Lucia Ardovini
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Competing Islams
Religious legitimacy and the foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and Iran

Chapter 3 explores how competition in the religious domain impacts on the foreign policies of Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this chapter, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is unpacked from the perspective of claims to religious legitimacy, showing how both countries have historically relied on their own understandings of Islam to legitimise state authority, frame nationalist projects, and as a foreign policy tool. The chapter highlights how the struggle for religious competition between the two states goes beyond the Sunni–Shia schism, and translates into both geopolitical and domestic disorder. By using a comparative analysis the chapter traces the ways in which the dependence on Islam as a state tool has influenced both domestic and foreign policies in each country and, in turn, the wider Saudi–Iranian competition for regional authority.


The troubled relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been at the centre of several debates in the scholarship of the contemporary Middle East. The two powers are old rivals, but the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran that followed the 1979 Revolution added an existential component to their rivalry. The existential importance of Islam for both Riyadh and Tehran meant that, as well as competing for regional supremacy, religious legitimacy also became a key part of this struggle. Wahhabism and Twelver Shiism are both deeply embedded into the politics and society of the two powers and directly linked to statecraft and political projects, meaning that after 1979 religion took a central role in the political, security and foreign policies of both states.

Following the spread of the 2011 Arab Uprisings the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has become increasingly important in shaping the politics of the region, as both Riyadh and Tehran attempt to shape the Middle East in their image. There are numerous lenses used to unpack the ongoing struggle for competing legitimacies, ranging from sectarian discourses, soft power, geopolitical concerns and proxy warfare. Yet, the role that Islam plays in shaping the domestic and international competition between these two powers, beyond a sectarian rhetoric, remains largely understudied. This is partially due to the competing branches of Islam embedded in the social and political fabric of these countries, but its relevance goes way beyond the Sunni vs Shia schism. In fact, Saudi Arabia and Iran are similar in the sense that they both historically rely on a very specific, state-sanctioned form of Islamism to legitimize regime authority, frame nationalist projects and inform foreign policy decisions. Wahhabism and Twelver Shiism, the belief systems dominant within these two states, have over time evolved into a state tool that influence both domestic and foreign policy, as well as enforcing societal control and consequently sparking internal discontent. Therefore, to analyse the role that Islam plays within this rivalry it is necessary to consider first the key role that religion plays within the fabric of each state, then further unpack the extent to which it influences their foreign policy. Through a comparative analysis of the evolution of Islam as a political tool this chapter offers an examination of how this plays out in shaping the competition for regional authority between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This chapter begins by providing an overview of the role of Wahhabism and Twelver Shiism within the sociopolitical fabric of these states, tracking its evolution into a political and legitimacy tool. It then turns to the analysis of how religion is used as a smokescreen for geopolitical interests and how it influences foreign policy, concluding with an overview of how this shapes specific aspects of the ongoing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran has often been reduced to the religious dimension, mostly focusing on the struggle for regional and religious legitimacy between the most powerful Shia state and the Sunni state par excellence. Yet, while Islam has been increasingly politicised and framed to portray each power as an existential threat to the other, one needs to be careful to not understand religion as the main driver of this rivalry. Overall, the chapter demonstrates that while religion does play a significant part in the rivalry between the two powers its role is often overstated, and argues that reducing the competition to a struggle for religious legitimacy fails to capture the centrality of geopolitical dynamics and foreign policy goals.

Islam and state power

There are different, established approaches within the literature examining the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, seeking to understand its sources and unpack its impact on regional order and geopolitics, which broadly fall into three traditional camps. There are those who frame these tensions within a broader framework of competing national interests and understand them as a manifestation of shifting balances of power in the Persian Gulf, with religious security playing a significant role in shaping the rivalry.1 Another approach focuses on the role of theological tensions, arguing that Islam is a key factor in understanding how this competition is influenced by the emergence and construction of religious and sectarian identities.2 The third camp applies a more intersectional view and argues that in order to make sense of the rivalry one needs to combine issues of power distribution across the region with a careful consideration of how the spread of religious identities and sectarian divisions affects geopolitical tensions.3 This chapter, in line with the other contributions to this volume, falls within this camp and recognises the importance of acknowledging the role of national interests and domestic politics as well as the primacy of religious concerns in order to further understand the nature of this rivalry. This allows us to move away from largely monolithic categories enshrined in the literature and to take a fresher, more comprehensive look at the different dynamics that are at play.

