Politics: Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Regional Balance of Power


The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been the main cause of instability in the Persian Gulf (Al-Labbad par. 1). This conflict has elicited debates internationally, especially among countries in the West. Each of the two countries has individual internal conflicts that present challenges to its style governance and the lives of citizens. These conflicts are primarily centred on the conflict of interest that exists between Riyadh and Tehran, as well as the varied foreign policies that each country tries to implement and promote. The Arab Spring led to several uprisings in the region that were unsuccessful in resolving the conflict (Al-Labbad par. 1).

The conflict is difficult to eradicate because it involves heated battles between two countries that want power and that have strong economies with great oil reserves (Sunni and Shiite). Both nations have varied interests in the conflict. Saudi Arabia wants to maintain regional power while Iran wants to develop itself and take over power from Saudi Arabia.

Historical background of international relations

Prior to the emergence of the conflict that has reached an all-time high now, Iran and Saudi Arabia had strong international relations. However, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States strained their relations as well as the numerous religious differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims (Furtig 39). The conflict between the two nations dates back to the Islamic Revolution that took place in 1979 (Mason 28).

International relations were based on certain factors that the two countries share. Their economies are based on oil production and export, and both are members of similar economic and religious organisations. For instance, they participate in the activities of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (Mason 28). The fact that they are dominated by Muslims means that international relations are more likely to thrive because of shared interests. Other sources of the conflict include political competitions and conflicts that emanate from the need by each country to become the political power in the region. For example, in 1979, the Shia Muslims of Saudi instigated protests that were aimed at causing an uprising in the region (Mason 31).

A similar protest led to the demise of several Iranians and Saudis. The leader of the minority Muslim group in Saudi Arabia called for a coup that would dethrone the Saudi monarchy that he claimed was the source of conflicts and instability. In 1989, Saudi authorities blamed Iran for several bomb attacks that were waged against them (Mason 32).

They argued that Iran was angered by Saudi’s decision to limit the number of its people that could travel to Mecca. Iran has bombed Saudi in several instances, thus fuelling the animosity between them. For instance, in 1996, it funded militia members belonging to Hezbollah to bomb a Saudi facility. This attack resulted in several deaths. Signs of the conflict emerged as early as the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. Saudi Arabia supported Iraq. In the past, efforts have been made to unite the two countries that are dominated by Muslims but to no avail. Both countries have been suspicious of each other since the Islamic Revolution. Iran has always viewed Saudi Arabia, an agent of the United States whose responsibility is to promote and implement its agenda in the Persian Gulf (Mason 35).

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia views Iran as a nation with hidden plans because of its intention to build nuclear weapons and gain control over the Persian Gulf. They have different political ideologies that influence their styles of governance in varied ways. Iran has always opposed monarchical regimes because it claims that they have no foundation in Islam (Mason 35). In that regard, it has always disparaged and fought the monarchy regime of Saudi Arabia. Another factor that has separated the two countries is differences in the size of their oil reserves. Saudi Arabia has higher bargaining power and influence over the prices of oil. They fail to agree on oil policies to determine the most appropriate price for the product. Iran cannot compete with Saudi because it can adjust oil prices down and still support its population that is lower compared to that of Iran.

The current state of international relations

Currently, relations between the two nations are completely strained. Bilateral relations have failed because of several issues that they disagree about. Issues of contention include the interpretations of Islam teachings and beliefs, policies on oil export, relationships with western countries, and their desire to rule the Islamic world (Mason 30). The nations govern their people based on the teachings of Islam. However, their relationship is characterised by hostility, incessant confrontations, and tension that originate from differences in their methods of handling the aforementioned issues (Furtig 43).

On the other hand, they are dominated by different Muslim sects and form relationships with different countries. Saudi Arabia is dominated by Sunni Muslims and has strong ties with the United States while Iran is dominated by Shia Muslims and forms ties with countries that oppose the United States and other western countries (Mason 33).

