The Middle East has always been a region where world powers jockeyed for power and influence. More recently, regional middle-sized powers have started to also attempt to carve out influence for themselves, at the expense of one another. The country in the Middle East that has always enjoyed sizeable influence in the region is Saudi Arabia. This is due to the fact that it has significant natural resources, vast wealth and that the King of Saudi Arabia is also the custodian of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. Thus, the rest of the muslim world, both near and far, saw Saudi Arabia as the voice of the islamic world. In the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, as Iran underwest a theocratic revolution towards Islam as a form of governance, Saudi Arabia began to feel threatened.
Additionally, Iran’s own natural resources and possible wealth from these resources, made it an even bigger possible threat. Over the years, the possible threat has played itself out in the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with both of these countries engaging in proxy warfare and diplomatic tit-for-tat to reach regional hegemony. As Saudi Arabia is a majority sunni muslim country and Iran is a majority Shia muslim country, these tensions and proxy warfare began to take a religious/sectarian frame in the eyes of the wider world. However, it is only minimally a matter of religion and is actually a matter of regional influence, trade, waterways and oil markets.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have never declared war on each other. Instead they fight indirectly by supporting opposing sides in conflicts in other countries and by inciting conflicts in other countries. This proxy war is currently being played out in significant conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, although the proxy war does spill into many other Middle Eastern nations. Tensions have been on an upward trajectory in the last decade, and exacerbated by the Arab Spring, the blockade on Qatar, the war on Yemen and the Syrian Civil War. The two countries appears unlikely to resolve their issues in the near future as these two states continue to battle for dominance as the most influential Islamic nation in the Middle East.
Ongoing since 1979
Syrian Civil War
Ongoing since March 15 2011
Deaths – 500,000
Refugees – 5.6 million (March 2018, United Nations)
Internally displaced people – 6.1 million (March 2018 – United Nations)
In need of humanitarian assistance – 13 million (March 2018 – United Nations)
Yemen Civil War
Ongoing since March 19 2015
Deaths – 91,600 (June 2019, Associated Press)
Refugees – 3 million (UNCHR)
At risk of starvation – 15+ million (UNHCR)
With Cholera – 1.1 million (UNHCR)
Iraq Civil War
Ongoing since January 1 2014
Deaths – 100,000
Refugees – 5.6 million
Ongoing since April 27 1978
Deaths – 1.5 to 2 million
Countries also involved:
Pakistan, Nigeria, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon
Heavily backed by the United States, this coalition which includes the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait (as well as supporting nations such as Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, and Morocco) is currently playing a significant role in the Yemeni civil war.
An Islamic religious and political movement that emerged from Yemen in the 1990’s. In 2014/2015 they took over the Yemeni government run by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and since that time they have gained control of most of the northern part of Yemen. They are allegedly supported by Iran.
Has been one of the major fronts in the conflict as a result of its revolution and subsequent civil war. Yemen has traditionally been under the influence of Saudi Arabia. The Houthi insurgence in Yemen caused an increase of tensions between Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is due to Iran’s alleged support of the Houthis. As a result of the conflict and support from Saudi Arabia and Iran of opposing sides of the conflict the UN is predicting that we may see one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.
The ongoing civil war which began in 2011 has been a significant battleground for Saudi Arabia and Iran. Syria has historically played an important role for Iran to assert its influence. The civil war threatened this and created an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to increase its influence. Iran backs the government while Saudi Arabia back rebel militants
Under Saddam Hussein’s rule Iraq was hostile to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Following the American-led invasion in 2003 and subsequent power vacuum, Iran sought friendship with Iraq and still maintains that to this day being particularly influential in Iraqi government
Being historically close to Iran and strategically important to Saudi Arabia, the proxy conflict between the two countries has contributed to Afghanistan’s continuing instability. Iran and Saudi continue to fight for influence over Afghanistan.
Pakistan is an economic partner for Iran but has close political, economic, and strategic ties to Saudi Arabia. It is increasingly finding it more and more difficult to balance its relationship with both countries.
Qatar was a strategic ally for Saudi Arabia and a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In 2017, Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed a land, air and sea blockade on Qatar for fear of its possible close relationship with Iran – as they share the world’s largest Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) field. Iran & Qatar enjoy a relationship of convenience and necessity, as Qatar now relies on Iran for certain agricultural products and air routes.
Has had a strained relationship with Saudi Arabia for some time. The resignation of Prime Minister Hariri whilst in Saudi Arabia further strained the relationship. The resignation has been viewed as a power play by Saudi Arabia to increase its influence in Yemen and counterbalance Iran’s victories in Iraq and Syria.
Has developed closer ties with the Saudis as a result of both countries’ shared antipathy towards Iran and their growing influence across the Middle East.
Regional intergovernmental political and economic union consisting of the the Arab states in the Persian Gulf excluding Iraq. Includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE. A proposal to transform the GCC into a ‘Gulf Union” with tighter economic, political and military coordination has been advanced by Saudi Arabia. This formation of such is meant to counterbalance Iran’s influence in the region.
