Chaos is set to rage in the Middle East and beyond as rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran bid to dominate the region, Daily Star reports. Tensions in the region flared out of control last year after Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salman removed his rivals from power and positioned himself as the next ruler of the strict Islamic country.
Since his power grabs the prince has ordered devastating missile attacks on civilians and Iranian-backed troops in neighboring Yemen, destroying the nation and leaving millions starving. His rash actions, however, have led some to think his rule will see more violence in the Middle East as he tries to eliminate his Iranian rival. The bitter feud has its roots in religion, as each follows one of the two main branches of Islam.
Saudi Arabia is the top Sunni power in the Middle East, while Iran has vowed to defend Shi’a Muslims both at home and abroad. But Jeff Martini, senior Middle East Researcher at the RAND Corporation, said tensions between the two nations was based on competition, rather than ideology.
“The Kingdom has reason to fear the Islamic Republic because it possesses several advantages—a large population, a more diversified economy, a more advanced technological base, and favorable geography. And from its perspective, the Islamic Republic has reason to fear the Kingdom. That is because by dint of U.S. security cooperation, Saudi Arabia possesses more advanced military capabilities in key areas—like air power—and Saudi Arabia’s importance to international oil markets means the U.S. commitment to its defense is strong.”
Despite having been at loggerheads for decades the two powers have not directly come into conflict with one another. The tense standoff has instead led each nation to back opposing sides in wars that have sparked major bloodshed in the region. Both nations backed opposing sides in the Yemeni Civil War, with Iran backing the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia lending its support to the government.
“There is a risk that the intensity of that proxy conflict could rise. For example, if the Houthis lose territory, Iran could provide training and technology to the Houthis similar to that Iran provided to Shiʻa militias in Iraq to bleed advancing forces. Conversely, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could attempt a major offensive on Al-Hodeidah port, or even more escalatory, a move on Sanaʻa, that would ratchet up the intensity of the fighting,” Martini said.
But, the U.S. is determined to halt Iran in its tracks, with President Donald Trump indicating he is prepared to slap crippling sanctions on Tehran. Washington has also pumped billions into Iran’s most hated rivals and could take action if Saudi Arabia is attacked.
“The greatest risk of that occurrence would be if the Houthis, in Yemen, continue ballistic missile attacks against Saudi population centers and critical infrastructure. In that instance, the Saudis could conclude that the only way to “restore deterrence” would be to strike Iran directly. This would put the U.S. in a difficult position of either enabling the response, for example, by providing aerial refueling to Saudi airstrikes, joining in the operation, or sitting it out,” Martini said.
Meanwhile, Middle Eastern leaders have proposed and discussed regional security initiatives at the Munich Security Conference. At this year’s Munich Security Conference, several Middle Eastern leaders proposed the idea of a new “security architecture” in the Middle East to help usher in an era of lower tensions in the region. The worsening relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been at the forefront of recent chaos in the region.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on Sunday reaffirmed his country’s position on establishing a “fresh security architecture” based on the 1975 Helsinki Accords that helped reduce Cold War tensions by forwarding 10 nonbinding principles aimed at “guiding relations” between Western countries and the Eastern Bloc. The principle of the “territorial integrity of states,” in particular, helped ease both sides’ fears of attack by affirming each side’s sovereignty within their respective borders.
Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on Friday proposed a similar vision.
“It is time for wider regional security. We can mirror the experiences of the European Union,” al-Thani said.
For al-Thani, Europe’s history has shown that despite hundreds of years of conflict, entire regions can exercise diplomacy and move towards pragmatic principles to prevent conflict and ensure long-term security. A Saudi adviser told DW on Friday that he was examining principles found in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended decades of war in Europe in the Middle Ages, to find a way forward in the modern Middle East.
As a first step, the Middle East could do well to establish its own Helsinki-type agreement to guide relations, especially when tensions between two countries risks sparking a conflict. Such an agreement would “involve political and moral commitments aimed at lessening tensions and opening further the lines of communication between peoples,” as then-U.S.
Vice President Gerald Ford said in the run-up to the Helsinki Accords. By recognizing even nonbinding principles, countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran could move towards reducing tensions through common understandings and shared interests.
As with any daring feat, there are risks in pursuing such an arrangement. But without taking those risks, the prospect of peace becomes an unattainable ideal, and may never become a concrete reality.