Rivalry Amid Systemic Change: Iranian and Saudi Competition in the post-American Middle East

Christopher Phillips, Queen Mary University

Saudi Arabia has sought to contain Iran’s regional influence since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Until 2003 it was relatively successful. The fallout of the invasion of Iraq set back Saudi containment strategy significantly. Since the 2011 Uprisings, Riyadh has had even less success. The rivalry has played out in various regional arenas, notably Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.

Despite being seemingly well placed, Saudi Arabia is losing most of these contests. Bahrain remains a firm ally, but Riyadh’s involvement in Lebanon has diminished, while its intervention in Yemen’s civil war has done little to defend Saudi influence. Saudi-backed efforts to push Iran out of Syria have failed, while Iraq looks unlikely to swap camps any time soon. The extent of Iran’s ‘victories’ can be debated, to be sure, given they have helped wreck Syria and Yemen and provoked opposition both back home and on the streets of Lebanon and Iraq. However, in relative terms vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, Iran has come out on top.

The question posed by this paper is why? It is not new that the rivalry is asymmetric. Saudi Arabia treats Iran as its primary threat, while Iran sees Saudi Arabia as part of a wider western threat, led by the US and Israel. Each has different advantages and limitations in terms of material capabilities, ideological appeal and international alliances. Those advantages and limitations vary significantly across different theaters. But Saudi Arabia was able to successfully contain Iran for the first three decades after the Iranian Revolution. What changed?

Much can be explained by changes to the international and regional system in the wake of the 2003 Iraq war. This created space and opportunity for Iran that had not existed before.[1] Saudi Arabia subsequently ‘under-balanced’ its rival and failed to build a coalition to halt Iran’s advance.[2] However, this Systemic Realist analysis, with its focus on the deployment of material capabilities, external structural forces and international alliances, underplays the role of ideational and domestic factors.[3] Neoclassical Realist (NCR) theories help to better explain both Saudi failure and Iranian success by showing how domestic factors interacted with external forces after 2011. Focusing especially on Syria and Yemen, I explore how the Iranian leadership proved more adept at taking advantage of the changing regional environment, maximising their material, ideological and international capabilities. In contrast, Saudi Arabia made repeated errors in both arenas, failing to utilise the advantages they had over Iran. This is significant within this volume’s exploration of sectarianization, as the rivalry in both Syria and Yemen shows how sect identity was a strand of ideological capabilities mobilised by both states. However, as Morten Valbjorn discusses in his paper, it was only ever one strand alongside other non-sect identities and ideologies, and was one weapon among many.

Systemic change and differing capabilities

The 2011 uprisings triggered a new fierceness in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, providing new arenas of competition like Syria and Yemen. The contextual systemic change was caused by structural shifts a decade earlier.[4] At the global level, the 2010s were shaped by a rising China and a more militarily interventionist Russia, and the world order shifted from uni-polarity to multi-polarity. This happened earlier in the Middle East, where the uni-polar ‘Pax Americana’ of the 1990s was already giving way to multi-polarity between 2003 and 2011.

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry was a symptom of this shifting regional and global order, triggered by the ways in which the removal of Saddam Hussein empowered Iran. Iranian domestic factors were also significant, as more interventionist IRGC hardliners rose to power, and growing economic prosperity enabled a more activist foreign policy. Saudi Arabia responded by confronting its rising rival, stepping up its role in Lebanon and Yemen. However, it was at a structural disadvantage given the pillar of its Iran containment strategy – the US – was becoming more withdrawn, especially under Barack Obama. Saudi leaders and diplomats were thrown by Obama’s diplomatic style, which they experienced as unfriendly compared to George W Bush. This discomfort turned to fury when Obama abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Throughout, the Saudis appeared to prefer to hold a grudge than adapt to the new leader in the White House.[5]

In terms of material capabilities in this rivalry, each had different advantages and limitations. Iran has a larger population, while Saudi has more disposable wealth. Iran has a bigger conventional military, but Saudi has more up-to-date equipment, especially its air force.[6] Importantly though, neither state has showed an interest or willingness to engage in direct inter-state conflict, which gives Iran an advantage as it has superior non-conventional military forces. Ideological appeal, while often dismissed by Realists, was a further important asset, especially given the sectarian element often present. Material reward, i.e. a salary, is not insignificant in mobilising nonconventional forces, but it is boosted and sometimes supplanted by ideological appeal.[7] Before 2011 both Iran and Saudi Arabia had successfully deployed ideology to mobilise fighters: Saudi in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Iran in Lebanon and Iraq in the 1980s and 2000s.

