Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in a constant struggle to be biggest players in the Persian Gulf and the greater Middle East. Who is winning this war of pushing and shoving?
Expectations do breed frustrations and for the Muslim world no country has been far from the aspiration of its people than Saudi Arabia and that has resulted in much resentment against the Kingdom.
The undisputable center of the Muslim world in terms of faith and economic might is Saudi Arabia. Had the Saudis taken their natural leadership role, more that a billion and half people would have been under its wings. The Kingdom however has failed to utilize its wealth and innate ideological position and instead of leading, it generally lacked focus and commitment to the Muslims and instead submitted to the will of the West.
Whereas the Kingdom has landed itself where the Muslim world perceives her as a puppet to the Americans and others, Iran has painfully stood her ground against them and against all odds. So as Iran’s great Satan, the US, has had its global standing decline due to bloody wars that happened to be mostly against Muslims, Iran projected itsel as the leader in defending Muslims against the “crusaders”.
With millions affected by US wars, the Saudis were automatically associated with the atrocities committed by the Americans against Muslims; thanks to the strong “bond” between the two nations. More devastating is the-by-default association of Saudi Arabia to Israel as the two countries are both strong allies of the US and both staunch enemies of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas among others.
Qatar, a miniature neighbor of Saudi Arabia, has been far more active in matters related to the Arab and Muslim world than its giant neighbor. Qatar was a staunch opponent to American war against Iraq in 2003, supporter of resistance movements, and supporter of democratically elected Morsi government in Egypt.
Be it as it may, Qatar cannot fill the gaps that were intended to be filled by Saudi Arabia and Iran has used Saudi incapacities to take the leading role to its full advantage. Iran stands today as a leading figure as it relates to supporting struggles of Muslims against “crusaders” and Zionists. Saudi Arabia is seen to be on the enemy’s side.
While the Saudis have, overtime, managed to come across as either indifferent or complacent to struggles of the Arabs and Muslims around the world, Iran has always been upfront in its support for those struggles. With its support for Hamas for example, it has managed to create for itself an image of a balanced nation who only cares for Muslims no matter what sect they belong to.
To the contrary, Saudi Arabia has been openly anti Shia for example. Worse yet, it has been anti resistance-movements including even the ones fighting against Israel. It has spent billions of dollars supporting those fighting against those fighting for just causes of the Muslim world. In effect, Saudi Arabia is perceived as having been on the front line supporting all sorts of anti Muslims campaigns. The major ones being its open criticism of Hezbollah in its war against Israel in 2006 and its muted stance as Israel massacred Palestinian children in the latest war against Gaza.
Leadership cannot be separated from independence and politically, Iran is an independent state which pursues its political goals free from external interference. Iran chooses who to associate with, who to trade with and who to support. While the Saudis appear politically confused and more often than not simply ride the wave of American foreign policy, Iran has almost always been on the opposing side.
You would remember the strong US rhetoric against Bashar Al-Assad when the Syrian revolution started, at which point the Saudi had a very loud anti-Assad voice. Then a couple of years passed and Bashar gave up his weapons of mass destruction and the Americans and the Europeans softened their anti-Assad rhetoric and characteristically the Saudis followed suit. Iran on the other hand steered clear from conflicts that seemed to harm Muslims, at least overtly, save those involving Israel and its support for Syria.
On the technological front, Iran is a far more independent State than Saudi Arabia could ever be. While Saudis are so dependent of America in matters of education, Iranians have their own unique educational system. There is no such thing as an American University of Iran. In Saudi Arabia, almost every city has an American university named after it.
On manufacturing, Iran manufactures all sorts of products; from civilian products to highly sophisticated military and medical equipment. While the Saudis spend billions procuring weapons from Europeans and Americans, Iran is now challenging Israel in the production of military hardware and in deed has reached a point of being almost self-sufficient. In fact, had it not been for sanctions, Iran would be a net exporter.
When Iran manages to hack into an American drone and lands it safely, it comes across as a mighty Muslim nation at the door gates of Western technological advancements. Saudi Arabia on the other hand appears to be only capable of purchasing weapons from the West and squandering invaluable resources purchasing hardware that it is not willing to use in support of the Arab and Muslim causes.
Iran produces high-tech military gadgets and appears capable of using them against the enemies of Muslims if and when the necessity arises; at least that is the Muslim public’s perception. The Saudis, despite their wealth, are still years behind Iran as far as technology is concerned.
Intelligence in Engagement
The Shia Sunni rift that is proving bloody across the Middle East appears more inflamed by the Saudis than is by Iran. Iran is definitely involved in these Shia Sunni struggles but Iran engages far more intelligently than Saudi Arabia. Iran is perceived as being reacting to Sunni rise up against the Shia while Saudi Arabia is seen as igniting and directly supporting bloody anti-Shia campaigns.
Iran is no doubt involved in the Shia and Sunni confrontations in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and even Afghanistan, but does so very carefully. Iran wants a much needed positive image for itself and is pursuing it with much success as the result is that the Shia communities in all these conflicts are perceived to be the underdogs who are only fighting for their survival.
In the intellectual bout between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran is flying high despite the odds being against it. Iran has far more enemies than friends but yet manages to stay afloat and does a good job of limiting the damage caused by biting sanctions and massive propaganda against it. Enemies of Iran do inadvertently help Iran improve her image by anti-Iran obsession that is portraying an infidel-led world that is eager to see a technologically-advanced Muslim nation fail.
The Persian state successfully makes her enemies speak for her as their animosity towards it which are translated into biting sanctions and threats of attack are perceived by Muslims around the world as nothing more than an envious crusading bunch against a mighty Muslim nation. Iran’s version of Islam is questionable but the Ayatollahs appear more interested in religion than the Saudi Royals whom Muslims perceive as only interested in the worldly goodies. Unless the strong Sunni nation takes its position seriously, Iran will continue to make gains in the world psyche especially Muslim psyche.