The A-Level Politics Specification requires students to understand different types of geopolitical powers – superpowers, great powers and emerging powers. However, in addition, students should know about regional powers and their influence. The Middle-East is one of the most complex geopolitical regions in the world – with those complexities having deep historical, cultural and political roots. The region has been in a constant state of flux, particularly in the 20th century, as the imperial powers of Britain and France retreated from the region and differing states sought to establish themselves as sovereign powers. It cannot be under any doubt that the Middle-East is dominated by two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two countries have a deep rivalry and seek to extend their influence across the entire region. So why are Iran and Saudi Arabia such entrenched rivals and what are the consequences for the region and the wider world?
Why are Saudi Arabia and Iran such entrenched rivals?
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 effective 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, Saudi Arabia is estimated to produce around 9.06 million barrels of oil per day whilst Iran is estimated to produce 3.3 million barrels per day.
However, there are clear dissimilarities that make them rivals too:
Religion – 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 Islamic faith.
Allies – The differences between the countries also extend into their relationships with other states. Iran has developed close strategic ties with states with a Shia majority like Iraq and Lebanon under Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has close ties Sunni majority states such as Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of Gulf States including the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.
However, another area where there relationships differ is over the United States. Since 1980 Iran have had no formal diplomatic relations with the United States. The relationship between the two states suddenly deteriorated after the Iranian Revolution and the downfall of the US backed Shah of Iran. Events like the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81, which saw 52 US citizens held hostage for 444 days in the US Embassy in Tehran, made relations geopolitically toxic. Since 1995 the US had had a Trade Embargo with Iran that has only been lifted in certain circumstances like Barack Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal.
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 finished a delivery 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. In 2021, the UK government authorised a further £1.4 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
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. During the war in Ukraine Russia has been deploying Iranian made Arash missiles and the Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that the ‘mafia regime’ of the USA created the Ukraine War. China have been a key buyer of Iranian Oil for a number of years and Chinese companies have been given drilling rights in Iran. In March 2021 the two states signed a 25-year cooperation agreement under which China will invest $400 Billion into the Iranian economy.
How do the two states seek to extend their influence across the region?
One of the major and most regionally destabilising ways that the two states have sought to exert their influence is through their support of different sides in proxy wars in the region. This can be seen most notably in Syria and Yemen.
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. The Yemeni Civil War has been horrific, with estimated that over 377,000 people have been killed and over 4 million displaced.
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. The UN estimates that 6.7 million people have been internally displaced by the conflict and over 300k civilians have been killed.
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.
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.
Why are Iran and Saudi Arabia significant to regional and international stability?
It is clear that the size, resources, relationships and strategic location of Iran and Saudi Arabia mean that peace and stability in the Middle East is unlikely to be achieved whilst the two states are vying for influence. There have been some recent developments that have been more positive. In April 2023 the ‘Beijing Agreement’ was signed in which both states recognised their respective role in bringing stability to the ‘turbulent gulf region’. In August 2023 both countries reopened embassies in each other states and both states applied to join the BRICS organisation.
However, whilst they are important regional powers, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are also both pawns in the wider ‘great game’ of geopolitics. Both are used as vessels for US, Chinese and Russian influence in the region, with domestic consequence at stake such as oil prices. Whilst the recent developments have been welcomed, most are sceptical of the likely long-term impact of them.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been strategic rivals who vie for influence across the Middle East. Their relationship has been referred to as a ‘Cold War’, similar to that seen between the US and Soviet Union from 1945 to 1992. However, both states are also vessels through which superpowers and great powers seek to influence the strategically and economically important region of the Middle-East.
Sunni – The largest branch of Islam followed by up to 90% of the Muslims worldwide.
Shia – The second largest branch of Islam followed by up to 15% of Muslims worldwide.
BRICS – A grouping of emerging economies currently made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa but with future expansions planned.
Proxy War – A war instigated or supported by a major power in which it is not the main protagonist.