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Is it regional rivalry or global power rivalry that continues to play out in the Middle East? Simon Mabon, a Political Science, Middle East and International Political Theory scholar, writes about the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and how it shapes the Middle East. His book, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East, provides an interesting analysis driven from history and identity politics.
The main thesis of his book argues that the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is best understood in terms of an incongruence dilemma deriving from internal and external security perplexities. The two states face similar internal incongruence dilemmas. First, there is a strong and deep historical struggle of ethnic superiority between Arabs (Saudi Arabia) and Persians (Iran). Second, the Saudi and Iranian historical struggle for legitimacy also comes from religious entitlement of Saudi Sunni Wahhabism and Iranian Shiite theology. These internal perplexities create external security issues driven by soft power.
Given these dilemmas, the two states exist in ideological and geographical competition; these, together, create the fundamental elements of their rivalry. Mabon argues that the geographical sphere is a function of the evolution of the ideological sphere of the rivalry. He elaborates that the ethnic tensions of the states’ internal identities are, in isolation, insufficient for the rivalry. However, the religious narratives they uphold results in a zero sum game played through soft power. This ideological competition, therefore, impacts the states’ legitimacy and their individual rivalry. It leads to normative competition achieved by strategic framing and symbolic exchanges.
The evolution of the ideological sphere of competition feeds directly into the geographical open. This becomes more evident as a result of the Iraq vacuum. With its diverse identities and oil reserves, Iraq represents a fertile ground to host proxy conflicts and exacerbate the power of the two states. Further, the role of the United States in the region represents another aspect of geographical rivalry. America’s presence is a source of security for Saudi Arabia which, in turn, translates into a “determination act” for the security of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
How does Saudi Arabia and Iran respond to these congruence problems?
Saudi Arabia is increasingly facing internal conflict partly due to its minority Shia population living in the east of the state. The recent conflict arising from their short-lived uprising creates an ideological threat to the rule of Al-Saud.
As a response, Saudi Arabia portrays Islamic Sunni legitimacy using internal force and and external soft power.
Iran also faces internal conflict between various identities. Iran’s population is full of ethnic groups with intersectional religious dimensions that create geopolitical instability. An example of this is the case of the Kurdish population. To maintain its power, the Islamic Republic responds with policies that restrict political, cultural and religious spaces for those populations.
In the current political climate of the Middle East, and with the ongoing proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran provides an analysis that helps understand the deep historical roots of the rivalry and how it has been manifested across history. What makes Simon Mabon’s work especially fascinating is its intersectional focus between politics, history, religion and identity.