisation “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans”, while in Iran, he was hailed as a national hero and patriotic son of Iranian soil.

Forty years of history

Stood there at this makeshift memorial it was obvious that what had taken place on that spot was part of a wider game that had at its heart a rivalry being played out between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

To understand why the two are rivals is to understand the last 40 years of history.

In 1979, the shah of Iran was toppled by his own people and the leader fled. In his place arrived  Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and with him a new sense of purpose: To establish Iran as a regional power through Shia Islam. 

That sent shockwaves through the Sunni Muslim world and, in particular, Saudi Arabia, which had traditionally seen itself as the leader of the Muslim world. At the core of that belief is the fact that the kingdom is the guardian of the two holiest places in Islam – Mecca and Medina. 

But its importance to the region predates Islam. Before the birth of Islam, Mecca was a trading post and home to religious sites that were said to bestow good fortune on those who visited them. It was, as a result, a prosperous city. 

After the birth of Islam and subsequent split among the followers of the Prophet Mohammed into Shia and Sunni, the city of Mecca continued to thrive. In modern times, Saudi Arabia’s influence has been compounded by the massive wealth generated by its oil fields.

Andrew Leber is a researcher at Harvard University with a focus on Saudi policymaking. He emphasises the importance to Saudi Arabia of the fact that millions of Muslim pilgrims visit the kingdom each year.

“In terms of foreign policy, they can and do highlight that they are the guardians of the two holy places,” he explained, adding: “They will always invest quite a bit in ensuring that pilgrimages come off relatively well.”

Its guardianship of the two holy places is at the heart of the kingdom’s self-image and strategy. Broadly and without going into 1,400 years worth of history, which includes wars, occupations, kingdoms, science, art and culture, the philosophy is aimed at fellow majority Sunni countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Gulf Arab states.

A seat at the table

So, contemporary Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world … and then along comes Iran with a very different idea of what the Muslim world should be.

Iran firmly believes that political currents in the Muslim world need to be viewed as forces of change in a region long exploited by the US and other Western powers. 

Naturally, as a Shia Muslim nation it backs other Shia Muslim groups, but also vocally throws its weight behind the Palestinian cause. 

But crippled by decades of sanctions and Western interference in its affairs and without the oil money Saudi Arabia benefits from, Iran’s foreign policy has been to develop proxies by equipping armed groups elsewhere and backing sympathetic regimes like that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Its concern is now its own survival as much as anything else. 

Holly Dagres is a fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think-tank and suggests Iran’s foreign policy is based in part on two important elements.

“It views every action the West takes against Tehran, particularly the United States, as having an underlying long-term goal of bringing about regime change,” she explained. “With a dated military, Tehran hopes that in the event of strike on the country, its proxies can retaliate against its enemies, US allies in the region such as Israel.”

Dagres also believes that Iran’s self-image is at play here. “More importantly, Iran wants to be respected as a regional power. It wants to have a seat at the table and make decisions like its neighbour Saudi Arabia. Having proxies helps Tehran project influence.” 

However, at home, like Saudi Arabia, it stifles dissent and alternative political thought.

Saudi and Iran in Iraq

There is a popular saying in some foreign policy circles: “The US invaded Iraq and gifted it to the Iranians.”

There is some truth to those words. After Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, the Iranians wasted no time in making things difficult for the US-led occupation and in cementing its own political influence.

In 2014, when the ISIL (ISIS) group took control of large parts of Iraq, it was Iran-backed armed groups that helped to defeat it, while the US backed the Iraqi armed forces in achieving the same goal. In effect, Iran and the US fought on the same side, despite the bitter relationship between them.

Saudi Arabia has only recently begun a diplomatic relationship with Iraq,  reopening a consulate there in 2019 for the first time in 30 years and signing several trade agreements. Still, the kingdom seems to be happy to let the US take the lead and represent its interests, while being a tempering influence on Iran.

The US, for its part, is clear that the destabilisation of Iraq is off the cards, and that seems to have kept both Iran and Saudi Arabia in check.

Saudi and Iran in Yemen

Where it gets further complicated is in Yemen.

Alarmed by the rise of the Houthis in 2011, Saudi Arabia decided it was Iran that was backing the group on its borders. In 2015, a Saudi-led air bombing campaign backed by some Sunni states and the US, the United Kingdom and France began. It was supposed to last a few weeks. It continues to this day. For Saudi Arabia, it is clear that Iran has a hand in that conflict. 

Iranian influence has become a clear talking point, according to Leber.

“Iran’s ability to influence non-state actors and governments in the region is a primary concern for the Saudis I talk to and for the Saudi leadership as well,” he explained.

“There’s a sense that they’re encircled by [Iranian influence] in these surrounding countries and a sense that the militias, regardless of what they publicly say, are controlled by Tehran. There’s a narrative that, for example, striking Houthi targets is, in fact, striking at Iran.”

Both countries face immense pressures at home. They each have youthful populations that are demanding a greater say in politics, while biting sanctions have hit Iran’s economy hard and fluctuating oil prices are doing the same for Saudi Arabia. 

A continuation of the Cold War

The rivalry is further complicated by Western states’ tactical support of Saudi Arabia (as long as their interests align) and Russia’s support for Iran (albeit not unconditionally and subject to change depending on the interests of Moscow).

In many ways, the Cold War between the West and the former Soviet Union never ended – it simply moved from Europe to the Middle East. Today’s front-line states are no longer led by political stances but religious ideology.

Saudi Arabia and Iran wrap themselves in the righteousness of faith, but at the centre is the naked ambition of survival, influence and what it means to be a, or perhaps the most, powerful Muslim state. 

Imran Khan

Imran Khan

Imran Khan is a roving correspondent based out of Doha, covering the Middle East and South Asia.


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