Iran–Saudi Arabia relations

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Iranian–Saudi Arabian relations
Map indicating locations of Iran and Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia
Shia Saudi Arabian pilgrims in Nishapur, Iran

Iran and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations following an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric. Bilateral relations between the countries have been strained over several geo-political issues such as the interpretations of Islam, aspirations for leadership of the Islamic world, oil export policy and relations with the United States and other Western countries.

Saudi Arabia is a conservative Sunni absolute monarchy established in 1932, with a tradition of close ties to the United States and the United Kingdom. Modern Iran is a Twelver Shia Islamic republic founded in 1979, with a political system that includes elements of a parliamentary democracy vetted and supervised by a theocracy governed by a "Supreme Leader".

Both countries are major oil and gas exporters and have clashed over energy policy. Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves and smaller population, has a greater interest in taking a long-term view of the global oil market and incentive to moderate prices. In contrast, Iran is compelled to focus on high prices in the short term due to its low standard of living given recent sanctions after its decade old war with Saddam's Iraq and its larger population.[1]

In the Syrian Civil War Iran has supported the Syrian government militarily and with billions of dollars of aid, while Saudi is a major supplier of aid to rebel groups. Both countries have accused each other of support for terrorism.[2][3]


After the Iranian Revolution, relations deteriorated considerably after Iran accused Saudi Arabia of being an agent of the US in the Persian Gulf region, representing US interests rather than Islam. Saudi Arabia is concerned by Iran's consistent desire to export its revolution across the board to expand its influence within the Persian Gulf region—notably in post-Saddam Iraq, the Levant and within further south in addition to Iran's controversial, much debated nuclear program.[1]

Tensions between the two countries have waxed and waned. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran soured particularly after the Iranian Revolution, the nuclear program, the 2011 alleged Iran assassination plot and more recently the execution of Nimr al-Nimr. There have also been numerous attempts to improve the relationship. After the 1991 Gulf war there was a noticeable thaw in relations.[4] In March 2007 President Ahmadinejad of Iran visited Riyadh and was greeted at the airport by King Abdullah, and the two countries were referred to in the press as "brotherly nations".

After March 2011, Iran's financial and military support for Syria during the Syrian Civil War, has been a severe blow to the improvement of relations.

On January 3, 2016. Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran, Iran was ransacked following the execution of Saudi-born Shia Islam cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The execution prompted widespread condemnation within the Arab World as well as other countries, the European Union and the United Nations, with protests being carried out in cities in Iran, Iraq, India, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey. Following the attack on its embassy in Iran, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran and the Saudi foreign minister said that all Iranian diplomats were to leave the country within 48 hours.[5]

The difference of political ideologies and governance has also divided both countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the principle of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, which holds that a faqīh (Islamic jurist) should have custodianship over all Muslim followers, including their governance and regardless of nationality. Iran's Supreme Leader is a Shia faqīh. The founder of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, was ideologically opposed to monarchy, which he believed to be unIslamic. Saudi Arabia's monarchy, on the other hand, remains consistently conservative, not revolutionary, and politically married to age-old religious leaders of the tribes who support the monarchy and the king (namely the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques) is given absolute obedience as long as he does not violate Islamic sharia law.[6] Saudi Arabia has, however, a Shia minority which has recently made bitter complaints of institutional discrimination against it,[7] specifically after the 2007 change in Iraqi governance and particularly after the 2011 events that spanned the region.[citation needed] At some stages it has gone as far as to call for overthrowing the king and the entire system.[8]

Country comparison[edit]

Flag of Saudi Arabia.svg Saudi Arabia Flag of Iran.svg Iran
Population 33,000,000 80,945,718
Area 2,149,690 km2 (870,000 sq mi) 1,648,195 km2 (636,372 sq mi)
Population Density 12.3/km2 (31/sq mi) 52/km2 (124/sq mi)
Capital Riyadh Tehran
Largest City Riyadh – 7,676,654 (9,200,000 Metro) Tehran – 8,693,706 (15,232,564 Metro)
Government Unitary Islamic absolute monarchy Unitary presidential Islamic republic
First Leader Ibn Saud Ayatollah Khomeini
Current Leader Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
(King, Prime Minister and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques)
Ali Khamenei (Supreme Leader)
Hassan Rohani (President)
Official languages Arabic Persian
Main religions 100% Islam
(Sunni Muslims 90% & Shia Muslims 10%)
98% Islam
(Shia Muslims 90% & Sunni Muslims 8%, 2% other)
Ethnic groups 90% Arab, 10% Afro-Arab 55% Persian, 16% Azeri, 10% Kurd, 6% Lurs, 4% Gilak, 4% Mazandarani, 5% Arab and Baloch, Turkmen and other
GDP (nominal) US$ 748 billion ($22,649 per capita) US$ 438 billion ($5,383 per capita)
Military expenditures $81.8 billion $25.0 billion
Currency Saudi Riyal (SR) (SAR) Iranian Rial (IIR)


