Clairvoyance in the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Energy Security, International Developments, Middle East

By Spyridoula Karapanagioti, Internation Relations graduate from the University of Piraeus

It appears to lots of people around the world that Iran and Saudi Arabia, have always been on a rough path, with the tensions and conflicts between them perpetually in abundance and never relaxed. Oil prices fluctuations and the involvement of both states in proxy wars, for instance in Yemen, support such an argument. Notwithstanding, there are several geopolitical and economic factors and many historical facts that have led the public opinion to believe that their bilateral relations have never been and, most importantly, can never be, congenial.
Initially, a reference to Realism, the leading theory of International Relations, seems appropriate in order to have a better understanding of the bilateral Iran-Saudi relations. In Realism theory, each player in the global states system aims not only to achieve development and security, but also, if possible, to entrench a strong and steady hegemony in its region. Most of the time, there is more than one country in pursuit of this goal in the same regional sub-system.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are two of the mightiest actors for the time being, with a long history between them. Throughout the decades, the two nations have been fighting over political and religious influence and control in the area, but also for geopolitical reasons in terms of power and political sway.
It is widely presumed that the rivalry between these two countries has its foundations in religion. This argument though is partially correct since religion is solely one cause for collision. Indeed, Iran’s official religion is Shia Islam, while Saudi Arabia’s is Sunni, which represents the most popular sect of Islam around the world. More fastidiously, a great number of people in Saudi Arabia follow the most conservative branch of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism. The two states are primary representatives of their religious sects in the area and naturally want to prevail. It is interesting to note that both have enclaves of each other in their soil. The execution of Nimr al Nimr’s – a Shia cleric – by the Saudi government, as a counter-terrorism act, several months ago and Iran’s reactions, reinforced the belief that the tension in bilateral relations is stemming from religion.
Before stressing the other factors that are indeed important, it is important to understand the religious aspect and the historical background of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Until Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the relations between the two countries were relatively peaceful. After the Revolution, Iran’s politics took a fundamental turn and adopted a fervent anti-western stance. Religion determined both domestic and foreign policies. By that time, Iran’s religious leader, Khomeini, criticized Saudi Arabia, due to the latter’s relations with the United States of America. Iran sought a leading position back then, with aspirations of becoming the ‘regional police’ and of preserving its dominant role in the Gulf.
The Iran-Iraq war in 1980 posed a further stress test to bilateral Iran-Saudi relations. Iraq moved by fear that the Iranian Revolution would inspire insurgency among Iraq’s suppressed Shia majority but it also wanted to take Iran’s role in the area. As far as Saudi Arabia was concerned back then, along with the US, both took sides and backed Iraq, leading Khomeini to state that Mecca (the sacred city of Islam), was in the hands of a band of heretics (sic). A diplomatic dispute befell then, but the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia was toned down in 2007, when the Iranian president visited Saudi Arabia as a friendly gesture.
2011 marked a new watershed in bilateral relations. Iran was accused of planning to kill Saudi’s and US’s envoys. This was followed by the incident in Mecca in 2015, when almost 760 people from both sects were trampled to death an incident that shook the kingdom’s prestige, the -as mentioned beforehand- execution of Nimr al Nimr in the dawn of 2016, which not only caused heated counter-actions from the Iranian side, but particularly boosted the domestic credibility of Saudi leadership within its own people) and of course above all, the nuclear deal that Iran had accomplished with the western nations back in the summer of 2015.
Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, opposed this, but then again, both countries did not wish to see a powerful Iran with nuclear weapons. So what intrigued Saudi Arabia’s opposition in the first place? Originally, when the negotiations took place, the secretive nature of the talks made the Saudis uncomfortable with the possible outcome. Furthermore, any deal between Iran and the US would naturally be opposed by the rest of the Gulf states. The odds were that Iran, faced with no economic sanctions, would boost oil exports and hence most likely cause quandary to the other exporters of the Gulf by means of further flooding the already saturated oil market with cheap Iranian oil, bringing prices even further down. And that indeed at the present time, appears to be the case, after the deal was finally achieved last year.
Iranian oil exports are estimated between 1 and 1.5 million barrels per day. Some economic analysts claim that in the worst case scenario, Riyal could be the next currency to lose its USD peg and gradually devalue. That would be a huge economic loss for Saudi Arabia, as the country depends on oil exports and sales for almost 45% of its GDP. The hopes for reaching common ground between Iran and Saudi Arabia, disappeared when at the recent meeting between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting countries and major oil producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia demanded from Iran to stop increasing its oil production. The outcome was that the economies of the oil producing states were undermined even further. The potential precarious financial state of the Saudi Kingdom along with the US’s position, have left the Saudis with a sense of isolation; the royal family is eager to reassert its power again.
The proxy wars and conflicts in which both countries are engaged are another important issue. Iran, even under sanctions, was Middle East’s second largest economy and right now, far from having reaped the full benefits of the deal yet, tries to drain Riyadh’s economy, which appears to dispense around 200$ million per day for its indirect participation in the Yemen war. Additionally, in Syria’s civil war, Iran keeps funding the Assad’s government, while Saudi Arabia is catering for the Sunni rebels fighting Syrian government. The list is elongated and encloses proxies in Iraq, in the fight against ISIS, and in Lebanon, as well. At the same time, the Iranian government launches its new military assets, which were purchased from China, in order to project its rising power both internally and regionally.
In a nutshell, the determination of bilateral relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia seems vaguer than ever. The spats are not expected to be end soon, but the possibility of a war among the two Gulf nations remains low at the moment.


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