An attempt was made in 2007 to unite the two countries but was unsuccessful. President Ahmedinejad made a trip to Saudi Arabia and was received warmly by King Abdullah, thus reviving hopes of ending the conflict. International media took the incident and interpreted it to mean that both nations had decided to finally resolve their conflict and cooperate in political and economic endeavours once again. However, this purported peace was short-lived because, in 2011, the Syrian Civil War put them at loggerheads again. They each offered financial and military support to rebels in Syria. The war morphed into a supremacy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the past decade, both countries have also supported opposing parties and armies in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen (Mason 34). They worsened the conflicts in these countries by offering financial and military assistance to opposing factions.

Sectarian influence on the conflict

One of the major factors that resulted in the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict is sectarian differences between the two nations (Furtig 47). Saudi Arabia is dominated by Sunni Muslims, while Iran is dominated by Shia Muslims. The sects have different interpretations of Islamic dogma that makes them fight each other. The leaders of these sects have criticised the other’s teachings and beliefs by describing them as uncharacteristic of Islam (Mason 41). Even though the two sects have varied ideologies, their theological differences are not the main cause of the conflict (Beauchamp par. 15). The differences only enhance the conflict that originates from their struggle for power and regional influence. The intensity of the conflict is fuelled by the sectarianism, which makes political alliances difficult to consummate in the Middle East ((Beauchamp par. 15).

The region has become divided into sectarian affiliations. Shia nations are likely to seek economic and military help from Iran, while Sunni nations are likely to seek the same kind of help from Saudi. The conflict has forced the nations of the Middle East to seek affiliation with either of the two, thus intensifying sectarianism (Beauchamp par. 16). The toxic relationship between the Sunni Muslims of Saudi and the Shiite Muslims of Iran is evident in the Yemen conflict, which is a show of might between the two countries with each calling the other terrorist and extremist (Batrawy, par. 1).

The sectarian division has existed for a long period. For example, Saudi relations with Iraq were troubled before the out of Saddam Hussein because his regime was dominated by Shiite Muslims (Batrawy, par. 7). International relations between Iran and Iraq have worsened their ties in recent times with Iraq criticising Saudi’s recent airstrikes in Yemen. Sectarianism is likely to intensify and enhance the conflict because of their varied interpretations of Islamic dogma regarding monarchical regimes, western colonialism, and the importance of Israel (Mabon 57). Continued relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States as well as the embracement of western ideologies will put the two nations into loggerheads.

Implications of the current conflict in Yemen for Iran and Saudi Arabia

The conflict that is currently taking place in Yemen has different implications for both Iran and Saudi Arabia. They are playing different roles that are worsening the situation. Saudi Arabia is offering help to fight the Houthi rebel group that is receiving financial and military support from Iran. Each country is quick to blame the other for the deaths and regular raids that have affected civilians. For instance, the leader of Iran has described the airstrikes initiated by Saudi Arabia as a form of genocide that should not be tolerated (Kirkpatrick par. 2). The coalition that is trying to stop the Houthi rebel group from taking over Yemen is headed by Saudi militants. America has accused Iran of supporting the rebel group in its efforts to match the help provided by Saudi Arabia (Kirkpatrick par. 4).

The American government has said that it is not going to tolerate the actions of Iran because they are contributing to the destabilisation of the region. The United States is involved in both countries. It is supporting the efforts of Saudi Arabia to stop the rebel group and at the same time negotiating with Iran in order to get assurance that they are not developing nuclear weapons. This move is supported by Saudi Arabia because it will help suppress Iran’s desire and efforts to dominate the Middle East (Kirkpatrick par.7).

Saudis are participating in the conflict because they view the Houthi group as an aid to Iran’s aspirations to take over power from them. The conflict in Yemen is threatening to worsen the rivalry between the two nations that have an interest in the control of the Middle East. Yemen has joined a list of other countries that Iran and Saudi Arabia use as platforms to challenge each other’s financial and military might. The other countries include Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Lebanon. Political analysts argue that the conflict in Yemen could compromise the deal with Iran to stop its development of nuclear powers while others argue that it has fuelled its urge to launch attacks against Saudi Arabia (Kirkpatrick par. 10).

