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Introduction: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the struggle to shape the Middle East

Article by Dr Simon Mabon

November 12, 2018

Introduction: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the struggle to shape the Middle East

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,

[2] Javad Zarif, 9.08AM 22.09.18

[3] Richard Spencer, Iran vows bloody revenge on US, Israel and Saudis, The Times, September 2018

[4]F. Gregory Gause III, Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle Eastern Cold War, Brookings, 2014,

[5] Adel Bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Can Iran Change?, The New York Times, January2016,

[6]BBC, Landmark Iran-Saudi Security Deal (BBC, April2001,

[8] Ross Colvin, “Cut off head of snake” Saudis told U.S. on Iran, Reuters, November 2010,

[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

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