Despite both Saudi Arabia and Iran being major Islamic countries in the Middle East and separated by only a few miles of Persian Gulf, gaps between their ideology, politics and culture have caused them to share a tense relationship. Although the past had looked bright for the two states, modern tensions have caused the rift in their relations to continue widening.
With the signing of the ‘Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty’ in 1929, it seemed as though diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were set to rise. By 1966 King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and The Shah of Iran, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi had paid one another’s countries official visits with aims of further strengthening the relationship between the neighbouring nations.
However, soon after the breakthrough of increasing ties, the conservative nature of Saudi Arabia began to bother the rapidly modernising Iran. As a result, Iran’s Shah sent a series of letters to Kind Faisal, urging him to “modernise” and “open up” Saudi Arabia. In response, King Faisal reminded the Shah of Iran that his own “population is 90 percent Muslim”.
Relations between the two countries carried on declining throughout the 1970’s as revolution broke out in Iran, and as the Sunni-Shia conflict played a pivotal role in the Iran-Iraq war. As relations continued to worsen, both countries attempted to build bilateral security relationships with smaller neighbouring Persian Gulf states – leading to further deterioration, which still continues today.
The on-going rivalry is exemplified in the situation of both countries backing opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War, and both countries carrying out a proxy war against one another in Yemen.
Even so, by the end of 2015 there had been hints that Saudi Arabia and Iran had perhaps grown tired of their conflict and would be willing to deescalate tense relations in 2016. There were hopes of prospective peace deals and a rebuilding of their relationship for the New Year, but these hopes were quickly dismantled with the emergence of a new conflict between both nations during the beginning of January.
Saudi Arabia executions
Despite both countries being Muslim, each has opposing sects as the religious majority. In Saudi Arabia, the majority follow a conservative sect of the Sunni faith, while Iranians are mostly of the Shia faith – with approximately 40 percent of the world’s total Shia population living in Iran. Since the 1960’s both countries have been fighting for religious and political control in the Middle East, which has strengthened the Sunni-Shia divide in the region.
However, new heights in the long-running conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran were reached at the beginning of 2016 when 47 people were executed in Saudi Arabia on January 2nd. The mass execution was the largest since sentences were carried out against extremists who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca more than thirty-five years ago – with many of the convicted being accused of having links to Al Qaeda.
One of the people executed included the prominent and charismatic Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who had attracted a following for his anti-government rhetoric and saw Iran as an ally. Although he had no connections to Al Qaeda, he championed the long oppressed Shia minority in Saudi Arabia who work in oil rich areas of the country but have long felt they were not getting a fair share of their own resources. For decades there were sporadic protests among Shias in the eastern provinces over their economic and political grievances.
Nimr’s execution outraged the Middle East’s Shia communities and leaders of Shia majority countries, with Iran threatening vague consequences and the country’s Revolutionary Guards telling Saudi Arabia to expect “harsh revenge”. Iranian media claimed the execution was a provocative act and within hours of the death sentence being carried out, Iranian protestors had ransacked and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
On January 3rd Saudi Arabia responded to the protests by abruptly severing diplomatic relations, saying it would cut out commercial ties and ban Saudi travel to Iran as well. Saudi Arabia also defended its actions by proclaiming Nimr’s execution was justified as part of the country’s “war on terrorism”, and claimed he was killed for “breaking allegiance with the ruler”, instigating unrest, and “undermining the Kingdom’s security”.
Nimr was a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s oppression of its Shia minority, and of the dangers that Shias face in the mostly Sunni Middle East. Since his execution, hopes for de-escalation in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been dampened.
The recent breakdown has threatened a string of fragile peace initiatives between the two countries including peace talks on Syria that were set to begin on January 25th and the Iran nuclear deal that was expected to be implemented this month.
These peace initiatives were essential for efforts to reconstruct relations and ease tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, which have long cast a shadow over hopes for stability in the Middle East. But since the recent increase in tensions, it has been suggested that peace initiatives are now likely to disintegrate.
Not only is the conflict bad for relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it is also bad for the entire Middle East. The increase in tensions is likely to further increase Sunni-Shia rivalry in the region, which could have serious repercussions and further drive conflict among Middle Eastern states.
As a Sunni majority country, Turkey has sought to occupy a middle ground in the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while also attempting to calm tensions by advocating dialogue and offering itself as a possible mediator.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned that the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran were “further enhancing antagonism in the region”. Turkey also vaguely pointed out its aversion to the death penalty, with a spokesman for the Turkish government pointing out that Turkey does not have a death penalty.
The EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini has also recognised the threat of disintegrating relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and has urged both states to avoid escalation over the Saudi execution of the Shia Muslim cleric.
In a statement released after the execution, the EU stated that Nimr’s killing “raises serious concerns regarding freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights”. The statement also added that the execution also has “the potential of further enflaming the sectarian tension that already bring so much damage to the entire region”.
Britain also raised its concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia following the executions, with Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Foreign Office, Tobias Ellwood, telling parliament “The UK’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia does not mean that we shy away from raising legitimate human rights concerns”.