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What the recent Iran-Saudi tensions mean for America’s ties with Saudi Arabia

The sectarian divide further imperiled the Middle East this week as the execution of the famed Shiite leader and political activist, Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, considered the leader of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population – estimated to be 10 to 15 percent of the population – by Saudi Arabia roiled many. After a breach of Saudi diplomatic premises in Iran, the Saudis and a few allies responded by cutting or downgrading ties with Iran. The effect of these events on the region will be drastic but it should also cause Washington to reconsider some of its decades old policies in the region.

The common perception among public officials and foreign policy thinkers has long been that though much of Saudi Arabian domestic policy and ideology is abhorrent to the West, US and Saudi interests in the region are aligned. As Hillary Clinton put it in addressing the recent flare-up of tensions, “We have governments we work with on a number of issues whose policies and values are antithetical to ours, to be just blunt about it. And yet who also have certain interests with us that we are involved in.”

{mosads}But the nature of Saudi Arabia’s recent provocation calls that Washington common wisdom into question. Though both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia may have an interest in fighting certain Sunni terror groups and challenging rival Iran, Saudi Arabia’s priority of projecting influence and its need to check domestic challenges to the House of Saud have set in motion a divergence of interests with Washington and an inherent conflict in overall strategy.

America’s need for calm

America’s lasting interest lies in limiting the level of chaos and sectarian instability in the region as the kind of non-state actors, like ISIL, that now pose the most significant threat to US national security thrive on sectarianism and failed and/or failing states. In this dynamic, stability and counter-terrorism must trump long-term power projection goals. Washington’s more flexible negotiating posture regarding the Syrian political process, its deconfliction with Iran when both are fighting ISIL and studied neutrality on the ongoing flare-up of Saudi-Iran tensions are a product the administration grasping the need for such an approach. Although, the American drive for self interest can impede the execution of this strategy and at times make its policies seem incoherent and ineffective.

Galvanizing diverse groups for counter-terrorism efforts or effective governance of multi-sectarian states, as well as successfully completing historically complex peace talks, such as the ongoing dialogues regarding Yemen and Syria, necessitate the downplaying of sectarian differences. But as Ambassador Bret McGurk who coordinates America’s anti-ISIL efforts said in addressing the challenges this recent round of Iran-Saudi tensions may bring, “anytime you have regional polarization, regional escalation, it obviously can cause difficulties and it opens up seams for extremists on all sides to take advantage of the situation. ”

How sectarianism serves Riyadh

Saudi Arabia on the other hand, as demonstrated by the execution of Sheikh Nimr, seems to see sectarian tension as a positive benefit for its foreign and domestic priorities. Retired government officials and Middle East analyst of all ideological stripes have explained over the last few days that it is inconceivable that Saudi officials did not think executing al-Nimr would not draw condemnation and possibly violent outrage. This leads many experts to conclude that this was the desired outcome as Saudi Arabia utilizes sectarian politics to shape domestic and regional politics in its interests.

The threat of rebellion from Sunni hardliners is likely the only conceivable existential threat to the rule of the Saudi royals, it is in fact the threat that most alarms the dynasty.  The execution of 44 al-Qaeda members sends a stern message to some of the more ruckus elements in Saudi Arabia’s Sunni majority, but executing the beloved Shiite cleric plays into the anti-Shiite sentiment that is a core doctrine of the Salafist interpretation of Islam ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia.  

It is also a harsh warning to Saudi Arabia’s downtrodden Shiite community whose protest movement Sheikh Nimr had led. Riyadh considers this population a threat to its stability and, as Salafism is a core pillar of the Saudi state, their inclusion into the governance structure and their civil and political enfranchisement is not a viable concept.

The steep drop in oil, accelerated by Riyadh’s oil policy, has also resulted in economic challenges and cuts in welfare programs which the Saudi government likely needs a public distraction from.

Saudi foreign policy seems to focus on power projection into the Islamic world and primarily the Middle East using a combination of leveraging vast sums of petro-capital – as demonstrated with Sudan as it abandoned ties with Iran – and galvanizing Sunni/anti-Shiite sectarian sentiment as 85 percent of Muslims are Sunni. The latter is well served by aggravating sectarian tensions.

To be clear, this does not necessary mean that the U.S. should realign in favor of Iran and against the Saudis – that may be politically untenable in both Tehran and Washington. But it likely requires the U.S. to take a more neutral approach to the Iran-Saudi conflict moving forward and be more assertive in its position regarding Riyadh stoking sectarian crisis that will, despite recent reassurances, undermines peace talks for Yemen and Syria, and embolden extremists. 

Ahmadi is a New York-based writer and analyst focused on U.S. policy towards Iran and Middle East geopolitics.

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