Saudi- Iranian Rivalry: The Middle Eastern Cold War

  • The current-day instability of Middle East is the outcome of number of intra-region conflicts and the most notable of them is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. This rift is often looked through the lens of sectarian divide; Iran being a largely Shia Muslim state, whereas, Saudi Arabia is considered the leading Sunni Muslim power. The relationship between the two states is often considered as an equivalent of the Cold War between US and the USSR because of how the middle eastern states are involved in proxy wars all across the region. And also, because the sectarian diversity in the region, other countries also have Shia or Sunni majority who either support Saudi Arabia or Iran. The question thus arises, does the Saudi Arabia and Iran rivalry seeps into all of Middle Eastern issues and exacerbates them?  

    In the pro-Saudi camp are the other major Sunni actors in the Gulf including the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as Egypt and Jordan. The Iranian camp includes Syria's government, which has been strongly backed by Iran, and pro-Iranian Shia militia groups, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia is trying desperately to contain rising Iranian influence and the conflict between the two states is seen as proxy wars within other middle eastern states. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government is also a close ally of Iran, though paradoxically it also retains a close relationship with Washington on whom it has depended for help in the struggle against so-called Islamic State. 

    The Shia majority country Iraq has been ruled by Sunni-dominated government for decades and under the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was hostile to both Iran and Saudi Arabia and was the balancing the regional powers. However, after the American invasion of 2003, Iran sought for a Shia-dominated government and supported the rebels to undermine the coalition in attempts to install a friendly government, Whereas, the Saudi Arabia remained more passive during Iraq's occupation. Saudi government was cautious not to directly support Sunni insurgent groups within Iraq so that their relation with the US is not strained. Perhaps this remained a consistent reason for Saudi Arabia because Iran was able to mobilize Shia militia groups that in turn pushed aside the Sunni insurgency. The involvement of the predominant regional powers within Iraq is only example of many incidents where the Saudi-Iranian conflict was seen as to be the contemporary cold war.

    Syrian crisis is claimed as another platform for the proxy conflict; Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council states provided military and financial support to opposing sides. The Iran backs the Syrian government and Saudi Arabia and supports rebel militants. Iranian support for President Bashar al-Assad has largely routed rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia. When protests broke out in Syria, Iran changed its position and condemned them, comparing the uprising to its own presidential election protests in 2009 and accusing the United States and Israel of being behind the unrest. This war is a threat to Iran's position, and Saudi Arabia with its allies have sided with Sunni rebels in part to weaken Iran. To assist Iran, Russia intervened in September 2015 to provide support for the Assad government and target rebel groups, they used Iranian air bases to stage air strikes, as well. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia countered by increasing its support for the rebels and supplying American made anti-tank TOW missiles. Syrian issue can, therefore, be seen to have expanded and drifted away because of the role of Saudis and Iranians.  

    On the complete opposite pole, Yemen had been under the Saudi sphere of influence. The decade-long Houthi insurgency in Yemen stoked tensions with Iran because Iran is claimed to have secretly supported the rebels. In Yemen’s case, Iran provoked rebels and according to the 2015 United Nations reThe port, Iran provided the Houthi rebels with money, training, and arms shipments starting from 2009. However, the degree of support is debatable and Iran denies accusations of greater involvement.  

    Similarly, in Lebanon the Saudis put pressure on the prime minister to resign in order to destabilize a country where Iran's ally, Shia militia group Hezbollah, leads a politically powerful and controls a huge, heavily armed fighting force. Lebanon which is a state in crisis has suffered at the hands of the Iranian insecurity to the Saudis. Saudi Arabia went as far as proposing the creation of an Arab force backed by US and NATO air and sea power to intervene in Lebanon and destroy Iranian-backed Hezbollah. In February 2016, Saudi Arabia and the UAE banned their citizens from visiting Lebanon and suspended military aid due to possible Iranian influence and Lebanon's refusal to condemn the attack on Saudi embassy. All of this has worsened the situation for Lebanon which simply came in the crossfire.  

    In Bahrain's example, the two states have tried to extend their influence; the majority Muslims in Bahrain are Shia whereas, the country ruler is the Sunni Al Khalifa. Sunni states have long feared that Iran might stir up unrest among regional Shia minority populations, especially in Bahrain. The Al Khalifa regime's stability depends heavily on the Saudi support. The island is connected to Saudi Arabia, and its proximity to Saudi Arabia's oil-rich, majority Shia Eastern Province is viewed by Riyadh as a security concern. Any political gains by the Shia in Bahrain are seen by the Saudis as gains for Iran. Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council forces quickly intervened in support of the Al Khalifa regime to put down the anti-government uprising in state. The Bahraini government publicly blamed Iran for the protests, but an independent commission established by King Hamad rejected the claim, instead highlighting violation of human rights committed in the crackdown. The protests, along with the Iran nuclear deal, strained Bahrain's relationship with the US. Bahrain has sought closer ties with Russia as a result, but this has been limited due to Saudi Arabia's alliance with the US. This goes to show the extent to which the power struggle between Iranians and Saudis have increased tensions in Bahrain and its foreign relations.  

    Lastly, and quite recently Qatar has been the victim of exaggerated consequences because of the Saudi vs Iranian pole. Qatar has been a focus of controversy in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry due to Saudi Arabia's longstanding concern about the state’s relationship with Iran and Iranian-backed militant groups. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Maldives, and the Hadi-led Yemeni government severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and blocked their airspace to Qatar and sea routes. Qatar was also expelled from the anti-Houthi coalition and Qatar's defense minister, Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah, called the blockade akin to a bloodless declaration of war. This is the result of the accusation on Qatar and the Iranian support to Qatar during this period. This blockade is further proof that the two states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have been worsening the political as well as the economic stability of numerous middle eastern states all because of their own feud.  

    In conclusion, it can be seen that the Saudi-Iranian conflict uses all these states as its performance stages, giving one dramatic performance after another. These middle eastern states are both a platform and as well as the victims of the conflict. This cold war has impacted all these states to a great extent and there is no doubt that all the issues have been aggravated and intensified because of it.