Saudi Arabia is awaiting the results of Iran’s forthcoming presidential elections with a mix of tension and indifference. For a number of reasons, the Islamic Republic has become Saudi Arabia’s fiercest rival since the 1979 Revolution. On those grounds alone, Saudi Arabia will be watching the elections closely. However, it is not primarily the elections as such that color Saudi perceptions but instead a conviction that, regardless of its capacity as a nation or state in the actual sense of the term, Iran is relevant as the advocate of an expansionist ideology that threatens the Saudi monarchy. The Saudi leadership is convinced that real power lies not in the hands of the elected president but in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. From that perspective, the outcome of the elections is seen as scarcely relevant for Iranian politics.
This perception reflects the contradictory Iranian-Saudi relationship, which is defined by a combination of antipathy, antagonism, and apathy – and, on the Saudi side, by a veritable “Iranoia”.
While the Shiite Islamic Republic has sought to spread its ideas of expansionist political Islam in the region since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Sunni Saudi Arabia sees itself as a counterweight that must thwart Iranian expansionism. Saudi Arabia, with its self-identification as the “guardian of the two holy sites” of Mecca and Medina, likewise seeks to attain a leading role in the Muslim world and views Iran as a threat to its aspirations to exclusivity.
However, their rivalry is not rooted solely in this ideological contest. It also stems from geostrategic, political and economic considerations; both powers are competing for markets and raw materials, seeking regional partnerships and influence. Saudi Arabia views Iran’s growing influence in the kingdom’s immediate neighborhood with concern. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has succeeded in carving out a role as the most important force in in Iraq. Hezbollah, which is courted by Iran, functions as an important ally for Tehran in Lebanon, just as Hamas does in Palestine and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In recent years Iran has also gained influence in Yemen, which is manifested in military and logistical support for the Houthis, who have been at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia since March 2015. Iran’s missile program, as well as the role of the Revolutionary Guards as the true masterminds behind Iran’s regional policy, further exacerbates Saudi unease. As a result, the kingdom now feels encircled by enemies purportedly controlled by Iran – a threat perception that has dominated the kingdom’s policy in the region in recent years.
The Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in particular has instrumentalized the traditional view of Iran as the common enemy for his own purposes. Having been appointed defense minister in 2015 and named as direct successor to the throne in 2017, he has served as the kingdom’s de facto ruler since 2015 and has stepped out of the shadow of his aging father, King Salman. Adopting a nationalist course, Muhammad bin Salman has fostered a siege mentality and a form of Saudi patriotism based on modernizing the economy, marginalizing former elites, and, above all, demonizing Iran. In 2018 he even compared Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei to Hitler.
As a result, MbS, as the crown prince is often known, has managed to present himself as the patron saint protecting his people, thus consolidating his power. He has now become the kingdom’s personified power center – despite his alleged involvement with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the largely unsuccessful military intervention in Yemen, or the blockade against Qatar initiated in June 2017 in conjunction with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt. Although all these factors have damaged his reputation in the West, they have not weakened his position at home. On the contrary, large swathes of the young population continue to see MbS as a beacon of hope who could lead dusty old Saudi Arabia into the modern age.
At the same time, MbS has seen his anti-Iran course confirmed by Donald Trump during the latter’s presidency: Trump’s policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran filtered through into the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and a tougher sanctions policy against Tehran. For the Saudi leadership under then King Abdullah, who perceived the successful nuclear negotiations under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, as a betrayal that ignored Saudi security interests, this pushback against Iran was a long overdue step. After Trump’s first official overseas visit in 2017 surprisingly took him to Riyadh, MbS felt emboldened to push ahead with his own policy of provocation, as reflected in the blockade against Qatar or the coerced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whom the Saudis accused of being too lenient toward the pro-Iranian Hezbollah. Furthermore, MbS pushed for cautious rapprochement with Israel in order to close ranks against Iran, echoing the axiom that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Against this backdrop, MbS met with then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2020.
