The middle-east region has been in a state of turmoil for decades with episodes of civil wars, uprisings, and airstrikes making it to the news headlines almost every other day. The ongoing Cold War between the region’s two most powerful nations has torn the region apart, resulting in two of the worst humanitarian crises the world has witnessed.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at an impasse in order to be crowned as the ultimate leaders of the middle-east and the Muslim world. Both nations understand the consequences of war and hence, have resorted to Proxy Warfare much like the 40 years-long cold war that was fought between the United States and the Soviet Union. Proxy Warfare is a conflict between two nations, neither of which directly engages with the other but fights each other indirectly by supporting opposite sides on various fronts.
A Timeline of events: The timeline explaining the origins of both nations is of great significance in understanding the current scenario.
In the early 1900’s, the middle-east was a patchwork consisting of various tribes controlled by the Ottoman Empire. With the elimination of the title of the Ottoman Sultan and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the middle-east was in a state of conflict wherein the tribes fought against each other to rule the region. One such tribe – Al Saud (House of Saud) emerged victoriously and went on ahead to form the Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia (predominantly Sunni Muslim majority) in 1932. Six years later massive oil reserves were discovered in Saudi Arabia that led onto the monarch securing a US-Saudi Alliance.
Simultaneously Iran, (predominantly Shiite Muslim majority) was also emerging as a key player in the Persian Gulf region due to the availability of oil reserves. However, it was a conflict-ridden state owing to the joint Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran twice in the 18th century. In 1953, the United States staged its first-ever coup to overthrow a foreign government – popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran and bring Reza Shah (Shah of Iran) to power with the motive of reinstating the monarchial rule. Reza Shah was an advocate of modernization and secularism; he moved in the direction towards westernizing Iran. By the 1970’s both nations had established themselves as oil-based economies backed by the US.
The main tension began with the advent of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the people of Iran protested against the rule of Reza Shah; he started losing support and affection despite being a noble leader due to his administration style. A theocratic state was established with the appointment of Ayatollah Khomeini as the leader of Iran. Adding to the friction, the Sunni-Shiite split and the claim of both nations as the legitimate Muslim leader had only worsened the situation in the Gulf.
The growing power of Iran raised concerns amongst the other neighboring Gulf countries. This led to Iraq’s invasion of Iran in September of 1980 under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. The Saudi Arabian monarch had extended aid and assistance to the Iraqi government in this war until 1988 after which both Iraq and Iran accepted the UN’s call for a ceasefire due to international pressure. In the midst of these attacks, the clashes in Mecca Medina- the holiest of Muslim cities, in 1987, that caused the death of 275 Iranian pilgrims, had magnified the tensions between these two nations.
However, there was a brief period of calmness in the region when Crown Prince Abdullah visited Iran for the Islamic Summit in 1997 and there was a reciprocal response from Teheran in 1999 when Iranian President visited Saudi Arabia. There was a hope for a better future for the middle- east after both nations had signed a security pact in April 2001.
Recent Developments: At the beginning of the 21st century, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was orchestrated because the United States had suspected the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and the alleged link of Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda. When the apprehensions of the US proved to be false, the political scenario of Iraq was disturbed and the inability of the US to restore peace and order in Iraq led to the formation of various radical Islamist groups in the country.
This trend continued to take shape and came to be popularly known as the Arab Spring protests in 2011 where people rose against oppressive regimes and supported the ideology of democracy. Further, Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved in proxy warfare in Libya, Lebanon, and Morocco during these protests supporting opposite sides in each country.
The current situation in Yemen and Syria has led to the world’s largest refugee movement in history displacing over 16 million people. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has deployed its military in favor of the Sunni Central government to which the Iranian proxy group-Houthis have retaliated by aiding the rebel Shiite group. The situation has been reversed in Syria where Iran and extremist groups like Hezbollah support the Dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime to which the Saudi Sunni radical militia has counterattacked.
The effect of this cold war in the middle-east has created a ripple effect as the refugee crisis which was the aftermath of the Arab Spring Protest had influenced the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum, wherein the refugee crisis was at its peak and the stringent compliance of refugee protection norms by the EU had instilled a fear amongst the Britons of losing jobs, housing facilities, etc. As a result of this, majority of the Britons had supported the “leave” campaign.
Recently in September 2019, the drone strikes on Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production facility have affected about 5% of the world supply for which international forums and the US have blamed Iran backed by proofs from their intelligence agencies. This tussle between two of the major oil-producing nations pose a serious threat to global trade as well as to humanitarian rights.