At the risk of employing an over-used analogy to emphasise a point, if one were to try to describe the state of relations among Persian Gulf[i] nations to a visiting delegation of extra-terrestrials from Mars, they would be hard-pressed to find a logical explanation for the dearth of good neighbourliness. The region is brimming with geo-strategic rivalries and shifting coalitions, with even supposedly stalwart alliances regularly thrown into question; a sense of mistrust and insecurity pervades. While recent history may provide some sort of framework to aid the creatures’ understanding, there is still little to be offered by way of a simple explanation for why some countries, for instance the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and Saudi Arabia, do not in the present time make greater efforts at developing fruitful relations and working together towards a stable and prosperous region. Granted, while in today’s world one wouldn’t bat an eye at states located in different continents enjoying better relations than those in the same region (indeed, within roughly 1,000 kilometres from each other), again this might come as a surprise to the other-worldly visitors.
As the two regional heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively enjoy considerable clout in the Persian Gulf and indeed the wider Middle East. As difficult as it might be to describe the fluctuating state of regional affairs to a visiting extra-terrestrial, it would arguably be just as challenging for a homo sapien Middle East pundit to envisage a world where the above mentioned two are not at loggerheads, given the way that recent history has unfolded. That being said, Iran and Saudi Arabia are uniquely positioned to contribute to the broad alleviation of ubiquitous ethno-sectarian and geo-political clashes afflicting the region, while standing to benefit respectively.
The cultivation of enmity
It is common knowledge that geo-political tensions in the Persian Gulf have run high more or less since the independence of most of its modern nation states, and particularly within the last few decades. Innumerable developments have contributed to the lack of a united or at least coherent system of regional cooperation. While national rivalry and competition was ever-present between the twentieth century Pahlavi dynasty of Iran and the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in the former set them on completely divergent paths, essentially triggering the latter states to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)[ii]. Ever since then, clear fauIt lines, at least on the surface, have separated the countries of the Persian Gulf, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Iran. These ostensible points of contention include, but are not limited to: religious divergences and mutual aspirations of centrality in the Islamic world; issues of security and conflicting opinions of the ideal regional order; the adoption of opposing ideological standpoints on various matters and, consequently, the backing of opposing global allies; and a host of other related grievances racked up over the years, a full account of which is beyond the scope of this article.
One cannot deny that there are sensitive and palpable points of conflict; nonetheless, these are being exaggerated and exacerbated in the present day rather than actively ameliorated. The Arab conquest of Persia, which led to the end of the Sassanid Empire in 651, still leaves a bitter association with modern-day Arabs among many Iranians. This is not only due to the often violent subjugation involved in the conquest, but also the imposition of the Islamic religion and elements of Arab culture (the Arabic script for example) on the population, coupled with the suppression of Persian culture and practice, for instance the ancient Zoroastrian religion. This residual association bears true among both religious and secular Iranians, having more to do with concerted efforts to eradicate Persian culture rather than the Zoroastrian religion in practice.
To bring the current ‘cold conflict’ into chronological context, more recent grievances include the decision taken by the Gulf Arab states to support Iraq in its 1980 aggression against Iran following the latter’s 1979 revolution. This culminated in an eight-year long Persian Gulf War, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait even providing financial assistance to Iraq. It is difficult to overstate the deep and poignant sentiments evoked by this fact among average Iranians, who were forced to endure an unprovoked war which left an estimated million dead while ravaging the country’s economy and society. Indeed, many still suffer from the effects, for instance from the infamous mustard gas attacks employed by the Iraqi regime against Iranian troops, civilians and Iraqi Kurds.[iii] Generations of Iranians began their lives at war, and in many ways, as a result of the continuation of belligerent official rhetoric and policies from their surrounding Arab neighbours, are still at war. The common theme which began with most of the GCC states uniting against Iran through their support for Iraq’s war has persevered until the present day, with some of the same states – led by Saudi Arabia – adopting a stance of unmasked animosity towards Iran in a continual quest to ostracise it as a foreign, Persian, Shi’a ‘other’ amidst like-minded, co-religionist Arab brethren.
