Understanding the Saudi-Iranian Conflict

The Saudi-Iranian conflict is another example of a Middle Eastern relationship that is rooted in thousands of years of history. It goes beyond the popular sound bite that this is another “Shia-Sunni rivalry”. Understanding the relationship between these two countries is not a simple task due to its historical and sociological complexities. The discord between Saudi Arabia and Iran derives from several sources: a shared history of mismatched expectations about regional dominance, Saudi Arabia’s goal of maintaining regional influence, Iran’s chauvinistic nationalism, and differing roles as leaders of two different sects of Islam.Shared HistoryTo begin, it's important to note that Iranians and Arabs have coexisted for thousands of years. There have been intermarriages, trade, exchanges of culture, a shared alphabet, and a common following of Islam. Many Arab families in the Gulf States can trace their lineage back to Iran. In order to exemplify the cross-cutting cleavages of Shias and Sunnis in the Gulf States, I have listed which states have a Sunni or Shia majority in the Gulf. It should be noted that each state has both Sunnis and Shias living among each other in what is regarded as a Sunni-dominated part of the world.The Gulf States include:Saudi Arabia (Sunni majority)Oman [Sunni majority (in comparison to Shia)]Bahrain (Shia majority)UAE (Shia majority)Qatar (Sunni majority)Iraq (Shia majority)Kuwait (Sunni majority)Saudi Arabia has been the self-declared leader of the Gulf States since the early 1940s due to its discovery of vast oil reserves. The oil has funded the monarchy’s coffers, which catapulted the kingdom to being one of the regional hegemons of the Middle East. Its large budget finances nationalistic projects such as building and maintaining the holy cities of Islam: Mecca and Medina. However, before the Gulf States became parliamentary states, the area was dominated by loosely organized chiefdoms and nomadic Bedouins.Across the Persian Gulf lies Iran; a country with a 2,500 year old imperial history that has maintained a proud identity since its inception. Rightfully so, as they've contributed discoveries in the fields of science and math. Iran, formally known as Persia, had a more liberal take on culture than its Arab counterparts across the Gulf. Here is a contemporary example of this contrast between the more secular Iran and the conservative Saudi Kingdom: in the late 1960s, the Shah sent a series of letters to King Faisal, urging him to modernize Saudi Arabia, saying, "Please, my brother, modernize. Open up your country. Make the schools mixed women and men. Let women wear miniskirts. Have discos. Be modern. Otherwise I cannot guarantee you will stay on your throne.” In response King Faisal wrote, "Your majesty, I appreciate your advice. May I remind you, you are not the Shah of France. You are not in the Elysee. You are in Iran. Your population is 90 percent Muslim. Please don't forget that." Mind you, this is almost two decades before the Iranian Revolution that created the theocratic republic of Iran that we know today.This dialogue helps us understand the rift between the Saudis and the Iranians, and the consequent populist stereotypes that take hold. Many Iranians view Arabs through a historical lens that they are uncultured, warring tribal peoples. On the other hand, many Arabs view the Iranians as imperial, idol-worshipping heathens who were only enlightened once the Arabs instilled Islam in Iran. These long-held misconceptions pay little justice to the history, politics, and culture of each respective state. A similar stereotype comes to mind. When Americans think of Canada, there are those who like to poke fun and say they are passive, overly polite people who have funny accents and love maple syrup. Does this stereotype pay any respect to our fruitful relationship that we’ve had with them throughout history? Not at all.The Shah’s correspondence with King Faisal bore an ominous message: “Be modern. Otherwise I cannot guarantee you will stay on your throne”. Although contemporary Iran is a Shia dominated theocracy, it has embraced populism and republicanism. These two political practices are a stark contrast to the strict royal monarchies that have long ruled the Gulf States. However, Saudi Arabia viewed the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a threat to hegemony in the Middle East. Egypt’s throne was overthrown in 1952, followed by neighboring Iraq in 1958, Libya in 1969, Ethiopia in 1974, and Afghanistan in 1973. Being a monarch in the Middle East made wearing the crown a precarious task with the knowledge of past monarchies overthrown. Furthermore, Iran