The United States is a major supporter and ally of Saudi Arabia, and is an enemy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Not only has the US provided material, logistical, military, and surveillance but is also openly hostile to Iran, inching towards a conflict that might involve the US and Iran. The US, under President Obama tried to negotiate a settlement, the JCPOA, known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, but President Trump left the deal and implemented a policy of maximum pressure on Iran.
The EU, and all of its Member states, are a party to the to the JCPOA, and hope to balance their ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the United States and Iran. Despite its attempt at walking a fine line between all states, the EU is still an ally of the US.
China is a major trading partner for Iran and an export destination for its oil. It opposes the US’ efforts to enforce a policy of maximum pressure with Iran, but also remains very friendly with Saudi Arabia.
India is a major trading partner for Iran and an export destination for its oil. India also enjoys long-standing cultural and historical ties to Iran. It has also increasingly been an economic partner for Saudi Arabia and a close ally of the US.
Saudi Arabia was the dominant Islamic state in the Middle East. The Iranian revolution of ‘79 threatened the status quo.
Relations strained throughout the decade as Saudi Arabia quietly supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Saudi Arabia publicly claims neutrality but makes three of its ports available to Iraq’s military
Iranians in Mecca and Medina clash with Saudi police after chanting political slogans. Iran accused Saudi authorities of discrimination towards Iranian pilgrims
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain form the Gulf Cooperation Council as part of a security response to the Iranian revolution and Iran-Iraq war.
Saudi Arabia reportedly supplies Iraq with $1bn per month in aid
Iran attacks a Saudi oil tanker in Saudi waters in retaliation to Iraq’s attempts to interfere with Iran’s oil shipping. Saudi Arabia retaliates by shooting down an Iranian Phantom jet over Saudi waters.
Shiite pilgrims clash with Saudi police during the hajj, which resulted in a stampede. At least 400 are killed including more than 200 Iranians. Iranian protesters respond by attacking the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies in Tehran
Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran as a result of the hajj clash
Iran boycotts the hajj following Saudi Arabia reducing the number of pilgrim visas in response to the 1987 clashes
Tensions eased to some degree under President Akbar-Hashemi Rafsanjani who sought to improve Iran’s relations with its neighbors including Saudi Arabia. Trade and direct flights between the two increase.
Saudi Arabia sends aid to Iran after an earthquake kills 40,000
Riyadh (Saudi Arabia’s Capital city) and Tehran (Iran’s Capital city) restore diplomatic tie.
Following the Gulf War, Iraq was weakened and Saudi Arabia and Iran became the major regional powers.
Tensions eased again under President Mohammad Khatami who introduces a period of outreach to the Gulf. However, Saudi officials grow wary of Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, limiting the influence of Khatami’s outreach program.
Crown Prince Abdullah attends the Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Tehran becoming the most senior Saudi official to visit Iran since 1979
Iranian President Khatami meets with Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia becoming the first Iranian leader to visit Saudi Arabia since 1979
Saudi officials grow increasingly wary of Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. The US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 empowered Iraq’s Shiite majority and resulted in a shift of political alignment towards Iran.
Tensions increased when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came into power as he takes a hardline stance on foreign policy.
The war between Israel and Hezbollah (Lebanese militant group who receive funding from Iran) increases Saudi suspicions that Tehran is creating new regional alliances that threaten Saudi interests
Uprisings across the Arab world known as the Arab Spring cause political instability throughout the region which Iran and Saudi Arabia exploit to expand their influence particularly in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen
Saudi officials accuse Iran of inciting protest in Bahrain against the country’s Sunni royal family. Saudi officials are concerned that Bahrain’s Shiite majority will take power and ally with Iran. Saudi troops assist in quelling the unrest at the request of Bahrain’s Sunni Royal family
The U.S. Justice Department charges two Iranians with attempting to murder Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al Jubeir. Iran accuses the U.S. of fabrication and attempting to increase tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Syrian Civil War begins. Iran actively backs the Syrian government while also backing the Lebanese Shiite armed group Hezbollah who also actively support the Syrian government. Saudi Arabia is a member of the U.S.-led coalition that supports a myriad of rebel groups including the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Democratic Forces
Saudi Arabia blames Iran for protest against anti-Shiite discrimination in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province
Moderate Hassan Rouhani is elected Iranian president. Rouhani amends Iran’s foreign policy to a friendlier stance. Relations between Iran and most Gulf Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, improve.
Iran strikes an interim deal with big powers (US, UK, Russia, France, Germany, China) to limit its nuclear activity
Saudi authorities issue a death sentence for Nimr al Nimr a Shiite cleric involved in the 2011 protests. Iranian officials denounce the conviction
Iran increases it ground support for the Syrian Army (Russia also increases support for the Syrian Army in collaboration with Iran)
The U.S. coalition, including Saudi Arabia, begin launching airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria
The US increased efforts to curb Iran’s influence in the region after a deal saw Iran give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief
Saudi Arabia increases its support for the rebels fighting in the Syrian civil war.
Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to participate in peace talks regarding the proxy war however these ultimately failed.
Yemen Civil War begins. It is fought between the Supreme Revolutionary Committee led by the Houthis who are supported by Iran and forces loyal to current Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi who is strongly supported by the Saudi-led coalition.
A stampede in Mina, Mecca, during the hajj kills at least 2000 people including hundreds of Iranians. Tehran accuses Riyadh of mismanagement and threatens legal action.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Saudi counterpart Adel al Jubeir allegedly get into a heated argument during Syrian peace talks in Vienna.
Saudi Arabia executes Sheikh Nimr al Nimr a prominent Shiite leader who supported anti-government demonstrations. This prompted protests or condemnation from Shiites in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Lebanon and Yemen. Iranian protesters burn part of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and storm the compound.
Following the protests and violence at the Saudi Embassy,Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Bahrain sever diplomatic ties, the UAE downgrades its relations with Iran. All members of the Arab League except Lebanon issue a statement condemning the attacks.
Saudi-led coalition bomb strikes a funeral procession in Yemen’s capital Sana’a killing 155.
Missiles are launched by Iranian supported Houthi rebels from Yemen into Saudi territory allegedly targeting a missile in Riyadh.
Riyadh and several Sunni allies break off diplomatic relations with Qatar alleging Doha of supporting extremism that is linked with Iran (this was denied by both Iran and Qatar). This further increased tension.
Saad Hariri Lebanon’s Prime Minister who is supported by Saudi Arabia announced during a broadcast from Riyadh his resignation, blaming Iran’s “grip” on his country via Hezbollah. Iran believe this resignation was forced, they also allege Hariri is being held against his will and the Saudis are using him as a pawn in the proxy conflict.
Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of “a blatant act of military aggression” alleging that the missiles fired at Riyadh by Yemeni Houthi militias originated in Iran. Tehran denies this.
Riyadh tightens the blockade on Yemen
Yemeni officials allege that their President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been barred from leaving Riyadh, possibly as part of a feud with the UAE who are a key player in the Saudi-led coalition against rebels in Yemen
Lebanese officials state that they fear Hariri’s resignation was part of a regional power play, with Saudi Arabia attempting to upset the delicate balance holding together Lebanon’s government. A change in the makeup of the Lebanese government could upset the Iran-linked Hezbollah who already accuse Riyadh of forcing Hariri to resign.
The U.S. gives its support to Saudi Arabia. Nikki Haley, ambassador to the UN calls for the UN to “hold the Iranian regime accountable” for allegedly providing weapons to the Houthis
The UN warns that the tightened blockage on Yemen could cause “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades with millions of victims.”
French President Emmanuel Macron announced while in Dubai that he would travel to Riyadh to meet Saudi officials. He said he wanted to meet Mohammad bin Salman the crown prince to discuss regional stability.
SPA (Saudi Press Agency) report that Saudi nationals are being told to leave Lebanon “as soon as possible.”
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun told a Saud official that Hariri’s resignation is unacceptable.
Lebanon’s leader of Hezbollah said in a televised address that it is clear that Hariri is detained in Riyadh and the “Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon.”
The Saudi-led coalition reopens its land border to allow aid into the Yemen. The ports remained closed.
Former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a televised speech suggests a willingness to engage in peace talks with Saudi Arabia to end the conflict. This is seen as a move aimed at side-lining Houthi rebels.
Former Yemen President Saleh is assassinated by Houthi fighters.
Houthi rebels fire a ballistic missile toward an airport at the Saudi border. The Saudi defense forces report that they shot down the missile, and note that the attack demonstrates the continued support of the Houthis by Iran.
Saudi Arabia joins forces with the US, Great Britain, and France to support a UN draft resolution condemning Iran for its failure to stop Houthi rebels from gaining access to ballistics.
Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia tells CBS that Saudi Arabia will develop nuclear weapons if Iran does so.
Prince Mohammad bin Salman announces that he will be putting more economic and political pressure on Iran, and urges other nations to follow suit.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accuses the US of using Saudi money to assist in the creation of the Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia vocally supports US President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Iran takes advantage of the lifted sanctions to develop more ballistics and support various terrorist militias, including the Houthis.
The US reinstates sanctions against Iran.
Despite the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate, US President Trump reaffirms that the US will stand by Saudi Arabia as a staunch ally against Iran.
Iran has seized another foreign oil tanker in the Arabian Gulf and detained the ship’s seven crew members. The capture is the third such seizure in a month amid heightened tensions with the United States and its Arab allies, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Drones launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have attacked a massive oil and gas field in Saudi Arabia. This is the second such attack on the Saudi energy industry in recent days and comes amid high Middle East tensions.
This month, at his Mecca palace, Saudi King Salman took the unusual step of expressing “extreme irritation” with the UAE, his closest Arab partner, according to sources familiar with the matter. The comment appears to be evidence of a fissure in the alliance, which is led in practice by the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), and the UAE de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MbZ).