Supremacy battles have been shown in the conflict by the standoff that has been caused by Iran’s warship battles that have docked in the waters off the coast of Yemen. Saudi Arabia has warned that if the ships attack, then the regional coalition is going to take action against Iran. In another show of supremacy, Saudi Arabia redirected a plane that was carrying Iranian pilgrims that were on their way to Mecca (Kirkpatrick par. 13).

The Houthi rebel movement comprises Shiite Muslims and has engaged the Yemen authorities in battles since the year 2004. However, Iran participated for the first time in 2009 when the conflicts affected Saudi Arabia, which was trying to secure its borders and prevent the battles from spilling into its country. Iran is dominated by Shiite Muslims and offered help to the rebel group in the spirit of brotherhood. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has criticised the conflicts and claimed that it might have severe ramifications for the Persian Gulf if it continues. There is no hope of the conflicts ending because of the involvement of two economic giants that are battling for the region’s supremacy. Political analysts have argued that the decision by Saudi Arabia to launch airstrikes against the Houthi rebels is likely to worsen the situation because it could enhance Iran’s participation (Younis, par. 1).

They also claim that there is a risk of focusing more on the two heavyweights and ignoring the local players who are the main cause of the conflicts that are failing to find a solution as the Houthi rebels expand their dominance in Yemen. For instance, the rebel group has joined forces with supporters of Yemen’s former president and used that alliance to gain more power ((Younis, par. 2). In addition, the group has taken advantage of the current government’s poor performance to win the support of citizens who believe that the current president cannot improve their welfare due to bad governance. Iran only plays a minor role in enhancing the abilities of the rebel group.

Saudi Arabia and the international world have overestimated the role of Iran and underestimated the role of the rebels. Saudi Arabia joined the conflict for fears that Iran might them as an opportunity to stamp its authority in the region. Both countries are afraid of each other’s participation in the altercation that is gradually transforming into a civil war. In recent times, Iran has become more popular that Saudi Arabia in the Middle East for several reasons. They include their support of Hamas and Hezbollah, promotion of anti-western and anti-Israeli policies, as well as its support for people who are oppressed by Saudis monarchical regime (Younis, par. 6).

This influence on the Arab world has been curtailed by its lack of international relations with the United States that were severed in 1980. This has led to economic sanctions and freezing of assets, which have diminished its influence significantly. The Yemen conflicts are primarily working against the Saudis because their decision to bomb Yemen enhances the notion that they are violent and causing instability in the Middle East. This notion is likely to erode their influence and power in the region (Younis, par. 12). They are escalating the conflicts and chaos in the country while believing that they are combating their enemy. The best approach for Saudi Arabia to use in its efforts to retain its power in Middle East is to address the afflictions of marginalised groups and halt its supremacy battles with Iran that are destabilising the region (Mabon 66). The decision by Iran to send its naval vessels to Yemen has raised concerns that the conflicts could morph into a global confrontation between the two power players (Hanrahan, par. 1).

Iran sent more than eight ships to Aden, which is currently being run by the rebel group. The Saudi-led coalition has placed the city under 24-hour surveillance in order to block the ships from docking in the city’s port. This decision has been described as a possible source of conflict between the two countries that will result in a disastrous show of might. Authorities are surprised by Iran’s actions because it is not doing it secretly but overtly trying to show its might to the United States and the Saudi-led coalition (Hanrahan, par. 4). Saudi Arabia is at the centre of the Yemen conflict because its authorities fear that the Iran-sponsored Houthi group might empower their ally and enhance their influence in the Middle East.

International relations theory of power balance

Power balance is an important concept in international relations theory that deals with mechanisms that check the powers of mighty countries that have vast military and economic resources (Little 54). This ensures their survival in the international system. They possess several strategies that they use in the restoration of power balance. The mechanisms include the creation of great military teams, the formation of alliances with international states, emulation, bandwagoning, and conversion of economic resources into military power (Little 56). According to this theory, national security is stabilised and maintained through the distribution of military power in such a manner that all states are equal, and none exerts its power over the others. The theory suggests that the attainment of more power by one state results in the domination of other states. The theory advocates for an equilibrium of power so that one state does not prey on the weaker states (Little 58).

