Saudi Arabia and Iran

Saudi Arabia and Iran: Analysis from Professor Fawaz Gerges

Raleigh Addington
Raleigh Addington
editor at Chartwell Speakers

The execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia on January 2nd 2016 sparked a new diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In the first of a series of conversations on the Middle East, Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics, and author of “ISIS: A History” (Princeton, 2015), joined Chartwell to explain the dynamics of the crisis and its ongoing repercussions.

You can read a brief summary of our conversation below. If you’d like to book Professor Gerges as a speaker, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.



The Gulf is a strategically and economically crucial part of the world. The rupture between Iran and Saudi Arabia in January 2016 has big implications for the global economic and security architecture.

Economic context
– A third of global oil exports pass through the Gulf.

– Two thirds of the world’s oil and gas are located in the Gulf.

– Over $200 trillion of Gulf money has been invested in global financial institutions over the past 40 years.

Geostrategic context
– Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen, supporting Sunni and Shia militias/regimes respectively.

– The escalating tension has greatly exacerbated these conflicts. It is a propaganda god-send for both Sunni and Shia sectarian groups.


Domestic pressure
– The falling oil price has put the Saudi economy and social contract under pressure.

– Saudi Arabia’s belligerence towards Iran is in part designed to distract from increasing domestic difficulties.

International concerns
– Saudi Arabia believes the Iranian nuclear deal in the summer of 2015 shifted the regional balance of power in Iran’s favour. In particular, it is worried the US now sees Iran as a potential ally.

– It is also worried at the recent in-roads Iran has made into the Sunni heartlands in the Gulf.

– Its actions are therefore also designed to show the US that it can and will stand up to Iran, and to mobilise the Sunni world against Iran. It is trying to force Iran into conflict.


– Both the conservative (Khamenei, Revolutionary Guards) and more liberal (President Rouhani) elements of the Iranian leadership are trying to project a new image of Iran and re-integrate the country into the global economy.

– They do not see it as being their interests to rupture their relationship with regional or global powers.

– The attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran was a major embarrassment for the Iranaian leadership.

In this crisis, Saudi Arabia has been the active, Iran the reactive, participant.



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