Why Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals
Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads. They have long been rivals, but it’s all recently got a lot more tense. Here’s why.
How come Saudi Arabia and Iran don’t get along?
Saudi Arabia and Iran – two powerful neighbours – are locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance.
The decades-old feud between them is exacerbated by religious differences. They each follow one of the two main sects in Islam – Iran is largely Shia Muslim, while Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power.
This religious schism is reflected in the wider map of the Middle East, where other countries have Sunni or Shia majorities, some of whom look towards Iran or Saudi Arabia for support or guidance.
Historically Saudi Arabia, a monarchy and home to the birthplace of Islam, saw itself as the leader of the Muslim world. However this was challenged in 1979 by the Islamic revolution in Iran which created a new type of state in the region – a kind of theocracy – that had an explicit goal of exporting this model beyond its own borders.
In the past 15 years in particular, the differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been sharpened by a series of events.
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who had been a major Iranian adversary. This removed a crucial military counter-weight to Iranian influence in Iraq, which has been rising since then.
Fast-forward to 2011 and uprisings across the Arab world caused political instability throughout the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia exploited these upheavals to expand their influence, notably in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, further heightening mutual suspicions.
Iran’s critics say it is intent on establishing itself or its proxies across the region, and achieve control of a land corridor stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean.
- Saudi Arabia country profile
- Iran country profile
How have things suddenly got worse?
The strategic rivalry is heating up because Iran is in many ways winning the regional struggle.
In Syria, Iranian (and Russian) support for President Bashar al-Assad has largely routed rebel group groups backed by Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is trying desperately to contain rising Iranian influence and the militaristic adventurism of the kingdom’s young and impulsive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the country’s de facto ruler – is exacerbating regional tensions.
He is waging a war against rebels in Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour, Yemen, in part to stem perceived Iranian influence there, but after nearly three years this is proving a costly gamble.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, many observers believe the Saudis put pressure on the prime minister to resign in order to destabilise a country where Iran’s ally, Shia militia group Hezbollah, leads a politically powerful bloc and controls a huge, heavily armed fighting force.
- Lebanon in the crosshairs
- Who are Hezbollah?
There are also external forces at play. Saudi Arabia has been emboldened by support from the Trump administration while Israel, which sees Iran as a mortal threat, is in a sense “backing” the Saudi effort to contain Iran.
The Jewish state is fearful of the encroachment of pro-Iranian fighters in Syria ever closer to its border.
Israel and Saudi Arabia were the two countries most resolutely opposed to the 2015 international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme, insisting that it did not go far enough to roll back any chance of Iran obtaining the bomb.
- The power behind the throne
- Crown prince’s ruthless streak
Who are their regional allies?
Broadly speaking the strategic map of the Middle East reflects the Shia-Sunni divide.