A key consideration is that the political role played by religion cannot be separated from the domestic and foreign policies of states across the region, as it not only serves as an historical tool of legitimisation for particular regimes and ruling elites, but also shapes domestic manifestations of dissent as well as providing scope for interfering in the politics of other powers. More importantly, the way in which states incorporate religion – in this case Islam – into their foreign policies and international behaviour is often shaped by domestic considerations of how ideology relates to political authority. As an example, when the influence of religion and faith on foreign policy is in question, looking at geopolitical shifts across the region one can see that sectarian narratives are often mobilised to address specific security threats that have little to do with religion, but more to do with fear of domestic insurgency. The transnational projection of religion is therefore usually more indicative of the status of the balance of power between competing social and political forces within the country it stems from, rather than of deliberate expression of foreign policy goals.4

Much of the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is often reduced to a competition between the two main branches of Islam, Sunnism vs Shiism, but the ways in which Islam is embedded into political power and governance within the two countries is diametrically different. In the case of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, ongoing domestic struggles between the role of Islam and Islamism cannot be contained, and religious legitimacy becomes a space for expressing broader geopolitical rivalries – as shown by the sectarian use of religion in Saudi Arabia’s portrayal of Shia Islam as an avatar of Iran. Therefore the phenomenon of ‘religious soft power’, indicating a state’s incorporation of religious promotion into their broader foreign policy conduct, often masks broader geopolitical goals as well as reflecting concerns over the status of domestic politics.5

When looking at the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two seminal events in 1979 shed a light on the centrality of Islam in shaping and maintaining political power. In Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned after years of exile, acclaimed by millions of followers, and the Iranian Islamic Republic was born. Despite being remembered as an ‘Islamic’ revolution, the events of 1979 were much more complex and social unrest was fuelled by both secular and religious grievances, mostly centred around the perception of the shah’s regime as corrupt, brutal and as a pawn of the West. Nevertheless, after Khomeini’s takeover of the post-revolutionary process, the forced modernisation that Iran had undergone under the shah swiftly morphed into velayat-e faqih, governance of the jurists, which gives the religious clergy custodianship over the people.6 Later on that year the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the most sacred shrine of Islam, was seized by a group of Saudi religious insurgents in an open condemnation against the House of Al Saud’s policies, which they perceived as being increasingly pro-Western and largely un-Islamic.7 Both of these events brought questions of Islamic legitimacy back to the fore and deeply shook the foundations of established systems of rule in both countries, and had a profound and ongoing impact on their sociopolitical landscapes. Globally, they led to the emergence of urgent questions about the separation of religion and politics, the relationship between Islam and democratization and to widespread preoccupations with how such resurgence could be contained. Most of all, they added a religious dimension to the already ongoing rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran, bringing a fundamental existential component to the struggle. While many Western interpretations of the events were mostly driven by security concerns, the events of 1979 clearly revealed that religion played a key political role, and that its influence could not be undermined. Without overstating the role of Islam in the current manifestations of this rivalry, it is still necessary to acknowledge that religion and faith have huge resonance both within and outside states and, just like in this instance, they should not be reduced to an instrumental understanding of just how seminal the events of 1979 were for both powers.

