Saudi Arabia, Iran: Resilient Rivalries and Pragmatic Possibilities

23rd Jun 2020 by Simon Mabon

Saudi Arabia, Iran:   Resilient Rivalries and Pragmatic Possibilities

Simon Mabon & Edward Wastnidge


The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has occupied a central role in shaping the contemporary Middle East. After revolutionary activities brought about an end to the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, the establishment of an Islamic Republic dramatically changed the organisation of regional security, with far-reaching consequences across the Middle East and Muslim worlds. The revolution added a theological dimension to an already fraught rivalry that was shaped by a struggle over regional power and underpinned by clashing identities. Yet in spite of this, the rivalry between the two states is not static, nor does it have to remain in its current form. In this short interjection we provide a short historical account of relations between the two states before outlining areas of pragmatic possibility to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran  

A Tale of Two Monarchs 

 While current debates on the Iran-Saudi relationship are, by some necessity, centred on the contemporary manifestations of competition between the two sides, the sense of rivalry between them has a longer history. Iran’s revolution in 1979, so often heralded as game changer in the region and Islamic world certainly played a significant role in shaping the relationship as we see it now. However, the broader Cold War context, along with both states’ regional ambitions and roles as major oil producers prior to the revolution are also key. In a past echo of the West’s current placing of trust in an authoritarian, ambitious leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahalvi was entrusted with securing Western interests in the region during the Cold War. As with MBS, the Shah was furnished with the most advanced weaponry and a blind eye was turned to the domestic repression that went hand in hand with modernisation efforts and vanity projects. 

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia were seen has ‘twin pillars’ of Persian Gulf security following the UK withdrawal from the region,[1]with Iran in particular playing a key role as a bulwark against the perceived Soviet threat to the region. The two monarchies were untied by a common desire to maintain the regional status quo and push back against the tide of Arab nationalism that both saw as a major threat. As Saudi Arabia began to assert its position as a key oil producer, it was also able undermine Iran’s regional clout - as seen through its role in the Arab oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War, and in its rapidly swelling coffers. Thus, in the lead up to the events of 1979, both states ramped up their military spending to reinforce their regional standing and domestic control. 

Revolutionary Fervour

Unsurprisingly, the events of 1979 across both states had a dramatic impact on regional relations. The establishment of the Islamic Republic under the tutelage of Ruhollah Khomeini added a theological dimension to geopolitical tensions across the Gulf that had become increasingly fraught.[2]In Saudi Arabia, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca demonstrated the precariousness of claims to Islamic leadership, which was further exacerbated by revolutionary activity across the Gulf.[3]What quickly followed was a spiral of rhetoric as rulers in both states sought to demonstrate Islamic credentials along with demonising the other.[4]The onset of war between Iran and Iraq exemplified the level of fear that many states across the Gulf felt at events in Iran and, although concerned about Saddam Hussein, Saudi support for Iraq was hardly surprising.[5]

A key component of the nascent Islamic Republic’s foreign policy was to provide support to the “downtrodden” of the Muslim world – the spirit of the Battle of Karbala –  enshrined in Article 3.16 of the Iranian Constitution. This was quickly put into practice with support for groups across the Middle East, notably Hizballah, and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. These organisations sought to challenge the status quo and while the latter was ultimately unsuccessful in its efforts to topple the Al Khalifa ruling family in Bahrain, its legacy remains in how Shi’a groups have been treated across the island. 

A Burgeoning Rapprochement

As the winds of change blew across global politics with the end of the Cold War, Iran was also transitioning to a new phase in its post-revolutionary political development following the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Khomeini in 1989. Iran’s need for post-war reconstruction and the ascension of a comparatively more pragmatic trend in Iranian politics in the form of the Rafsanjani-Khamenei axis had implications for its relationship with regional states. In Saudi Arabia, the emergence of Crown Prince Abdullah also heralded a new direction in the Kingdom’s regional approach. 

Yet external affairs also played a key role in improving relations. On 20thJune 1990, a devastating earthquake in Majil which took the lives of around 60,000 Iranians created space and opportunity for dialogue and co-operation. As a result, the 1990s saw a burgeoning rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia which reached a high watermark under Iran’s reform-minded president Mohammad Khatami.[6]This period saw reciprocal visits by Khatami and Abdullah to each other’s capitals, cooperative participation in in international fora (both in terms of Islamic affairs in the OIC and oil affairs within OPEC),[7]  and increasing trade and security links being fostered between the two states.