For their part, the GCC states arguably feel threatened by a country with a larger population with high levels of education throughout; a diversified and self-sufficient economy; a richer and longer history encompassing various civilisations, cultures and dynasties; and nuclear aspirations as the cherry on top. Furthermore, at the time of the 1979 revolution, the then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s questioning of the legitimacy of these monarchies and his open call for replacing the regimes with more Islamic governments unsurprisingly alarmed and enraged the latter. Iran has also challenged Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy, for example, by upstaging it on pan-Arab matters such as the issue of Palestine in an attempt to capture the Arab and Muslim street, although these ambitions have been somewhat tempered in the wake of Iran’s overt role in regional conflicts following the ‘Arab Spring’. Similar to its Persian Gulf allies but arguably to a greater extent, Saudi Arabia holds strong reservations about Iran’s nuclear power ambitions, which it is convinced are intended for military rather than civilian purposes and to enhance Iranian regional hegemony. It can be strongly argued that the Saudi threat perception amalgamates with a sense of Persian ‘foreign-ness’ and Arab supremacy, creating a severe and increasingly dangerous chauvinism towards Iran to be found in official as well as colloquial language in the present day.
Anti-Iranian sentiments among Arabs are, regrettably, nothing new. Indeed, they were central to the Arab nationalism projects of Michel Aflaq and Sati Khaldun al-Husri, both highly influential Arab nationalists and thinkers; the former is widely considered to be the principal founder of the Ba’athist movement’s intellectual underpinnings. Moreover, one can discern potent anti-Shi’a judgements in the teachings of Taqi’addin Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328) and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780-855), which greatly influenced the worldview of Muhammad Ibn Abdalwahhab (1703-92), the Islamic scholar who allied with Muhammad bin Saud to help establish the first Saudi state in 1744. Some of Ibn Abdalwahhab’s most prominent teachings included takfir, or the excommunication of those who, while considering themselves Muslims, were polytheists according to him; those of the Shi’a faith were incorporated into this group. It must be mentioned however that the devout scholar utilised ‘informed individual analysis’, or ijtihad, and therefore a substantial number of his teachings have no firm basis in historical Islam and in no way represent the standard beliefs of most Muslims worldwide. Nevertheless, the principles of sectarian hatred and divisiveness go right back to the roots of the kingdom’s founding. Such ideologies continue through to the contemporary era, with the construction of Iran, Iranians and Shi’as as a socially and religiously inferior ‘other’ traditionally constituting a key facet of nation-building in GCC states.
It is true that, although the two sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices, there is also a sharp sense of distrust towards Sunnis among some Shi’a followers. In some cases, this can be in part ascribed to the historical rift between the two sects involving intrigues, violence and civil war, in which the Sunni faction is believed to have acted in treachery against Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and rightful leader of the time according to the Shi’a. Other reasons for Shi’a adherents’ suspicions towards Sunnis might include contemporary policies of subjugating and marginalising the sect, as is the case in many Sunni-majority countries. Whatever the cause, there is undeniably a fair deal of mistrust and generalisation originating from both sides of the Islamic faith’s two most prominent sects. While there also exists a heightened sense of bigotry and anti-Arab racism on the other side of the gulf, undoubtedly fostered in part by some of the aforementioned events, the contemporary insistence on Iran’s outsider identity, predominantly exercised by the Saudi kingdom, fundamentally exacerbates ethnic, nationalist and sectarian fissures. As a result of its unease towards the IRI and its intentions, prominent princes (in their official capacity) and spokespeople for the Saudi state have consistently demonised the Shi’a faith while fear-mongering about a perceived Shi’a, Persian encroachment across the Middle East. Official policies and social establishments, for instance in the judicial system, state-sponsored educational curricula and media, as well as the socio-economic deprivation of Saudi’s own Shi’a community (roughly 15% as of 2012), promote and institutionalise this discrimination.
