Iran and Saudi Arabia Battle for Supremacy in the Middle East

Iran and Saudi Arabia Battle for Supremacy in the Middle East
A man holds up a poster of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as others wave the country’s flag during a demonstration at the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 4, 2022 (AP photo by Vahid Salemi).

Over the past decade, the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance in the Middle East has insinuated itself into nearly every regional issue, fracturing international alliances and sustaining wars across the region, while raising fears of a direct conflict between the two powers that could involve the United States. Now both sides seem to be seeking an offramp to confrontation, having recently agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations, amid a broader shift toward lowering tensions across the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia ramped up its regional adventurism after Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful son of King Salman known as MBS, was appointed crown prince in 2017. From the Syrian civil war to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, that has meant proxy conflicts with Iran-backed regimes and nonstate armed groups that have on several occasions veered dangerously close to direct hostilities between the two rivals. A precision missile and drone strike on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 was widely blamed on Iran. And the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to Tehran brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war in January 2020, with direct implications for Riyadh.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has reengaged diplomatically with Iran in an effort to revive the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal that the Trump administration withdrew from. Though those talks have now stalled, they coincide with broader moves across the Middle East to mend ties that had been frayed by the region’s various arenas of conflict and competition.

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Biden also promised to make respect for human rights a central pillar of his foreign policy. The potential implications for U.S. partners in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, are significant, although to date Biden has not radically changed Washington’s policies in the region. In 2022, he even visited the kingdom and met with MBS, despite having promised to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state, in an effort to rally Washington’s Gulf partners to the U.S. side in its standoff with Russia over the war in Ukraine. But tensions subsequently spiked over Riyadh’s alignment with Moscow to keep global oil prices high, despite pressure from Washington to increase production.

Yemen’s civil war has settled into a limbo of neither peace nor war, but with little amelioration of its humanitarian crises. Syria’s 13-year civil war has now entered an extended endgame that, though less bloody, remains every bit as volatile. Libya has seen a respite in its civil war since a cease-fire was implemented in October 2020 and a transitional government named in March 2021, but its political transition to elections has now hit an increasingly tense impasse. Above all, the absence of fighting in these countries by no means guarantees the establishment of lasting peace.

Meanwhile, Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the ongoing war in Gaza serve as reminders that the conflict between Israel and Palestine cannot be simply wished away by regional powers and the United States. Like everything else in the region, this conflict had become entangled in the larger Saudi-Iran power struggle, with Saudi-allied leaders willing to remain silent on the Palestinian issue in return for Israeli support in containing Iran. And the U.S.-brokered diplomatic normalization deals Israel signed in the final months of the Trump administration with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain had formalized a strategic realignment that had until then been an open secret in the region.

The question before the most recent conflict between Hamas and Israel had been whether Saudi Arabia would follow suit. But normalization with Israel without a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict already seemed less likely before the war, due to the return of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the head of a far-right government that repeatedly alienated Israel’s newfound partners in the Gulf. It has now become untenable in the face of the massive civilian casualties inflicted by Israel’s assault on Gaza.

WPR has covered the Middle East in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will the Biden administration manage to salvage its agenda in the Middle East amid the war in Gaza? Will the move toward diplomatic engagement succeed in tamping down the Middle East’s other various conflicts? And will resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict become a higher priority in Washington and regional capitals after the war in Gaza is over? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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The events of the past three months serve as a painful reminder that the truths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not go away simply because they are ignored. Acknowledgment of the conflict’s realities is necessary to avoid further repetition of violence and to take steps toward a resolution that minimizes future killing.

The Israel-Palestine Conflict and Israel-Arab Relations

The long-standing flashpoint of the Israel-Palestine conflict was downgraded as a priority in Washington and the Gulf during the Trump presidency. Instead, Israel’s strategic partnership with the Gulf Arab states to counter Iran became formalized with the establishment of diplomatic ties with the UAE and Bahrain. The Biden administration focused its efforts on expanding the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia, while similarly putting the Palestinian file on the backburner. Now Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza have served as a painful reminder that hoping the conflict will simply go away is not a viable option.

Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy

The political situation in the Middle East is in flux. Mass protests in 2019 ousted a long-time ruler in Algeria and rattled governments in Lebanon and Iraq, sparking speculation about a new Arab Spring, before the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to those popular movements. The pandemic also initially drove a decline in global energy prices that further undermined the sustainability of many Gulf states’ oil-based revenue models, although the war in Ukraine has caused prices to once again rise. Meanwhile, regional powers are taking advantage of great power competition to diversify their portfolio of international partnerships.

Regional Diplomacy

After a period of conflict and heightened tensions, the region’s competing powers have begun to engage diplomatically. Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations, while the UAE has engaged in talks with Tehran aimed at easing their tensions. Similarly, Turkey has begun a rapprochement with Egypt that could lead to a normalization of relations, while also thawing relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel. And the Saudi-allied Gulf states put an end to their blockade of Qatar. But the hostility between Israel and Iran has been an outlier to this trend, with the two sides engaging in covert tit-for-tat attacks that run the risk of escalating into open conflict, particularly amid the war in Gaza.

U.S. Policy

The Trump administration’s Middle East policy was dominated by support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, and attempts to undermine Iran. Biden has largely maintained a moderated version of that approach, while seeking to reassert U.S. leadership, particularly to rally support in its standoff with Russia. But so far Washington’s regional partners have refused to simply fall in line, and a series of recent setbacks have undermined the U.S. strategy in the region. Now regional outrage over the toll of Israel’s invasion of Gaza on Palestinian civilians has exacerbated Biden’s difficulties.

War and Conflict

Ongoing conflicts and the threat of new clashes continue to overshadow the region, as hopes for negotiated settlements to the wars in Syria and Yemen have been repeatedly dashed. A cease-fire in Libya has been more effective at silencing the guns for now, but the country’s political transition has now been sidetracked, and lasting peace is still far from guaranteed. Meanwhile, although the battlefield defeat of ISIS fighters has reduced violence in Iraq and Syria, that has not spelled the end of the movement.

Human Rights

Protections for human rights remain relatively fragile across the region, particularly when it comes to political dissidents, women and minority communities. Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have cracked down on civil society groups and political opponents. Most recently, several countries have used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to limit or ban political protest movements that had already brought down the government in Algeria and threatened others. Biden has said he’ll make human rights a priority of his foreign policy, potentially setting up a showdown with Washington’s regional security partners, but so far any shift in approach has been limited to rhetoric.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.