1920s–1970s: during Pahlavi Dynasty[edit]

Saudi Arabia and Iran established diplomatic relations in 1929 following the signing of a Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty.[9]

However, relations were not active until the 1960s mostly due to differences in religious practices and Iran's recognition of Israel.[10] In 1966 the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia visited Iran with the aim of further strengthening relationships between both neighboring countries. The Shah of Iran Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi reciprocated by paying an official visit to Saudi Arabia which eventually led to a peaceful resolution of the islands. The Shah supported King Faisal's efforts regarding Islamic solidarity and actively contributed to the establishment of multinational Islamic institutions, including the Organization of the Islamic World Congress, the Muslim World League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.[9]

In 1968, Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a demarcation agreement.[11] When the United Kingdom announced it would withdraw and vacate the Persian Gulf in the late 1960s,[12] Iran and Saudi Arabia took the primary responsibility for peace and security in the region. In the late 1960s, the Shah sent a series of letters to King Faisal, urging him to modernize Saudi Arabia, saying, "Please, my brother, modernize. Open up your country. Make the schools mixed women and men. Let women wear miniskirts. Have discos. Be modern. Otherwise I cannot guarantee you will stay on your throne."[13] In response, King Faisal wrote, "Your majesty, I appreciate your advice. May I remind you, you are not the Shah of France. You are not in the Élysée. You are in Iran. Your population is 90 percent Muslim. Please don't forget that."[13]

During the 1970s, Saudi Arabia's main concerns over Iran were firstly, Iran's modernisation of its military and its military dominance all over the region; secondly, Iran's repossession of the islands of Big Tunb, Little Tunb and Abu Moussa in 1971 which challenged the United Arab Emirates claim over the islands. The dispute remains till today.[14] But the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia was never as friendly as between the years 1968 and 1979.[10][15]

The relationship between the two countries was not without its tensions in the mid-to-late 1970s. As the Shah attempted to build an Iranian security architecture in the region, the Saudis resisted these efforts. Instead, King Khalid attempted to build bilaterial security relationships with the smaller neighboring Persian Gulf states which has lasted till today. The Saudis also argued for more modest OPEC price increases in 1976 and 1977 than Iran wanted.[16]

1979: Iranian Revolution[edit]

Following the theocratic Iranian Revolution led by Khomeini in 1979, Iran started to openly attack and criticise the character and religious legitimacy of the Saudi regime.[17] However King Khalid, the then ruler of Saudi Arabia, sent Khomeini a congratulatory message, stating that "Islamic solidarity" could be the basis for closer relations of the two countries.[18] He also argued that with the foundation of the Islamic Republic in Iran there were no obstacles that inhibited the cooperation between two countries.[19]

In a public address in 1987 Khomeini declared that “these vile and ungodly Wahhabis, are like daggers which have always pierced the heart of the Muslims from the back,” and announced that Mecca was in the hands of “a band of heretics.”[20] Upon this statement diplomatic relations between the two countries ended until 1991.[21]

1980s: Iraqi invasion of Iran[edit]

The Shia–Sunni conflict between the two countries also played a pivotal role in the Iran–Iraq War when Saudi authorities pledged US$25 billion of aid to the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. Iraqi invasion of Iran increased Saudi concerns over stability in the region, hence their financial support to Iraq regardless of the "not-so-warm" relations between Baathist Iraq and Conservative Saudi Arabia. In doing so, Saudi Arabia recognised its worries that revolutionary Iran was a far greater threat to its survival and the stability of the region. Saudi Arabia also encouraged other Arab states of the Persian Gulf, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to do the same by giving financial support to Iraq.[22] To cover the costs of the war Saudi Arabia dramatically increased its oil production. This increase in oil production by Saudi Arabia was aimed to weaken Iran's ability to fund its campaigns. However, this measure by Saudi Arabia also cost the Saudi government billions in revenue as oil prices plunged from over $30 a barrel to less than $15 by the mid 1980s.[22]

