Iran Versus Saudi Arabia

BERLIN – The “new” Middle East is now on daily display. Unlike the old Middle East, whose fate was determined by the dominant Western powers (the United Kingdom and France after World War I, and the United States from the 1940s until recently), the new one has no external hegemon to stabilize it. And, without a dominant regional power, a dangerous strategic vacuum has emerged.

The US, quite obviously, is no longer willing – or able – to play its old role. Though America will not withdraw its armed forces from the region completely, direct military intervention, especially with ground troops, is not tenable, given the debacle in Iraq. America will not be a military player so long as the region’s strategic balance is not called into question in a fundamental way (which explains US airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria). Apart from this, the US is now operating at the level of diplomacy to resolve, or at least contain, a fundamental strategic threat – the danger posed by the Iranian nuclear program.

Various state and non-state actors have been trying to fill the void created by America’s newfound caution, with most of the latter dependent on the support of regional powers, and two in particular: Iran and Saudi Arabia. These countries’ struggle for regional supremacy is playing out on proxy battlefields in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and, now, Yemen. Indeed, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen marks a new phase in the broader regional conflict. Not only is it occurring in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, directly on Saudi Arabia’s borders; the kingdom’s direct military intervention has brought its strategic rivalry with Iran into the open.

As always in the Middle East, religious and ethnic factors play a large role in this rivalry. The Shia-Sunni divide within Islam is being reflected in the region’s geopolitics. Moreover, whereas Iran is a Shia country, the overwhelming majority of Arabs are Sunni, reinforcing the salience of Iran’s ethnic distinctiveness.