By: Abdul Rasool Syed
All cold wars have the potential to suddenly turn hot, probably only for a moment before the leaderships ‘turn off the war’. This risk exists in the case of Saudi/GCC versus Iran.” — Michael Knights
In the Middle Eastern geopolitics, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the key strategic rivals; each trying to have ascendancy over the other and establish, thereby, its hegemony over the region. The rivalry between the two countries is premised on deep-rooted religious, political and economic antagonism. Religiously, Saudi Arabia follows and fosters Sunni school of thought – exclusively the Wahabbi brand of Islam – whereas Iran stands for the Shi’ism and keenly pursues its policy to export its version of Islam to the whole Muslim world, particularly the Middle East. Both countries are, therefore, engaged in proxy wars in the Middle East and support their ideologies with men and material. Having enormous reservoirs of oil at their disposal, both the countries are cut-throat competitors. And politically as well, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are diametrically opposed to each other; the former is somehow a theocracy ruled by the supreme leader called Ayatollah whereas the latter is monarchical kingdom governed by Aal-e-Saud (the progeny of King Mohammad bin Saud, the founder of Saudi Kingdom) dynasty.
The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran has a long chronological account. But, Iran’s 1978-79 Islamic revolution, amidst an environment of hostility between the two countries, acted as a catalyst to provoke further tensions in the region. To Saudi Arabia, the emergence of Islamic Republic posed a daunting threat because its leaders were Shias who followed the opposite school of thought, and it was staunchly anti-American, opposing a close ally of the monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula.
Iranian leaders were keen to export their fervour beyond their country’s frontiers. Iran’s first supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini openly backed Shia militias and parties abroad. In response, Riyadh sought closer relationship with other Sunni states. This move led to the establishment of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Tensions further aggravated in the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. After the 1991 Gulf war, which significantly weakened Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran emerged as two regional powers.
The more recent pressure points that put the two countries at loggerheads include:
1. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that resulted in the fall of Saddam Hussein, the key bulwark of Saudis against Shi’ite influence in the region. Saddam kept Iraq’s Shia majority at bay and thereby prevented them to reach the corridors of power. Iraq’s new government, which was installed in the aftermath of US military venture, further cemented Shi’ite foundations in the country.
2. During the Arab Spring in 2011, Saudi Arabia and Iran resorted to proxy wars, often backing opponents in the countries with unrest.
3. Riyadh vehemently opposed the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal between Iran and P5+1 as it boded an end to Iran’s international isolation. Consequently, the Saudi kingdom extended an olive branch to Israel, an arch adversary of Iran in the region, which too was unequivocal in spitting venom against the Deal.
4. Furthermore, in 2016, the execution of a popular Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr ignited an unmanageable ire in Iran. Iranians rioted in Tehran and attacked the Saudi embassy, leading to suspension of diplomatic relations.
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This ongoing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has unfortunately created deep fissures among the Muslim Ummah and has, thereby, severely shattered the dream of Muslim unity and integration, particularly in the Middle East and generally in the entire Muslim world.
Broadly speaking, the strategic map of the Middle East vividly reflects the Shia-Sunni schism caused by the cold war between the two major regional powers, i.e. Iran and Saudi Arabia). In pro-Saudi camp are major Sunni actors in the Gulf – UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as Egypt and Jordan.
In Iranian camp is Syria’s government which has been strongly backed by Iran, and where pro-Iranian Shia militias, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, have played a prominent role in fighting against the predominant Sunni groups. Besides, Shia-dominant Iraqi government is also a close ally of Iran.
Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, the de-facto ruler of Saudi kingdom, often talks about the Iranian threats. Iranophobia is quite evident during his talks as well as actions. He always strives to capitalize on this situation to his advantage and thereby consolidate his power. He knows that the existence of fearful enemy is inescapable sine qua non for his own strength.
Prince Mohammed deliberately promotes the Iranophobia in order to divert attention from the domestic challenges. Political grievances, inequality and youth unemployment are currently some pressing domestic concerns for Saudi Arabia.
Prince Mohammad, with an utter indifference to these challenges, furthers populist anti-Iranian rhetoric and promises to roll back Iranian influence in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. This strategy is employed by the Prince merely to appease the internal dissension.