During the Iran–Iraq War, Iran flew their aircraft in Saudi airspace and also threatened Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with severe consequences if they would not stop supporting Iraq. Unlike America, Saudi Arabia, due to its very traditional Arab-Bedouin culture, did not break diplomatic relations with Iran even during the worst periods of tension following the revolution and during the Iran–Iraq War.[23]

1984: Four Iranian F-4 warplanes Penetrate Saudi Airspace[citation needed][edit]

On May 7, 1984 Iranian warplanes targeted an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. This action resulted in Saudi Arabia undertaking air defensive measurements in the region to intercept Iranian warplanes. On June 5, 1984 two Iranian F-4 warplanes penetrated Saudi airspace to bomb oil facilities. Saudi F-15 eagles intercepted the Iranian warplanes, and shot down both F-4s[24].

1987 Hajj Incident[edit]

Until 1987, no satisfactory resolution was made to decrease the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The already strained relationship between the two countries further deteriorated when clashes occurred between Iranian-led demonstrators and Saudi security forces on 31 July 1987.[17] The clash claimed the lives of around 400 pilgrims, out of which two thirds had Iranian nationality[citation needed]. This incident angered the Saudis and in retaliation, the Saudi administration instituted a ban on all Hajj (Pilgrimage) rituals and activities[citation needed]. Angry protesters in Tehran responded by ransacking the Saudi embassy and also detained and physically attacked a number of residing Saudi diplomats. As a result, one of the Saudi officials died from the injuries.[citation needed] In response, Saudi Arabia in 1988, cut its diplomatic relations with Iran and ensured that no Iranian could obtain a Saudi travel visa for performing the Hajj (pilgrimage).[citation needed]

Responses to Satanic Verses[edit]

The relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran gradually started to improve after the end of the Iran–Iraq War in 1988. Iran had accepted ceasefire with Iraq in July 1988 and soon afterwards, Saudi Arabia started improving relations with Iran.

In October 1988, the late King Fahd halted all media campaigns against Iran and asked Saudi administration to pressure Iraq into implementing the UNSCR 598. In 1989, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani stated that Iran and Saudi Arabia were holding indirect talks to improve their relations.[25] But the issuance of fatwa by Khomeini against the Indian author Salman Rushdie again soured the relations between the two countries. Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran at that time, declared a death sentence for Salman Rushdie for certain anti-Islamic remarks in his book The Satanic Verses published in 1988. The Saudi government, which took this religious decree against Rushdie as an act aimed at gaining Muslim sympathy across the world, came up with its own verdict of making Rushdie appear before an Islamic tribunal before he could be delivered a death sentence.[25]


Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 2, 1990[edit]

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Iran criticised and condemned the invasion. This stance from Iran, in favor of the Kuwaitis, and the anti-Iraqi coalition of the Persian Gulf states helped to improve relations between Iran and the GCC, namely Saudi Arabia. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia rejected the use of force as a solution to regional problems and opposed the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Iran went further, by backing UN sanctions against Iraq. Iran viewed the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait as a serious threat, considering it the first step towards its expansionist mindset. During the war, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia thawed considerably and the official ties were restored in 1991.[26]

This short resumption of political ties was followed by quick high level visits, notably, in April 1991, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited Saudi Arabia to propose an Iranian-Gulf Cooperation Council alliance with a mandate for the security of the Persian Gulf, during a meeting with the late King Fahd. He claimed the Gulf Cooperation Council was too weak and hence failed to prevent the invasion of Kuwait, and stressed the need of the inclusion of Iran to strengthen such a regional agency to ensure stability.[26]

