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Conclusion and recommendations

Article by Dr Simon Mabon

November 12, 2018

Conclusion and recommendations

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.
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