‘The Islamic world is facing a new civil war’

Matching up: Iran has 534,000 active troops. Saudi Arabia has 227,000. © The Spectator

Which of the two great enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia is stronger? Many now fear the simmering conflict between the region’s dominant powers is on the brink of breaking out into open warfare.

“No place for traitors in the age of Salman,” roared the front page of Al Jazirah, a Saudi broadsheet, as the country woke up to last week’s great purge.

Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince and son of the king, rounded up opponents in an unprecedented power grab, arresting 11 princes.

MBS, as he is known, is now supremely powerful. And his rise will have ramifications for the rest of the Middle East, and therefore the rest of the world. His foreign policy is aggressive — and his main target is Iran.

The split is about religion and territory. Saudi Arabia is the home of Sunni Islam, while Iran is a Shia theocracy. This means that in every country with high numbers of both Sunnis and Shias (ie, most Middle Eastern countries), the Saudis and the Iranians vie for influence and supremacy.

Take Lebanon. Last week the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh and ordered to resign. The official reason was that he feared assassination by Hezbollah, a Shia militant group in the country. But the real reason is the Saudi government was furious at him for holding talks with both Iran and Hezbollah.

The hotter frontier of this proxy war is Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has intervened on the side of the Sunni government against the Shia Houthi rebels.

And amid all this tension, Saudi Arabia is striking up an alliance with the most unlikely country: Israel.

As John Bradley writes in The Spectator, “They have long shared a common enemy: Iran. Both fear Iran is exploiting the opening created by the fall of ISIS.”

The Israel Broadcasting Corporation reported that a Saudi prince, possibly MBS, paid a secret visit to Israel. And a classified Israeli memo reportedly instructed Israeli diplomats to back the Saudi line in Lebanon and Yemen.

Military hostilities have already started. Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh, which was intercepted by the Saudis, who then announced that both Lebanon and Iran had “declared war” on the kingdom by arming the rebels.

So if war does break out, which side should the West fear most?

Daggers drawn

Saudi Arabia by far, say some. The country holds the world to ransom through its oil wealth, all the while funding terror, bullying its neighbours and beheading homosexuals. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes in the Independent, the forbidden kingdom is “degenerate, malignant, pitiless and dangerous”.

But for all the talk of Iran being the more secular, Westernised society, fundamentalist Islam holds sway there too. Iran funds terrorism in just the same way as Saudi Arabia, but its ascendancy would cause chaos in a region used to Saudi hegemony. Add to that Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and it is clear who the real danger is.

You Decide

  1. Which country is more dangerous: Iran or Saudi Arabia?
  2. Do you expect the Middle East to be peaceful within the next 50 years?


  1. List five important similarities between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and then five important ways in which they differ.
  2. On a map of the Middle East, indicate which countries have alliances with Iran, and which are friendly towards Saudi Arabia.

Some People Say...

“This will be a place for the dreamers for the world.”

Muhammad bin Salman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been rivals and enemies. The conflict is primarily religious, with Saudi Arabia representing Sunni Islam and Iran Shia Islam. As Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, exerts his control over his country, many fear that his aggressive attitude towards Iran could spark a new war in the Middle East.
What do we not know?
Whether that war will be confined to proxy conflicts in countries like Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, or whether Iranian and Saudi forces will ever attack each other in earnest. We also do not know whether Muhammad bin Salman’s rise will continue. Should he become less important, it is possible that Saudi-Iranian relations would thaw.

Word Watch

Sunnis and Shias
The split between Islam’s two main branches dates to its earliest days and concerns who should succeed Muhammad. Sunnis and Shia respectively believe that the true successor is Abu Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad, or Ali, his son-in-law and cousin.
Most Middle Eastern countries
For example, Yemen is 65% Sunni and 35% Shia. Lebanon is 54% Muslim, equally split between Sunni and Shia. Syria is roughly 85/15 in favour of Sunnis, with Iraq 60/40 in favour of Shia. (Source: The CIA World Factbook).
Saad Hariri
Hariri, who spent much of his early life in Saudi Arabia, was largely seen as a Saudi puppet.
Meaning party of God in Arabic; a Shia political party and militant group based in Lebanon. For comparison, Hamas (“the Islamic resistance movement”) in Palestine is Sunni.
As John Bradley writes: “Such diplomatic coordination is dangerous, given that an alliance has the potential to create a massive backlash among ordinary Saudis. For generations, they have been taught that Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs and Israel is the eternal enemy.”

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