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Building Bridges over the Persian Gulf

MADRID ‒ Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia spiked earlier this month, with protesters storming the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the execution of a Shia cleric in the Kingdom. This is just the latest manifestation of the deep-rooted rivalry between the two Middle Eastern powers. But while their mutual enmity is longstanding, it is far from age-old, as it is sometimes portrayed. Given their common interests, a return to cooperation, though highly challenging, is not impossible.

Although it has been essential in establishing their national identities, these countries’ sectarian divide – Saudi Arabia is the Arab world’s leading Sunni power, while Iran is majority Shia – has not always been an element of confrontation in the region. It was not until 1501 that the Safavid dynasty established Shi’ism as the official religion of Persia, thereby distinguishing itself from its Sunni Ottoman neighbors, which were occupying part of their territory. During the subsequent two centuries, Persia confronted the Ottoman Empire – the heart of the Sunni caliphate – for regional supremacy.

In 1932, when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established, it adopted Wahhabism – a school of Sunni Islam – as its official creed. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia and Iran established diplomatic relations. In the 1960s and early 1970s, their security and political cooperation deepened, owing to a shared interest in confronting radical movements that threatened their monarchies. As they worked to limit Soviet-style communism’s advancement in the Arab world, they emerged as key Cold War allies of the West, especially the United States.

In the late 1970s, however, a sectarian battle of identities flared up. Saudi Arabia, supported by the financial gains brought by rising oil prices, started expanding its security efforts by exporting Wahhabism. And it perceived a direct threat after 1979, when Iran’s Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah and the new regime declared itself to be the leader of Shia worldwide. In response to Iran’s call for the liberation of all Shia, Saudi Arabia redoubled its efforts to spread Wahhabism, intensifying the struggle between the two powers.