The situation in the Middle East can be interpreted based on this theory. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the strong states in the region and therefore use their power to attack weaker states. The current conflicts in Yemen are examples of how stronger states use their power to dominate weaker states. Iran and Saudi Arabia have strong military power. However, they balance each other’s power and as such, prevent each other from dominating other nations. The theory defines balancing as the act by a country of allying with others in order to neutralise an external threat. On the other hand, it defines bandwagoning as the act of aligning with a country that originates an external attack (Little 61).

In the Middle East, allying is the main strategy used to create balance. For instance, Saudi Arabia has allied with ten other Islamic states to stop the rebel group in Yemen from taking control of the country. Balancing is pursued two main reasons. First, nations seek to neutralise a threat before it grows and threatens their survival and second, it gives a stronger side more power by joining a weaker power and helping it to defeat the enemy (Little 67).

Iran is seeking to enhance its power by joining the rebel group, which is the weaker side in the Yemen conflict. The balance of power in the Middle East has been enhanced by the participation of the United States (Mabon 73). Iran has superior capabilities, especially with its nuclear weapons program that the US is determined to halt. States such as Saudi Arabia have formed coalitions with the US in order to ensure that Iran does not pursue the program and pose threats to the security of the Middle East (Mabon 75).


The Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict has been ongoing for a long time. It commenced with the Iranian revolution of 1979. Since then, both nations have disagreed on political, economic, and theological ideologies that have enhanced the rift. Prior to the Iranian revolution, they both collaborated in several endeavours because they share religion and a resource that gives them great bargaining powers in the international arena. Each of the two nations has vested interests in the conflict. Saudi Arabia seeks to enhance its dominance in the Middle East and continue to stamp its authority as the superpower. It has large oil reserves and a small population which enables it to exert power over other nations.

On the other hand, Iran is seeking to develop its influence and take over power from Saudi Arabia as the dominant nation in the Islamic world. These aspirations have pitted them against each other by participating in proxy conflicts in other countries such as Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and most recently, Yemen. The conflicts in Yemen pose a great threat to the stability of the region because Iran and Saudi Arabia have taken advantage of the situation to showcase their powers.

Works Cited

Al-Labbad, Mustafa. Conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia May soon Ease. 2014. Web.

Batrawy, Aya. Saudi-Iran Rivalry Over Yemen Deepens Mideast Sectarianism. 2014. Web.

Beauchamp, Zack. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Cold War is Making the Middle East Even More Dangerous. 2015. Web.

Furtig, Henner. Iran’s Rivalry with Saudi Arabia between the Gulf Wars. London: Ithaca Press, 2006. Print.

Hanrahan, Mark. Iran Sends Ships Toward Blockaded Yemen Port, Raising Concerns of Escalating Conflict with Saudi Arabia. 2015. Web.

Kirkpatrick, David. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia Deepen Over Conflict in Yemen. 2015. Web.

Little, Richard. The Balance of Power in International Relations: Metaphors, Myths, and Models. London: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.

Mabon, Simon. Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft power Rivalry in the Middle East. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013. Print.

Mason, Robert. Foreign policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2015. Print.

Younis, Nussaibah. The Saudi-Iran Powerplay behind the Yemen Conflict. 2015. Web.

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DemoEssays. (2022) 'Politics: Iran and Saudi Arabia's Regional Balance of Power'. 26 December.


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1. DemoEssays. "Politics: Iran and Saudi Arabia's Regional Balance of Power." December 26, 2022. https://demoessays.com/politics-iran-and-saudi-arabias-regional-balance-of-power/.


DemoEssays. "Politics: Iran and Saudi Arabia's Regional Balance of Power." December 26, 2022. https://demoessays.com/politics-iran-and-saudi-arabias-regional-balance-of-power/.