From this, Islam and its manifestations through different forms of Islamism should always be understood within the specific contexts and circumstances it operates under. This goes beyond the theological differences between Sunni and Shia traditions, as domestic conditions such as shared history and different intersections of culture, ethnicity and faith also drastically shape its political connotations. The intersection of religion and politics is notoriously hard to navigate and in the case of Islam this realm is further complicated by its comprehensive nature, better explained by the maxim al-islam din wa-dawla ‘Islam is [both] religion and state’.8 Yet, there is a notable lack of clear prescriptions of what constitutes an Islamic state and different movements, states and organisations across the region have historically developed their own ideological projects to merge together religious and political institutions. This has allowed different groups, regimes and traditions to develop their own models of Islamic governance, which adds to its variety of manifestations and also emphasises its adaptability to a wide range of national contexts. It is nevertheless worth noting that, until relatively recently, there was no formal distinction drawn between the religious and secular spheres across most of the region and, to this day, states implement different structures to formally separate or merge their political and religious institutions. This overlapping is due to the fact that rulers in the region historically draw legitimacy and power from religion and, even in the aftermath of European colonialism and the establishment of nation-states, the legal systems of most Middle Eastern countries continue to incorporate both secular and religious legislative elements.

It is also worth noting that the intersection between religion and politics, and the various manifestations of Islamism9 associated to it, are deeply influenced by domestic and regional events and therefore part of an ongoing transformation process, which needs to be reflected in the scholarship on this topic. Before the 2011 Arab Uprisings we, as scholars and researchers, had become accustomed to approach the study of political Islam through focusing on the civil society activities, electoral strategies and political behaviour of semi-tolerated Islamist opposition parties and movements.10 This landscape has vastly changed in the aftermath of the region-wide popular protests, and while a decade ago Islamist movements were mostly constrained by domestic policies and highly organised – with the notable exceptions of groups such as al-Qaeda – nowadays their functions and circumstances have considerably diversified. In turn, this makes it noticeably harder to analyse the ever-evolving relationship between Islamists and the state, and the ongoing reliance of some regimes on Islam as a political and legitimacy tool. In particular, the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran can benefit from being analysed through the lens of Islam as a form of statecraft and foreign policy.11 The geopolitical competition between these two powers is often talked about in terms of a battle for survival, and the overt sectarian narrative associated to it also reveals that the role of religion cannot be excluded from the analysis.

Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism

When seeking to understand the role that Islam plays in the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran one must first analyse the relationship between statecraft and religion in both states. The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 under the leadership of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who united the four providences that previously constituted its territory under a single authority. In order to better understand just how much of a pivotal political role Islam played in the foundation and running of the Kingdom from the very beginning, it is useful to think about its formation and development as of three distinct phases. First, the 1902–1932 period, when territorial conquests were consolidated and a Saudi-Wahhabi ideology was imposed on them; second, 1932–1945, during which the task of creating a national Saudi-Wahhabi identity was undertaken; and finally, the 1943–1945 period, which saw the development of strategic foreign policy decisions in line with the Kingdom’s Wahhabi mission, as well as the inception of the Al Saud’s ongoing relationship with the US.12 From the very beginning a certain interpretation of Wahhabi Islam developed along with the institutions of the modern nation-state, acting as a main source of legitimacy and becoming a key component of statecraft, meaning that the two forces cannot be separated.

In the Saudi context, Wahhabi Islam largely precedes the creation of the nation-state and goes back to the teachings of Muhammad Ibn al-Wahhab in the 1740s. He preached an orthodox version of Sunni Islam centred around the concept of tawhid, the oneness of God, with the Wahhabi doctrine calling for the reinstatement of the same religious, social and political customs that had been practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers.13 It was not long before Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Al Saud dynasty, joined forces with the scholar marking the inception of the use of religion as a political instrument to both consolidate a collective identity and legitimise a ruling family. The cooperation between umara and ulema (statesmen and religious clergy) only developed further from there, culminating in the complete embeddedness of state and religion institutions that is characteristic of Saudi Arabia today.

