Saudi Arabia and Iran: The struggle to shape the Middle East provides a detailed exploration of the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran across the Middle East. As one of the most compelling rivalries in international politics, the Saudi–Iranian competition for regional influence has impacted on a number of different locales. After the onset of the Arab Uprisings and the fragmentation of regime–society relations, communal relations have continued to degenerate, as societal actors retreat into sub-state identities, whilst difference becomes increasingly violent, spilling out beyond state borders. The power of religion – and the trans-state nature of religious linkages – thus provides the means for actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to exert influence over a number of groups across the region. Given these issues, the contributions to this volume, and the collection as a whole, have two main aims: firstly, to explore the nature of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran within the contemporary Middle East; and secondly, to consider the impact of this rivalry upon regional and domestic politics across the Middle East. This volume examines how the rivalry is perceived in both Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as in the contestation over religious legitimacy. It also offers in-depth explorations of the impact of this rivalry upon five regional states: Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen, all sites of contestation between Riyadh and Tehran, albeit in different guises. In doing so, it highlights how the rivalry is shaped by the contingencies of time and space.
This chapter presents the ‘view from Tehran’ regarding Iran–Saudi relations. The focus in this chapter is very much on the official, academic and policy discourses emanating from Iran about the relationship between the two regional powers. In doing so, it presents a range of under-explored Iranian narratives and debates around Saudi Arabia’s regional polices and its stance towards the Islamic Republic, showing how the battle for regional influence is articulated through competing narratives as much as it is through material means. This covers Iranian elite views and discourses from Iran on Saudi–Iran relations, the role of religion in the relationship, Iranian perspectives on Saudi Arabia’s regional security policies and Tehran’s own security outlook for the region.
Efforts to understand the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran have produced a body of literature that can be separated into three camps. The first suggests that the rivalry is best understood through a balance of power in the Gulf. The second suggests that religion plays a prominent role in shaping the nature of the rivalry and that so-called proxy conflicts have been drawn along sectarian lines. The third suggests that a more nuanced approach is needed, drawing upon concerns about regime power and legitimacy – externally and internally – with instrumentalised use of religious difference. This chapter introduces the broader parameters of the debate around the Iran–Saudi rivalry, incorporating key works in the field to date. It also provides a historical contextualisation of this key geopolitical relationship. This introductory chapter concludes by outlining the individual chapter contributions to the volume.
This final chapter offers some reflections and conclusions as to how the rivalry between the two regional powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia is realised differently through time and space. Though competition and rivalry appear to predominate in the calculus of both states, shown starkly by how this has manifested in the cases explored in this volume, the authors seek to offer a less pessimistic outlook for the future of relations between the states. As key powers in a contested region, Iran and Saudi Arabia need to move towards greater accommodation and understanding of one another’s interests to secure the future peace and prosperity of the Middle East.