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Prof Simon Mabon

Senior Research Fellow

Simon Mabon is Professor of International Politics at Lancaster University where he is also Director of the Richardson Institute, the UK’s oldest peace and conflict research centre. Mabon’s research falls at the intersection of International Political Theory and Middle East Studies, with a focus on sovereignty and the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He is a Research Fellow with the Foreign Policy Centre and served as Academic Advisor to the House of Lords International Relations Committee inquiry into the UK relations with the Middle East during the 2016-17 academic year, whilst consulting for a range of government agencies and NGOs. Mabon is the author of Saudi Arabia and Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East and Houses built on sand: Sovereignty, violence and revolution in the Middle East. He is project director for the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-Sectarianisation (SEPAD) project.

Array ( [0] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 4444 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2020-01-16 15:31:23 [post_date_gmt] => 2020-01-16 15:31:23 [post_content] => Following the United States (US) assassination of Qasim Soleimani - the erstwhile commander of the Quds Force, the elite wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, - close to Baghdad airport, Iraq’s parliament passed a non-binding bill calling for the US to leave the country. The strike against Soleimani has serious implications for a range of areas including: Iraqi politics; Iranian activity across the region; the fight against Da’ish (ISIS); and more. In this piece, scholars working with SEPAD (the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation project of the Richardson Institute for Peace) [1] share their thoughts on the decision and the impact for Iraq and the wider Middle East. The Implications for Iraq Fanar Haddad (Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore) argues that ‘ultimately, Iran's most potent response might be a political rather than a military one: consolidating its grip on Iraqi politics and forcing a US withdrawal. However, the matter is complicated by Iraqi dynamics. Recent events are proving increasingly polarising: Sunni and Kurdish political actors fear the rise of a majoritarian Iran-leaning Baghdad; the Iraqi protest movement is as adamant on the necessity of systemic change as ever before; and the tensions between Iran-aligned and non-Iran-aligned actors are likely to get worse. Even if a withdrawal is not achieved, the assassinations have succeeded in lending Iran-leaning actors what they have been searching for since the protests began: a counter-cause to enable counter-protests and counter-pressure. The US has a lot of coercive leverage over Iraq (economic, diplomatic and military) but lacks the political assets and soft power that will be needed for the contest that Iran is initiating.’ Regional Politics  Dr Lawrence Rubin (Associate Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology) believes that ‘concerning implications for the region, it’s too early to say given the uncertainty in Iraqi politics and the most recent gaffe from US regarding troop withdrawal.  Naturally, the most important aspect will be how it plays out in Iraqi politics and second, how the US manages it. Sectarian politics have and will continue to play a role because of which Iraqi groups’ interests are more closely aligned with the US presence in the region. Two facts also remain: the US is both a stabilising and destabilising force in Iraqi politics and this is a microcosm for the region. The US presence in Iraq would reassure the Saudis and Emiratis (and others) that the US hasn’t abandoned them. If the US withdraws from Iraq, Iran and Russia will have to fill the vacuum to fight a resurgent ISIS. If the US remains, the US presence will continue to be a counter-mobilising symbol for opposition and destabilising political influence in Iraq as well as a target of opportunity for Iran. Meanwhile, the uncertainty takes the attention off of the Syrian-Russian and Turkish campaign in Syria.’ Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the Iranian Question Dr Simon Mabon believes that ‘the US decision to strike against Soleimani has caused a great deal of concern amongst many of Washington’s key allies. In the immediate days after the strike a number of prominent Gulf diplomats spoke of the need for de-escalation including, perhaps most surprisingly, Adel Al Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister. Under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a vociferously anti-Iranian foreign policy, best seen in the military incursion in Yemen, yet after a strike on a Saudi ship in 2019, officials in Riyadh called for calm, much to the surprise of many. In these two instances, it appears that pragmatism has triumphed, although as the regional security environment continues to be precarious, it remains to be seen how long this pragmatic approach can last’. Haian Dukhan (Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews) thinks that ‘the non-binding resolution asking the US troops to leave Iraq will raise more questions about the legality and the legitimacy of the presence of the US troops in Syria. Strategically, if the withdrawal happens, it will also have a great impact on its newly built bases on Deir Ezzor, the eastern governorate of Syria, as these bases are mainly reliant on the logistic support from their counterparts in Iraq. The question will be then whether the Americans will be able to maintain their presence in eastern Syria if they withdraw from Iraq’. Iranian Foreign Policy SEPAD Fellow Banafsheh Keynoush thinks ‘Soleimani's legacy to the region could be a lengthy war of attrition if the US and Iran do not agree