Saudi Arabia and Iran’s battle for dominance is a naked flame in the Middle Eastern tinderbox
Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. Although smaller than Egypt in terms of population, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as the guardian of the Sunni world. In a similar vein Iran touts itself as the bastion of Shia Islam. Its proud Persian history, culture and language set it apart from the Arab world.
The Cold War found Saudi Arabia and the Shar’s Persia in the same camp. Both had the US (and to a lesser extent Britain) as their principle backers. Both had reason to fear and distrust Soviet machinations in the region. Both received military aid from the West, and both supplied the West with a stable supply of oil and natural gas.
However even before the Cold War ended the rivalry was evident. Saudi money and arms found their way to the Mujahedeen groups in Afghanistan, on Iran’s eastern border. With the guns and gold came Saudi strains of Wahabisim, a harsh offshoot of Sunni Islam. For an Iran that had always taken Afghanistan as its sphere of influence, this was an unwelcome intrusion.
But the traffic went both ways. The US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave Iran a golden opportunity to increase its influence in politics of its immediate neighbour. Money, weapons, intelligence and even Iranian advisors found their way into the post-Saddam chaos that was sectarian Iraq. Shia Muslims, having spent years chaffing under Saddam’s rule, welcomed Iranian aid. Pro Iranian militia groups and political parties gained ground, particularly in the Shia dominated South and East.
After many false starts, Iraq started to seem like a normal country. Iran and Saudi Arabia continued to arm themselves with Russian and American kit, but seemed content to limit themselves to eyening each other warily over the Straits of Hormuz. Then a market stall holder in Tunisia sparked off what has become known as the Arab Spring, and fresh fuel was added to the fire.
Bahrain isn’t an obvious battleground for a war by proxy. The oil rich state is a playground for the rich, and markets itself as a haven of stability in a volatile region. But behind the glimmering skyscrapers and super yachts lay deep divisions. The royal family is Sunni, whereas seventy percent of the population are Shia. Although Bahrain’s citizens are well off by Arab standards, they see little of fabulous wealth that passes through. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of stoking violent unrest for political advantage. Iran in turn access Saudi Arabia of helping to crush pro democracy movements through the mechanism of the GCC alliance. Both happen to be true, and as an added complicating factor, the US Fifth Fleet is based there. The situation is so bad that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have even talked about a merger of the two states, which would be Saudi annexation in all but name.
For Saudi Arabia, the danger is clear. If the Princes of Bahrain were to fall and a pro Iranian government come to power, not only would they lose a solid ally, but the oil producing Eastern Province would be under threat, especially as it is home to a sizable Shia population.
Perhaps the most overt example of Saudi-Iranian rivalry is in the unremitting tragedy of Syria. The brutal rule of President Assad is being contested as never before by a myriad of armed groups, many of which are identify themselves as part of a Free Syrian Army. In a reversal of roles, Saudi Arabia gets to play the good guy as it backs the rebels with arms, money, intelligence and good will. Along with Qatar, is has agreed to pay the salary of any defecting Syrian army officers. Iran by contrast has the unenviable task of propping up the Ba’athist regime in Damascus. For Iran, the incentive is two fold. The Alawyite interpretation of Islam followed by the ruling elite is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Iran is the protective big brother of the faith and needs to be seen to act accordingly. Secondly, Syria is a vital part of Iran’s long term aims in the region. It is used as a base from which to back various terrorist groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. It is also platform from which to strike at Israel if the Jewish state ever attacked Iranian nuclear facilities.
If Bahrain and Syria are proxies, then the Strait of Hormuz is a good old fashioned toe-to-toe stand off. It is the windpipe of Saudi Arabia and subsequently the ace up Iran’s sleeve. Approximately a quarter of the world’s oil passes through this narrow channel. With minimal effort, Iran could cause chaos to world trade and cripple Saudi Arabia by blocking this vital waterway. It has a number of options at its disposal; mines, shore-to-ship missiles, blockades, suicide bombers on speedboats and land based aircraft. It could even pick the unglamorous but not ineffective option of sinking a handful of its own ships at key points, making the area impassable to the biggest tankers.
To do would be to incur the wrath of the heavily armed Gulf States, as well as the leviathan of the United States Navy. Yet even the threat of this is enough to keep Riyadh twitchy.
In the background to all of this remains the lingering possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. For Iran, it would provide the ultimate guarantee of security in a dangerous part of the world, and validate the regime in the eyes of its citizens. For Saudi Arabia, a Persian Bomb could only be countenanced with an Arab Bomb. In all likelihood, it would pour resources into a crash course nuclear program, assuming it couldn’t just buy much of what it needs on the black market. This is the nightmare scenario for Israel, for whom a nuclear monopoly has been the fulcrum of its defence strategy for thirty years.
Religion, culture, Great Power rivalry, the Arab Spring and good old fashioned national interest have combined to make competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran one of the most dynamic geopolitical clashes of our age. Mercifully, both sides seem to be aware of the catastrophe that would surely follow if this Cold War ever turned hot. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.