AbstractDeeply rooted in Shia-Sunni sectarianism, the dated rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to divide the Middle East into two armed camps through the overarching politics of the area. The essay seeks to explore the intricacies of 1) the two nations’ strategies on the volatile region and 2) the impacts that individual Gulf states’ predicaments have on Saudi Arabia and Iran’s strained relations. Thus through exploring a series of theoretical underpinnings to the issue, it aims to draw analysis on the power dynamics in Middle East as a cause building and result of being the ideological battlegrounds of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The question will be approached through case studies, comparative studies and analyses of discourse within the Gulf Cooperation Council.The sources of my research will be primarily interviews with my schoolmates from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Secondary sources will be based literature and media reviews from Al Jazeera and Al Arabia for obtaining the Saudi perspective and BBC and RT for pro-Iran reports. Introduction From the fall of Saddam Hussein to Yemeni, Syrian and Bahraini crisis, Middle East’s tumultuous regional politics have inflamed tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Meanwhile both states are exploiting the region by involvements in several proxy wars to strengthen the perpetuity of their regimes. The paramount origin of tensions owes to conflicted aspirations of Islamic leadership between Sunnis and Shiites, concerning distinctions in consensus as to the successor to the Prophet Muhammad and monarchy authority. Today, the more puritanical Sunnis believed that God is transcendent, arguing that any intermediaries between God and man should not exist. But Shiites believe that intermediaries are held by Prophet and the Imams. This is most evident in the confrontation between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces over shared sovereignty over the holy places Mecca and Medina throughout the 1980s, as of now, Iranian access to Medina is still prohibited. However it is believed that the landscape of the rivalry is primarily a power struggle not completely relevant to the two orthodox dimensions of Islam; yet the Sunni-Shiite divide has lead various analysts to believe that it is an intractable conflict that stems from deep schism and age-old enmity. Dr.
Vali Nasr describes the conflict asThread that has long run through the fabric of social and political life across the broader Middle East-at times invisible within a regional politics that can be more intricate and colorful than the latter on an Isfahan carpet, but at other times as obvious as the stripe running down the middle of a highway.1 The most peaceful epoch of the diplomacy dated back to the 1950s, Iran under Shah Pahlavi regime from 1941 to 1979 was secular and was not in competition with Saudi ambitions of ideological domination, both ruled under conservative monarchies. Saudi Arabia was keen in establishing mutual national security interests over eliminating contestants. Both state identities were in alignment to fight communism and nationalist forces during the height of the Cold War before the Iranian Revolution reversed the states into the dawn of a New Cold War. Theology and 1400 years of history characterize a sectarian conflict of multifaceted dimensions with ongoing evolutions in forms of foreign interventions and regional politics, sublating into one that is both historical and modern. The destabilized post-2003 Iraq above all, has ignited Saudi Arabia’s defensiveness in counter-balancing manifesting Iranian power.2.
The Context: Breakdown of each Gulf Crisis 2.1. QatarJune 2017 marked a boiling point of tensions among the Gulf Arab neighbours. The Qatar diplomatic crisis began when the Saudi-led coalition cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, citing its “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region”. The countries have accused it of alleged support for terrorism, criticized Al Jazeera, the state-funded broadcaster, and isolated Qatar to a diplomatic boycott, economic and physical blockade, and unprecedented sanctions. In its defense, Qatar denies the accusations. The collective use of hard power and aggression is exemplary to an erosion on state sovereignty. In particular, to what extent is countries’ independent foreign policy suppressed by the Gulf sentiment? The Saudi-led coalition cited Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism as the main reason for their actions, insisting Qatar has violated a 2014 agreement with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Saudi Arabia and other countries have criticized Al Jazeera and Qatar’s relations with Iran. Qatar claims that it has assisted the United States in the War on Terror and the ongoing military intervention against ISIL. This prompted Turkey and Iran to provide more food and other goods to help Qatar overcome the effects of the boycott. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in London that if the rift with Qatar continued for two years then “so be it”. He also lashed out at Iran, which has supported Qatar in the ongoing crisis, claiming Tehran’s talk of a possible rapprochement with Riyadh was “laughable”.