on a framework that allows for limited US military presence and Iranian influence inside Iraq. Tehran will wield influence over multiple Iraqi actors who negotiate with the US to decide on this framework. The Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, who visited Soleimani's house after the killing, has called for an end to the US occupation of Iraq. Iraq’s sitting Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who is a go between figure for Iran, could be reinstalled despite previous calls by Iraqis for his resignation. Signs point to US and Iranian restraint in managing the future of their presence in Iraq. Iran could still insist on a hardline position, but it will engage in give and take when its interests demand. Iran’s missile attacks on the Iraqi bases did not lead to death tolls for the Americans. In exchange, the US ordered its diplomats to limit links with Iranian opposition groups. Still, Iran considers itself to be in a war. This means that it may still engage in conflicts that take on conventional, asymmetrical or even nonconventional forms if the Iran nuclear deal is not revived.’ Dr Edward Wastnidge (Deputy Director of SEPAD and Lecturer at the Open University) believes that  ‘the assassination of Qasim Soleimani was a clear illustration of the Trump administration's total lack of a coherent strategy on Iran and the wider region. It shows how petulant, misguided and incoherent his and his close aides' ideas are when it comes to Iran. The fact that Trump has veterans from the US’ occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan directing US military adventurism helps drive this vindictive policy. They are so focused on seeing Iran as the enemy that they let this cloud every judgement that they make. In many ways his is the hallmark of a hubristic imperial power that has miscalculated the level of opposition to its damaging policies in the region. It could be that Soleimani's greatest achievement comes as a result of his murder - insofar as it could herald the start of a US withdrawal from Iraq, thus meeting one of the Islamic Republic’s key foreign policy aims. The need for an inclusive regional security architecture, free of external interference, is more pressing than ever.  It is with the people of the region that the answers lie, not the think-tanks and vested interests of the commentariat in DC and elsewhere.’ Meysam Tayebipour (Research Fellow with the Richardson Institute) believes that ‘the death of Qasim Soleimani is a significant loss for the Iranian regime, as he was the most prominent Iranian figure in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In other words, Soleimani and the Quds force boosted Iran's geopolitical importance in the region. One would be surprised to see his successor (Esmail Ghaani) be as influential in the head of Quds force as he was. Soleimani also had an important role in Iran's domestic politics. Thanks to his charismatic personality, he was portrayed by some Iranians as a righteous man. That was the reason that many people participated in his funeral. Not all those who took part in Soleimani's funeral were supporters of the regime.​By killing him, Trump injected new blood into the broken body of the Islamic Republic. Before Soleimani's death, people were on the streets protesting against the regime. But after Soleimani's assassination, once again, people were on the streets, but this time for expressing their sadness for the loss of Iran second most powerful man. The Islamic Republic could not ask for a better enemy.’​Olivia Globitza (SEPAD PhD Fellow) thinks that ‘even though the US have for the moment rejected Iraq's request to withdraw its troops, a potential withdrawal is by far not off the table. Yet, the repercussions of such a move are complex and unlikely to please everyone in the region. While certainly welcomed by many, particularly those opposed to US presence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, including Iran, it will open new fissures and tap into the fears of those that believe Iran will seek to take advantage of the void the US will leave behind, and substantially increase its influence over Iraq.’ Eyad Al Refai (SEPAD PhD Fellow) believes ‘the discussion on the implications of the US withdrawal from the Middle East has a long legacy. Therefore, opinions on this case shift depending on the situation of regional and global orders. However, In the current political context in the Middle East, where the state is significantly threatened due to its weakness and broad regional conflicts, these implications are mostly detrimental to the regional and the international system. The current US presence in the region, after its departure from Iraq in 2011, is primarily due to the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings and the prevalence of terrorist sectarian militias that filled vacuums. The US withdrawal from the region cannot remedy domestic grievances and regional manipulation, which led the state system in the region to its current collapse. American troops stretch from Europe to Asia however it is only in the Middle East that such a presence is discussed heavily through a cynical lens, and such views are reasonable considering the American legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the answers to the region’s issues are regionally based, and in fact, the current presence of American troops is the result of invitations by states in the region.’ Photo by Ali Khamenei, under Creative Commons.[1] Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation (SEPAD) project is based at Lancaster University’s Richardson Institute,  The Foreign Policy Centre is a project partner of SEPAD, https://www.sepad.org.uk/about [post_title] => The Death of a General: What’s next for Iran, Iraq and the wider Middle East? [post_excerpt] => This article features a range of comments from different authors at the SEPAD project on the death of Qasim Soleimani. