The political confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran has often been designated a “Middle Eastern Cold War”. Indeed, scholars describing this situation as a “Cold War” certainly have a point. This becomes particularly clear when analysing Saudi foreign policy, which often seems to be aiming at countering Iran’s alleged influence in various Middle Eastern states. These states have been described by the king of Jordan as “Shiite crescent”.
An appropriate designation?
Why is this “Cold War” important and is this designation appropriate? In order to answer these questions, the original Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union should be taken into consideration. The ideological, political, and economic confrontation between these two superpowers took various forms and took place in various forums. Taking this into account, will this “Middle Eastern Cold War” withstand a comparison with the Cold War 1948 – 91?
Indeed, there are parallels between the Saudi-Iranian confrontation and the Cold War. However, the former seems to primarily take the form of a political-ideological conflict whereas the latter had a military dimension, too, as well as a distinct economic-ideological aspect. The Saudi-Iranian Cold War, however, is primarily a confrontation over different political systems. Furthermore, it is an ideological dispute over the “correct” ideological form of Islamism: a revolutionary Shiite-shaped vs a traditionalist, monarchical Sunni Islamism.
As a consequence, it can be stated that Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s conflict is primarily about their respective political systems and their political “traditions” rather than their respective religions. Saudi Arabia’s ruling al-Saud family, who is ruling in an absolute monarchical tradition, is naturally particularly critical of revolutionary movements, movements Iran is supporting oftentimes.
The Saudi-Iranian conflict seems to be an organising factor in Middle Eastern politics. Saudi Arabia in particular seems to understand this conflict as a zero-sum game. States are either on the Saudi side or on the Iranian side. This is especially true for the Saudi foreign policy after the young crown prince Muhammad bin Salman became the driver thereof. States that are “neutral” or in which there can be a compromise between Riyadh and Tehran, such as Lebanon, are not accepted anymore. This new Saudi policy and this conflict in general have the potential to cause ripple effects across the region.