Iran-Saudi Geopolitical Rivalry and Future Security Equations in Middle East

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mahsa Mah-Pishanian
Ph.D. Candidate and Expert on Middle East Issues

From a historical viewpoint, ideological rivalry over formulation of security equations in the Middle East has been one of the most important causes of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Following the popular uprisings in the Arab world in recent years, which have already changed the political perspective in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria in favor of identity-based and sectarian coordinates, the balance of regional power equations has become more ambiguous and fragile than any time before.

In fact, new developments in the Arab world, which have been considered a turning point in the balance of power in the Middle East region, have had an important effect on the regional security in the Persian Gulf by establishing a link between internal political dynamism of the Arab societies and the role of governments. Of special importance in this regard are two Saudi-related developments: The military intervention by Saudi Arabia in Bahrain for the suppression of the ongoing uprising by the country’s Shia majority to keep the Al Khalifa regime in power, and sending military aid to militants in Syria. Both cases have helped to open a new chapter in tense, albeit multilayered and identity-related, rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran which will affect the political fate of Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain and Syria as well.

Differences over the future outlook of Yemen and the future standing of Houthi people, who live in the northern part of that country, have provided a fertile ground for tensions in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since Houthis constitute the most important and also the biggest Zaidi Shia group in the Sa’ada Province in north of Yemen, Saudi and Yemeni officials have joined hands in accusing Iran of providing the Houthi people with military training and assistance.

Iraq is another ground for geopolitical rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia where the balance of regional power has to a large extent turned in Iran's favor following the fall of the country’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein. Since Saddam has been overthrown, Iraqi Shias have been grabbing a bigger chunk of the country’s political power pie. In addition, while political, economic, and diplomatic relations between Iran and the political leaders in Iraq are growing on a daily basis, strategic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been in decline. To make matters even worse, the military intervention by Saudi Arabia in Bahrain has been met with serious criticism of the Baghdad government. Some important Iraqi newspapers which are close to Shia circles have gone as far as calling on the government to ban the import of Saudi goods.

At any rate, the main issue which has caused serious security concerns among the Saudi leadership is the uprising of the Shia majority in the neighboring Bahrain. For a country like Saudi Arabia, which has a longstanding claim to the leadership of the Arab world and whose economy is heavily dependent on oil revenues, nothing could be more catastrophic than the repetition of the Iraq experience. Riyadh by no means wants to see other governments in its immediate neighborhood with a Shia-dominated structure. On the other hand, possible establishment of Shia governments in Bahrain and Yemen in the Persian Gulf region – in addition to Iraq – will amount to rising power of Iran across the region. Such a state of affairs would mean the end of the role that Saudi Arabia played as the big brother for other monarchies in the region.

This is especially true as the country is also facing very important security challenges within its own borders. Increasing dissent in the Shia-dominated Eastern Province; the changing nature, goals, and methods used by Sunni opposition groups under the influence of the ongoing protests in the other Arab countries; the dwindling political legitimacy of Saudi Arabian government pursuant to military intervention in Bahrain and Syria; instability of domestic energy consumption pattern; insecurity of the production and export of crude oil; senescence of the ruling class; having a relatively young population; vulnerability to fluctuations in the international energy market; and economic incoordination are just a handful of domestic problems with which the Saudi government is grappling right now. For this reason, seeing themselves looking in the eyes of a host of domestic and regional challenges, Saudi officials decided to further deepen the existing differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims across the region and make efforts to contain the power of Shias in the region, especially in Bahrain and in the eastern parts of Saudi Arabia. This policy has been adopted by the officials in Riyadh since the very beginning of popular uprisings in different parts of the Middle East.

The ongoing developments as well as diplomatic endeavors by Iran and the United States aimed at reestablishing diplomatic relations between the two countries have concerned Saudi Arabia more than any other country. Officials in Riyadh believe that the new approach taken by the United States to Iran is the continuation of the past policies adopted by Washington which were at odds with the national interests of Riyadh and have led to weakening of its regional role. There is an array of US policies in the region which suit that description and include Washington’s support for the Arab uprisings; refusing to support [former dictators] Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Bin Ali, respectively in Egypt and Tunisia; and reaching an agreement with Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons which practically obviated the need for the United States to take a military action against the Syrian government. The United States’ new strategy, known as “Pivot to Asia,” has become another cause to concern for Saudi Arabia. According to this new strategy, Washington has decided through a dominantly economic approach to reduce its focus on the Middle East and Europe and, instead, look toward the Eastern Asia.

Perhaps Saudi leaders consider this as the main reason why the United States has decided to mend fences with Iran. And this is also the reason that has prompted Saudis to try to increase the cost of getting close to Iran for the United States, which also explains recent threats that Saudi officials have posed against the United States. Of course, Saudis are not actually likely to put those threats into action.

On the whole, a confrontational mode of interaction between Iran and Saudi Arabia would benefit neither country and, without a doubt, will have negative consequences for these two countries and the entire region as well. Therefore, Iranian officials are advised to highlight Saudi Arabia’s positive role in the regional developments, as they did in the past. They should also take measures, both in words and actions, to dispel the concerns that Saudi officials currently have about close relations between Tehran and Washington. On the other hand, Saudi officials should try to understand the new geopolitical developments in the region, give up their past policies, and put better interaction and cooperation with Iran on the top of their political agenda. In short, both countries should know that the way to progress and regional development passes through cooperation, not confrontation, between Tehran and Riyadh.

Key Words: Iran-Saudi Geopolitical Rivalry, Security Equations in Middle East, US, Arab world, Shia-Dominated Structure, Geopolitical Developments, Mah-Pishanian

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