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => the-death-of-a-general [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-01-16 15:34:20 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-01-16 15:34:20 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.org.uk/?p=4444 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 2994 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2018-11-12 21:32:36 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-12 21:32:36 [post_content] => This report examines the impact of the increasingly fractious rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran upon politics across the Middle East, focussing upon Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. It documents the devastating impact of the rivalry and the mechanisms in which Riyadh and Tehran have become involved in, what have become viewed as ‘proxy arenas’. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the two states have become embroiled in an increasingly vitriolic rivalry that is shaped by geopolitical aspirations but given existential importance by claims to Islamic legitimacy, with repercussions felt across Muslim communities worldwide.As the rivalry took on a sectarian dimension it began to play out in divided societies such as those covered in this report, where domestic politics took place within the context of broader geopolitical events. The presence of allies and proxies across the region, often along sect-based lines, provided Riyadh and Tehran with the means of shaping political life and countering the influence of their rival.Regimes across the region have used sectarian language as a means of maintaining power, entrenching divisions within society. Political, social and economic life quickly became viewed through the prism of sectarian difference, deepening divisions and creating opportunities for grassroots ‘sectarian entrepreneurs’ to capitalize on such conditions.Whilst there are links between sectarian groups and their kin in the Gulf, it is important to recognise that many of these groups exercise their own agency independent of Saudi Arabia or Iran. The report argues that whilst the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran plays a prominent role in shaping regional politics, we must not ignore domestic forces that find traction within the fallout from the struggle between the two states.As life in Syria and Yemen – in particular – worsens, leaving millions in need of humanitarian assistance, facilitating dialogue and ultimately rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a necessity.The report makes a number of recommendations: 
  • Work towards creating a ‘grand bargain’ that brings both Iran and Saudi Arabia into the system of regional states through creating space for discussion of regional issues;
  • Facilitate dialogue and trust building between Riyadh and Tehran;
  • Work towards a cease-fire in Yemen and Syria;
  • Reject the use of language such as ‘Shi’a Crescent’ that plays such a damaging role in deepening divisions within and between communities;
  • Western states must avoid the mobilisation of sect-based groups who advocate violence as proxies or allies;
  • Encourage adherence to the rule of law and recognition of individual rather than community rights;
  • Respect the development of political projects which cut across sectarian, ethnic and tribal cleavages such as those seen in Beirut and the YOU STINK movement;
  • Advocate and support the development of interest-based political projects that cut across social cleavages.
[post_title] => Saudi Arabia and Iran: Executive Summary [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => saudi-arabia-and-iran-executive-summary [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-13 15:12:57 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-13 15:12:57 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.org.uk/?p=2994 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 2997 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2018-11-12 21:31:54 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-12 21:31:54 [post_content] => On 22nd September 2018, an attack on a military ceremony in Ahvaz, a city in the southwest of Iran, resulted in the deaths of 25 people and left many more injured, including members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei quickly blamed a number of states for this event. In a statement posted on his official website, Khamenei stated that "this cowardly act was committed by the same people who are saved by the Americans whenever they are trapped in Syria and Iraq and whose hands are in the pockets of Saudi Arabia and the UAE”.[1] Khamenei’s comments were followed by similar remarks from Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Iran who blamed “regional terror sponsors and their US masters”,[2] and General Hossein Salami, the acting commander of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), who vowed revenge against the perpetrators, referred to as the “triangle” of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States.[3]This report seeks to critically engage and analyse the impact of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East. Whilst there are a myriad other factors and forces at play in shaping the contemporary Middle East, we will focus purely on the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran which is, as Gregory Gause suggests, ‘the best framework for understanding the regional politics of the Middle East’.