The View From Riyadh
Most analysis of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry seems to miss the fundamental points that underline the tension.1 Iran is trying to save itself from either foreign intervention or domestic unrest2 while Saudi Arabia does not fear foreign intervention, like Iran it is concerned with domestic dissent.
Arguably, the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is determined to perpetuate four decades of rivalry and conflict with Iran. The Prince has been struggling with a domestic context that is beneficial to perpetuating this conflict. He has used the rivalry with Tehran to deflect from the complexity of his own domestic uncertainties. The same may be true of Iran.
As Iran became an Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia was threatened by the high expectations of its own Islamists, who must have been inspired by the Iranian success and intensified their activism to establish their own version of the Islamic state. Riyadh embarked on a project to spread its Wahhabi version of Islam and its clerics increased the frequency of their anti-Shi’a theology.
While not underestimating Saudi regional ambitions that underpin the most recent episode of the troubled and volatile Saudi-Iranian relations, to understand the current roots of antagonism we need not go beyond Saudi domestic uncertainties. These are different from those that in the past had fuelled the conflict.
Today Mohammad bin Salman needs to keep Iran isolated to deflate the current uncertainties he faces, not all of them are related to the prospect of radical Saudi Islamist violence such as the kind that ravaged Syria and Iraq. Previous Kings, Khalid (1975-1982), Fahd (1982-2005), and Abdullah (2005-2015) faced different domestic challenges that the rivalry with Iran helped to deflate but today there are new sets of uncertainties that Mohammad bin Salman is currently unable to resolve to his own advantage.
The most important challenge facing the Crown Prince is consolidating his own rule and centralising major policy decisions under his umbrella, thus excluding a whole range of other aspiring princes. From swift dismissals (eg. sacking Crown Prince and Minister of Interior Muhammad ben Nayif and the Commander of the Saudi National Guard Mitab ben Abdullah), to the detention of wealthy princes (Walid ben Talal in an allegedly anti-corruption campaign), Mohammad bin Salman feels restless. The unprecedented marginalisation and even humiliation of senior princes still haunt not only the young prince but also a large pool of disgruntled brothers and cousins. It is uncertain what the outcome of such drastic and unprecedented measures would be in the long term, particularly after the Khashoggi affair.
The Crown Prince’s strong anti-Iranian rhetoric and multiple promises to roll back Iranian influence in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, where it had so obviously been proliferating by the time he became Crown Prince in 2016, are meant to create a war like situation in which internal dissent is silenced. Under the threat of Iran, his domestic policies have become sacrosanct.
The regime wants to remind both the marginalised princes and Saudis more broadly that the young Crown Prince is fighting an existential threat, represented by the hawkish Iranians. By amplifying the Iranian threat and magnifying his own Arab mission to save the region from Persianisation and shiification, MBS blames Iran for any dissent in the country. This applies not only to the Shi’a protest movement in the Eastern province but also Sunni dissidents, especially those who emerged during the 2011 Arab uprisings.3 He frightens the Sunni majority with the threat of an Iranian backed conspiracy to destabilise the kingdom, create a Shi’a enclave in the oil-rich province, and eventually partition Saudi Arabia along regional and sectarian lines.4
By highlighting his determination to curb Iran, the Crown Prince aspires to emerge as the sole saviour of not only Saudi Arabia but also the region as a whole. The unresolved uncertainties surrounding his own kingship and the prospect of internal dissent among both the princes and ordinary Saudis prompt him to amplify the external enemy.
Amplifying the Iranian danger and perpetuating enmity with Tehran is a prerequisite for the domestic ideological shift that MBS, under the auspices of his father King Salman, has instigated since 2015. King Salman adopted the title malik al-hazm, king of steadfastness, in contrast with the soft face of King Abdullah, who became known as the King of Humanity before he died in 2015. Although old King Salman adopted a symbolic aggressive title, it was his son Muhammad who was entrusted with the mission to show masculine steadfastness, nowhere but in Yemen where Saudi militarised nationalism was to be tested against the Houthis, dubbed as Iranian clients.5
With the Saudi Wahhabi legitimacy narrative subsiding and even gradually being denied and suppressed, the Saudi leadership adopted a populist Saudi militarised nationalism, whose main target is Iran with its alleged aggressive Persian counter nationalism. The Saudi war in Yemen was perceived as a necessary response to an existential threat, and a battle for survival for the Saudi nation. Rivalry with Iran keeps the momentum of the emerging Saudi populist nationalism. It strengthens the abstract sense of Saudi national solidarity. Continuing a proxy war with Iran even without a decisive victory in Yemen remains important for domestic reasons. Saudi Arabia is yet to find a diplomatic solution to a conflict that proved to be difficult to win.
