The sectarian lens provides a convenient and easy prism to understand the ongoing Saudi-Iranian standoff. But it produces, at best, an incomplete picture.
Yes, the majority of Saudis are practitioners of Sunni Islam and the majority of Iranians Shias, but deep-seated historical tensions between the two groups is not what is at the heart of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, nor is it the cause of recent escalations.
At heart, the tensions are about regional competition where both countries are trying to contain the other’s influence throughout the wider Middle East. Conveniently the sectarian narrative suits the interests of elites in Tehran and Riyadh seeking to distract their populations from domestic crises of governance.
Contemporary issues are much more relevant to the current state of Middle Eastern politics than a centuries-old theological dispute. Competition for regional political leadership has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran into conflict on a range of issues – from oil policy to religion, relations with the United States and support for opposing regional groups.
Riyadh has put downward pressure on oil prices to undercut US shale producers, while Tehran would prefer higher prices to maximize revenue from its production. As Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Saudi Arabia has presented itself as the seat of religious leadership, while theocratic Iran objects to the Saudi monarchy as being antithetical to Islam. And unlike Tehran, which severed relations with United States after the 1979 revolution, Riyadh has maintained a close relationship with Washington.
Although Saudi-Iranian competition dates back to even before the 1979 Iranian revolution, sectarianism and sectarian regional alliances took off after the 2003 Iraq war when Gulf countries saw the empowerment of the Iraqi Shia and influence of Iran grow at the expense of Iraq’s Sunni population.
Fearing a wider regional spillover, Saudi Arabia took to defending tribes in the Sunni heartland of the Anbar province while Iran bolstered Shia groups and supported former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, known for his flagrant anti-Sunni bias. After the Arab Spring, sectarianism took off. Shia protests broke out in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and Iran stepped up support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and refortified links with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
It is easy to see the two countries as polar opposites. But their antagonistic relationship hides the fact that the two countries share remarkably similar domestic challenges. Both are struggling to reconcile the increasing expectations of their young, educated populations with the restrictions of their rigid undemocratic political and social structures. For both countries, highlighting the conflict with their neighbour distracts from domestic problems and relieves pressure on elites by directing the frustration of their populations towards a convenient external scapegoat.
For Riyadh, the Arab Spring was an awakening. For a family that has been at the helm of Saudi politics for almost a century, the toppling of longstanding dictatorships across the region was an alarming development. The regime’s response was to expand its policy of buying political loyalty (disbursing a one-time £70 billion in handouts of economic, health and educational benefits) and to crack down harder on dissent – particularly since the accession of a new leadership under the helm of King Salman in January 2015.
This has been largely successful at maintaining order so far, with protests only seen in the Eastern Province where Saudi Shias, who have been continuously marginalized, called for greater political and economic integration. Criticism from the religious establishment and growing demands for political liberalization coupled with the presence of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – two groups that question the religious legitimacy of the House of Saud, pose more severe challenges. The continued low oil price is putting increasing pressure on the sustainability of the social welfare model at a time where security and stability is of paramount importance.
Iran had its own awakening before the Arab Spring in the aftermath of the 2009 contested presidential elections. Green Movement protests spontaneously erupted, initially challenging the legitimacy of the election that resulted in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s return to office. These protests evolved into public demonstrations calling into question the credibility of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The result was a massive governmental crackdown against not only protestors but all critics of the state including activists, journalists and reformist politicians.
Like Saudi Arabia, Iran’s population is frustrated by unemployment rates as high as 40 per cent, as well as by social and political repression and flagrant disregard for civil and human rights. Its ageing political leaders and systems are reliant on religion for their legitimacy, but its young population has little memory of life before 1979 and the ideological currency of the revolution is approaching bankruptcy.
President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election provided new hope for compromise on the nuclear programme and relief from international sanctions. However, the ongoing factional divide between hardliners (including the supreme leader himself) who remain opposed to opening up to the West or restoring ties with Iran’s neighbours and moderates such as Rouhani will make it difficult to achieve meaningful political, social or regional change any time soon.
Against this backdrop, the focus on sectarianism draws attention away from the common problems in both countries. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is a beacon of democracy. Flagrant civil and human rights abuses, corruption and political repression abounds while both states pursue agendas that suit their political ambitions and protect the longevity of both regimes.
A degree of historical perspective is always necessary to understand contemporary geopolitics. But we should be wary of simplistic explanations and be aware of the actors who benefit from their propagation. Only by challenging such narratives and addressing the practical sources of conflict on an issue-by-issue basis can we reach an understanding that might lead to a reduction in tensions and an improvement in the life chances of those in the region.
Sanam Vakil is a professorial lecturer in the Middle East Studies department at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS Europe) in Bologna, Italy.