[4] As a consequence, we must put aside the roles played by Turkey, Qatar, Russia and many others (including the US and UK), along with intra-Sunni tensions for examination at a future point.The rhetoric that emerged in the aftermath of the attack in Ahvaz has been a common feature of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. Comments from prominent figures in the Iranian regime match those of their Saudi counterparts, who have routinely accused Iran of funding terrorist groups across the region, propping up the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria, supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen, and provoking political unrest in Bahrain. Adel Al Jubeir, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, suggested that Iran sought to “obscure its dangerous sectarian and expansionist policies, as well as its support for terrorism, by levelling unsubstantiated charges against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. He later suggested that Iran is “the single-most belligerent actor in the region”.[5] Al Jubeir’s views are shared by many across the Kingdom, who view instability across the Middle East as a direct consequence of nefarious Iranian intent. Such positions stem from decades of enmity between the two states that dramatically escalated in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution that resulted in the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The emergence of the Islamic Republic added a theological dimension to a rivalry that was predominantly based upon geopolitical competition and a long-standing suspicion of the ethnic ‘other’.Khamenei’s words were the latest incident in a fractious rivalry that has played a dominant role in shaping the Gulf – and wider Middle East – since the Iranian revolution of 1979. More recently, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq created space for the intensification of the rivalry following the removal of the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein from regional politics. After the Arab Uprisings, the rivalry escalated as relations between regimes and societies began to fragment, creating new arenas of competition either directly or through proxies.Yet the rivalry is not fixed across time and space. Indeed, consideration of the rivalry reveals five distinct time periods: pre-revolution, characterised by mutual suspicion but a capacity to work together; 1979-1991, a period of intense enmity driven by the revolution and Iran-Iraq war; 1991-2003, a period of burgeoning rapprochement where security was seen in a mutually beneficial manner after Khomeini’s death and the emergence of more reform- minded politicians in Iran, along with shared fears of Iraqi belligerence[6]; 2003-2011, the re-emergence of hostilities driven by the War on Terror and belligerence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013); and 2011-present day, where the rivalry takes place amidst the backdrop of the Arab Uprisings. Across these periods, the rivalry plays out in a number of different arenas, shaped by opportunity and building on networks often – but not exclusively – constructed along sectarian lines.Underpinning much of this geopolitical tension is an incongruent vision of the organisation of security in the Gulf. For Saudi Arabia, security in the Gulf is maintained through a long-standing alliance with the United States. However, from Iran’s perspective, security should be maintained solely by those within the region.[7] This contradiction was exacerbated in the years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where Saudi officials urged their American counterparts to curtail the burgeoning Iranian influence across the state. The late King Abdullah urged the US at the time to “cut off the head of the snake[8] whilst similar comments were made by members of the Bahraini ruling family, the Al Khalifa, who are long-standing Saudi allies.The rivalry is also shaped by US policies towards the Gulf States. During the presidency of Barak Obama, diplomatic overtures to Iran caused a great deal of consternation amongst many in Saudi Arabia, prompting a more pro-active foreign policy. These fears were exacerbated by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear deal agreed by the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and Iran.[9] Under Obama’s successor, the vehemently anti-Iranian Donald Trump, relations with the Saudi Kingdom – and the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in particular – dramatically improved, in no small part due to the decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and the belligerent stance taken against Iran.Efforts to understand the rivalry between the two major Gulf powers traditionally fall into three main camps: first are those who reduce the tensions to national interest[10]; second, those who suggest that the rivalry is a consequence of theological tensions[11]; and third, those who suggest that we must look at a combination of religion and geopolitics to understand the way in which the rivalry plays out[12]. This report falls into the third category, accepting the primacy of states and national interests but also stressing the importance of religion within such calculations. It also seeks to show how the rivalry plays out across time and space, leading to different forms of competition and rivalry across the region.Whilst sectarian difference can be shaped and cultivated by regional forces and state elites ‘from above’, it can also emerge ‘from below’, as actors across the Middle East capitalise upon instability to pursue their own agendas. Commonly referred to as ‘sectarian entrepreneurs’, these individuals capitalise upon the contingency of specific socio-economic, cultural and historic events which are constructed through the interaction of regional forces with domestic politics. As Toby Matthiesen articulates, sectarian entrepreneurs are ‘people whose political, social, and economic standing depends on the skilful manipulation of sectarian boundaries and who profit if these boundaries become the defining markers of a particular segment of society’[13]. Finding traction when political organisation begins to fragment, the descent into uncertainty and instability creates fertile ground for sectarian divisions to become increasingly entrenched.As a consequence, to understand the emergence of sectarian divisions and increasingly unstable political contexts we must look at the interaction of regional politics with domestic events. Focussing on events in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, this report offers a detailed analysis of the ways in which the rivalry between the two states is shaping regional politics. From the direct military intervention of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Iran in Syria to the economic investment in Lebanon, the rivalry manifests in a range of different forms with serious implications for political organisation, regional security and everyday life.