The Hajj (Pilgrimage) issue was also resolved. In 1991, the Saudi authorities allowed 115,000 Iranian pilgrims, which was more in number compared to the 1988 quota of 45,000, that had led to Iran's abrupt boycott. The Saudis also agreed to an Iranian request of allowing 5,000 relatives and friends of the 412 "martyrs" of the 1987 incident to attend the Hajj Pilgrimage that year. In later years, Iran adopted a careful approach and undertook measures for preventing a repeat of that incident. Iranian authorities tried to discourage large demonstrations by its pilgrims and attempted to have them held within the confines of the Iranian encampment,[27] due to the fact that certain Iranian Shi'ite rituals are not accepted by other sects of Islam, and could have endangered the lives of Iranian Pilgrims if conducted openly.[further explanation needed]

Khobar Towers Bombing[edit]

On 23 June 1996, a massive truck bomb exploded near U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen U.S. servicemen and wounding hundreds. The US government held Iran responsible for the attack. The charges against Iran, however, remained unconfirmed, and therefore did not substantively affect the Iranian–Saudi relations.[27]

1997 OIC meeting[edit]

The 1997 meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Iran heralded a shift in the attitude of the Arab States towards Iran. Several Arab countries confirmed their commitment to the conference. Saudi Arabia, which was previously criticized by Iran because of its control over the main Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina and also because of its perceived reliance on the United States for security, also participated in the meeting. In the OIC summit meeting, Saudi Arabia was represented by Crown Prince Abdullah (later King) and its Minister of Foreign affairs Saud Al Faisal. Saudi participation proved helpful in the process of further reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a result, Saudi ministerial delegations visited Iran and later on, the official visit of President Mohammad Khattami to Saudi Arabia took place in February 1998.[28]

This was the first visit by an Iranian President to Saudi Arabia after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The aim was to address pressing economic issues of the time. Iran was looking for a reallocation of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) producing quotas to which it required strong support from Saudi Arabia. It was also reported that Iran was trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to consider exporting the Iranian Infrastructure to Central Asia. Iran also expected that the issue of the regional security alliance would be raised in which the alliance for the security of the region could be made to ensure stability on both borders of the Persian Gulf.[28]

A Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement was signed between Saudi Arabia and Iran in May 1998, in which both countries agreed to cooperate in the field of economics, culture and sports. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran was further improved when Khatami, the then President of Iran, on his tour to neighboring Arab countries, visited Saudi Arabia in May 1999. President Khatami stayed for five days in Saudi Arabia in which various discussions were held between the heads of both countries. Discussions included Persian Gulf security, efforts to increase global oil prices, the situation in Iraq and the development of a common geo-strategic approach to regional issues. The partial détente between Iran and the USA encouraged Saudi Arabia to apply more cooperation with President Khatami. In addition to this, Saudi Arabia and Iran signed an agreement known as the Saudi-Iranian security agreement in April 2001.[28]

In July 1999, the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia urged other Persian Gulf countries to improve their relations with Iran. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, speaking at the opening session of the Shura Council said that it was in the interest of all the countries of the Persian Gulf to improve relations with Iran. He further said that all the other countries should follow Saudi Arabia's lead.[29] This improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran also brought criticism from the United Arab Emirates, which criticised Saudi Arabia of abandoning UAE in its territorial disputes with Iran over three strategic Islands.[29]



Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis, who are a politically infused religious rebel group based in the Yemen, crossed into Saudi Arabia, whereby they killed two border guards and seized Saudi territory, including the strategically important Mount al-Doud.

This triggered the largest Saudi military operation since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Yemen's government, as well as the Arabs, accused Iran of arming the Houthis. Iran has heavily criticized Saudi Arabia for their intervention in the Shia insurgency in Yemen. Iran's then president Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying: "Saudi Arabia was expected to mediate in Yemen's internal conflict as an older brother and restore peace to the Muslim state, rather than launching military strike[s] and pounding bombs on Muslim civilians in the north of Yemen," whilst Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal counter-accused Iran of meddling in Yemen's internal affairs. Ahmadinejad went even further saying: "Some Western states invaded the region (Afghanistan and Iraq) in the wake of the September 11 attacks, whilst Al-Qaeda's main hub was located in another country in the region, which enjoys huge oil revenues and good relations with the United States and Western countries. There are some countries in the Middle East region that do not hold even a single election, don't allow women to drive, but the US and European governments are supporting their undemocratic governments," in reference to Saudi Arabia.[30] In 2017 Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman called the supreme leader of Iran "new Hitler".[31]