One huge advantage Saudi has over Iran is its international alliances which, according to Systemic Realism, could tip the balance to restrain Iran – as was the case until 2003. On paper, Saudi has more powerful allies than Iran: the United States, plus most European and Arab states. In contrast Iran has close economic ties to China, though no more so than Saudi, and a security relationship with Russia, particularly in Syria. Compared to Saudi, Iran has for a long time been comparatively internationally isolated.[8] Yet, as Gregory Gause notes, Riyadh has not been able to translate its nominal alliances into successful restraints on Tehran. As will be discussed, domestic factors also contribute to this inability.

Syria and Yemen

The Syria and Yemen conflicts are arenas of competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran that contrast in intriguing ways. Syria was an Iranian ally prior to 2011 that Saudi, among others, wanted to flip out of Tehran’s fold. Yemen was a Saudi ally prior to 2011 that Iran sought to disrupt to weaken Riyadh. Both conflicts had domestic origins, but once war began both actors intervened in different ways to gain advantage. However, the outcomes in each conflict did not prove symmetrical, with Iran successfully defending President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia has thus far proven unable to restore its ally to power in Sanaa.

In terms of deploying material capabilities, in Syria, Iran was willing to commit more financially to Assad than Saudi was to his opponents, and was superior at utilising non-conventional military forces. Riyadh was unwilling to utilize its superior military assets, such as deploying its air force. It was prepared to spend money on proxy forces, though less than Iran, and fighters it supported proved unable to turn the tide. In Yemen, we see the reverse but with different results. Saudi was willing to commit financially and militarily significantly more than Iran, including deploying its own conventional military. Iran, in contrast, deployed very small numbers of its own forces to back the Houthis, alongside training and money – yet a fraction of that spent by Saudi. Indeed, the Houthis had already captured Sanaa before Iran offered any significant support, but Tehran’s backing helped to bog down the unsuccessful Saudi operation.[9]

Saudi’s unwillingness to deploy its air force to Syria is understandable, but this gave Iran a decisive advantage being a better master of non-conventional warfare. Yet Riyadh did not recognise this in the early stages of the war, appointing Prince Bandar Bin Sultan to apply his expertise running Mujahidin in Afghanistan to Syria. In another instance of poor leadership impacting outcomes, despite his confidence Bandar proved incapable and was unable to marshal rebel forces into a united front. This was exacerbated by external factors: rival backers of the rebels, Turkey and Qatar, supporting different fighters, and more domestic factors – Saudi opposing the Muslim Brotherhood forces preferred by Doha and Ankara.

In terms of ideological appeal, Iran successfully mobilised Shia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria. Similarly, sect helped it forge ties with Yemen’s Shia Houthis and to arrange for non-Iranian Shia, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to train Yemenis. However, sect was not the only ideological tool Iran deployed successfully, nor was it always the preferred first option.[10] Since the 2000s Iran also posed as a leader of the anti-western ‘Resistance Axis’, appealing to non-Shias such as Hamas in Palestine. Indeed, despite the Houthis being Zaydi Shia, many saw their primary connection with Iran as the ideological anti-western ties, rather than religious commonality.[11] The ideological levers Iran utilised were diverse and situational – with different ties emphasised according to the groups it was trying to mobilise. Yet this reaped rewards in both Syria and Yemen.