[1] Lauren Said-Moorhouse and Sarah El Sirgany, Iran accuses Saudi Arabia, UAE of financing military parade attackers, CNN, September .2018,  https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/24/middleeast/iran-attack-military-parade-intl/index.html[2] Javad Zarif, 9.08AM 22.09.18  https://twitter.com/JZarif/status/1043411744314601472[3] Richard Spencer, Iran vows bloody revenge on US, Israel and Saudis, The Times, September 2018 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/iran-vows-bloody-revenge-on-us-israel-and-saudis-jvh0fswtn[4]F. Gregory Gause III, Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle Eastern Cold War, Brookings, 2014,  https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/English-PDF-1.pdf[5] Adel Bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Can Iran Change?, The New York Times, January2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/19/opinion/saudi-arabia-can-iran-change.html?_r=2[6]BBC, Landmark Iran-Saudi Security Deal (BBC, April2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/1283010.stm[8] Ross Colvin, “Cut off head of snake” Saudis told U.S. on Iran, Reuters, November 2010, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-wikileaks-iran-saudis/cut-off-head-of-snake-saudis-told-u-s-on-iran-idUSTRE6AS02B20101129[9] Simon Mabon, ‘Muting Trumpets of Sabotage: Saudi Arabia, the US and the quest to securitize Iran‘, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 45(5) 2018.[10] See: Henner Furtig, Iran’s Rivalry with Saudi Arabia Between the Gulf Wars, 2006,Reading: Ithaca Press; Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations and Regional Order, 1996, London: OUP for IISS, Banafsheh Keynoush, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes?, 2016, London, Palgrave,  and Robert Mason, Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East, 2014, London: I.B. Tauris.[11] Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future, 2007, New York: W.W. Norton.[12] Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East, 2015, London: I.B. Tauris.[13] Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t 2013, Stanford University Press, p127 [post_title] => Introduction: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the struggle to shape the Middle East [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => introduction-saudi-arabia-iran-and-the-struggle-to-shape-the-middle-east [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-13 15:14:56 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-13 15:14:56 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.org.uk/?p=2997 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 3015 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2018-11-12 21:27:55 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-12 21:27:55 [post_content] => For many, the archipelago of Bahrain is at the epicentre of the geopolitical and sect-based struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Situated 16 kilometres from the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, linked by the King Fahd Causeway, and 768 kilometres from the west coast of Iran, with a Sunni minority ruling over a Shi’a majority, it is easy to see how such conclusions are reached. Bahrain’s geographic location and demographic makeup mean that political events on the island often take on additional meaning within the context of the rivalry between the island’s two more powerful neighbours.[1]A brief glance at the country’s past reveals a history of social unrest and political upheaval, viewed anxiously by many in Manama and Riyadh. These concerns are furthered when coupled with allegations of perfidious Iranian interference across Shi’a communities in Bahrain, long viewed as 5th columnists by the Sunni ruling family. Long-standing Iranian claims to Bahrain increase fears amongst regime loyalists. In Kayhan, an Iranian newspaper with close links to the government, an editorial suggested that Bahrain remained ‘an inseparable part of Iran’, dating back to the 18th century.[2]Whilst a history of protest in Bahrain is found far earlier than 1979, there is little doubt that revolutionary fervour in Iran had a dramatic impact on the island. In the years after the revolution, elite military units from Iran provided support to a number of organisations across the region including Hizballah in Lebanon and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, who undertook a coup d’etat in 1981. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the group’s actions and their Iranian sponsor created conditions that helped the narrative of nefarious Iranian behaviour take hold.With the apparent rising influence of Shi’a groups across the Middle East, captured by the concept of the ‘Shi’a Crescent’,[3] many in Bahrain were concerned about the repercussions for the island’s equilibrium amidst shifting geopolitical currents. An unpublished government report documented the extent of such fears:the marginalization of Sunnīs and the lessening of their role in Bahrain is part of a larger regional problem […] Thus there is a dangerous challenge facing Bahraini society in the increased role of the Shīʿa [and] the retreat of the role of the Sunna in the Bahraini political system; namely, the problem concerns the country’s [Bahrain’s] national security, and the likelihood of political regime change in the long term by means of the current relationships between Bahrain’s Shīʿa and all the Shīʿa in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s eastern region, and Kuwait.