2003 Riyadh bombings[edit]

Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, stated on one of his article that Al-Qaeda’s chief of operations "Saif al-Adel placed a call from Iran in May 2003 giving orders for the Riyadh bombings that claimed more than 30 lives, including eight Americans. Yet he still benefits from Iranian protection"[32]


Yemeni Crisis standoff[edit]

Two Iranian officers were captured in Yemeni city of Aden during the fighting between local militia and Houthis.[33] According to local pro-Saudi militia they served as military advisors to Houthis and were connected with Iranian Quds Force.[34] Further worsening of bilateral relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is generally expected as both countries are involved intensively in Yemeni crisis.[35]

2011 Iran assassination plot[edit]

On 11 October 2011, US accused Iran of planning to assassinate the Saudi-Arabian ambassador to the US Adel Al-Jubbair.

Sanctions against Iran[edit]

In 2012, in response to the global sanctions against Iran, Saudi Arabia offered to offset the loss of Iranian oil sales and Iran warned against this.[36] The same year Turki Al Faisal, former head of Saudi General Intelligence and a Saudi royal, suggested that Saudi Arabia would support the U.S.-led sanctions against Iranian oil.[37]

Jeddah airport incident[edit]

In April 2015, media reported that two Iranian teenage pilgrims to Saudi Arabia had been sexually harassed by Saudi police at the Jeddah Airport.[38][39][40][41] After that, 80 members of Iranian parliament presented a bill for minor Haj rituals to be suspended until the Saudi officials guarantee the security of Iranian pilgrims and stop their harassment. Hundreds of Iranians protested outside Saudi Arabia's Embassy in Tehran over the alleged abuse of these two Iranian pilgrims in April 11 and clashed with police forces after trying to climb the embassy walls.[42][43] In April 8, Saudi authorities said they had prevented a plane carrying 260 Iranian pilgrims from landing in the kingdom, saying the airline operators had not applied for a permit to enter Saudi Arabia.[43][44] In April 13, Iran suspended minor hajj trips to Saudi Arabia until the Saudi government "applies a strong attitude" to the case.[45]

Saud al-Faisal, foreign minister of Saudi Arabia have pledged to Iran's Ambassador that his government will punish the two Saudi policemen, very soon.[46]

Mansour al-Turki, spokesman of Interior ministry of Saudi Arabia, informed that the accused airport staff members have been arrested and referred to court and Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia has been informed and the suspects have been referred for investigation.[47]

2015 Hajj stampede[edit]

Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Tehran under Iranian police protection after Mina stampede crisis.

The 2015 Hajj stampede escalated tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran due to the deaths of Iranian pilgrims in the stampede. Iranian leaders accused Saudi authorities of being responsible for the disaster.[48][49][50] A Saudi Prince, Dr. Khalid bin Abdullah bin Fahd bin Farhan Al Saud tweeted that : "Under the threat of the enemy Zoroastrians- historically - to the Kingdom - it is time to think- seriously - to ban Iranians from coming to Mecca to preserve the safety of the pilgrims".[51]

2016 execution of Nimr al-Nimr[edit]

On January 2, 2016, 47 people were put to death in several Saudi cities, including prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Protesters of the executions responded by demonstrating in Iran’s capital, Tehran. That same day a few protesters would eventually ransack the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and later set it ablaze.[52] Police donned riot gear and arrested 40 people during the incident.[53][54][55]

On January 3, 2016, Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry announced that it would cut diplomatic ties with Iran due to the violence that had occurred at their embassy.[56] and President Rouhani called the damage on embassy "by no means justifiable".[57]

After the events, Saudi Arabia refused to play in Iran during the 2016 AFC Champions League.[58]

2016 Iran embassy bombing in Yemen[edit]

On January 7, 2016, Iran's foreign ministry made the claim that Saudi warplanes had "deliberately" targeted its embassy to Yemen in the city of Sanaa. Iran's report included claims that,"a number of the building's guards" had been injured as a result of the bombing. Despite this assertion Sanaa residents and the Associated Press have reported that the embassy suffered no visible damage. Currently General Ahmad Asseri from the Saudi-led coalition is investigating Iran's allegations. Later on, Asseri announced no evidence was found for the accusation neither by the Arab Coalition Military nor by the legitimate Yemeni government.[59]