Through the above mentioned policies, the Saudi regime projects its fears and bias onto not only the more steadfast of its GCC brethren, but also the entire Saudi population – essentially inciting Sunni Saudis against a ‘heretic’ sect to which members of its own citizenry belong, not to mention roughly 15% of the global Muslim population. There is abundant evidence of the anti-Shi’a hatred being both heard and spread by average Saudis every day, which proliferates at times of unrest, for instance during human and civil rights protests by Shi’a Saudis in the Eastern Province, who are regularly denounced as an Iranian fifth column acting at the nation’s whim. Even allowing for the possibility of links between the Iranian state and Saudi Shi’as (for which no hard evidence exists), the Saudi authorities’ treatment and language towards its Shi’a populace – including their policing by non-local Saudis from other areas – undoubtedly gives them a feeling of estrangement and second-class citizenship in their own country. This discrimination comes not only from the state but from their compatriots, and the apparent message is that it is more important to isolate and ostracise Iran than to incorporate and embrace Saudi Shi’a residents, who in most cases have been around since before the kingdom’s founding. In essence, what began as mutual rivalry and a mistrust of intentions becomes a matter of collective racism, bigotry and prejudice towards an entire 80-million strong population as well as to all adherents of the Shi’a faith, even among compatriots.
This state of affairs is not one that can easily be undone, but rather has become engrained in everyday rhetoric and thought across the Arabian Peninsula, emulating those in official as well as clerical positions. Rather than a resource-rich, self-reliant and cohesive, if heterogeneous, region, one can instead witness an assortment of states, ethnicities and sects in open hostility towards each other. Institutionalised racism and sectarian hatred runs deeper than prejudice of thought and words: the rigorous demarcation between Sunni and Shi’a Islam and the concerted campaign to ex-communicate the latter, in addition to the intensification of regional rivalry, has contributed to the omnipresent sectarian and civil conflicts engulfing the Middle East. Religions, sects, ethnicities and indeed entire populations have been needlessly turned against each other, their grievances callously exploited, with grave repercussions for the entire region.
A star-crossed region? Prospects for constructive agency
The seemingly intractable geo-strategic differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, given both countries’ influence and centrality to the region, make for a bleak reading of local prospects. By advocating the above mentioned divisive worldview, the Saudi regime and those like it are in effect condemning the region to a state of perpetual enmity and ethno-social discord. The barbaric acts and indiscriminate carnage against innocent, civilian populations currently on display across the Middle East, carried out by puritanical groups in the quest to attain and propagate a ‘true, pure Islam’, can arguably be linked in large part to state-led campaigns to de-legitimise the foreign ‘other’ while bolstering indigenous credentials and influence in the region. Such policies make interdenominational and inter-racial peace among Middle Eastern populations evermore elusive, while alienating any voices of moderation. The voices it does empower, on the other hand, are portraying Iran’s rising power as a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Persian and Arab populations, as argued by one Saudi newspaper editor; such extremist views only entrench the parochial mind-set which encourages fanaticism and will inevitably plunge the region deeper into chaos instead of bridging gaps between its multi-ethnic and multi-faith societies.[iv] At the same time, there are significant missed opportunities which intra-regional collaboration, specifically with Iran, might bring about. These come in the form of economic, political and security benefits, and will be briefly outlined below.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the Middle East’s two most important petrochemical players. As noted by Aarts and van Duijne, cooperation in this front could potentially mean Iran’s access to crucial Saudi technological expertise in this area, which could streamline its production process, making its own petrochemical industry more efficient and lucrative.[v] Likewise, there would be opportunities to benefit from the huge amounts of ‘petrodollars’ available in the kingdom to invest abroad, which could in theory be earmarked to further and explore Iran’s natural gas reserves. For its part, Saudi Arabia would stand to gain from the opening up of a new market in Iran for its own petrochemical output, a certain boon given the latter’s population size. In a similar vein, the Saudi petrochemical industry is in evermore need for natural gas; given the fact that Iran holds the second largest gas reserves in the world, economic and trade collaboration seems a logical conclusion. There are a range of other industries from which both countries, and indeed all the Persian Gulf nations, would profit from increased and open trade in, lessening the region’s dependence on Western markets and potentially promoting the economic diversification that some of these countries have been striving for. In addition to national trade and investment, both GCC and Iranian private companies would enjoy a new frontier – of very close proximity – for the trade of goods and services.