[4]When protests began in February 2011, the very survival of the Al Khalifa regime appeared at stake. The protesters were initially driven by a widespread demand for greater political representation and they were quick to stress their non-sectarian nature. As the protests escalated, a regime crackdown began which featured the cultivation of a narrative that positioned Iran as the driving force of unrest.[5]One month after protests began, the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council forces under the guise of the Peninsular Shield Force, crossed the King Fahd Causeway into Bahrain in support of the government. The force supported the regime’s crackdown on opposition movements, in an attempt to prevent increased Iranian involvement on the island, but also to prevent democratic aspirations from spreading into the Eastern Province of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Allegations of Iranian involvement in the uprisings were later rejected by the Bassiouni Independent Commission Inquiry. Upon receiving the report, King Hamad delivered a speech asserting that Iran was responsible for “supporting anti-government protests”.[6]The years that followed were characterized by a process that is now commonly referred to as sectarianization, the manipulation of sect-based identities in an attempt to ensure regime survival which involved widespread restriction of civil society, mass arrests of Shi’a protesters and the banning of Al Wefaq. Whilst sectarian identities were seen as a threat to political stability in Bahrain, the sectarianization process circumvented calls for political reform and ensured the loyalty of Sunnis on the island and beyond by locating events within the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, along with a broader meta-narrative of perfidious Iranian manipulation that runs across the Gulf.[7] Amidst a region increasingly shaped by sectarianization, events in Bahrain provide what Toby Matthiesen has called the ‘most salient’ example of the sectarianization process,[8] leaving opposition groups decimated and the Saudi-backed Al Khalifa regime in a position of supremacy.Photo by Francisco Anzola, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.[1] Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East, 2013, London: I.B. Tauris[2] Simon Mabon, ‘The Battle for Bahrain: Iranian-Saudi Rivalry’, Middle East Policy[3] Ian Black, Fear of a Shia full moon, The Guardian, January 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jan/26/worlddispatch.ianblack[4] Salah Al-Bandar, ‘Al-bah. rayn: al-khiyār al-dīmūqrātī wa āliyāt al-iqs.a’, unpublished report prepared by the Gulf Center for Democratic Development, September 2006), in Justin J. Gengler, ‘Royal Factionalism, the Khawalid, and the Securitization of ‘the Shi’a Problem’ in Bahrain’, Journal of Arabian Studies, 3:1, 2013[5] Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t, 2013, Stanford: Stanford University Press[6] Joost Hilterman, and Kelly McEvers, "Barricaded in Bahrain," The New York Review of Books (blog), December 2011, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/dec/27/barricaded-bahrain/.[7] Simon Mabon, ‘The End of the Battle of Bahrain’, Middle East Journal (Forthcoming) and Sossie Kasbarian and Simon Mabon, ‘Contested spaces and sectarian narratives in post-uprising Bahrain’, Global Discourse 6:4 (2016) 677-696[8] Toby Matthiesen, ‘Sectarianization as Securitization: Identity Politics and Counter-Revolution in Bahrain’, in Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (eds) Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, 2017, (London: Hurst [post_title] => Bahrain: The epicentre of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry? [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => bahrain-the-epicentre-of-the-saudi-iranian-rivalry [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-09-24 16:31:33 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-09-24 16:31:33 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.org.uk/?p=3015 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 2 [filter] => raw )[4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 3027 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2018-11-12 21:26:42 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-12 21:26:42 [post_content] => Understanding the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran goes some way in understanding the uncertainty and instability that plays out across the contemporary Middle East. There is little doubt that the rivalry has shaped regional politics in a number of ways, contingent upon political and socio-economic contexts and agendas of Riyadh and Tehran. Although the rivalry occupies a central role in the construction of regional security, it is overly simplistic to reduce Middle Eastern politics solely to a bi-polar struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with a number of additional actors adding to the complexity of regional politics. Indeed, the role of the UAE, Israel, Turkey, Qatar, and others should not be ignored, as these issues exacerbate an increasingly fraught situation.As conflict in Syria and Yemen continues with catastrophic humanitarian impact, ending conflict is of the utmost importance to prevent further devastation. Increasing an awareness of the competing pressures and fears of those involved in shaping regional politics and creating space for discussions of such issues is of paramount