The role placed upon Wahhabism as a state religion means that Islam is not only applied to defend the state’s interests and those of the ruling dynasty, but is part of a mutual reinforcement process that sees the ideology as one of the core pillars – and identity markers – of the Kingdom. Saudi constitutional law and its judicial system rest on traditional Islamic legal principles, whereby the Quran and the Sunna form its constitution and Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) supports the law of the state.14 Indeed, Article 1 of the Saudi Constitution declares that ‘The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet, God’s prayers and peace be upon him, are its constitution.’15 In practice, this means that there is very little separation between religion and politics in the Saudi context, with Islam being a core component of statecraft and of sociopolitical life. In addition, the historical and institutional link between religion and politics also means that adherence to Wahhabi Islam is a key component of Saudi nationalism, with religious faith and loyalty to the ruling family also being main markers of a national collective identity. It follows that the power that the House of Al Saud has enjoyed for the past two and a half centuries is largely due to its bond with the ulema, and to its use of religion as both a unifying instrument and a source of political legitimacy. As far as a separation of powers can be drawn, the Wahabbi ulema perform the role of guardians of the social order, while relinquishing political authority to the ruling family and the state apparatus, even though there is emerging evidence to suggest that this balance of power has begun to shift in recent years.16

Statecraft and authority in Saudi Arabi therefore rely on the mutual relationship between ulema and umara, where the former decide on the sharia and the latter implement it. The clergy began being incorporated into the state apparatus by the second half of the twentieth century with the creation of the Dar al-Ifta’ wa-l-Ishraf ‘ala al-Shu’un al-Diniyya (the Institution for the Issuance of Religio-Legal Opinion and the Supervision of Religious Affairs), under the chairmanship of the Grand Mufti.17 The institution was then split into the Board of Senior Ulema and the Council of Religio-Legal Opinion, and combined with the creation of several other religious ministries and endowments. It is therefore clear that Islam is both a source of political authority and legitimacy within Saudi Arabia, yet, state institutions are progressively taking over areas that were once the sole competence of religious bodies. The bureaucratisation of government activities means that the clergy does not hold the same amount of power it once did in terms of being able to actively influence policy decisions, but it nevertheless remains represented in ministries and religious agencies such as the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, Calls and Guidance, and so on.18 Thus, while its political power has decreased over time, the Wahhabi clergy still plays a significant role in influencing social and internal policies.

Nevertheless, the largely exclusionary policies and practice that derive from such a strict theocratic system have not been left unchallenged, with grievances also being rooted in the subjugation of Wahhabism into a state religion at the expense of its militant character.19 Internal discontent takes different forms in Saudi Arabia, but dissidents and reformers all share a dissatisfaction with the exclusionary power structures that come from such an embedded relation between religion and politics.20 Broadly speaking, domestic tensions in the Kingdom originate from political and religious differences as well as regional ones and have historically formed four different camps, often in competition with each other. These are Sunni political activism, liberal criticism, the Shiite minority and tensions generated by tribal and regional politics.21 The ruling family has been challenged by several global Islamist opposition groups, most notably al-Qaeda, labelling the Al Saud as profane and infidels and challenging the legitimacy of the existing order. Nevertheless, an older and more structured manifestation of Sunni political activism in the Kingdom is represented by the al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (Islamic Awakening) movement, influenced by both traditional Salafi doctrine and the political narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood, which calls for the stricter implementation of Islamic norms in the public sphere and argues for a greater role of religious scholars in politics, challenging the hegemony of the ruling family.22 In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Uprisings several of Sahwa’s key figures used the regional momentum to ask for domestic reforms and have since been detained and sentenced to death, as a part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MbS) crackdown on dissent.23

The Islamic opposition represented by the Sahwa movement is arguably one of the greatest threats to the Saudi government’s monopoly over the domestic political and religious spheres, as Islam is the main language in which social and political rivalries are expressed.24 Similarly, the Shiite minority also represent another strong voice of dissent and embodies the decades-long struggle with Iran, especially when it comes to religion shaping the foreign policy of these two states, as I will discuss later. Mostly located in the oil-rich eastern province, since the establishment of the Kingdom the Shiites have been subjected to discrimination and sectarian incitement and have been locked into the ongoing struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi and Iran. Shiite activism has taken many forms over the decades, ranging from militancy and revolution to demands for pluralism, democracy and equal rights, but to this day Shiites remain highly disenfranchised within Saudi society. They are banned from holding key posts within the Ministry of Defence and Interior, and face severe restrictions on religious worship.25 The anti-Shia rhetoric in Saudi is further reinforced by their perception as an Iranian fifth column and steadily intensified after the Shiites’ calls for full equality and basic rights in the wake of 2011. Since coming to power, MbS implemented some reforms aimed at addressing Shiites’ key grievances, such as the removal of openly anti-Shia material in school curricula, but heavy restrictions on freedom of worship remain in place.26