This phase of Saudi provocations of Iran now seems to have drawn to a close. The most striking indicator is the direct talks between the Saudi and Iranian security services that took place in April 2021 in Baghdad, Iraq. Saudi Arabia now finds itself in a situation in which rapprochement with Iran is perceived as more promising than escalation. Two events, which have each influenced MbS’ policy in different ways, are primarily responsible for this change of course.
The Saudi “9/11”: On September 14, 2019, Iranian-guided drones and missiles struck the Saudi oil refineries Abqaiq and Khurais. The attack led to a 50% slump in Saudi oil production. Two aspects particularly shocked the Saudi leadership: firstly, it was a painful demonstration of how forcefully Iranian firepower could strike at the heart of the Saudi economy. Secondly, Trump refrained from ordering massive retaliatory strikes. In Saudi Arabia, this incident has also been dubbed the “Saudi 9/11” and led to a rethink among the Saudi leadership. Apparently, it had underestimated Iran, while from the Saudi perspective a military conflict could only be won in close cooperation with Israel and the USA. Saudi Arabia nevertheless has absolutely no interest in a war with Iran. “MbS is the kind of person who runs full speed toward a cliff, but in the end does not jump,” said one Saudi analyst of the crown prince’s strategy. MbS has relied on provocation, but not on escalation at any price.
Biden’s election win: Saudi Arabia has taken a much more conciliatory line since January 2021, when Trump had to hand over the reins of power to Joe Biden, who had adopted a critical stance towards the Saudi leadership during the election campaign and entered into negotiations with Iran on resuming the nuclear deal. The resolution of the conflict with Qatar might be viewed as a welcome gift to Biden. MbS is now presenting himself as an advocate of reconciliation and as an intermediary, for example with regional rivals like Turkey, and he has underlined his willingness to find a diplomatic solution in Yemen. These friendly overtures aim on the one hand to improve relations with Biden, and on the other hand to establish a foreign policy more independent of the United States. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, Saudi Arabia needs calm in its vicinity to encourage foreign investment to flow into the country. That is the only way for the kingdom to succeed in diversifying its economy. Crisis and conflict are counterproductive for that goal. To achieve his aims, MbS ultimately needs a pragmatic relationship with Iran and is therefore cautiously – albeit grudgingly – seeking dialogue.
Waves of exchange and pragmatism have always punctuated the complex relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran after 1979: take for example, the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia under Iranian presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami. Both countries are currently keen to pick up on that process. After all, they are grappling with similar problems: Iran and Saudi Arabia rely on diversifying their economies to move away from oil. If this endeavor does not succeed, they risk not only social frustration but also the destabilization of their political systems. For all their differences, both ruling elites are united by the overriding goal of preserving their own power – at any price.
The Saudi leadership is convinced that the presidential elections will not bring about a fundamental change in Iran’s regional policy. While it does fear the potential rise of hardliners who could torpedo the cautious rapprochement process, it is nevertheless convinced that the real decision-making powers lie exclusively with the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards, not with the elected president. Earlier phases of dialogue have not been able to durably resolve the conflicts between the countries. The view in Riyadh is that this failure is primarily due to unwillingness on the part of the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards. That explains why the outcome of the election is not seen as a decisive factor that would bring about a change in Iranian policy toward Saudi Arabia.
It also partly explains why the current bilateral talks involve the intelligence services rather than the foreign ministries. There is a conviction that only Iran’s “deep state” is capable of influencing the Islamic Republic’s policy in the region and curtailing support for Iran’s allies in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.
The Iranian president and his government can certainly provide support for the rapprochement process. However, in Riyadh’s view, only the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards are in a position to take the ultimate decisions on dialogue or demonization, rapprochement or rejection. That appraisal is unlikely to change in the future. Consequently, Saudi Arabia is likely to press ahead with its cautious policy of tactical rapprochement, irrespective of the outcome of the Iranian presidential elections.
Dr Sebastian Sons is a researcher at the Bonn-based Center for Applied Research with the Orient (CARPO) and is an expert on the Gulf states. He received his PhD on labor migration from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and is the author of the non-fiction book Auf Sand gebaut. Saudi-Arabien – Ein problematischer Verbündeter.