importance to reducing conflict across the Middle East. If done correctly this can also facilitate trust building between Riyadh and Tehran. Whilst the rivalry occupies a key role in regional politics, particularly amidst the fracturing of regional politics along sect-based lines, we should not view it purely as an attempt to defeat the ‘other’. Instead, we must combine our analysis of regional aspirations with consideration of domestic pressures on the regimes in both Riyadh and Tehran, who seek to balance challenges from a range of sources to ensure their survival. Moreover, we must also consider the interaction of the myriad pressures that facilitate the construction of political life in spaces where the rivalry occurs. These forces differ across both time and space and must be acknowledged in a responsible manner.A key feature of politics in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen is the politicisation and securitization of sectarian difference within the context of broader geopolitical currents. In each case are examples of the instrumental cultivation of sect-based difference by regimes or ‘sectarian entrepreneurs’ in an attempt to ensure regime survival or to increase power and influence.  Yet the increasingly instrumentalised use of religious language – albeit increasingly mobilized for political and security reasons – risks becoming all encompassing, a self-perpetuating narrative often repeated by academics and policymakers that must be avoided.The cultivation of political projects that transcend communal divisions is one possible way of circumventing this self-perpetuating narrative. Respect for the rule of law and recognition of individual rights above community rights is a key aspect of this strategy. The international community must also do more to support the development of cross-sectarian initiatives and movements such as the YOU STINK movement in Beirut, a movement of civil disobedience against governance failings concerning waste management, which led to garbage being piled in the streets of the Lebanese capital.  International states wishing to improve the political situation must also avoid supporting fringe groups such as MEK (the People’s Mojahedin of Iran) who use violence to challenge political order.With that in mind, we propose the following recommendations:
  • Work towards creating a ‘grand bargain’ that brings both Iran and Saudi Arabia into the system of regional states through creating space for discussion of regional issues;
  • Facilitate dialogue and trust building between Riyadh and Tehran;
  • Work towards a cease-fire in Yemen and Syria;
  • Reject the use of language such as ‘Shi’a Crescent’ that plays such a damaging role in deepening divisions within and between communities;
  • Western states must avoid the mobilisation of sect-based groups who advocate violence as proxies or allies;
  • Encourage adherence to the rule of law and recognition of individual rather than community rights;
  • Respect the development of political projects which cut across sectarian, ethnic and tribal cleavages such as those seen in Beirut and the YOU STINK movement;
  • Advocate and support the development of interest-based political projects that cut across social cleavages.
[post_title] => Conclusion and recommendations [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => conclusion-and-recommendations [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-13 15:26:35 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-13 15:26:35 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.org.uk/?p=3027 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 978 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2016-06-09 14:45:39 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-09 14:45:39 [post_content] => This FPC Briefing from Dr Simon Mabon and Grant Helm explores the historical antecedents of Da'ish and their complicated relationship with the rulers of Saudi Arabia. [post_title] => FPC Briefing: Da’ish, the Ikhwan and Lessons from History [post_excerpt] => This FPC Briefing from Dr Simon Mabon and Grant Helm explores the historical antecedents of Da'ish and their complicated relationship with the rulers of Saudi Arabia. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => fpc-briefing-daish-the-ikhwan-and-lessons-from-history [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-14 13:58:09 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-14 13:58:09 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.clearhonestdesign.com/fpc-briefing-daish-the-ikhwan-and-lessons-from-history/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[6] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 976 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2016-05-30 13:48:23 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-05-30 13:48:23 [post_content] => Following the signing of the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran in late 2015, relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have become increasingly fractious. Since then, with questions about the release of a number of classified pages of the 9/11 commission report, along with increasing concerns at the kingdom’s human rights record, the relationship between Riyadh and Washington is at the lowest point in decades. This briefing by Dr Simon Mabon offers an explanation for the deterioration of the relationship between the two. [post_title] => FPC Briefing: Saudi Arabia – US Relations and the Failure of Riyadh’s Securitization Project [post_excerpt] => Following the signing of the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran in late 2015, relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have become increasingly fractious. Since then, with questions about the release of a number of classified pages of the 9/11 commission report, along with increasing concerns at the kingdom’s human rights record, the relationship between Riyadh and Washington is at the lowest point in decades. This briefing by Dr Simon Mabon offers an explanation for the deterioration of the relationship between the two. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => fpc-briefing-saudi-arabia-us-relations-and-the-failure-of-riyadhs-securitization-project [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-14 14:00:34 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-14 14:00:34 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.clearhonestdesign.com/fpc-briefing-saudi-arabia-us-relations-and-the-failure-of-riyadhs-securitization-project/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[7] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 968 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2015-10-01 14:39:45 [post_date_gmt] => 2015-10-01 14:39:45 [post_content] => In this FPC Briefing Research Associate Dr Simon Mabon and Ludovicia Di Giorgi examine the deteriorating situation regarding violence against women in Iraq, in areas both under Government and ISIS control. [post_title] => FPC Briefing: Preventing Violence Against Women: The Case of Iraq [post_excerpt] => In this FPC Briefing Research Associate Dr Simon Mabon and Ludovicia Di Giorgi examine the deteriorating situation regarding violence against women in Iraq, in areas both under Government and ISIS control. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => fpc-briefing-preventing-violence-against-women-the-case-of-iraq [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-14 16:31:51 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-14 16:31:51 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.clearhonestdesign.com/fpc-briefing-preventing-violence-against-women-the-case-of-iraq/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[8] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 966 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2015-09-09 11:31:19 [post_date_gmt] => 2015-09-09 11:31:19 [post_content] => In recent days there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the humanitarian imperatives for aiding refugees from the Middle East. This new briefing by Dr Simon Mabon builds upon these arguments to suggest that there are also strategic reasons for helping with the crisis that could contribute to the response to ISIS. [post_title] => FPC Briefing: The Moral and the Strategic-The UK’s Response to the Syrian Crisis [post_excerpt] => In recent days there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the humanitarian imperatives for aiding refugees from the Middle East. This new briefing by Dr Simon Mabon builds upon these arguments to suggest that there are also strategic reasons for helping with the crisis that could contribute to the response to ISIS. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => fpc-briefing-the-moral-and-the-strategic-the-uks-response-to-the-syrian-crisis [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-14 16:34:55 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-14 16:34:55 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.clearhonestdesign.com/fpc-briefing-the-moral-and-the-strategic-the-uks-response-to-the-syrian-crisis/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[9] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 958 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2015-03-18 16:04:56 [post_date_gmt] => 2015-03-18 16:04:56 [post_content] => FPC Research Associate Dr Simon Mabon and his colleague Lucia Ardovini analyse the response of key regional actors in the Middle East to the rising threat of daesh (ISIS/ISIL), looking at differing Iranian, Saudi and Egyptian approaches. [post_title] => FPC Briefing: Daesh, Geopolitics and the Resurgence of Pan Arabism? [post_excerpt] => FPC Research Associate Dr Simon Mabon and his colleague Lucia Ardovini analyse the response of key regional actors in the Middle East to the rising threat of daesh (ISIS/ISIL), looking at differing Iranian, Saudi and Egyptian approaches. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => fpc-briefing-daesh-geopolitics-and-the-resurgence-of-pan-arabism [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-06-20 13:18:32 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-06-20 13:18:32 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.clearhonestdesign.com/fpc-briefing-daesh-geopolitics-and-the-resurgence-of-pan-arabism/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[10] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 938 [post_author] => 27 [post_date] => 2014-02-06 16:20:23 [post_date_gmt] => 2014-02-06 16:20:23 [post_content] => Dr Simon Mabon explores the geo-political competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, looking at how this struggle impacts on local sectarian tensions in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. [post_title] => FPC Briefing: Constructing Sectarianisms and Conflict in the Middle East [post_excerpt] => Dr Simon Mabon explores the geo-political competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, looking at how this struggle impacts on local sectarian tensions in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => fpc-briefing-constructing-sectarianisms-and-conflict-in-the-middle-east [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-10-15 09:15:49 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-10-15 09:15:49 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.clearhonestdesign.com/fpc-briefing-constructing-sectarianisms-and-conflict-in-the-middle-east/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ))
Articles
Publications

Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Struggle to Shape the Middle East

The fractious rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and its impact on the Middle East.

12/11/18

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