These two cases illustrate some of the main domestic challenges against the Islamic authority of the Saudi Kingdom, which are then reflected into its geopolitical behaviour. Developments within the Saudi state do not take place in a vacuum and are therefore also shaped by regional phenomena, specifically when it comes to Iran and its reach on Shia-minority communities across the region. It is at this nexus that the regime’s domestic concerns intersect with its foreign policy agenda, as it will be shown later. Nevertheless, despite the failure to accommodate meaningful change and reforms, the Saudi Kingdom remains one of the most durable regimes in the Middle East. MbS’s efforts to portray himself as a religious reformer is therefore aimed at appeasing both domestic and international discontent, especially in regard to the emergence of its ‘1979’ narrative about ‘moderating’ Islam. Yet, despite a wave of arrests against prominent clerics in 2017, MbS’s actions are far from challenging the established partnership between the House of Al Saud and Wahhabism. Rather, these reforms aim at improving the Kingdom’s international reputation without altering the structures that maintain the power of Al Saud, meaning that Islam remains a powerful tool of political control in the country.

Iran, Twelver Shiism and velayat-e faqih

The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in 1979, after the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty and forced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into exile. The events of 1979 are seminal in the history of the region, as the establishment of the Islamic Republic was perceived as a prominent example of the instrumental use of Islam for political ends and added another layer of competition – religion – to the already ongoing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While this is only one of the many factors that shape the struggle, the extent to which Islam is embedded in the political and social fabric of both countries makes it inseparable from their foreign policies and adds religious legitimacy to what is at stake.

Much of the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is often reduced to a competition between the two main branches of Islam, Sunnism vs Shiism, but the ways in which Islam is embedded into political power and governance within the two countries are diametrically different. The 1979 Revolution and rise to power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini fundamentally changed the relationship between state and religion in Iran, as it expanded the ulema’s role beyond just sacred affairs and into the political realm, laying the bases for religious authoritarianism.27 To this day, the Islamic Republic functions as a political system that brings together elements of a presidential democracy and an Islamic theocracy, with secular governmental bodies working in parallel with religious ones such as an Assembly of Experts whose members must be clerics, and a Council of Guardians half of whom must be clerics. Standing before the Iranian people a few months after the revolution had deposed the country’s shah, then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stated: ‘I have said time and time again that to build a society on the basic of the principles of Islam is an ideological choice, not just a religious one. Islam in fact is an ideology, in which religion represents one aspect,’28 essentially setting the basis for faith to become an integral part of statecraft. Yet, the revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty was not a religious one, but rather brought together Islamists, Communists and liberals before being hijacked by Khomeini and his followers., creating long-standing domestic discontent that still threatens the regime’s legitimacy today, inevitably affecting its foreign policy choices.

The preamble to the Iranian Constitution of 1979 reads:

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran advances the cultural, social, political, and economic institutions of Iranian society based on Islamic principles and norms, which represent an honest aspiration of the Islamic Ummah. This aspiration was exemplified by the nature of the great Islamic Revolution of Iran, and by the course of the Muslim people’s struggle, from its beginning until victory, as reflected in the decisive and forceful calls raised by all segments of the populations. Now, at the threshold of this great victory, our nation, with all its beings, seeks its fulfillment.29

Building on this Ayatollah Khomeini developed and instituted a doctrine of supreme clerical rule to replace the monarchy, shaping the Islamic Republic to be ruled by the principles of Twelver Shiism and velayat-e faqih, or governance of the jurists, putting himself at the top of the combined supreme religious and political authorities. Velayat-e faqih is based on the belief that clerical guardianship of the state is required until the return of the Twelfth Shia Imam, who Shia Muslims believe was withdrawn into occultation in 874. Islamic governance is therefore made possible by transferring political and religious power to the ulema, while the Supreme Leader has the ultimate say on the Republic’s key decisions.30