2016 Iranian ban on the Hajj[edit]

In September 2016 - following disputes, the Iranian government barred its citizens from making the hajj. Iran claimed that the 2015 incident was the result of Saudi "incompetence." The Saudi government suggested that the move was politically motivated as a means to put pressure on the kingdom.[60]

In the first week of January 2017, the Saudi Minister for Pilgrims invited more than 80 countries including Iran for Iranian participation in the forthcoming Hajj rituals. Iran has also confirmed the receipt of Saudi invitation and is willing to discuss arrangements for the 2017 hajj season. The Iranian delegation is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia on February 23, 2017 to discuss the participation of Iranian pilgrims.[61][62][63]

Sectarian basis for tensions[edit]

Historically, Iran–Saudi relationships have always been uncertain, something attributed to the different sects that the majority populations in both the countries follow. Saudi Arabia which is a predominantly Sunni society has always been skeptical of Shi'ite Iran's activities in the Persian Gulf region, thus labeling Iranian ambitions to dominate the Muslim world as a form of Safawid/Safavid rule. It is in this context that Iran-Saudi hostilities are seen as being the successor to Ottoman–Safavid relations.

Leading Sunni and Shi'ite Clerics in both the countries deemed each other's religious beliefs as incorrect for decades. An attempt was made by the Sunnis to take the Tomb of Imam Hussein, one of the important religious leaders of Shi'ite theology and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad whose life is considered the main difference between Sunni and Shi'ite sects. Since then, tensions between both major sects of Islam, their followers and their affiliates, have increased and this tension is considered unlikely to be resolved any time soon.[23] According to Le Figaro, on 5 June 2010, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told Hervé Morin, then Defense Minister of France that: "There are two countries in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel."[64]

In 2016, Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh was replaced by Sheikh Saleh bin Hamid as the giver of the hajj sermon. The Grand Mufti had given the sermon every year since 1981, but was replaced in 2016 after claiming that the Shi'ite leaders of Iran "are not Muslims."[60]

Doctrinal differences[edit]

The difference of political ideologies and governance also divided both countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the principle of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, which hold that a faqīh (Islamic jurist) should have custodianship over all Muslims, including their governance. Iran's Supreme Leader is a Shia faqīh. The founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, was ideologically opposed to monarchy, which he believed to be contrary to Islamic principles. Saudi Arabia's monarchy, on the other hand, is conservative, not revolutionary, and its religious leaders have long supported monarchy where the king was given absolute obedience as long as he did not violate Islamic sharia law.[65] Saudi Arabia has, however, a Shia minority which has made bitter complaints about institutional discrimination against it,[66] and whom at times has been urged to overthrow the king.[67] Both countries are major oil exporters but have clashed over energy policy. Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves and smaller population, has a greater interest in taking a long-term view of the global oil market and incentive to moderate prices. In contrast, Iran is compelled to focus on high prices in the short term.[68]

Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States[edit]

As far as the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is concerned, both countries have been strategic allies for more than sixty years. Saudi Arabia sees itself as a firm and generous partner of the U.S. in the cold war and in other international conflicts. The visits by US President George W. Bush to the Kingdom in 2008 reaffirmed these ties. Yet Saudis have always distanced themselves from American foreign policy, particularly with regards to Iran. Even when there was growing criticism against the former Iranian President, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, for his alleged hostile foreign policy in connection to Israel,[69] Saudi Arabia recognised that Iran was a potential threat, and a regional power that was in position to create trouble within their borders. Therefore, Saudi Arabia's security over time required accommodation and good relations with its geographic neighbors notably Iran.[69] Saudi Arabia has long since looked to the United States for protection against Iran.

Prior to this visit, Saudi National Security advisor Prince Bandar bin Sultan, seen as one of the most pro-American figures in the region, had made a trip to Tehran to voice his government's interest in building harmonious relations with Iran.[70] During Iranian President Ahmadinejad's 3 March 2007 visit, he discussed with King Abdullah the need to protect the Islamic world from enemy "conspiracies."[71]

In 2007, President Ahmadinejad of Iran attended the first-ever annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which was established in 1980 in part to contain the ambitions of revolutionary Iran.[72] This visit by the President of Iran was an event which signaled a possible change in relations. Yet soon after the meeting, Saudi Arabia, the most senior member of the six GCC member states invited Mr. Ahmadinejad to Saudi Arabia to take part in the annual Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.

