Saudi Arabia’s increasingly erratic behavior has raised questions around the world. After decades in which Riyadh kept a low profile and mainly intervened in world affairs by using its oil wealth, the Saudi military-and-intelligence machine is now pursuing a brutal war in Yemen, has put little Qatar under boycott, has attempted to destabilize Lebanon, is licking its wounds from defeat in Syria, and is cultivating potential clients in Iraq. At the same time, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is concentrating power in his own hands. The common denominator here is the Saudi elite’s competition with Iran for the position of regional hegemon.
Iran’s influence has gone from almost zero in the 1990s to predominant in the eastern reaches of the Middle East today. The mildly Shiite Houthi rebels staged a coup in Yemen in 2014, and deepened their control over the country the following year. That was mainly a local development, but Riyadh projected its Iranophobia on it. The pro-Iranian party-militia Hezbollah in Lebanon has dominated that country’s national unity government since 2016. Another Iranian client, the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad, appears to have won the civil war in Syria, and the Saudi cat’s paw there, the extremist Army of Islam, has been defeated. Saudi influence in Iraq evaporated after most Sunni Arab–majority provinces seceded to join the ISIL “caliphate” in 2014, and then were conquered by the central government’s army and its Shiite militia auxiliaries. While Tehran’s relationship with the Palestinian Hamas has been roiled since 2011, the two appear to be on the mend.
Saudi Arabia’s struggle against Iran has everything to do with nationalism and security and almost nothing to do with economics. Both are oil states, both are in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and so are members of the same cartel. They are not competing for export markets. Iran’s return to exporting petroleum freely after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear deal, of 2015 has helped depress the price of petroleum, but so too has US production of shale oil, and the latter has not caused tensions between Riyadh and Washington. Rather, this is a 19th-century-style contest over territorial spheres of influence.
While it is not irrelevant that Iran is an avowedly Shiite state and Saudi Arabia has a hard-line Sunni Wahhabi government, the conflict is not primarily over religion. Iran supports the secular, socialist, atheist government of Assad’s Baath in Syria. Saudi Arabia supports the secular nationalist military in Egypt. Two Wahhabi states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are at daggers drawn, in part over the issue of whether to have correct relations with Shiite Iran, as Doha insists, or to treat Tehran as a deadly enemy.
Saudi Arabia, a fourth as populous as Iran and lacking substantial infantry capabilities, cannot take Iran on frontally in a conventional conflict. As Saudi strategists looked out on what they viewed as a menacing tableau, they appear to have concluded that the only way they could hope to blunt Iranian influence in the region was to divide and rule.