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

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This publication examines the increasingly fractious rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and its devastating impact, shaped by geopolitical aspirations but given existential importance by claims to Islamic legitimacy. As the rivalry has begun to play out in divided societies across the Middle East such as the ‘proxy arenas’ of Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and particularly Syria and Yemen outlined in this report, their cultivation of sectarian difference has both created and exacerbated existing social tensions. This has created opportunities for grassroots ‘sectarian entrepreneurs’ to capitalize with catastrophic humanitarian impact.

The publication argues that while there are links between sectarian groups and their kin in the Gulf, many of these groups exercise their own agency independent of Saudi Arabia or Iran. The international community too often ignores the importance of domestic political forces, both across the countries of the region and in within Saudi Arabia and Iran themselves, when trying to understand conflicts in the Middle East.

The publication calls for the international community to stop using sect-based groups as proxies or allies and avoid using language that reinforces divisions between communities, such as ‘Shi’a Crescent’. It must resist the siren call to frame problems in terms of groups’ rights that further entrenches sectarian divides, but instead recommit to protecting the rule of law and individual rights. The report argues that the international community should do more to support grassroots projects that cut across sectarian, ethnic, social and tribal divides. At an international level it must try to create more neutral spaces for discussion of regional issues, facilitating dialogue and trust-building between Riyadh and Tehran, which can help work towards building peace and assist efforts to reach a ceasefire in Yemen and Syria.

The publication is a collaboration between the Foreign Policy Centre and the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-Sectarianisation (SEPAD) project from the Richardson Institute for Peace Studies at Lancaster University, kindly supported by Carnegie Corporation. The publication contains contributions from experts Including: Dr Simon Mabon, University of Lancaster (ed.); Professor Toby Dodge, LSE ; Professor Madawi Al Rasheed, LSE; Dr Bassel Salloukh, Lebanese American University; Dr May Darwich, Durham University; Dr Chris Phillips, QMUL; Dr Hannes Baumann, University of Liverpool, Dr Edward Wastnidge, Open University; and Dr Rahaf Aldoughli, Lancaster University.

The publication 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.

Listen to audio recording of the launch on 13 November 2018 at the House of Commons.

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