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What Fuels the Saudi Rivalry With Iran?


By Madawi al-Rasheed

April 23, 2018

Saudi Arabia’s government officials, and particularly its powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, often talk about pushing back a dangerous Iranian threat. But the truth is, despite this talk, the foreign policy emanating from Riyadh is driven primarily by domestic politics. Prince Mohammed knows that a fearful enemy is a key to his own strength.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has oscillated between indifference, hostility, rapprochement and tension over the decades. Prince Mohammad appears determined to intensify the rivalry with Iran as he continues to raise Riyadh’s concerns over Iranian expansion in the Arab world and beyond.

The roots for perpetuating this conflict lie in the domestic context. The crown prince has used the rivalry with Tehran to deflect attention from the complexity of his own domestic uncertainties. The same may be true of Iran.

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the country set out to export its brand of revolutionary Islam. As Iran became an Islamic republic, Sunni Islamists were not only jealous of the triumph of the Shia Islamism but became even more determined to establish their version of the Islamic state.

Saudi Arabia exported Wahhabi Islam across Africa, Asia and even Europe. The two countries entered a fierce battle over the souls of Muslims with Saudi clerics augmenting their anti-Shiite rhetoric and the Iranian counterparts playing down their Shiism to appeal to Pan-Islamic, anti-imperial and anti-Western sentiments among Muslims.

The current moment is different. Prince Mohammed is trying to keep Iran isolated to deflect focus from domestic challenges. He is consolidating his rule and centralizing power to make major policy decisions himself, and thus, excluding numerous aspiring princes. He is restless as the sacking of the Minister of Interior Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, and the detention of Prince Walid bin Talal in the November “anti-corruption” campaign, illustrated.

The unprecedented marginalization and humiliation of senior princes haunts the young crown prince and his numerous disgruntled brothers and cousins. It is uncertain what the fallout will be.

Political grievances, inequality and unemployment among the youth are the pressing domestic concerns for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Even President Barack Obama reminded the Saudi and Gulf leaders of this reality. But the Saudis never accepted this assessment and continued to press the United States to bomb Iran.

Prince Mohammed’s intense and populist anti-Iranian rhetoric and promises to roll back Iranian influence in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are also aimed at creating a warlike situation in which internal dissent is silenced.

He rubs out the criticism of his domestic policies by reminding the marginalized royals and the commoners that he is fighting an existential threat from expansionist Iran. He blames Iran for the protests by Shiite citizens of Saudi Arabia in the oil rich Eastern province and the Saudis accuse the Shia citizens of being Iranian clients. Dissent among Sunnis critical of domestic policies is silenced by invoking the warlike situation with Iran, especially the civil war in Yemen.

The Saudis see the resurgence of the Iranian influence as revival of the old Persian nationalism. Amplifying the Iranian threat allows Prince Mohammed to magnify his own role as the saviour of Saudi Arabia and the broader Arab region from Persianisation and Shiification.

Preserving enmity with Tehran is also a prerequisite for a domestic ideological shift that the crown prince initiated in 2015 with the blessings of his father, King Salman. The Saudis, under King Salman, began replacing the old ideological glue of Wahhabism with a populist, militarized Saudi nationalism, which feeds off the threat of an expansionist Iran and its aggressive Shiite nationalism.

Rivalry with Iran strengthens Saudi national solidarity. Saudis see the brutal war in Yemen, where the Houthi rebels are supported by Iran, as a necessary response in a battle for survival for the Saudi nation and the hegemony of Arabness over Persianisation.

Saudi Arabia’s economic supremacy still depends on the Kingdom maintaining its hegemonic share in the oil market and boosting its position as a global investment destination in the region. Saudi leadership also sees Iran, an oil-producing neighbour, through the lens of competition.

The Kingdom seeks the shrinking, even the collapse, of the Iranian economy under sanctions. It will never allow any efforts at regional economic integration, which could lead to Iranian human resources and products being readily available in the Gulf region.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 — an ambitious transformation plan to wean his country off its dependence on oil — and other economic development plans exclude Iran while the Kingdom seeks greater regional integration with the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and possibly Israel.

The rivalry with Iran is also connected to Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States. Any rapprochement between the United States and Iran — such as the nuclear agreement under President Obama — is viewed with intense suspicion and fear as it threatens the Saudi position as the leading American client in the region.

During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia and Iran worked together with the United States against the Soviet Union. They accepted a division of labor: Iran provided military capabilities; Saudi Arabia provided theological ammunition and funding against the Soviet Union.

The Kingdom has, since, sought to strengthen its military capabilities and present itself as the sole loyal regional force, willing to pursue policies and strategies favorable to American interests. Its worst nightmare is the fear of American abandonment for a new regional partner.

Prince Mohamed stepped up his demonization of Iran during his several visits to the United States. He blamed Iran for radicalization in Saudi Arabia, global terrorism and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where Iranian influence and Shia ascendance led to marginalizing the Sunni population. He has held Iran responsible for creating violent sectarian militias that terrorize Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria and referred to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the new Hitler.

For domestic reasons, Saudi Arabia is fundamentally trying to mitigate the possibility of the reintegration of Iran in the global community. The conflict between the two countries will dissipate only if the domestic uncertainties subside or fade away.

Another world might be possible when the Kingdom feels internally secure and moves toward a representative government that solves domestic problems by consensus rather than blaming external enemies for its shortcomings.

Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at London School of Economics, is the editor of “Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia.”