Beyond the Shia-Sunni Divide: Iran, Saudi Arabia and their Great Game

by Pushkal Chhaparwal

On January 2, 2016, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that it had executed forty-seven people across the country in a single day, more than most Western countries, including the United States, execute in a year. Although public execution in Saudi Arabia is not a recent development, it was the execution of Saudi-based Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was amongst the forty-seven executed, that ignited serious Shia-Sunni tensions in the region, especially in Iran and Saudi Arabia

Madina Mosque
©Wikimedia Commons

The Preface

Nimr Al Nimr, a Shia Sheikh based in an eastern province of Saudi Arabia, was an outspoken critic of the ruling Al-Saud monarchy. He demanded free elections in the country and called for greater rights for Saudi Shia Muslims. According to the Saudi Interior Ministry, he had thrice been arrested in 2006, 2009 and 2012 for “resisting and disobeying” the Saudi ruling monarchy. The issuing of his death sentence in October 2014 followed by his execution was the final nail in the coffin. Shias in Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan and India were outraged, but the strongest reaction by far came from Iran. There, people, allegedly supported by the Ayatollah regime, ransacked and torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran and attacked its consulate in Mashhad.

What followed was a toxic diplomatic and vocal battle between the Shia and Sunni powers. Saudi Arabia immediately severed all diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran and imposed a travel ban. Following this, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Bahrain (all Sunni-led Saudi allies) also severed diplomatic ties with Iran. This recent standoff has further poisoned relations between the two giant regional contenders, embroiling them in a rivalry that will have significant regional and potentially global ramifications. Many believe that the reason for their animosity lies in religion — along the Shia-Sunni dividing lines. It is much more complicated than that, however. History, economics, politics and of course religion have all played crucial roles in the development of this great Middle Eastern rivalry.

The Persian Paradox: A Historical Perspective

Historically speaking, Iran, erstwhile Persia, had significant influence on the Middle East’s culture and politics and even made large contributions to the region during the Islamic golden age from the 8th to 13th centuries CE. At its zenith, the Persian Empire ruled large parts of the region.  In comparison, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has only existed as a nation since 1932, courtesy of the unification of the many Wahhabi tribal states led by their leader Ibn Saud. This historical comparison, although ignored in the media, explains the Kingdom’s fear of an increasingly hegemonic Iran. Saudi Arabia also views Iran’s increasingly active role in the internal affairs of the region as a move to displace it as the leader of the Muslim World.

This political threat grew exponentially during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which resulted in the deposition of the secular Shah of Iran and saw Ayatollah Khomeini take power of the newly formed Islamic Republic. Khomeini tried to export his Islamic political revolution to other Arab countries, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia, due in large part due to his opposition of monarchies, which he believed were illegitimate under Islam. In other words, it offered the world a model of political Islam which was staunchly anti-monarchy and thus posed a threat to the Kingdom. This threat transformed into the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War during which Saddam Hussein launched an attack against Iran.

” Saudi Arabia also views Iran’s increasingly active role in the internal affairs of the region as a move to displace it as the leader of the Muslim World.”

The conflict resulted in the deaths of millions of people and the use of chemical warfare against Iran, to which the international community turned a blind eye. During the war, Saudi Arabia — due to its opposition to Khomeini’s revolutionary ideas — supplied arms and money to Iraq in its fight against Iran. In addition, Iraq was liberally supported by the West, particularly by the United States. After the war, there was a thaw in relations, but the political honeymoon was short-lived. Iran soon funded the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, its strong proxy in the region, which allegedly went on to attack Western and Saudi targets in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region. Of note were the Khobar Towers bombing in 2004 and the failed assassination attempt of the Saudi ambassador to the United States in 2011. Most recently, the disastrous Hajj Stampede of 2015 led to more than 450 Iranian deaths and heightened tensions after Iran accused Saudi Arabia of mass negligence, heavily criticizing its handling of the situation.

Riyal vs. Rial: The Economic and Geopolitical Angle

That both rivals are big producers of oil and share the same currency name (the Saudi Riyal and Iranian Rial) is perhaps merely coincidence. Both countries, however, want to knock the other down on the economic as well as political battlefield. The signing of the P5+1 nuclear accord with Iran in July 2015 sent tremors through Riyadh; the Saudis realized that with the lifting of economic sanctions would come the increased production of Iranian oil. In its January report, the World Bank lowered the average value of oil to USD 37 per barrel for 2016. This glut of oil will decrease Saudi Arabia’s revenue. Furthermore, in July 2015 Reuters reported that with “sanctions removed, Iran will have access to $100 billion dollars of its frozen assets abroad,” which experts fear might increase its “interference” and cause “instability” in the region, further harming Saudi interests.

From a geopolitical perspective, Saudi Arabia’s insecurity and obsession with Iran is valid. With civil wars raging throughout the middle East and Iran’s open support of Assad in Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shia rebels in Bahrain and an Iranian alliance with the current Iraqi government, the Kingdom fears that the wings of Persian foreign policy are growing longer and wider in the region. This poses a direct threat to its leadership and has been compounded by a number of pro-democratic, anti-monarchical protests. These might affect the vulnerable Saudi public, especially in the Shia-dominated, oil-rich eastern provinces of the Kingdom, and could also result in significant financial impact. As Jennifer Williams, deputy foreign editor of Vox, pointed out, “an unstable Kingdom would be susceptible to collapse.”

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia risks losing custodianship of the two holy mosques at Mecca and Medina. This would deal a major blow, potentially threatening its status as a regional power. Another serious concern is the reliability of its loyal defender, the United States. Until now, the United States has stood firmly by its middle-eastern ally and has historically supplied Saudi Arabia with state-of-the-art arms technology, to the tune of USD 50 billion, according to an October report published in The Telegraph. With the easing of sanctions, however, the Kingdom fears a rapid thawing of US-Iranian relations. The recent geopolitical calculus of Saudi Arabia, which includes both the execution of Nimr al-Nimr and the severing of diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran, is proof of its insecurity. And this great game is set to get even murkier.

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