One of the most significant factors shaping the multitude of conflicts in the Middle East is the geosectarian struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. More important, while these rival states are duking it out geopolitically, each of them is at war with itself. The Saudi and Iranian political entities are in the midst of significant change as key parts of their regimes try to steer away from their state’s religio-political origins. Saudi and Iranian domestic political struggles and foreign policy outlooks will influence one another and the United States must not treat either of these states as monolithic players.
Compare and Contrast
The bitterest of rival nations in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and Iran — are undergoing parallel processes. Each of them is in the throes of significant change. There are obvious differences between the two in terms of starting points, scope, pace and the direction of the change sought. But there are several noteworthy commonalities as well.
Both the Saudi kingdom and the Iranian republic are – in very different ways – Islamic states in which a critical section of the elite is trying to steer away from austere interpretations of Islam’s role in politics. Driving these attempts at change in Riyadh and Tehran is the fact that both countries have a huge and restless population of young people who do not identify with the implementation of austere forms of sharia. What is at stake is more than traditional ideas, norms, and values; it is the way in which traditional values can operate within a realpolitik environment that include political-economic interests. Complicating matters are economic challenges in both countries that are forcing course corrections and will, to varying degrees, constrain Riyadh and Tehran’s foreign policy endeavors.
Here is where we must turn to the differences to get a better sense of the countries’ balance of weakness. As the Saudis face a massive loss of revenue from depressed oil prices, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is overhauling his country’s political economy so that it is no longer dependent on crude exports. Toward this end, Riyadh must make some very risky sweeping changes to the decades-old social contract in which the state provided a cradle-to-grave welfare system.
Iran, on the other hand, faces a situation where decades of sanctions have affected the economy even though the country got a respite from the sanctions regime in the July 2015 nuclear deal, which is now mired in uncertainty. Tehran can no longer maintain an ambitious foreign policy while catering to the needs of its domestic political economy. The widespread protests in response to worsening economic conditions that broke out in January of this year made it clear that something has got to give. Just as the Saudis cannot continue to play a role beyond their borders due to financial constraints, the Iranians are also limited in how far they can project power in the region without stirring domestic ire. Neither is likely to cease financial commitments to its respective allies around the region, but neither can continue with business as usual.
Into the Unknown
Essentially, Iran and Saudi Arabia are states in transition with no guarantees of a soft landing. Each has its unique strengths and weaknesses in terms of where it stands currently. Iran’s clerical regime has a robust republican component to it, which allows some room for the state to manage public discontent. However, the popularly-elected leadership faces massive resistance from the clerical and security establishments. That resistance severely circumscribes the extent of change that the President Hassan Rouhani-led coalition of pragmatic conservatives and reformists can indulge in.
The monarchical system in Saudi Arabia gives a great deal of latitude to the soon-to-be king. The fact that the crown prince was able to take action against prominent members of his own royal family under an anti-corruption drive and without any resistance speaks volumes about his ability to force change. However, The Saudi state lacks institutionalized systems of checks and balances and the influential clergy and tribal leadership will not go quietly into the night. The prince’s efforts to leverage his youth-dominated constituency to fast-track the country to an era of social and economic change cannot occur alongside the current political continuity. The prince has the excruciatingly difficult task of making sure that the friction between the old guard’s resistance to and the public expectations for change does not wear down the fabric of the state.
Regardless of the precise outcomes, the domestic politics in Saudi Arabia and Iran are shaping their mutual geosectarian conflict. As long as they both are at war with the self, they are unlikely to effectively confront the other. Conversely, their ongoing regional geopolitical feud influences the domestic struggles within both countries. Opponents of change in both nations are leveraging the Saudi-Iranian conflict to retain as much power as possible.
Social, political and economic transformation is underway in both countries, albeit to varying degrees and at different velocities. However, neither the Saudi leaders nor their Iranian counterparts know what their regimes will look like in the years ahead. The United States must not base its policies toward the region on the convenient assumption that conditions will remain the same. Both the Saudi and the Iranian regimes are in a state of flux and what they will look like and how they will behave in the years ahead is the big unknown. Washington should expect significant change and even commotion in both countries and constantly be calibrating its policies accordingly.