accomplished its revolution successfully, overthrew a monarchy, and tried to export its revolution to nearby Gulf States. Since then, the two have viewed each other as enemies. Although the revolutionary fervor has subsided in Iran, the perception of conflict between the two states has not ceased. Each state views each other’s religious minority as a threat to sovereignty and potential catalysts to sectarian violence.Cold War of the Crescent: Saudi-Iranian Conflict TodayAfter a violent Arab Spring in 2011, Saudi Arabia has been on high alert for sectarian violence, dissidence, and revolutionary fervor. The toppling of Libya’s Ghadaffi, the failed state that is Syria, the continuous tumult in Egypt, the shaky rebound in Tunisia, and the deterioration of Yemen have all given the House of Saud reasons to be worried for its survival. Iran has used these revolutions to its advantage by funding proxies and political groups to take power. These groups largely contradict Saudi Arabia’s alliances and regional goals. Today, Saudi Arabia and Iran are backing different proxy forces predominantly in Syria and Yemen, thus further stoking the flames between the two countries.On January 3rd, Saudi Arabia announced that it had executed 47 convicted terrorists. Of the 47, Nimir al-Nimir, a prominent Shia cleric in Saudia Arabia, was executed. Al-Nimir epitomizes the anxiety of both countries. Saudi Arabia convicted al-Nimir of stoking sectarianism and promoting violence (a commonly used fear tactic that raises nationalism and directs hatred toward Iran). Furthermore, al-Nimir was viewed as an agent of Iran. On the other hand, al-Nimir's execution was viewed by Shias across the Middle East and Iran as further oppression of the Shia minority in the Gulf region. This caused massive protests in Bahrain, Pakistan, and Iran-- calling for revenge for their fallen leader. The Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked and the Saudi diplomats were forced to evacuate.Brooke Stallsmith, a former CIA intelligence analyst and current consultant for the US government who is also a member of the Euphrates Global Advisory Council, provided an economic lens to view the conflict. Stallsmith stated that, "Saudi-Iran tensions may reflect the two regimes' economic weaknesses as much as anything else. Both have taken big financial hits as the price of oil has dropped over the past two years from more than $100/barrel to less than $40/barrel, and neither has been willing to reform the way they manage their economies. The current escalation of their war of words--which, insh'allah, will remain verbal--might represent a nice distraction from addressing longer-term issues.”What does this mean for the US? Unfortunately, a very black-and-white populist opinion exists regarding the Middle East. These opinions come from both sides of the political spectrum. Some general examples are “If we engage in diplomacy with Iran, we are funding terrorism and hurting our ally, Israel” or “By maintaining our relationship with Saudi Arabia, we’re funding a violator of human rights who also loosely supports terrorism in the region”. These are oversimplified opinions in a very complex region where we have built complicated relationships that require give-and-take.I spoke with Dave Jesmer, a Near East expert who is a retired senior Army Special Forces officer and Foreign Area Officer, and is a member of the Euphrates Global Advisory Council, about the current Saudi-Iranian breakdown in relations. He had a positive long-term outlook on the situation. I asked Dave what the future of US-Saudi relations entailed with the Iran pivot in mind. Dave replied that, “Our goal will be to reassure the Saudi and Gulf States that we’re not abandoning them…I think we’ll see closer ties”. In regards to Iranian-US relations Dave said “We’ve been redeveloping our relationship with Iran, and it will continue to improve”. He warned that it would be detrimental if the two countries would not continue peace talks for Syria and Yemen; two conflicts that have no real winner and need to be resolved quickly. However, he reassured that, “…the two countries have sat across from each other at the negotiation table in talks regarding Syria and they are cooperating. We hope that they’ll begin talks for Yemen.” Dave believes that social progress may be slow in the region, but it is nonetheless happening. One potential for further progress and overlap is that Western countries are educating young Saudis and hopefully Iranians will be able to freely study in the West.For updated information on Saudi Arabia in 2018 please visit Saudi Arabia Economy.

Map image credit: Dr. Michael Izady at Columbia University, Gulf2000, New York