In 2009, Saudi Prince Faisal said in a press conference with Hillary Clinton that the "threat posed by Iran demanded a more immediate solution than sanctions." This statement was condemned by Iranian officials.[73]

On 11 October 2011 US Attorney General Eric Holder accused Iran of planning to assassinate the Saudi-Arabian ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubbair.

In 2013, Saudi Ambassador to Britain Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud wrote an editorial in The New York Times criticizing Saudi Arabia's Western allies for not taking bold enough measures against Syria and Iran, thus destabilizing the Middle East and forcing Saudi Arabia to become more aggressive in international affairs.[74] The Obama administration continues to reassure the Persian Gulf states that regional security is a U.S. priority, but, as of December 2013, the Gulf states express skepticism.[75]


In November 2010, WikiLeaks disclosed various confidential documents pertaining to the US and its allies which revealed that King Abdullah urged the US to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons programme, describing Iran as a snake whose head should be cut off without any procrastination.[76] The documents were dismissed by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claiming them to be "organised to be released on a regular basis."[77]

International efforts to normalize relations[edit]

There are international efforts going on to normalize the relations between two countries after the crisis which started with the execution of Sheikh Nimr. Pakistan's prime minister Imran khan and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif visited Riyadh and Tehran. The Sharifs peace mission started after some high level visits from Saudi Arabia to Islamabad.[78]

Pakistan's opposition leader Imran Khan also visited the embassies of Iran and Saudi Arabia and met their head of commissions in Islamabad on 8 January 2016 to understand their stance regarding the conflict. He urged the Government of Pakistan to play a positive role to resolve the matter between both countries.[79]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Wehrey, Frederic; Karasik, Theodore W.; Nader, Alireza; Ghez, Jeremy J.; Hansell, Lydia; Guffey, Robert A. (2009). Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation and Implication for US Policy. RAND Corporation. ISBN 9780833046574. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
  2. ^ "Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of 'deception' and supporting terrorism". Al Arabiya. 17 May 2017. Retrieved 7 June 2017.
  3. ^ Erdbrink, Thomas (7 June 2017). "Iran Assails Saudi Arabia After Pair of Deadly Terrorist Attacks". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 7 June 2017.
  4. ^ Bradley, John R. (2005). Saudi Arabia Exposed : Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Palgrave. pp. 82–3.
  5. ^ "Saudi Arabia cuts diplomatic ties with Iran". Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  6. ^ Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 115. "Saudi Arabia lacks a constitution that defines legislative authority and processes. Wahhabi doctrine, however, possesses a political theory, based on the views of the Philosopher Ibn Taymiyya, which requires Muslims to obey the ruler, even if he is a sinner. Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the Book of God's Unity had declared that to obey the rulers in permitting something forbidden by Islamic law is tantamount to idolatry. In Ibn Taymiyya's view, the only ground for disobedience to a ruler is if he commands a believer to violate something prohibited by the shari'a.
  7. ^ Saudi Arabia: Treat Shia Equally|| 2009/09/02
  8. ^ Commins, David (2009). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. I.B.Tauris. p. 171. Tehran's efforts to export the revolution through leaflets, radio broadcasts and tape cassettes castigating Al Saud for corruption and hypocrisy found a receptive audience in the Eastern Province. On 28 November, Saudi Shiites summoned the courage to break the taboo on public religious expression by holding processions to celebrate the Islamic holy day of Ashura ... (both Sunni and Shia followers celebrate it but in different ways as per their individual beliefs, customs and rituals) ... on 1 February, the one-year anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran, violent demonstrations again erupted. Crowds attacked banks and vehicles and hoisted placards with Khomeini's picture. The government responded to the February protests with a mix of coercion and cooptation. On the one hand, leading Shiite activists were arrested. On the other hand, a high official from the Interior Ministry met with Shiite representatives and acknowledged that Riyadh had neglected the region's development needs. ... extending electricity networks ... more schools and hospitals and improving sewage infrastructures.
  9. ^ a b Wrampelmeier, Brooks (1 February 1999). "Saudi-Iranian Relations 1932-1982". Middle East Policy. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
  10. ^ a b Ackerman, Harrison (28 November 2011). "Symptoms of Cold Warfare between Saudi Arabia and Iran: Part 1 of 3". Journalism and Political Science. 16. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
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