Were normalised and cooperative relations to proliferate, firms and investors in the region could utilise each other’s markets; the great amounts of time, money and risk involved for national firms of the UAE, for instance, in finding ways around economic sanctions in order to trade with Iranian firms would be a non-issue. A caveat should be mentioned that although nuclear talks have reached an unprecedented stage, there remain considerable roadblocks and uncertainties over the process. Even assuming a resoundingly positive outcome, Iran would still face a long and arduous journey to reintegrate its economy into the international system, and there are sure to be initial risks to investors and partner firms. Nonetheless, this does not change the fact that crucial steps should be taken to build confidence within the region to link its economies, and in turn its peoples, more strongly. As Aarts and van Duijne attest, ‘business is good for peace’, and there is no shortage of global cases to illustrate that economic interdependence can lead to stability and accord even among erstwhile rivals.[vi]
This brings us to the next area of potential net gains, that of moral legitimacy and soft power. Both the Saudi and Iranian states predicate their legitimacy and nationhood on their ‘Islamic credentials’ in the contemporary era. Saudi Arabia in particular, through its housing of the two holy sites in Mecca and Medina, makes frequent reference to its position at the pinnacle of the Muslim world and as the rightful guardian of Muslims worldwide. It holds such claims, however, even as it tacitly and overtly ostracises any Muslims that do not adhere to its austere ‘Wahhabi’[vii] Sunni values. Arguably, to legitimately hold the mantle of global Islamic guardian would imply embracing all Muslims, regardless of sect or particular doctrine – especially as Saudi Arabia receives millions of these worshippers annually for pilgrimage. Instead, what is being taught and espoused in Saudi national curricula and social spheres encourages blind hatred towards Shi’as, non-Wahhabi and other Muslims, as well as non-Muslims for that matter. As a form of reciprocation, Shi’a textbooks and booklets published in Iran and circulated widely in Saudi Arabia also utilise abrasive anti-GCC statements.
In turn, such teachings and attitudes undoubtedly influence generations of young Saudis and their future actions, as well as their view of the region and its inhabitants, most of which do not conform to the strictures of Saudi-propagated Islam. The majority of the Middle East’s population appear to be increasingly disenchanted with the highly-charged, destructive atmosphere currently in place. The moderate majority, particularly in countries ravaged by intra-Muslim sectarian warfare, longs for a stable region that they can be true stakeholders in. One can witness, for instance in Saudi Arabia, the very gradual easing of strict, puritanical mentalities among younger generations as a result of the dispersal of authority in Islam through more open and interactive dialogue on issues of religion, accelerated by phenomena such as social media.[viii] Such efforts should be bolstered by official state support, including the prohibition of intolerant rhetoric and teachings, which could optimistically reduce the sense of popular grievance on which extremists feed. The softening of hardliner language and practices would engender smoother relations among the region’s multiple ethnicities and communities. Working to navigate a route to a secure and prosperous Middle East – a quest that by its nature requires buy-in from all sides – would arguably augment Saudi Arabia’s moral legitimacy among the region’s Muslims and in turn reinforce its national foundations and status as the birthplace of Islam, advocating the religion’s moderate, inclusive nature. Reaching out across the divide and committing to cross-national, cross-sectarian rapprochement with Iran would go a long way towards that end.
Finally, and most importantly, countries in the Persian Gulf would have much to gain in overall regional security through greater cooperation, particularly between the powerhouses of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Regardless of the intention, it cannot be denied that Saudi propaganda against the Shi’a sect and Iran as a whole results in the amplification of the already-deep schism between the Sunni and Shi’a sects, and between the Arab and Persian populations. It is beyond the scope of this piece to detail the history of the Sunni-Shi’a split, however this divide was for the most part propagated by ruling authorities among previously harmonious societies for mere expediency. The ramifications of this growing phenomenon are not to be understated. Adherents to a particular sect are encouraged to take part in insurgencies to help counter the rising influence of the opposing sect, for instance the thousands of Saudi fighters in Iraq in the first decade of this century who justified their presence as a bulwark against Iran. While cadres of sectarian ‘champions’ participate in clashes in the belief that they are fighting for Sunnis or alternatively Shi’as all over the world, the indigenous country-cum-battlefield bears the brunt of the conflict. Nations all across the Middle East are being hollowed out politically, economically and socially to varying degrees, fuelled by sectarian rhetoric and its aftermath. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen all provide apt examples. Some have even likened the situation in the Middle East to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War; the wide-ranging deaths, economic destruction and social turmoil evident in the region’s conflicts give sense to such a comparison[ix].
