Saudi-Iranian Tensions: The View From the Arabian Gulf


Cinzia Bianco

Saudi-Iranian Tensions: The View From the Arabian Gulf

On 02 January, Saudi Arabia executed some 47 people on terrorism charges. Among those executed forty-three were from the Sunni sect – and, mostly, associated with al Qa’ida – while four were from the Shia sect. The prominent dissident cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, the de facto spiritual pulse leader of the 2011 protests that shook Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, was among those executed. Upon his death, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared al-Nimr a shaheed (martyr) and invoked “divine vengeance” on his executors. The statement – among others – fuelled anti-Saudi demonstrations which ultimately led to the sacking of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashad. The following day, Iran’s government, notably President Hassan Rouhani and Minister for Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif, condemned the attacks and vowed to bring those responsible to justice.

For Saudi Arabia such sentiments were seen as rhetorical and focused on preserving Iran’s rehabilitated image in an international community that it is trying to re-enter after 30 years of isolation. Therefore, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran—a move followed by Bahrain and Sudan. In the hours and days since, the United Arab Emirates has downgraded relations to Tehran while Kuwait and Qatar recalled their ambassadors. Such tit-for-tat manoeuvring has further raised the stakes in an already heaving region. Complications in regards to Syria’s and Yemen’s settlement programme are becoming more evident as the delicate political balance in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, hangs by a thread. This invariably raises concern – and some eyebrows – in the US, and among European countries which are now pressuring to speed up political settlements in the regional conflict in order to focus their energies on combatting Daesh.

But while sectarianism may be a distant headache for the US and Europe, for the Arab Gulf monarchies it is an acute, ever-present threat. So, it is unsurprising that the current climate has rendered diplomatic relations between the GCC and Iran difficult – if not impossible – especially when  diplomatic missions are taken as a target of mob violence driven by sectarian rhetoric.

Couple that with the fact that a Saudi Shia dissident leader’s execution has been fervently interpreted as a national tragedy in Iran – and throughout Shia communities in the region – validates the view that Iran regards the Shia communities in the Gulf as its fifth column; deepening distrust and outright hostility between Tehran and those Gulf states with sizeable Shia communities. It is no coincidence that Bahrain and Kuwait – two countries that fit this description – were also the most outspoken against Iranian behaviour.

In term of foreign policy, the GCC seems prepared to confront what are perceived as Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions. This is a policy adopted by the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, his son Mohammed bin Salman, Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince. The Saudi attitude is also a reaction to the perception of a US disengagement from the region—a re-pivot that is pushing the GCC states to pursue their interests in an unprecedented proactive and unilateral manner. To be sure, if the US or the EU were to demonstrate a willingness to comprehensively address the concerns of their GCC allies, this could reduce the current level of pressure in the region’s international relations and encourage the conditions needed for greater regional stability.

This was originally published by the Euro-Gulf Information Centre and is available at

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 4