The Gulf has seen major developments since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, from the end of the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar and the release of Saudi Arabia’s human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Hussein, to the delisting of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a “foreign terrorist organisation”. Although these may be considered random events to some, they are all connected in a covert war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Iran seeming to have gained the upper hand.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have never declared war on each other, instead they fight indirectly by supporting opposing sides in different countries in the middle east. This is known as proxy warfare, and both countries see this form of warfare as both enormous threats as well as enormous opportunities, and it has ultimately resulted in a fight over influence and control over the region. In order to understand this rivalry, and why Iran seems to be gaining the upper hand in this war, it’s important to know the history of both countries.
Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 after World War 1 and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when the Al Saud family united the country through battles fought between the territory’s tribal groups. In 1938, oil was discovered in the country, giving the Al Saud monarch the ability to develop the Sunni-dominated country with funds raised by the Arabian American Oil Company (“Aramco”) and with the assistance of the United States. On the other side of the Persian Gulf, in 1979, the Iranian Revolution took place which saw the fall of the US-backed king, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (“the Shah”). The Iranian people fought against the Shah’s secular, Western-influenced rule and gave power to Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shia anti-secular leader, resulting in the formation of the Shia-dominated Islamic Republic of Iran, an oil-rich country with a bigger Muslim population than Saudi Arabia. This is when the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran began. The Saudis became fearful that the Iranian anti-monarch uprising would inspire their people to rise up against the ultimate status quo Al Saud family in exactly the same way the Iranians had risen up against their Shah.
This rivalry developed further in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran, the Iraqi leader fearing an Iranian-influenced Shia uprising within Iraq’s borders. Saudi Arabia, the US, the Soviet Union, Kuwait and neighbouring Arab states openly supported Iraq’s effort by supplying money, weapons and logistical support to Saddam Hussein, with the hope that Iraq could hold back Iran’s growing influence over the region. The number of casualties were enormous, with Iran suffering the greatest losses. In response, Iran established an elite group of soldiers and spies called the Quds Force, a branch of its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp, to help spread its ideology and protect the country’s interests covertly.
Iran later had the opportunity to turn the tables in Lebanon’s civil war by supporting several Lebanese militias led by Shia clerics who had ideological ties to Iran. These militias eventually merged to form one Shia militia called Hezbollah, now a proxy of Iran able to fight Israel and have sway in Lebanon on its behalf. Hezbollah now controls a large portion of Lebanon’s government structure.
Iran’s influence grew even further when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the US overthrowing Hussein and his government. By overthrowing Iraq’s government, the US created a security vacuum and caused the country to break out into a civil war. Saudi Arabia and Iran seized the opportunity to gain influence by supporting the Sunni and Shia militias respectively, in the war.
Iran’s ultimate moment came in 2011 with the rise of the anti-monarchy, pro-democracy Arab Spring. This event posed a massive risk to the Al Saud family, and saw both nations supporting Sunni and Shia groups in Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Lebanon and Morocco.
Syria and Yemen have also fallen victim to this influence, with Iran supporting the anti-government Houthi rebels against the Saudi military in Yemen, and Iran further supporting Syria’s dictator Bashar Al Assad against rebel Sunni groups acting as Saudi proxies.
Ultimately, what seemed to be good strategic moves made by Saudi Arabia during the anti-Iran Trump era has had the opposite effect for them since the start of the Biden administration in January. The Saudi-led boycott against Qatar, intended to break Qatar away from Saudi rivals Iran and Turkey, has driven the tiny Gulf country closer to them.
Saudi’s leader Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) had also hoped that by boycotting Qatar its people would turn against the Al Thani royal family. Rather, the opposite has happened; Qatar’s people showing unity throughout. MBS’s war on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen has garnered international condemnation, with an international and regional push to end the conflict. At the same time, the Houthi rebels have gained enough territory to fire rockets, supplied by Iran, from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, targeting the kingdom’s major oil facilities. The Biden administration has also halted weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and its closest ally, the United Arab Emirates, as part of its mission to “reassess” Washington’s relationship with Riyadh. The US is free to do this because of its ability to produce its own oil instead of relying on Saudi Arabia as a supplier. Ultimately, in contrast to the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, the tables have turned in favour of Iran, with their influence now controlling many of the countries bordering Saudi Arabia. But Iran is not without weaknesses that are exploitable. Iran’s economy has weakened dramatically over the years as a result of US sanctions placed on the country. The question therefore is how long can they maintain their siege, with Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel breathing down their necks?