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Saudi Arabia and Iran square up

The Saudi Arabia-Iran crisis will result in prolonged sectarian tension in the Gulf and an escalation in the region's conflict. However, a deliberate military conflict between the two can be discounted

The two political giants of the Middle East and the two powerhouses of Opec, Saudi Arabia and Iran, stand eyeball-to-eyeball across the Gulf. The stakes have seldom been higher: these two countries alone have the potential capacity to produce some 14 million barrels a day (b/d) of oil, nearly half of total Opec supply.

Saudi Arabia's concern at the proposed lifting of sanctions on Iran and the prospect of Iranian production returning to pre-sanctions levels of 3.6 million b/d, and possibly more, constitutes one of the elements in the persistent rivalry between the two countries. The recent escalation of tension is the latest and most dangerous element in that tussle.

A deliberate military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran can be discounted. The flow of oil exports is vital for the survival of both. So an officially sanctioned Saudi military strike at Iran's oil installations is as unlikely as any Iranian mining of the Strait of Hormuz - the oft-suggested threat to oil exports at times of Gulf tension, but one that has never materialised. Oil prices, which rose on the back of the latest spat early in January, have already resumed their downward trend. On 6 January, Brent was hovering just about $35 a barrel.

Nevertheless, the possibility of accidents or misunderstandings triggering a conflict cannot be excluded. The intense rivalry between the two neighbours is unlikely to end in the coming months precisely because its roots lie both in contested claims for regional influence and the deeply ingrained distrust between Sunni and Shia. So Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue, with even more vigour, to exploit proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere to try to undermine the other's regional ambitions. After a lull in fighting in Yemen, Saudi jets began a new, intensified bombing campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on 5 January.

A hard-line approach

The prospect, no matter how remote, of the bulwark of Sunni Islam on the western side of the Gulf and the flagship of Shia religious and political power on the eastern shore coming to blows has triggered alarm far beyond the region. Russia, China and Germany are among the countries that have offered to mediate. 

But Saudi Arabia is in no mood for diplomacy. The kingdom is determined to continue its long-term strategy of eliminating Iranian (and therefore Shia) meddling in the mainly Sunni Arab world. Saudi Arabia believes the West is being duped by Iran into accepting its assurances that it will not develop nuclear weapons. The US in particular, so Saudi thinking goes, is keen to see Iran resume the role it played under the Shah as a powerful force to work for regional security. Such a role would work against Saudi and Sunni interests.

King Salman, after succeeding the late King Abdullah in early 2015, was advised by the two young princes he chose as successors that the kingdom should break with tradition and take direct action to counter Iranian influence as the US began to step back from the Middle East. One result was Saudi Arabia's launching of the military campaign in Yemen to stop the Shia Houthis (regarded in Riyadh as Iranian agents) capturing Aden. Saudi Arabia remains bogged down in that war, and repeated UN efforts to end it have failed.

The latest phase of the Saudi-Iranian crisis also resulted from deliberate if risky decisions. The aim of including the Shia Saudi cleric Shaikh Nimr among those executed by Saudi Arabia on 2 January appears to have been twofold. First it sent a message domestically that no dissent of any kind would be permitted, from Sunni jihadists or Shia opposition. Secondly, the idea, it seems, was to prompt an Iranian response that would damage the prospects of Iran returning to the international community and therefore becoming again a major Middle East power. 

The clear hope in Riyadh is that the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the highlighting of Iranian interference in the region will turn international opinion against Iran, scuppering the nuclear deal and shutting Tehran out of the Syria talks. 

An editorial in the Saudi daily al-Riyadh (which reflects court thinking) began: "Iran, after ending its estrangement from the West, or so it would like to think, is now estranged from the Islamic world" The article said Western governments should shoulder their responsibility and decide whether or not Iran was fit to be back within the international community in the light of recent developments.

So, as with the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has run headlong into a high-stakes dispute from which it will be hard to extricate itself. The knowledge that both Saudi Arabia and Iran need to keep their oil exports flowing offers some comfort to the outside world, and to crude markets. But while the broader Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict continues, and with young, headstrong leaders holding the reins of power in Saudi Arabia, it is hard to see either country taking a step backwards.

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