The growing rivalry between the two denominations of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a, is endangering the Middle East with a looming war that could have a devastating impact not only on the two countries but on their neighbors. The reasons behind the Saudi-Iran tensions are multidimensional, ranging from a contest over the spiritual leadership of Muslim world to rivalry over expanding their political influence and leverage over the region.
In the aftermath of the upheaval brought about by the Arab Spring in 2011, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have mounted, reaching an unprecedented level with the two rivals funding and backing opposing parties in Syria and Yemen. Iran has sided with Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf countries, has been funding and arming the opposition, especially the fundamentalist Sunni Islamists.
In Yemen, Iran has sided with the Shiite Houthis while the Saudis and their allies have engaged in direct intervention, striking the Houthis’ positions to restore the ousted government. The tensions between Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq and Lebanon are also backed and exploited by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran, however, seems more likely to win the regional conflicts than Saudi Arabia. Al Assad’s regime in Syria, backed by Iran and Russia, has almost uprooted its enemies. Yet, the Saudis and their allies apparently thought during the first months of the crisis that it would only be a matter of time before a new pro-western and pro-Saudi government was installed in Syria. Even in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition is still far from its goal of eliminating the Houthis’ control of many Yemeni cities, such as the capital Sana’a.
As with other conflicts and wars, the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has harmed some and benefited others. The victims are clearly the civilian populations of countries where proxy wars are taking place. In contrast, it is apparent that Israel has reaped some of the benefits.
Israel is another regional power in the Middle East. It is a nuclear state with sophisticated, equipped, and trained armed forces, leading a militarized society that has been built upon the post-Holocaust Zionist ideology. But given the circumstances of its foundation, Israel is surrounded by hostile neighbors from which it can barely name a reliable ally.
However, Israel is the strongest supporter of United States’ foreign policy in the Middle East and has received steadfast support from other Western superpowers such as the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, Israel has been advocating for some Arab states to normalize their relations with it in order to isolate the Palestinians.
The Saudi-Iranian battles may provide Israel with a golden opportunity to advance its strategic interests of weakening its Iranian hardliner opponents while adding new allies to its list.
Saudi Arabia is already knocking at Israel’s doors. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is relentlessly seeking to expand the circle of allies in his country’s rally against the Persian state. Saudi relations with Israel are not breaking news; they date back to 1969, when Israel militarily backed King Faisal in his proxy war against Gamal Abdel Nasser in Yemen. But these relations remained informal and unspoken. In MBS’s Saudi Arabia, rapprochement with Israel is turning into an overt state of normalization. Israel has welcomed MBS’s initiative, expressing Tel Aviv’s will to share intelligence and materials with Saudi Arabia.
As long as Iran is unlikely to come to an agreement with Israel, the latter naturally will opt for Saudi Arabia. First, Saudi Arabia is a reliable U.S. ally, and its influence in the region has little to no impact on Israel’s security. In addition, Saudi-funded radical groups — unlike those backed by Iran, like Hamas and Hezbollah — pose few, if any, challenges to the Israeli occupation as they center their actions in the Arab, Muslim, or Western countries.
Israel has found a strong ally in Saudi Arabia to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Both the Saudis and Israelis have relentlessly opposed Iran’s nuclear programs and stood against the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). When the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the deal, both Israel and Saudi Arabia applauded Trump’s “courage” when most of the international community decried the decision.
The opposition of the Arab League toward Hezbollah was one of the far-reaching gains of Israel from the Israeli-Iranian rally. Saudi Arabia used its entire religious, political and economic weight to force an anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah stance within the Arab world, efforts that culminated in the official declaration by the Arab League that Hezbollah is a “terrorist organization.”
While the seven-year Syrian civil war may be almost over, it has destroyed the country in all major respects. Assad will govern a fragile and fragmented state, even less capable of posing a challenge to Israel than before the war. Yet, Israel will not be the only beneficiary of the Saudi-Iran rivalry.
Iran certainly would deem saving Assad’s regime a major victory. Saudi Arabia and its allies may consider the Arab League’s decisions against Iran and Hezbollah a step forward in isolating Iran and their proxies. Nevertheless, all these supposed gains are being accomplished at the expense of Iran’s reputation. In contrast, Israel evidently will benefit at virtually no risk.