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Iran and Saudi Arabia move beyond proxy conflict

October 8, 2015 at 1:10 pm

As a range of conflicts befall most of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the Saudi-Iranian rivalry has found its way into the equation. The rivalry has existed since the 1979 Iranian revolution, fanned by sectarianism, but has for the most part been a feud based on rhetoric and indirect military confrontations via proxy groups.

On 31 July 1987, during that year’s Hajj period, a clash occurred between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces which left more than 400 people dead. The Iranian demonstration was due to the pilgrims wanting to make a political statement and raise awareness of their dissent towards Saudi Arabia and what they believed to be the biggest threat to Iran and the Shia doctrine from within the Sunni world. Fast-forward 28 years, and there was no Iranian demonstration at Hajj 2015, but an ex-Iranian diplomat has accused Iran of instigating the Hajj stampede which killed over 700 people. Already, Saudi sympathisers have used this in their diplomatic demonisation of Iran. Although this accusation has so far taken no lives compared to the infamous 1987 confrontation, when put in context the diplomatic rivalry between Iran and Saudi that is playing out over the latest Makkah incident is far more dangerous.

The main difference between the two events was the role of Saudi in the feud. In the 1980s there was by no means less hostility between the two countries, but the Saudis were able to hide behind Saddam Hussain’s direct military action against Iran as he was the main deterrent to Iran and Shia hegemony as far as the Arab and Sunni world was concerned. The Saudis simply supported and funded Saddam Hussain, as did the West. It is estimated that during the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia provided the Iraqi dictator with $25 billion in the form of grants and loans. The Saudis felt relatively secure as long as Saddam Hussain was carrying the main military burden of eliminating the Iranian threat.

Where are the Saudis today? There has been a shift in Saudi foreign policy under King Salman, in which he aspires to turn Saudi Arabia into a regional military, as well as theological, power. He made this decision at a time when Western governments have been trying to extricate themselves from any direct “boots on the ground” military presence in the Middle East; they have focused instead on air power and material support for whichever sides in numerous conflicts match their “interests”.

This sense of independence from the West presented by Salman, especially through the formation of an Arab coalition to rid Yemen of the Iran-backed Houthi militia, is undeniable. However, there has been no cooling of Saudi relations with the Western world, evident by the US and Britain backing a Saudi proposal to investigate war crimes in Yemen, as opposed to the Dutch proposal, which would have ensured third-party – and thus more objective – involvement. The fact that the US is currently backing the war through logistics and intelligence, whilst overlooking serious human rights abuses by the Saudis (such as the decision to crucify a 19 year old who was arrested for taking part in a demonstration at the age of 17), is indicative of Saudi links with the West. Although British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has condemned the court’s judgement, Prime Minister David Cameron has not, and there has been no diplomatic strain between the two countries.

The Iran-Saudi rivalry extends beyond ideology. There are territorial feuds between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council which, if they were brought to the surface, would have serious implications for the security of the region. There are, for example, a number of islands lying between Iran and the UAE to which Iran lays claim; sovereignty over Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb have been in dispute as a result of British colonialism. The Strait of Hormuz is also a source of dispute between Iran and the UAE. If such a strategic waterway was to be claimed as Iranian waters, it could put Iran at a maritime advantage and threaten the whole of the Gulf. Historically, Iran also has claimed Bahrain to be “Persian” and not Arab. Not only does this mean that Iran could aspire to occupying a whole country if there was no opposition, but the claim to Bahrain could also give them direct access to the Saudi border, across the causeway linking the island with the Saudi mainland. It would make a perfect military station for the Iranians.

The governments in Tehran and Riyadh also threaten each other through conflicts fought by proxies. Like the war of words, this is nothing new in this feud. As seen in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, political dissent turns sectarian when Iran and Saudi get involved, often complicating the issue further. There are groups such as Hirak (southern separatists) in Yemen who are not as clear cut about whom they support in the wider conflict. On the ground, liberating Aden via Hirak was done through military aid and training from the UAE, which possesses the most competent military force in the GCC. However, the group’s leaders are still those who led what was previously South Yemen; they still have strong ties with Iran and Russia. This is not as much of a “black and white” proxy conflict as it may seem at first glance. With Yemen bordering Saudi Arabia, and with Aden being one of the most strategically significant parts of the world, it is clear that by arming Hirak, although the GCC had no other choice, a gamble was taken, the negative effects of which could yet materialise, depending on how the conflict progresses.

It is also important to remember that Saudi and Iran are not fighting their own local war. The region’s natural resources, colonial history and strategic alliances have made it a conflict with many stakeholders; the situation is all the more unstable and unpredictable as a result. Russia’s aerial campaign in Syria, along with Iranian troops entering Syria to back Bashar Al-Assad on the front line, has clearly put Saudi at a strategic disadvantage. Saudi Arabia cannot simply extend its Yemen military campaign to Syria, nor can it invest as much time and energy, as maintaining its military power when fighting a war on its southern border is a more urgent matter.

Although King Salman is trying to exert his authority and turn Saudi into one of the regional powers in what seems to be an increasingly multipolar power structure, much of the fighting on the ground is out of the hands of both Tehran and Riyadh. Both are increasingly reliant on their allies, which suggests that movement on either side will become less flexible. It is impossible to predict how Saudi might respond in Syria, for example, until we know what the US and possibly even Turkey are going to do now that Russia is embroiled in the conflict.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.