Iran-Saudi Relations: the Foreign Policy of Sectarianism

Underpinned by confrontation with Iran, the Gulf Arab states have pursued increasingly hardline foreign policies. Razmik Krikorian examines the sharpening sectarian politics in the Middle East. 

In recent years, the foreign policies of the Gulf Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar, have become increasingly bellicose and more openly sectarian towards Iran.

Important drivers of this trend have been the rise to power of Islamist regimes in a number of Arab countries, the spread of terrorist groups, notably the Islamic State, as well as the changing geopolitical landscape of the region following the nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015.

In particular, Iran’s “return” to the international fold is viewed in Riyadh and other regional capitals as a significant threat that alters the status quo.

Iran’s Growing Influence

Since the wave of social and political unrest that swept the Arab world in 2011, Gulf Arab states have sought to safeguard their regimes from the dangers of popular revolt.

But while the Gulf Arab states have endeavored to maintain the status quo in the region, Iran has instead attempted to exploit internal divisions within countries in order to strengthen the hand of pro-Shiite forces.

In early February 2011, the Shia uprising in Bahrain (where Shiites constitute 80 percent of the population) was a wake-up call to the Gulf Arab regimes. Rightly or wrongly perceiving the hand of Iran in instigating the uprising, Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened by sending in troops.

Iranian influence also extends to Yemen, where on September 23, 2014, Houthi Shia rebels took control of the capital Sanaa. The Gulf Arab states have accused Tehran of providing military and financial support to the rebels.

The Saudi-Iranian proxy conflict is also readily apparent in Syria with Iran providing significant backing to the Syrian government whilst Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have sided with the anti-government forces.

The growing influence of Iran thus represents a common concern for the Gulf Arab states. This concern has only increased since the signing of the nuclear deal, under which Iran’s nuclear capabilities will be reduced in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on it. A significant outcome of this will be the unfreezing of Iranian assets in foreign banks from oil revenues. Estimated at 100-140 billion dollars, it may enable Iran to provide even more support to its allies.

Saudi Arabia believes that this agreement has changed the balance of power in the region in favor of its rival Iran, especially in light of the U.S.’s foreign policy “pivot” away from the Middle East and towards Asia.

New Hardline Foreign Policy

It is in this context that one may understand the new hardline foreign policy of the Arab Gulf States. This shift can be summarized in three main points: first, sectarianism, anti-Shiite mobilization as a tool to blunt the influence of Iran; second, moves towards building regional alliances which do not depend on Washington; and third, a move from preventive policies to offensive policies

On January 2 of this year, just two weeks before the start of the implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal, diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were cut after Saudi authorities executed the Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir Al Nimr.

The tensions spread to other Arab countries in the Gulf. Bahrain followed suit and announced the severance of diplomatic ties with Iran whilst the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait all lowered the level of diplomatic relations with Iran.

In a further step that escalated tensions with Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in March 2016 put Hezbollah – one of Iran’s most important allies in the Arab world – on its terrorism list. It justified its decision with the argument that Hezbollah conducts terrorist activities on the territory of the GCC states as well as provides support to the Houthis in Yemen.

In the framework of countering Iran’s growing military threat in the region, on March 26, 2015, Arab forces led by Saudi Arabia launched air strikes on a range of Houthi military targets in Yemen. Other participants included the UAE, Jordanian, Kuwaiti, Bahraini, and Qatari Air Forces.

These developments have served as a green light for Saudi Arabia to take leadership in the creation of a Sunni sectarian alliance against Iran. In December 2015, the Saudi defense minister and deputy crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, declared the formation of an “Islamic military coalition” of 34 Sunni Islamic states to fight terrorism under the leadership of Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the creation of a Sunni “alliance” has not been without problems. There has been a failure to reconcile differences between Turkey and Egypt. Furthermore, Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and incipient shift in its policy towards Syria has been viewed with displeasure in Riyadh, which showed initial reticence to condemn the July coup attempt in Turkey.

Looking Ahead

It is clear that the Gulf States are trying, through these policies, to face the interlinked nature of their complex domestic problems and external conflicts.

However, the increasingly sectarian approach in the confrontation with Iran is not likely to lead to a solution, but will only worsen the conflict between the parties, and could have serious repercussions on civil coexistence between Sunnis and Shiites. Such a split would benefit terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State. Indeed, one of the most negative consequences of the clash between the regional powers is the spread of terrorism in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

Underpinned by confrontation with Iran, the zero-sum game of sectarian politics has sharpened and bodes ill for stability across the Middle East.

Razmik Krikorian holds an MA in International Relations from Belarusian State University. Originally from Syria but now living in Sweden, his work focuses on foreign policy and terrorism-related issues in the Middle East.