In a bizarre combination of seventh century religious conviction and 21st century petro-dollar politico-economics, Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for the central role in the evolution of the new post-Western Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, the champion of Sunni Muslims, has initiated a more assertive foreign policy under its new king while Iran, freshly liberated from the majority of its UN sanctions, is now free to resume selling all of its oil onto an already glutted world market.
Tehran’s new freedom runs counter to Saudi Arabia’s determination to remain the world’s number one supplier by flooding the world with oil at ever cheaper prices to ward off challengers.
The threat to Saudi dominance comes not only from Iran, which needs healthy prices to help encourage Western investors take advantage of what is estimated to be a $100 billion windfall once the Shia state’s frozen assets are released, but also from the oil shale fields in North America.
Riyadh wants neither Iran’s ability to fully operate in the world economy again, with the wealth to expand its Shia influence, nor its competition as an oil seller, as the champion of the Sunni states seeks to drive its competitors, including the oil producers, out of business. Most require oil prices around the $100 mark to develop their new technology oil fields such as those in Alberta, Canada which are already being hit by high levels of unemployment. But it will take a prolonged period of very low oil prices to seriously damage Iran’s ambitions.
The Iranian nuclear deal is a telling blow from Saudi Arabia’s previously staunch ally the United States and the Saudis set up a 34-nation Arabian ‘anti-terrorist’ alliance which pointedly excluded Iran. The deal will also be seen as weakening the Saudi-backed Sunni fighters in Syria, though nominally both Tehran and Riyadh are committed to supporting the peace efforts in Vienna.
Though Sunni and Shia have existed peacefully side by side for millennia, the modern era sees them resuming a conflict which began in 632 with the death of Muhammad. There was a dispute over who should succeed the prophet, the Shia favouring a member of his family specifically Ali, who was married to Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah. The Sunni wished to have the most capable person available as selected by the community’s elite. As a result of that schism the two branches of Islam today differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and organisation but what was a religious dispute is now a competition between them both for influence over the region.
Several times the West has made the mistake of taking sides in this arcane disagreement, most recently, and disastrously, taking the part of the Sunni in the war in Iraq.
On the geo-strategic front the pro-Sunni bias has brought the United States and the West in general to favour a close alliance with Saudi Arabia, a regime which shares none of its values and certainly does not permit the practice of other religions on its soil. Worse than that, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack, as described by the United States, were all Sunni extremists.
But it is not only on the proxy battlefield of Syria that Saudi Arabia and Iran are in conflict. In Yemen Riyadh is backing the regime in their struggles against the Houthi rebels which are supported by the Iranians. Already dragging out over two years, this is an expensive confrontation for both nations but key for both if they want to maintain their influence, in the case of Saudi Arabia, or expand it in the case of Iran, though the latter denies any involvement.
Equally crucial to both sides are the nations of the Gulf which both have striven to influence over the years. All feel threatened by Iran, to a greater or lesser extent. Bahrain, with its Sunni royal house and Shia majority, felt so threatened that Saudi forces, with a smattering of other Gulf forces’ troops, moved in to shore up the regime when Shia protests got too widespread for comfort some years ago. A newly-invigorated Iran will inevitably increase its influence in the Gulf through increased trade and interchange across the waterway, something which the Saudis will find hard to match.
The hard-won lesson for the West is not to take sides in this dispute. The origin of most of the mistakes that Western nations have made in the Middle East in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere is that of taking sides between these two factions. Usually it has been to take advantage of a short-term military or political position and very often in complete ignorance of the local religious, cultural or tribal implications.
But the choice of Sunni Saudi Arabia, though perhaps largely dictated by oil resources, has led the West down a particularly perilous path, removing choice from many of the key political decisions. By distancing itself from Riyadh, the United States seems ready to write a new chapter in its relations with the Middle East.