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Saudi Arabia and Iran: Executive Summary

Article by Dr Simon Mabon

November 12, 2018

Saudi Arabia and Iran: Executive Summary

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.
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