The Middle Eastern Cold War

June 24, 2020

By: Mohamed Ahmed

It is no secret that the Middle East is one of the most unstable regions in the world. Many of its governments are led by undemocratic rulers, there are countless militia groups that spread chaos and unrest throughout the region, and its nations are seemingly in constant conflict amongst themselves, as well as with nations outside of the region. However, among all the uncertainty that comes with civil wars, uprisings, and economic collapse, there is often one consistent factor, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two biggest powers in the Middle East, and they are bitter rivals. Despite this, they have never actually officially declared war on each other, instead, they prefer to fight proxy wars. They accomplish this by supporting opposing sides in other conflicts in the region, such as in the civil war in Yemen, the war in Iraq, and the civil war in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Iran view this as a way to gain greater influence throughout the region, similar to a Cold War. The most famous Cold War is the Cold War between The United States and The USSR from 1947 – 1991, they were both very powerful rivals who fought proxy wars in order to gain power across the globe. The same thing is happening in the Middle East, but instead, they are fighting for dominance and control over the region. In order to understand the conflict, we must understand the origins of the countries. 

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, much of the Arabic Peninsula was in shambles, tribes fought each other for power, and one tribe, the Al Saud, prevailed and took over what is currently known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Enormous oil reserves were discovered and the Saudis were instantly rich. This resulted in a strong alliance between them and the United States which still exists today. Iran was having a much more difficult time as a result of chaos from foreign intervention. In 1953, the United States staged a coup, removing the well-liked leader Mohammad Mosaddegh, and replacing him with a monarch, Reza Shah. Shah reformed Iran into a secular, “western” country. He was also very corrupt and was notorious for using his secret police to terrorize the population. In 1979 the Iranian Revolution occurred, establishing Iran as a legitimate Islamic country, and this is when tensions began to grow. The Iranian Revolution petrified the Saudi government as they were scared that Ayatollah Khomeini, the new leader of Iran, would inspire the Saudi population to rise up against their government. In an effort to protect itself, the Saudi government strengthened its alliance with the US and formed the Gulf Cooperation Council which is an alliance among the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf.

Another large reason for the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is their fight for religious dominance within the region. Saudi Arabia has long been considered the leader of the Muslim world, mostly because they are home to two of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. But after the revolution, Iran claimed that they can be considered a legitimate, and more powerful Muslim country. Saudi Arabia also has a majority Sunni population, whereas Iran has a majority Shia one. Sunni and Shia are the two major sects of Islam, the split occurred after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). One group believed that his rightful successor should be his friend, Abu Bakr al Siddique, but another group believed that it should be his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. 

When Iran and Iraq went to war in 1980, Saudi Arabia supported Iraq with money, weapons, and logistical help, this resulted in the lengthening of a war that leftover one million people dead. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew President Saddam Hussein, this was against the interests of both Saudi Arabia and Iran as Iraq acted as a buffer between the two. After the fall of the Iraqi government, the area became filled with armed militias and terrorist groups. Iran and Saudi Arabia saw this as an opportunity to gain influence. They both began supporting the militia groups with money and weaponry, the Saudis supported the Sunni groups, and the Iranians the Shia ones.

The same thing occurred during the 2011 Arab Spring but on a much larger scale. The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests that started in Tunisia that swept the region, successfully toppling numerous regimes in the Middle East. Like the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Saudi Arabia feared its people becoming inspired by the uprising and revolting. This caused them to support many regimes throughout the Middle East that were at risk of falling. Iran, on the other hand, supported the protests as they had been trying to overturn the status quo of the region. This involvement caused many countries to collapse as a result of the pressure being put on them by Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

In Yemen and Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran began deploying their militaries. Saudi Arabia has troops supporting the government, whereas Iran’s military is fighting alongside the Houthis, the rebel group fighting against the government. In Syria, the opposite is occurring. Iran is fighting against militias such as Hezbollah in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad who are fighting against rebel Sunni groups who are backed by Saudi Arabia.

Now, this Cold War is threatening other countries in the region. Qatar, a small Gulf state whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia, has been blockaded by the Saudis and a dozen other Arab countries, the reason for this blockade is largely due to their growing ties with Iran. Ultimately, the continuation of the Saudi - Iran rivalry is a result of each of them feeling their own national interests are at risk because of the unrest occurring in other countries, whether it’s civil wars, widespread protesting, or government toppling revolutions. All things that they feel are the fault of the other.


Why Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals.
Cold War.
The Middle East's cold war, explained [Video file]
Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict.
The differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
What was the Arab Spring and what caused it to happen?
The truth about why the Arab Spring failed.