The US-led invasion of Iraq 

Although the previous years had hinted at a thawing in diplomatic relations, the onset of the War on Terror re-shaped the order of global politics. While Iran had provided support to the US in Operation Enduring Freedom, the State of the Union speech given in early 2002 which articulated the existence of an ‘axis of evil’ had a seismic impact on this burgeoning rapprochement. 

 The ensuing invasion of Iraq – with a close eye on Iran – opened up space for a new arena of competition between Iran and the US, supported by Saudi Arabia. With the return of a number of erstwhile Iraqi political figures from exile in Iran, the Islamic Republic quickly began to exert a great deal of influence upon the post-2003 state,[8]much to the concern of Saudi Arabia who urged the US to “cut off the head of the snake”.[9]What followed was a discursive process of framing Iran as an existential threat to regional security, led by Saudi Arabia and Israel.[10]

In Lebanon, the assassination of Rafiq Hariri positioned the two rivals against each other in the formal political arena with the establishment of March 8 andMarch 14 alliances, bringing together local allies with their external sponsors.[11]In spite of the burgeoning violence and hostility, Riyadh and Tehran were able to work together to prevent a descent into civil war. At the same time, however, Saudi Arabia sought to woo the new Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, reducing Iranian influence across the Levant.

The Arab Uprisings 

The events of the Arab Uprisings which opened up schisms between rulers and ruled which quickly became arenas for geopolitical competition in a region underpinned by a range of shared norms, creating what Paul Noble termed a “vast sound chamber”.[12]In societies divided along sect-based lines – most notably Bahrain and Syria – schisms provided opportunities for Saudi Arabia and Iran to operate in pursuit of improved regional standing, often at the expense of the other.[13]

As protests gained momentum and it appeared that regimes could have been toppled, events took on additional geopolitical meaning. In Syria, elite Iranian troops took on a central role in devising the Assad regime’s strategy to defeat the protesters and the Islamist groups that quickly emerged; unsurprisingly, the conflict had devastating repercussions for Syrians.In Bahrain, a Saudi-led Peninsula Shield Force crossed the King Fahd Causeway to ensure the survival of the Al Khalifa ruling family amidst widespread claims of perfidious Iranian activity.[14]

What this brief overview has endeavoured to show is that the nature of relations between the two major Gulf and Islamic powers is shaped by the contingencies of time and space. While structural factors are certainly prevalent across these periods, notably concerns about regional order and claims to Islamic legitimacy, these structural forces are acted upon and shaped by agency operating in a range of different ways. As a consequence, while temporality is important, so too is spatiality.  

Pragmatic Possibilities

The past decade has seen Iran-Saudi relations fall to one their lowest ebbs, however, a number of potential shifts in the short to medium term could provide avenues for a rapprochement. The impending US draw down from Iraq, and the broader sense of a transition towards a post-US Middle East, affords a chance for the region’s leading states to have a greater say in determining their own security, free of external influence. The US’ lavish support of Saudi Arabia has always been an impediment to better Iran-Saudi ties. The Islamic Republic has long been keen on region-first security solutions that help it maintain its desire for independence in foreign policy and reduce external influence.[15]Saudi buy-in to such proposals has always been unrealistic in light of US security guarantees, but the sense of abandonment that it feels in light of the attacks against key oil installations in 2019 is real and may help influence a recalibration.  

The sense of US unreliability and mis-reading of regional dynamics under Trump was also brought into sharp focus with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in 2020.[16]For Saudi Arabia and its allies, this highlighted the real risks that they faced as potential targets of Iranian responses to the killing. Ironically, this very act has the potential to open space for better relations, as seen in the rush of regional states to placate the Islamic Republic in the immediate aftermath. It allowed Iran to showcase its military capabilities, often decried as impotent in the face of US might, in a clear warning to US regional allies. Furthermore, as the conflict in Syria draws down, and the appetite for sustained engagement by the Saudi coalition in Yemen wanes, the avenues for conflict between the two sides’ competing visions of regional order are also reduced. A sustainable peace emerging from both tragic conflicts will only improve the possibilities for wider rapprochement. The role of the region’s traditional meditating power, Oman, and the emerging influence of Iraq as a potential bridge between the two powers will also provide important spaces in which to facilitate détente. 

In addition, economic challenges placed a great deal of pressure on both states. Of course, the COVID19 pandemic exacerbated these issues. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s efforts to transform the Kingdom’s economy – led by the flagship NEOM project – required vast financial resources which calls into question  pose serious challenges to the Kingdom, as documented in detail by Sukru Cildir’s piece in this report. 