In contrast Saudi Arabia arguably had the potential for more ideological appeal, but failed to deploy it. It also attempted to utilise different ties: pitching itself as a leader of Sunni Muslims against Shia Iran, and of Arabs against Persians. Yet this had limited success in Syria and Yemen. Having spent decades challenging the legitimacy of Arab nationalism, its appeals to Arabs unsurprisingly received little enthusiasm. Its Islamic credentials were stronger, but religiously-motivated Sunni fighters had rival international patrons in Syria: Qatar and Turkey. As Gregory Gause notes in this volume, anti-Iranianism rather than sectarianism was the main motivation for Saudi involvement in Yemen. Even so, once involved it did appeal to Yemen’s Sunnis. Yet here, as in Syria, it had a rival – this time its ally the UAE – offering a different narrative and dividing forces.[12] In contrast, Iran is largely unrivalled in its pitch as the sole voice of religiously motivated Shia fighters – though this is changing in Iraq. Saudi could not unite religious Sunnis behind one broad doctrine with Sunni Islamists, Salafis and Jihadists disagreeing on politics and theology. Saudi Arabia is in a weaker position compared to Iran regarding Islamists, having a far greater fear that they threaten Saudi rule.

Saudi did not mobilise its international alliances effectively, while Iran has maximised more limited external assets. Since before 2011 Saudi has sought to mobilise allies against Iran, with plans for an ‘Arab NATO’ or a modest GCC security organisation mooted without success. The exceptions were the interventions in Bahrain in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. In Yemen the alliance was largely limited to Saudi and UAE forces, despite theoretically boasting support from 10 (mostly Arab) states, but proved unable to achieve military victory. Wider international support was indirectly won with the US unwilling to seriously pressure Riyadh, but no game-changing western intervention was achieved. Likewise, despite repeated Saudi lobbying (alongside others), Riyadh’s alliance with the US was not leveraged to persuade Barack Obama to intervene in Syria against Assad. In contrast, Iran was able to leverage a more limited relationship with Russia into a game changing intervention. In 2015 Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani travelled to Moscow to persuade Vladimir Putin. This was ironically at the one point where Saudi non-conventional warfare had had some success, after it combined with Turkey to back a single rebel coalition advancing on Assad’s west Syrian heartland. Iran’s lobbying of Russia countered this, and Moscow’s intervention killed any chance that Assad would fall. Riyadh, distracted by its new war in Yemen, dialled down its interest in Syria and ended support for the rebels a few years later.[13]

Iran did not boast as close an alliance with Russia as Saudi did with the US. Yet a few factors differed. Firstly, Russia and Iran’s strategic interests in Syria aligned: both were completely opposed to Assad’s fall. In contrast, in Syria Saudi was less firmly committed to Assad’s toppling, limiting its involvement, and nor was the US. In Yemen the US did not see the strategic priority of defeating the Houthis in the way that Saudi did. The personalities of leaders mattered too. Obama had a poor relationship with the Saudis, and Riyadh put the onus on the president changing rather than themselves. While his successor Donald Trump had a stronger relationship, he was instinctively more isolationist. Saudi, Israel and others persuaded him to confront Iran more, but his deceive intervention in Yemen (or Syria) seems highly unlikely. In contrast Qassem Suleimani proved highly persuasive of Vladimir Putin. It likely helped that he was an effective commander and Putin could be confident that his forces could work effectively on the ground when supported by the Russian air force.

Play Your Cards Right

Saudi and Iranian competition in the Yemen and Syria conflicts point to interesting conclusions about the interaction of international systemic and domestic factors, which feed into our wider discussion of both states’ use of sectarian identity. Both conflicts broke out in an international and regional systemic environment that was more favourable to Iran than to Saudi: one in which Riyadh’s long-term ally and the lynchpin of its Iran containment strategy was retreating. That said, Riyadh still possessed strategic advantage over Iran in some areas, it just proved unable to utilise them well. It had a superior air force that it was unwilling to deploy in Syria, and deployed ineffectively in Yemen. It had access to greater wealth to pay local fighters, but was not willing to match Iran’s spending in Syria. While its ideological appeal, including Sunni sect identity, theoretically had a wider audience than Iran’s, it was unable to translate this into effective unconventional warfare. It likewise had a closer relationship to more powerful international allies than Iran yet, again, was unable to translate this into meaningful intervention in either Yemen or Syria.

