Saudi Arabia has cut diplomatic ties with Iran, followed by Bahrain and Sudan. Relations have been turning sour between Iran and Saudi Arabia since a Hajj incident last year, and concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the tipping point was the execution of a shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This was followed by an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Iran. Also the UAE has now recalled its ambassador and downgraded its diplomatic efforts.
Despite a previous severance of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran after the 1987 Hajj riots, the context of a world oil glut, conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and the changing religious climate in the Middle East threaten to create a sustained crisis. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni monarchy and Iran is a Shi’a Islamic republic meaning their religious and political differences have further polarized the Middle East.
Currently Iraq and Russia have offered its services as a mediator. However, Saudi Arabia needs Iran to change its behaviour regarding sponsoring terrorism making mediation attempts obsolete. This is a battle about regional security fought by opposing ideologies in a time of dangerous sectarianism.
It can be speculated that Saudi Arabia has deliberately provoked Iran with the executions. Saudi Arabia has timed the provocation in line with the lifting of Iran’s sanctions and the escalation of the war in Yemen. The country is testing its power and the US, in an attempt to change the geopolitical trajectory of the region in its favour. If Saudi Arabia succeeds in forcing the US into the conflict by siding with the Kingdom then its chief objective will have been met. For the US there is a conflict of interest. If it is seen as favouring Sunni Muslims, it will stoke religious tensions within countries like Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE who have large Shi’a populations that could riot. Depending on how the US reacts it could change the way Middle Eastern states interact with the Western power, and which future alliances will be forged.
A further problem from these relational tensions arises. Saudi Arabia and Iran are key players in peace negotiations in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Saudi officials claim their decision will not affect efforts to negotiate peace. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran will attend the peace talks, but for as a purely superficial show of agreement, as it unlikely that either state will concede any ground. This is evident as Saudi Arabia has withdrawn from the ceasefire agreement in Yemen. Moreover, The Gulf Cooperation Council which includes Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain control much industry across the region especially in key states like Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan, which keeps Iran’s economic influence limited.
Iran however does not remain blameless in their actions. Their aim to increase economic power makes it unlikely they will back down from any aggressive foreign policy. It is important to note that neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran respect diplomacy as the best way the end the conflict. So far, Iran has interfered and destabilised peace in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria by sponsoring anti-government groups like Hezbollah and Houthis and this sponsorship will continue and perhaps expand to affect other Middle Eastern countries that do not follow Shi’a Islam.
Apart from an impact on the Middle East, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have created a difficult situation for OPEC and potentially for the rest of the world. It has undermined OPECs’ ability to shape oil prices and has led to Saudi Arabia controlling the market. For example on the 5th of January, Saudi Arabia undercut crude oil prices in Europe, aiming to prevent Iran’s bid to re-enter the market later this year being successful.
On one hand this has triggered a price war on oil as states struggle to protect their revenues. On the other hand actual oil production has not been effected because the world oil glut is too strong to be shifted. The trends in oil production are set to continue into 2016, which puts many Middle Eastern countries in a precarious position, as their tax revenue and oil profits will decline. This makes the possibility of a hot conflict unlikely.
The Middle East has enough problems without its two heavyweights at each other’s throats. Although war does not seem to be on the horizon, the economic and religious battle in the region could intensify the ongoing tensions. Even though this tension is not new, it will test alliances between Middle Eastern countries in a historically unprecedented way. As religion and pride are at the centre of this, it looks unlikely a logical and peaceful solution will be met, and tensions will continue until other circumstances force the nations to renege on their disagreements with each other.
Photograph: The U.S. Army via flickr