By Chris Zambelis for Gulf State Analytics
Saudi Arabia and Iran’s rivalry for primacy in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East manifests in various ways. Indeed, the Saudi Arabia-Iran interface is among the region’s most contentious friction points. The elevation of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and his announced determination to improve Iran’s standing with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states raised hopes of a possible thaw in the typically acrimonious relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Their shared acknowledgement of concerns over the military gains by Daesh (al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa-al-Sham, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which now refers to itself as the “Islamic State,” has elicited further expectations of a potential detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh and Tehran’s mutual backing of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to replace Nouri al-Maliki was viewed as another promising turning point in bilateral relations. Al-Maliki’s suppression of Sunni-led political opposition parties coupled with Baghdad’s marginalization of the Sunni community in favor of his Shi’ite constituency helped incite a popular Sunni-led backlash. These circumstances further undermined Iraq’s fragile stability and contributed to Daesh’s rise. At first glance, the seeming accommodation between Riyadh and Tehran over al-Maliki’s future represented an important barometer of the improving relations between the rivals, given that Saudi Arabia had always considered al-Maliki as an instrument of the Islamic Republic.
Yet the enmity that characterizes Saudi Arabia‟s interaction with Iran runs deep. The perennial rivals are enmeshed in competition and conflict in some of the region’s most contentious political landscapes, including Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. This high-stakes contest is evident on multiple strata that encompass the geopolitical, military, diplomatic, economic, and religious arenas, often expressing itself through religious invective, proxy wars, terrorism, and intelligence operations.
While it tends to be overlooked in contrast to other crises, Yemen has also emerged as a locus of Riyadh and Tehran’s rivalry. Yemen, one of the Middle East’s poorest countries, exists in a perpetual state of social and political crises, poverty, underdevelopment, environmental degradation, and civil war.
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