Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force 2LT Al-Shirhri adjusts his oxygen mask while in the cockpit of an F-5 Tiger II aircraft
At first glance, the recent Yemen crisis and the 2011 protests in favor of democracy in Bahrain have little in common. The talks between Iran and the p5+1 powers seem worlds apart from the Houthis’ takeover in the Middle East’s most impoverished nation. However, a deeper analysis reveals that these developments form the backdrop of a rapidly escalating tug-of-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the region’s most powerful Shiite and Sunni Muslim countries, respectively. Their dominance over other Shiite and Sunni nations extends not just across the Middle East but around the world, so much so that this grappling for power has led to the emergence of a Saudi-Iranian cold war reminiscent of the global hegemonic struggle that took place between the US and the USSR.
Ever since Ayatollah Khamenei hastened the popular revolution in Iran in 1979, the struggle between Shiite Iran and Sunni nations in the region has gripped the Middle East. During the eighties, Saddam Hussein and his Baath party — consisting of an empowered Sunni minority and a largely oppressed Shiite population — attacked Iran for fear that a similar Shiite revolution would occur in Iraq. Ever since the devastating Iran-Iraq War, this fear of a Shiite revolution has existed in the minds of Sunni leaders and has prompted efforts to circumscribe Iran’s dominance. Today, that mantle belongs to Saudi Arabia.
The effects of this emergent cold war — though not new to the region — have now spilt over into Yemen. Following President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s ouster in January at the hands of Shiite Houthis, Saudi Arabia has assembled 150,000 troops on its border with Yemen in case a ground war erupts and has launched airstrikes — along with other Sunni nations such as Qatar and Bahrain — on territory held by the Houthis. These airstrikes have been labeled ‘genocide’ by Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, demonstrating how an internal matter of a country has developed into a sectarian conflict necessitating the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia, for its part, has accused Iran of tacitly arming and supporting the Houthis so that they can remain in power.
The insistence of both countries on exploiting developments in the Middle East as possible avenues to assert their own control has often spawned negative consequences. Aside from its current bombing campaign in Yemen, there have been several other instances in which Saudi Arabia has encroached on the sovereignty of a nation to protect its own interests. A recent example of this is when protests in favor of democratic elections broke out in 2011 in Bahrain, where a minority Sunni government rules over a majority Shiite population. Saudi Arabia, fearing that the protests would usher in a Shiite government, deployed its own troops (with the ready consent of the minority Sunni government) to quell the unrest. This and current airstrikes in Yemen are clear violations of international law and are also very destabilizing for the region.
It is essential to understand that most developments in the Middle East are viewed by Iran and Saudi Arabia (mostly by the latter) as a geopolitical struggle between Sunni and Shiite nations. The Syrian crisis, for example, which has taken more than 250,000 lives, can be viewed as a struggle between an Iranian ally (the Assad regime) and the rebels who are being supported by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries. The lives that are lost every day in the conflict are witnesses to how detrimental this geopolitical struggle is and how the people and the stability of the region are the main victims of this cold war.
The Sunni-Shiite conflict has pulled other countries into the struggle as well. After the Yemen crisis erupted, Saudi Arabia immediately reached out to its ally Pakistan, the only nuclear powered Muslim country in the world and one which is itself plagued by sectarian strife, to request assistance in its efforts to bring down the Houthis regime. Although Pakistan has historically maintained a neutral stance vis-à-vis conflicts in Muslim countries, precedent does exist: after all, Saudi Arabia was able to recently persuade the incumbent Pakistani government to adopt a similar posture regarding the crisis in Syria. With Pakistan yet to officially take a side in the Yemen crisis, both Iranian and Saudi officials have been visiting Pakistan in efforts to secure its support.
The ramifications of the Saudi-Iranian conflict, moreover, are being felt in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal. Despite Iran and the p5+1 nations establishing a framework for an agreement, they continue to face severe hurdles from nations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which claim that Iran will not curb its ambitions for a nuclear bomb. Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to see the US give concessions to Iran is again part of its struggle for supremacy over the Shiite nation and for dominance in the Middle East. A sanctions-free Iran, according to Saudi Arabia, would pose unacceptable political and economic challenges. Thus, the repercussions of this cold war are impeding positive developments in key issues that for decades have held progress in the region hostage.
American support for Saudi Arabia and the demonization of Iran in the West have only escalated the conflict. Saudi Arabia, with its oil reserves and sway over Sunni Muslims around the world, is the avenue through which the US chooses to assert its own control over Muslim nations such as Pakistan and maintain a smooth stream of oil supplies. But in order to bring about a positive change in the Middle East, the West must reach out to Iran and simultaneously work to dispel Saudi Arabia’s distrust of the Shiite nation. This can be done only if the West comes out and criticizes the kingdom’s actions, something that Sweden recently did by reproaching Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Only once the West implements this policy change will this cold war begin to subside and will this volatile region see any positive development.
Abrahim Shah is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University, studying Economics and History. He is a Staff Writer for The Diplomacist.