2.2. BahrainThe rivalry is offered rich scope for analyzing on both identity politics and geopolitical grounds through a focal point – Bahrain. Perceived to be the epicentre of the peninsula’s “sectarian disenfranchisement”, the Sunni monarchy Al Khalifa possesses strong ties with Riyadh, which is convinced that its majority (70-75%) Shiite population possesses ties with Iran. With abundant history of sieged sovereignty, the small island struggles to consolidate its regime after decolonization in 1971. The Shah of Iran holds an irredentist attitude towards the island country, on occasions referring it as Iran’s 14th province until 1970, further perpetuating the regime’s unease that drives it to turn to US and Saudi Arabia for support, such dependence eventually rendered the monarch vulnerable to Saudi manipulation.
Given the fractious nature of identity incongruence within Bahrain, notably between the Sunni ruling and the predominate Shiites population, henceforth the kingdom faces serious internal-security challenges. These challenges leave Bahrain exposed to influence of other actors, for whom the stability of the country is strategically important. A major distinction to Bahrain is the lack of both oil wealth and a placated majority unlike its neighbours. This characterizes internal problems which provoke the antagonism of Bahrainis (Shiite-dominated) towards the government for economic disadvantage and political marginalization. The ruling family’s authoritarianism and divisive economic policies has been the root cause of resentment over the years, these range from the appropriation of land from indigenous Shiite owners in the 18th century, to the electoral gerrymandering where Sunni-dominated southern governorate gets disproportionately more votes in elections.
High-ranking government positions are most held by Sunni allies at the expense of Shiites’ rights, by large leading to uneven development and a vast wealth disparity.Subsequent unrest follows as a result, and the Bahraini government points fingers at Iran of providing support to anti-government protestors, the situation framed as susceptible to Iranian meddling, be it real or perceived, and this leaves Saudi Arabia and its neighbours in a defensive position. The vicious cycle shows an economically-driven internal turmoil of inequality and corruption that plagues its population, culminated to the uprisings in 2011 in which Shiite protestors sought to establish a constitutional monarchy. Despite the veracity of claims suggesting the Iranian influence in backing the Shiites of Bahrain is uncredited, the strategic importance of the Al Khalifa for Saudi Arabia, coupled with a history of Iranian action in Bahrain, clerical ties and Iranian rhetoric, means that Bahrain and Riyadh has to act under the assumption that these claims are justified.
The basis after all, is the fear of security-related consequences stemming out of ideological differences.The predicament can be interpreted as a result of the revolutionary fervour permeating throughout the region instead of the Shiite minority’s overtly identifying with Iran at all levels associated to co-religionists. Either assumption, the perception of Iranian influence among Shiites Bahrainis persists.
2.3. A CHRONIC FAILED STATE: YEMENIt is unique in that it can be argued that Saudi-Iranian interests in the conflict have little to do with power balancing and much more to do with ideology.
Starting in 2004, minority Zaydi religious extremists out of the northern Saada governate (bordering Saudi Arabia) led an armed insurrection against the Yemeni government and appealed to potentially sympathetic Shiite parties like Iran and Hamas.The civil conflict is localised and complex, but over time it became another indirect front for the Saudi-Iranian competition for regional influence. Iran has provided political and media support for the minority group, causing tensions with Saudi Arabia and Yemen who both fear further destabilisation.
Iran’s support for Houthi armed groups has served to prolong the conflict, but its intervention is low cost, relative to Saudi Arabia’s quagmire. Saudi Arabia is facing increased international scrutiny for airstrikes on civilian targets.Another sign of shifts in Yemen’s political winds is the role of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has attempted to patch up recent disagreements with his Houthi allies.
Many believe Saleh may be playing all sides, including Saudi Arabia, in a bid to retain his decades-long role as Yemen’s ultimate power broker.2