Finally, the religious sphere, so often seen as a competitive domain by commentators emphasising a sectarian interpretation of the rivalry, remains a key domain in which Iran and Saudi Arabia maintain ties. Saudi custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites, while affording it avenues for exercise of hegemonic aspirations in the Islamic world, also provides a telling example of how a religio-spatial realm acts as a channel or maintaining relations. For example, the Hajj, although a domain of contention in previous years, provides a space for diplomatic engagement between officials of both sides in terms of facilitating Iranian pilgrims’ access. 

Structural Factors 

In spite of the areas of possibility, as noted above there remain a number of structural impediments to broader peace building efforts. 

1.     The role of the United States

Since 1979 the US has occupied a complex role in the Gulf. The role of the US is viewed in contradictory ways across the Gulf: for Saudi Arabia it is a source of security yet for Iran, it is seen as a source of instability. Moreover, the strength of Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has caused many in Iran to deny the agency of Saudis altogether, claiming that the US is the real rival. Indeed, in discussions with a former Iranian diplomat, it was suggested that efforts to facilitate an improvement in regional relations during the 1990s was scuppered because it did not have American buy in. Until this issue is addressed, there is little scope for a real thaw. 

2.     Domestic Contestation 

The complexity of domestic politics in both states, where societies are divided along religious, tribal and ethnic lines means that regimes are faced with challenges to ensure their survival. Moreover, domestic instability creates possibilities for external manipulation, creating suspicion about the loyalty of minority groups. Moreover, creating exclusionary politics in an attempt to speak to support bases exacerbates these tensions.

3.     The geo-sectarianization of regional politics 

After the Arab Uprisings, processes of sectarianization have taken place in a number of states. These processes are not purely discursive, but resonate amongst societies for whom religious identities are important. As sectarianization took on a geopolitical form, mapped onto tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, local grievances became imbued with regional meaning and vice versa. This made reconciliatory efforts all the more difficult because of the additional meaning that such conflicts have. 

Taken together, it is easy to see how grievances become internalised over time, as we have seen elsewhere across the region. Untangling this complex web of material and ideational factors will take time and require a great deal of hard work. Yet as periods of apparent rapprochement in the rivalry appear to show, this is not an insurmountable task, but one that requires creative solutions.

[1]For further insight into US policies in the region during the 1970s, including Nixon’s ‘twin pillars’ policy, see Brannon, S. (1994). Pillars, Petroleum and Power: The United States in the GulfJournal of Arabian Studies, 2(1), 4-10.

[2]Mabon, S. (2013). Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle EastLondon: IB Tauris. 

[3]See: Nevo, Joseph. (1998). Religion and National Identity in Saudi ArabiaMiddle Eastern Studies, 34(3), 34–53. 

[4]Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran, chapter 6. 

[5]Chubin, S. and Tripp, C. (1996). Iran – Saudi Arabia Relations and Regional Order. London: Oxford University Press for IISS. 

[6]Wastnidge, E. (2016). Diplomacy and Reform in Iran: Foreign Policy under Khatami.London: IB Tauris.

[7]Barzegar, K. (2000). Detente in Khatami’s Foreign Policy and its Impact on the Improvement of Iran – Saudi relations. Discourse: An Iranian Quarterly, 2(2), 155 – 178.

[8]Dodge, T. (2005). Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History DeniedNew York: Columbia University Press; Tripp, Chalres. (2007). A History of IraqCambridge: Cambridge University Press.  


[10]Mabon, S. (2018). Muting the Trumpets of Sabotage: Saudi Arabia, the US and the Quest to Securitise IranBritish Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 45(5), 742–59.

[11]Haddad, S. (2009). Lebanon: From Consociationalism to ConciliationNationalism and Ethnic Politics, 15(3-4), 398-416.

[12]Noble, P. (1991). The Arab System: Pressures, Constraints, and Opportunities. In B. Korany and A. Dessouki (Eds.),The Foreign Policies of Arab StatesBoulder: Westview. pp. 57.

[13]Mabon, S. (Ed). (2018). Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Struggle to Shape the Middle EastLondon: Foreign Policy Centre. 

[14]Mabon, S. (2012). The Battle for Bahrain: Iranian‐Saudi RivalryMiddle East Policy, 19(2), 84-97. 

[15]Nasirzadeh, S. and Wastnidge, E. (2020). De-securitizing through Diplomacy: De-sectarianization and the View from the Islamic RepublicThe Review of Faith & International Affairs, 18(1), 23-33. 

[16]Mabon, S. and SEPAD fellows. (2020). The Death of General: What’s next for Iran, Iraq and the wider Middle East?. Foreign Policy Centre, January 16, 2020.