To battle this present danger, expanding Saudi-Iranian relations would provide an opportunity to jointly tackle the grave extremism that is threatening both nations, as well as the region and the wider world. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have large stakes in the region’s overall stability and endurance, and countless observers and Middle East experts agree that renewed and cooperative relations between the two would considerably strengthen the region and its prospects. Locally-fostered resolutions to pervading crises are absolutely necessary: meaningful, strategic engagement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the only conceivable option to build bridges and neutralise the sectarian flames engulfing the region – even as these begin to take on a life of their own. Although the idea itself may appear far-fetched, were Saudi Arabia and Iran to embark upon a mutually constructive course, multilateral security arrangements in the Persian Gulf would be a possibility. A ‘concert’ system, which recognises both powers’ role as valid players in the region, could allow for the airing of mutual threat perceptions and confidence-building, conflict-reducing measures. This could entail cooperation in the maritime area, crucial given the importance of critical waterways such as the Strait of Hormuz, as well as the local development and joint implementation of policies to manage regional conflicts. Indeed, only an indigenous, home-grown solution would provide the level of legitimacy and commitment needed to address current crises in the Middle East.
Audacious hope: a region at peace
If our aliens were to visit in another thirty years, the hope is that relations among Persian Gulf nations would have reached a cordial and progressive level. The focus of this piece has been on the state and potential of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran as they respectively constitute the region’s most active and key players. That being said, without active efforts undertaken by those in leadership positions in both countries, we are bound to perpetually witness the grave repercussions of an insecure and divided Persian Gulf and indeed Middle East, with resentment and enmity emanating from official echelons seeping down to populations for generations to come. There is no guarantee that the Middle East will even continue to exist in its current form without such tracks being pursued to address the region’s many ills. On the other hand, it is clear to see the potential net benefits of détente and cooperation based on goodwill as outlined above, particularly for the two regional heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Countries in the Persian Gulf region should be working together to reap mutually beneficial relationships rather than against each other in a counter-productive vicious cycle.
Normalising relations to establish official-level communication would lessen mistrust and to an extent preclude the need for power-vying and geo-political confrontation. Therefore, there would be less sectarianism in thought and in practice across the Middle East, with communities ceasing to feel victimised and hated as the subject of official smear campaigns. The ‘intensification of identities’, where religion and ethnicity play a far more prominent role in determining social and political interaction than in the past, would slow its stubborn advance. Regional relations based on goodwill and mutual progress would ultimately lead to better relations among the countrymen and women of the Persian Gulf and by extension the whole Middle East; its most capable nations should therefore lead by example. Only then can the inhabitants of the Middle East have faith in their region and its leaders, and indeed begin to move beyond primordial identities of clan, tribe, race and sect in the name of a wider good.
[i] The term Persian Gulf is used in this article to describe those nations which have coasts along that body of water, namely Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
[ii] This union consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
[iii] Ian Black, ‘Iran and Iraq remember war that cost more than a million lives’, The Guardian, 23 September 2010, available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/sep/23/iran-iraq-war-anniversary
[iv] Suzanne Maloney, ‘Iran’s Long Reach: Iran as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2009, available at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65037/suzanne-maloney/irans-long-reach-iran-as-a-pivotal-state-in-the-muslim-world
[v] Paul Aarts and Joris van Duijne, ‘Saudi-Iranian Ties: Stocktaking and Look into the Future’, SGIA Research Working Paper Series, Durham University, August 2008, available at https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/sgia/SGIARWP08-4Saudi-IranianTies.pdf
[vii] This term was coined to describe the religious reform movement of Muhammad Ibn Abdalwahhab, although neither he nor his followers ever referred to themselves or their efforts as ‘wahhabis’ or ‘wahhabism’ respectively
[viii] It should be noted that a large majority of the population still adhere to state-sponsored Wahhabi Islam, and moreover that open dialogue on religious matters is still strictly circumscribed in the Saudi state; see, for instance, the case of Raif Badawi http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27318400
[ix] Chris Patten, ‘Organising Middle East Peace’, Project Syndicate, 30 June 2014, available at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/chris-patten-rejects-the-neoconservative-argument-for-another-round-of-western-military-intervention-in-iraq