Iranophonia was conspicuous during several visits of the Crown Prince to the United States. He left no stone unturned in demonizing Iran. He blamed Iran for radicalization in Saudi Arabia, global terrorism and the rise of Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, where Iranian influence and Shia ascendance led to marginalization of the Sunni population. He further held Iran responsible for creating violent sectarian militias that terrorize Sunni population in Iraq and Syria and referred to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, as the new Hitler. “We learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East,” he said.
Furthermore, a regional political analyst Juan Cole also explains Saudis’ Iranophobia in the following words:
“Iran’s influence has gone from almost zero in the 1990s to predominant in the eastern reaches of the Middle East today. The Shiite Houthi rebels staged a coup in Yemen in 2014, and deepened their control over the country. That was mainly a local development, but Riyadh projected its Iranophobia on it. The pro-Iranian party-militia Hezbollah in Lebanon has dominated that country’s national unity government since 2016. Another Iranian client, the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, appears to have won the civil war in Syria, and Saudi cat’s paw there, the extremist Army of Islam has been defeated. Saudi influence in Iraq evaporated after most Sunni Arab-majority provinces seceded to join the ISL “caliphate” in 2014, and then were conquered by the central government’s army and its Shi’ite militia auxiliaries.”
All these developments as pointed out by Mr Cole clearly depict that Saudis’ control over and influence in the region is diminishing exponentially. This very situation has inculcated Iranophobia into the hearts of the Saudi rulers. The Crown Prince is, therefore, poised to employ all the means available to protect his country’s interests in the region by containing mushrooming Iranian influence and its expanding regional dominance.
Prince Mohammed rubs out the criticism of his domestic policies by reminding the Royals and the commoners that he was fighting an existential threat from the expansionist Iran. He blames Iran for the protests by Shi’ite citizens of Saudi Arabia in the oil-rich eastern provinces and accuses the Shia citizens of being Iranian clients.
Moreover, the Saudis also see the resurgence of the Iranian influence as revival of the Old Persian nationalism. Amplifying the Iranian threats, therefore, allows the Crown Prince to magnify his own rule as a saviour of the Saudi Arabia and the broader Arab region from Persianization and Shiification.
Additionally, Saudi leadership also sees Iran, a big oil-producing neighbour, through the lens of competition. It will never allow any efforts aimed at regional integration, which could lead to Iranian human resources and products being readily available in the gulf region.
Prince Mohammad’s vision 2030 — an ambitious transformation plan towards export diversification and weaning country off its dependence on oil — and other economic development plans excludes Iran while kingdom seeks greater regional integration with the UAE, Jordan, Egypt, and possibly Israel.
Finally, apart from economic containment, the kingdom also seeks to contain Iran militarily. The establishment of Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) formerly referred to as IMAFT (Islamic Military Alliance to fight terrorism) is viewed by the defence and security analysts as an organization to be used against Iran.
To cap it all, Iran and Saudi Arabia should iron out their differences peacefully. Their rivalry has given, and will keep giving, a great setback to the Muslim unity and brotherhood that would for sure, be exploited by anti-Islam forces. In the end, I would quote obama here who famously told the Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn how to “share neighbourhood peacefully”…
Security and stability are the basis for development. Without them, countries cannot grow or achieve their goals, especially if they share a geographic space that threatens their common interests. This is one of the reasons that led to the establishment of an entity for the Arab and African countries bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. These countries seek to safeguard their interests. It is their right to deter external forces from playing any negative role in the region.
Alliances have become a necessity to preserve and safeguard gains from elements that may destroy them unless a military-political-economic force is formed in the face of any risks that may arise unless they form a common front to confront dangers besetting them.
This is fait accompli in the Red Sea, especially after the Houthi coup which carries out the Iranian policies of threatening navigation in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab, causing threat to the safety of navigation. Bab al-Mandab gain its strategic weight thanks to controlling 12% of the world trade traffic, whether at the level of oil or goods coming from East Asia to the Suez Canal and then to the world.
This confirms the foresight of forming the Red Sea entity which threatened Houthis to cut the Red Sea and international navigation as strategic options!
Accordingly, this entity has been formed in a manner that does not affect the integrity of world trade along with the overall security of riparian countries which share interests, a matter that made them establish an entity that considers, develop and safeguard these interests through all possible means.
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