This brief analysis has suggested that Saudi Arabia’s inability to adapt to the changing external context and make the most of its advantages had much to do with domestic factors, including the personalities involved, supporting the NCR approach. Confidence in Bandar Bin Sultan’s abilities at asymmetric warfare in Syria proved unfounded, for example, and he was evidently no Suleimani. The decision to expend huge resources in Yemen, which Iran had not invested many resources in, but not in Syria, where it had, was another strategic error. Rivalry with other potential allies against Iran, like Turkey and Qatar, limited both Saudi’s ideological appeal in Syria and the effectiveness of the forces it was sponsoring. Domestic fears of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadists likewise led to only a limited engagement with these proxies. The poor personal relationships with Barack Obama and the inability to adapt to the new president contributed to a weak relationship with the US at a time when Riyadh needed as much goodwill and support from its retreating ally as it could get. Subsequent closeness with Trump has not rectified this.

Iran did make errors along the way, and Saudi did land some successful blows. In one example of sectarianization, it successfully characterised Iran as a ‘Shia’ power, challenging Iran’s earlier claims to regional leadership across the Muslim world. Whereas in the 2000s Iran’s leaders, alongside Assad and Hassan Nasrallah were popular among non-Shia Muslims, the Syria war in particular shattered that support. Similarly, Saudi has helped nudge Trump to abandon the JCPOA and reapply sanctions, which are squeezing Tehran. However, this may deter Iran from expanding further, a retreat from the strategic gains it has made since 2011 seems unlikely. In this it has played its hand far better: taking advantage of the international context better than its rival. It more effectively deployed proxies, maximised its more limited financial clout and made the most of a limited relationship with Russia to bring about joint intervention in Syria. Moreover, it deployed a range of ideological weapons to develop an effective network of fighters – only some of which were mobilised by sect, others by being part of the anti-western ‘resistance axis’. Within our broader discussion of sectarianism then, this suggests that both actors have deployed sectarian tools to mobilise fighters, but not every time and with mixed results. However, for neither has this been the only resource utilised in a complex rivalry that has varied over time and location.


[1] Phillips, Christopher, ‘The international and regional battle for Syria’ in R. Hinnebusch and A. Saouli (eds.), The War for Syria: Regional and International Dimensions of the Syrian Uprising (London: Routledge, 2019) pp.37-49

[2] Gause, F. Gregory III (2015) “Ideologies, alliances, and underbalancing in the new Middle East Cold War,” in International Relations Teory and a Changing Middle East, Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) Studies 16: 16-20.

[3] Ahmed Morsy, ‘Alliances and Threats in the Middle East: Neoclassical Realism and the Balance of Interest’ POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East (2019); Steven E. Lobell, M. Ripsman Norrin and Jeffrey W. Taliaferro (eds.), Neoclassical realism, the state, and foreign policy. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[4] Phillips, Christopher (2016) The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press. Pp18-25

[5] Ibid pp.117-124

[6] Watling, Eve, ‘SAUDI ARABIA VS IRAN: WHICH COUNTRY HAS THE STRONGEST MILITARY FORCE?’ Newsweek 12/11/18 https://www.newsweek.com/saudi-arabia-vs-iran-which-country-has-strongest-military-force-1253522?lastslide=45 [accessed 1/10/20]

[7] Mumford, Andrew. Proxy Warfare. Cambridge: Polity, 2013.

[8] Juneau, T. (2014). Iran under Rouhani: Still alone in the world. Middle East Policy21(4), 92-104.

[9] Juneau, Thomas. “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: a limited return on a modest investment.” International Affairs 92.3 (2016): 647-663.

[10] Stein, E. (2017). Ideological Codependency and Regional Order: Iran, Syria, and the Axis of Refusal. PS: Political Science & Politics, 50(3), 676-680; Christopher Phillips & Morten Valbjørn (2018) ‘What is in a Name?’: The Role of (Different) Identities in the Multiple Proxy Wars in Syria, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 29:3, 414-433

[11] Juneau, “Iran’s policy towards the Houthis.”

[12] Andrew England and Simeon Kerr, ‘UAE attacks on Yemen reveal fractures in Saudi-led coalition’ Financial Times 8/29/19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f44b08-caa5-11e9-a1f4-3669401ba76f [accessed 2/19/20]

[13] Phillips, Christopher, ‘International actors in the Syrian conflict’ Orient 60: 2 (2019) pp.7-15