Why is the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia so complicated?

The Middle-East is dominated by two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are separated by Iraq and by the Persian Gulf.

On the face of it, the two states are not dissimilar. Both are Islamic theocracies where Islamic teaching is fundamental to all aspects of government and wider life. Both are also authoritarian states where there is little political opposition to the government. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and has been governed by the House of Saud since 1932. Iran is led by the Supreme Leader, currently Ali Khamenei, who the main institutions of the state, such as the Armed Forces, are directly subject to.

In addition, both countries have enormous economic potential, largely due to their oil reserves. Today, there are estimated to be 268 billion barrels of oil in Saudi Arabia and Iran is estimated to have around 158 Billion barrels.

However, there are clear dissimilarities too. Saudi Arabia is a majority Sunni state, with up to 85% of the population being Sunni. Iran, however, is a predominantly Shia state, with 95% of the population identifying as Shia.

The Saudi’s had always claimed to be the leaders of the Muslim world. Notably, because both Medina (the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad) and Mecca (the holy city of Islam) are within its borders. However, at the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the country has claimed to be the true beholder of the Muslim Faith.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have actively sought to extend their influence in the Middle-East. Iran and Saudi Arabia have never gone to war with each other. Instead, they have supported different sides during the various wars that have taken place in the Middle-East. This is known as fighting a ‘war by proxy’. For example, in two prominent wars taking place in the Middle East at present they support opposing sides:

Yemen – A Civil War has been ongoing since 2015 between the Yemeni Government and Houthi Rebels. The Yemeni Government is supported by a Saudi-led coalition. Iran supports the Houthi rebels. The conflict is further deepened by the presence of terror groups in the region, including Al-Qaeda and ISIL.

Syria – The Syrian Civil War has taken place since march 2011. The Government forces of President Assad are supported by Iran, whilst the Syrian rebels are supported by Saudi Arabia.

An estimated 550,000 people have died in the Syrian Civil War.

Both sides want to ensure their influence in the region and support the sides that they do in order to do this. This was the same process that American and the Soviet Union engaged in during the Cold War, not directly engaging each other militarily, but supporting different sides in conflicts (like the Korean War) in order to preserve and extend their influence in the region.

The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is complicated by the involvement of the world’s major powers in the region. Since 1951 the United States of America and Saudi Arabia have been actively allied on many fronts. The USA has traditionally sort influence in the Middle East to protect oil exports, a decline of which could seriously damage the global economy. The US supplies military hardware to Saudi Arabia. In 2017 Saudi Arabia and the USA signed an arms deal that would see the US sell $350 Billion Dollars of arms to Saudi Arabia over the course of a decade. In addition, the US retains active military basis in the country, with around 5,000 US military personnel based there.

Saudi Arabia also have close relationships with other western countries. The UK’s largest ever arms trade deal is with Saudi Arabia. Most recently, the UK have sold 72 Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia. This was heavily criticised by the Labour and Green Party who criticised the decision of the government to sell arms to a country with an extremely questionable record on Human Rights.

Britain has supplied modern Eurofigther Typhoons to the Saudi Government.

The close relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is not mirrored in the US relationship with Iran. Since 1980 the US and Iran have had diplomatic relationship and the US have imposed a trade embargo on Iran since 1995. In 2015, relations appeared to be getting better when Barack Obama’s government negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran that guaranteed that the US would lift sanctions when Iran dismantled its nuclear facilities. However, in 2018 the Trump Government reimposed sanctions, something he had promised right from the start of his presidential campaign.

However, Iran is supported by two major powers – Russia and China. Since sanctions have been placed on Iran by the West, Russia have provided Iran with a lifeline. Russia have supported the Iranian military, including planes and advanced artillery systems. In addition, the two countries have an extensive trading relationship, including a $20 billion dollar trade deal in 2014.

China have been a key buyer of Iranian Oil for a number of years and Chinese companies have been given drilling rights in Iran.

What has happened recently?

Tensions in the region have ratcheted up greatly in the last week. On Saturday 14th September an attack was mounted on one of Saudi Arabia’s most important oilfields and one owned by the government. The fires that erupted after the attack lasted for many hours and the chaos that it created resulted in a 5% drop in global oil production.

The aftermaths of the attack seen from the air.

Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Houthi, a rebel group fighting against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The attack was carried out using advanced drone technology – this is technology that is almost certain that Iran has supplied.

Iran has denied any responsibility for the attacks. However, Saudi Arabia, in addition to the UK and US have clearly indicated that they believe Iran to be firmly responsible.

Both Britain and the US have suggested taking action against Iran in response to the attacks.

Any direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia would be bloody. Iran has far bigger armed forces, whilst Saudi Arabia, with the support of Britain and the US, have far more modern forces:

It is clear than Iran is seen by many as a force of instability in the region. Saudi Arabia, and its allies, will not shy away from checking the growth of its influence. The significance of the recent attacks should not be understated.

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