Saudi-Iranian struggle for hegemony in the Middle East

By Emily Jopling

The sudden resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on 4th November, during a visit to Saudi Arabia, was not only unexpected but has aggravated ongoing tensions in the Middle East.

The resignation is rumoured to have been instigated by Saudi Arabia after Hariri was summoned to Riyadh.

Amidst this chaos, Saudi Arabia also intercepted a ballistic missile which was fired towards Riyadh airport. Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed to have fired the missile, which Saudi Arabia later declared to be an act of war.  Reflecting the greater tensions which plague the region, both events show how Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to battle for a hegemonic status.

Since the demise of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has managed to cling onto centre stage in the Middle East. It has asserted its dominance through proxy Shia militant groups, notably using Lebanon’s Hezbollah to support Assad’s regime in Syria and spearhead its hostility towards Israel.

Reminiscent of the standoffs between the US and USSR in the latter half of the twentieth century

Now, however, Saudi Arabia seems prepared to take a harder line towards Iran. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is young and eager to assert Saudi authority in the region. He is helped by the stronger stance taken by its American ally since the election of Donald Trump who has openly criticised Iran and vows to stand with Saudi Arabia.

What we are witnessing in the Middle East is reminiscent of the standoffs between the US and USSR in the latter half of the twentieth century, although tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran dates back even further. It is heavily rooted in historic conflicts between Sunni-Shia ideology, whilst also being shaped by changing geopolitical stakes in the region.

For now, the war remains a cold one; but if Saudi Arabia intends to continue vying with Iran for power, it may not be long before it turns hot.

As this article goes to press, Hariri has returned to Lebanon and has backtracked on his decision to resign. Chaos in Lebanon continues, and even bigger questions now hang over what Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s next moves will be.

Photograph: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency via Wikimedia Commons 

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