Within the Middle East*, there are a number of different issues that will ultimately shape the future of the region. Some of the specific issues include the rise of regional players such as Turkey and Qatar, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear proliferation in countries such as Israel, Pakistan, and Iran, and the rise of civil wars in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Despite the importance of all of these concerns, it can be argued that the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the most crucial factor shaping the future of the Middle East going forward.
*(The author of this post has a somewhat more broad definition of the Middle East. The author considers the Middle East to consist of Northern Africa (The Maghreb), the Arabian Peninsula, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and several nations and regions usually considered part of Europe such as Greece and parts of Southern Italy such as Sicily)
One source behind the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is differences between their governments. Saudi Arabia is a theocratic absolute monarchy. The Saudi king is in charge of nearly all aspects of government and political parties are outlawed. Additionally, members of the Saudi royal family are often in charge of important governmental positions, which contributes to high levels of corruption and inefficiencies within the Saudi government. As a result of these factors, Saudi Arabia ranks near the bottom of international rankings on human rights, political freedom, and governmental ethics.
Iran, on the other hand, has a different governmental system when compared to Saudi Arabia. Originally a monarchy until the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, the government of Iran today operates as a theocratic republic. The Iranian government is characterized as an “illiberal democracy” because even though it places some restrictions on civil liberties, press freedom, and access to office by people not connected to the political establishment, it still includes elements characteristic of democratic governments and allows for a strong level of citizen engagement within its political system. Even though Iran was previously considered one of the most oppressive countries in the world from the 1950s to the 1970s (during the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi), Iran has steadily improved in international rankings regarding political freedom and human rights over the past twenty years and compares favorably to other countries in the region in terms of both human rights and political freedom. As such, the argument can be made the Iran is one of the only countries in the region with a democratic political system.
The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iran is exacerbated based on political differences between both countries. For example, Saudi Arabia has given support to the rebels fighting against the Syrian government and its President Bashar al-Assad. The Saudi government is opposed to the government of Assad and supports regime change in Syria, arguing that Assad no longer is the true representative of the Syrian people. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is a major supporter of the Sunni-dominated governments of Bahrain and Yemen and has given them strong levels of political and economic support since the Arab Spring protests of 2011. Even though Saudi Arabia has no overt diplomatic ties with Israel and previously fought against Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Saudi Arabia favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has sought to increase diplomatic ties with Israel due to the fact that both are opposed to increased Iranian influence in the region.
Iran has pursued a foreign policy that is the opposite of the one promoted by Saudi Arabia. For example, Iran has been steadfast in its support of the Syrian government since the 1980s, as the Syrian government, then under the leadership of Hafez al-Assad, gave strong support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. In contrast, Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein and gave the Iraqi military weapons and intelligence that were used in their fight against the Iranians. Iran also supports groups such as the Houthi’s, who have been fighting against the Saudi-supported government of Yemen since 2004, and Shi’a rebels opposed to the Saudi-backed government of Bahrain. Iran is also critical of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, noting that the Israeli government has committed large-scale human rights abuses against the Palestinian people since its creation as a state in 1948, and war crimes during the 2008-09 and 2014 Gaza Wars reminiscent of the ones committed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In order to raise awareness to the plight of the Palestinian people and encourage change in international policy, Iran supports resistance groups opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine such as Hamas and Hezbollah and, since 2011, has been a major advocate for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to increase international pressure on Israel to change its policy towards Palestine. Even though the BDS movement has been unsuccessful in changing Israeli policy thus far, it has increased awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people and improved Iran’s reputation throughout much of the world.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are also supported by rival powers. For example, Saudi Arabia is strongly supported by the US and the Arab states, who provide Saudi Arabia with military protection and diplomatic support. In particular, the US and Saudi Arabia have had a close relationship since the mid-1970s. Iran, on the contrary, has developed close political alliances with Russia and China, who have recently sought to increase their presence within the Middle East to serve as a check on American hegemony in the region. The relationship between Russia and Iran, in particular, has grown since Vladimir Putin became the Russian president in 1999, and the Russian government has stated that it would intervene on Iran’s behalf if the US and/or Israel launches a military attack against Iran. Iran has also sought to develop diplomatic and economic relationships with several European nations that are critical of US foreign policy in the Middle East such as Germany, France, Italy, and Ireland and has had some success in this realm since the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s President in 2013.
Another factor shaping the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is religious differences. Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni Muslim in terms of population, though ~8-10% of its population is Shi’a. Saudi Arabia is intolerant to minority religious groups such as Shi’a Muslims, Christians, Jews, and many others. In particular, the Shi’a community within Saudi Arabia has been the target of much persecution. for example, the Shi’a communities of Saudi Arabia are characterized by rampant poverty and a lack of economic and social opportunities, Shi’a Muslims are denied political and social representation, and Saudi law has institutionalized discrimination against Shi’a Muslims since the mid-1920s. Additionally, the Saudi government executed a number of Shi’a religious leaders in recent years such as Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, arguing that they were Iranian spies who threatened Saudi national security. The intolerance towards other religions within Saudi Arabia stems directly from the idea of Wahhabism, which is a conservative sect of Islam that considers Muslims who reject its principles as heretics. Moreover, because of the fact that Saudi Arabia is the largest Sunni-majority country within the region, it also considers itself to be the main protector of Sunni interests in the Middle East.
Iran, on the other hand, is majority Shi’a and considers itself to be the protector of Shi’a Muslims in several Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan in addition to several non-Middle Eastern countries such as Nigeria and India. Iran is home to minority religious groups such as Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha’i (a religion that is an offshoot of Islam and Judaism), and Zoroastrians (a religion that has influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and has generally been tolerant and respectful towards them. Iran has one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East (~500,000) and the largest Jewish community in the region outside of Israel (~25,000). The practice of religious tolerance within Iran is well ingrained within Iranian history and dates back to ancient times. For example, Cyrus the Great, who ruled present-day Iran (then known as Persia) from 559-530 BC, promoted the ideas of religious tolerance and human rights throughout his rule, and was known for writing the first charter advocating the protection of essential human rights such as religious freedom and for respecting indigenous religious traditions within the territories he captured from the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
In conclusion, the ongoing dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the main policy concern shaping the future of the region. The conflict between both countries threatens to divide the Middle East into political and religious lines, and will ultimately hamper efforts to settle long-standing disputes within the region and further destabilize an already unstable region of the world.