The article will discuss the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran focusing on the root causes surrounding the Hajj pilgrimage restrictions. Furthermore, the article will discuss various political and economic reasons that have caused a rift between the two states
One of the largest annual gatherings of the world signifying the annual Muslim solidarity and followers’ ultimate devotion to God; Hajj, one of the five major pillars of Islam, is the mandatory spiritual journey that a follower must undertake once in a lifetime if the follower is physically and financially capable.
This ritual of pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) extends back to more than a thousand years to the ancient times of Abraham. To say the least, acts of such high sanctity and holiness can only remain unscathed for finitude periods of time. The ultimate journey came to a halt for all Iranian nationals; the ban fracking from the country’s age old history with Saudi Arabia.
On the screen Iranian Minister of Cultural and Islamic Guidance, Ali Jannati, blamed travel to Saudi Arabia for failing to “resolve the issue of security” in the months-long discussions which took place between the two countries, however the ban is just not limited to that. This ban on the Islam’s most holiest of journeys points out to the cold war rising from the kiln of the world’s hottest regions. The ban of Iranian nationals this season is a cocktail of the multitude of events that arise from economic, political, and ideological difference between the two countries.
The Islamic Republic of Iran and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been anything but cordial since the inception of the states as we know them. The most striking and potential reason of conflict is the different forms of Islam that compose the two states. Saudi Arabia is a right-wing conservative “Wahhabi” Sunni Islamic kingdom with a tradition of close ties with the United States and the United Kingdom. Iran is a Twelver Shia Islamic Republic founded in an anti-Western revolution with close ties to Russia and China. The form of governments in both countries function parallel to opposite diagonals to the extent that the founder of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, ideologically opposed monarchy, calling it unIslamic.
A History of Relations:
Formal relations between the two countries did not kick off till the 1960s due to Iran’s unpopular recognition of Israel. However, the Shah in Iran made substantiative efforts (rather unsuccessfully) in order to smooth the road to liberalisation and region domination. In fact, the Shah in his bid to improve the relations, overstepped boundaries more than a couple of time.. For example, 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.” 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.” Not only does this point to the differences in opinion that two have had despite the government or leader-in-charge in either country, but also delineates US involvement in their policies (Shah was under heavy influence from US during the period when he had hoped to liberalize Saudi Arabia).
As years passed, foreign relations or the little strands that remained officially broke and dissolved during the years of Iranian revolution where the Iranian people chose to topple the Shah and his pro-Western ideals. While Iran was trying to survive the economic burden of a revolution and reinvent itself, Saudi Arabia saw Iran as an increasing military threat in the region. This led to Iraq’s invasion of Iran (backed by $25 billion worth of aid provided by Saudi Arabia).
Following bloody wars and insurgencies, Ayatollah Khomeini (supreme leader of Iran), after his victory declared outrightly that the Wahhabis (the predominant Islam sect in Saudi Arabia) are not what Islam represents and have no right over the holy city of Mecca. In 1987 public address 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.”
While the two countries battled each other, they unknowingly kicked off unwanted oil economics. Saudi Arabia was funding Shia dominated neighbouring states and rebels and pitching them against Iran at the heavy expense of its state treasuries. This led to the country increasing its production of oil in order to fund the excruciating costs of war. Subsequently, the oil prices plunged from over $30 a barrel to less than $15 by the mid 1980s. The plunge was a major blow to the Saudis but more so to Iran, a country that was still trying to restructure its economy post revolution.
We see how the conflict that was meant to be diplomatic slowly and gradually turned into an economic one; with both countries infusing oil into world markets to finance themselves. This resulted in nothing but irreversible self-inflicted harm.
The course of diplomatic relations between the two crossed through the American territory. The US, a close ally of Saudi Arabia owing to its large oil reserves, became the leading state to impose economic sanctions on Iran. During the same period, the supreme leader of Iran accused Saudi Arabia of representing American interests in the region instead of Islamic ones.
One of the most dramatic changes in the geo-politics in the region was the nuclear deal between the US and Iran a few months back. This resulted in upliftment of a number of economic sanctions that was crippling the Iranian economy. The very deal shook the foundation of Saudi Arabia’s number one defence mechanism in the region: US.
With the US cooperating with Iran, the Saudis need to look in another direction for support for Iran is back on the world map. The country is attempting to orchestrate support elsewhere, including from countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia through its creation of the coalition against terrorism.
Modern day Iran- Saudi Arabia rivalry is not just based on the different sects of Islam anymore. Iran is the second largest economy in the region after Saudi Arabia. Iran’s population is an estimated 77 million, compared to Saudi Arabia’s 28 million. While Iran’s army is far less well equipped than its rival’s, it is much larger. With the upliftment of sanctions, Iran is attracting investments from a number of countries. It is allowed to transact with American financial institutions. With this Iran is ever more powerful in terms of oil production and closer to the Saudi Arabia. Iranian authorities aim to reach the pre-sanction oil production level of 4m bpd up from their current under 1m bpd. The only way Saudi Arabia can control this Iranian leap is by artificially controlling the oil prices; a tactic that is acting heavy on its treasuries just like previous times.
The shifting balance of power is certainly rattling the Saudis. The recent execution of Shia Islam cleric Nimr al-Nimr resulted in huge riots outside Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran. 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 are to leave the country within 48 hours. The nations are backing opposing sides in the ongoing Yemen and Syrian crisis, while constantly increasing their deficits.
While the conflict started of under the mask of communalism, it no longer is so. The rivalry, like always, has escalated to geo-politics, regional dominance, and ultimately economics. Cutting diplomatic relations, executing clerics, banning the Hajj pilgrimage are just gimmicks in the war for dominance in the modern political and economic theatre.