Tension between Middle Eastern regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran are likely to escalate but will stop short of erupting into open, direct military confrontation. Instead, existing proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon will intensify while sectarian strains in countries like Bahrain, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia that are home to both Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities will worsen. At the heart of the battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a four decade-old existential battle for dominance not only in the Middle East and North Africa but in the Muslim world as a whole. It is a battle that started with the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the first toppling by a popular revolt of both a monarch and an icon of US power in the region. Concerned that the Iranian revolution would offer a form of Islamic governance involving a degree of popular sovereignty that would challenge Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy which cloaks itself in a puritan interpretation of Islam, the kingdom went on the warpath. In doing so, it launched the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in World War Two history, spending up to $100 billion since 1979 on the funding of Muslim cultural institutions across the globe and forging close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies that have adopted its worldview. The result has been Muslim societies like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh have under Wahhabi and Salafi influence and the playing with religion by governments become more conservative. The spread of Saudi Wahhabism and Salafism has also sparked more militant groups. Saudi-Iranian relations were despite occasional periods of cooperation further poisoned by the kingdom’s funding of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s eight year-long war against Iran in the 1980s. It’s a battle that Saudi Arabia can only win as long as Iran has not fully returned to the international fold and recovered with the lifting of debilitating international sanctions.
About the Speaker:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wuerzburg. An award-winning journalist and scholar, has covered and written about the Middle East for more than forty years. James has been based in ten countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. His book, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, is being published in April. A second co-authored with Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Lost in Transition – Comparative Political Transitions in Southeast Asia and the Middle East is also being published in April.