The economic supremacy of Saudi Arabia is inevitably still dependent on the country maintaining its historical share in the global oil market, and its position as an investment destination for global capital in the region. Keeping a large oil producing country under international pressure and a huge market with great potential like Iran excluded remains so important to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia sees the Iranian economy through the lens of competition rather than regional integration. It seeks the shrinking or even the collapse of the Iranian economy under sanctions and has never engaged into a bid to create regional integration in which Iranian human resources and products become readily integrated in a wider Gulf regional initiative. In retaliation, in 2016, the Iranians have used cyber warfare against Saudi ARAMCO, the oil company, to undermine the Saudi oil economy especially after Saudi Arabia refused to lower its oil production in 2014, a move that resulted in even lower oil prices.6
Finally, perpetuating enmity with Iran is extremely important for Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the West. Any rapprochement between the West and Iran- such as the one that led to the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement - is seen with suspicion and fear.7 Saudi Arabia needs to be the only US client not only in the Arabian Peninsula but also in the region and beyond. Saudi Arabia currently does not accept a return to the status quo ante during the Cold War when Iran provided the military base and Saudi Arabia provided Islamic ammunition against the Soviet Union.
Conflict with Iran contributes above all to Saudi Arabia maintaining its position as an Arab regional force, loyal to the US and willing to pursue policies and strategies favourable to US national interests. Saudi Arabia’s worse nightmare is for the US to contemplate normalisation of relations with Iran, albeit unlikely under President Donald Trump, or even diversify the countries the US can rely on as regional partners in the Persian Gulf.
While Mohammad bin Salman cannot expect US-Israeli relations to worsen more than they did under the Obama administration, he fears most a US rapprochement with Iran. Since 2015 Mohammad bin Salman has stepped up his demonisation of Iran during his several visits to the US. He held it responsible for radicalisation in Saudi Arabia, global terrorism and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in areas where Iranian influence and Shi’a ascendance had led to marginalising the Sunni population such as in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. On several occasions, he reminded American audiences that Al-Qaida affiliates and relatives of Osama bin Laden took refuge in Iran.8 More recently, he held Iran responsible for creating violent sectarian militia that terrorise Sunni populations under the guise of fighting terrorism in Iraq and Syria. He referred to Supreme Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new Hitler, thus striking a chord among US and other Western audiences.9 Saudi Arabia is constantly trying to mitigate against its nightmare scenario, namely the reintegration of Iran in the international community.
1.This essay is adapted from an article first produced for the LSE Middle East Centre entitled Saudi Domestic Uncertainties and the Rivalry with Iran
published in June 2018, which is available at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/201...
2. ABC News, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei claims foreign plot to overthrow system has failed, January 2018,
3. Toby Matthiesen, Saudi Arabia: the Middle East's most under-reported conflict, January 2012,
4. Al-Rasheed, Madawi, 2017, Sectarianism as counter-revolution: Saudi responses to the Arab Spring. In: Hashemi, Nader and Postel, Danny, (eds.)
Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. London: C Hurst & Co Ltd, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/83593...
5. Al-Rasheed, Madawi (ed.), 2018, Salman’s Legacy: The Dilemmas of a New Era in Saudi Arabia , London: C Hurst & Co Ltd,
6. Sam Jones, Cyber warfare: Iran opens a new front, FT, April 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/15e...
7. Iran nuclear deal: Key details, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-33521655
8. Norah O'Donnell, Saudi Arabia’s heir to the throne talks to 60 Minutes, CBS News, March 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/saudi-crownprine-
9 Ben Hubbard, Khamenei is Hitler: MBS, March 2018, https://www.telegraphindia.com...