From this, a system based on the governance of Islamic jurists gives the ulema (clergy) custodianship over people, which in the Iranian case calls for a faqih to serve as the Supreme Leader of the Republic, therefore combining political and religious authority. The Pahlavi dynasty set the institutional bases for parallel political and religious authorities and further reinforced this balance of power, although admittedly through a complex system of institutions: the monarchy’s legitimacy stemmed from Shiism and the constitutional framework it operated under defined the government as Shiite, while giving clerics the exclusive authority to oversee the legislative process to ensure it conformed to the sharia.31 In post-revolutionary Iran the Supreme Leader is head of state and holds the highest political and religious authority, while the president is responsible for the day-to-day running of the country. The ultimate power to decide on issues of domestic policies, foreign policy, judicial matters and to command the armed forces still largely lays with the Supreme Leader, who is appointed and supervised by the Assembly of Experts.32 The Republic therefore combines elements of theocracy and presidential democracy, with regular parliamentary and presidential elections taking place and a system of checks and balances and religious bodies that are meant to hold both the Supreme Leader and the government accountable. Still, Shia Islam remains at the core of political legitimacy and authority, as all candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council and elected officials are tasked with ‘protecting the state’s Islamic character’.33

Shiism had political value in Iran long before the founding on the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini, with religion being an intrinsic and fundamental part of the political system. Nevertheless, such a mutually reinforcing relationship between religion and political authority results in largely exclusionary theocratic policies and practices which, similar to the case of Saudi Arabia, feed into popular grievances and political unrest. Some of these tensions are internal to the system of velayat-e faqih and refer directly to the perceived unbalance of political and religious powers, with a considerable part of the ulema lamenting that the Islamic Revolution in fact limited the traditional autonomy of the clergy, imposing a political hierarchy on religious bodies and gravely censoring their intellectual freedom.34 External challenges instead have their roots in the deeply exclusionary practice characteristic of the theocracy, with the main issues driving domestic discontent in contemporary Iran centring around the denunciation of human rights abuses, socio-economic inequalities, discrimination against religious minorities, women and LGBTQ+ groups.35 These are the reflection of deep structural issues dating back to the founding of the Islamic Republic and to the reliance on its theocratic elements for legitimacy and power, resulting in the politicisation of the political, social and cultural spheres, which in turn alienated wide sections of society and gave rise to different forms of resistance and dissent.

Islam as a ‘smokescreen’

Building on the analysis of the historical co-optation of Islam as a state tool within the Saudi Arabia and Iran, it can be seen that despite their obvious differences the two powers are similar in that they both derive political purpose and legitimacy from their own denomination of Islam. The desire to be a regional power as well as representatives of Sunni and Shia Islam undoubtedly plays a role in shaping the rivalry between the two theocracies; however, reducing their competition to a purely sectarian Sunni vs Shia antagonism fails to capture the complex geopolitical dynamics that are also at play here, such as territorial and economic concerns as well as shifting alliances with both regional and international powers. In line with the other contributions to this volume, to fully understand the role that religion plays within this rivalry one needs to move away from the monolithic categories enshrined in the literature and take a fresher look at these issues.

Islam plays a crucial role within the political and social fabrics of both Riyadh and Tehran and consequently also affects foreign policy decisions, yet, in both cases faith is used in an instrumental way to secure legitimacy in front of both domestic and international audiences. Because of this, domestic factors and their influence on geopolitical interests are a necessary starting point for this analysis. The Saudi Kingdom relies on a system that integrates politics with religion, meaning that, aside from oil security and its ongoing relationship with the US, the export of Wahhabi Islam has historically been perceived as a cornerstone of Saudi foreign policy. Yet, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, this needs to be understood in a context of great power politics when Saudi ideology and its Islamic identity were crucial in opposing the threat of Nasser’s secular pan-Arabism.36 Saudi’s role as a defender of Islamism across the region served more than one purpose, as it reinforced its Islamic legitimacy while the influx of Islamist political refugees proved to be crucial for Saudi’s economic and structural development. Since then Saudi’s export of Wahhabism has continued through various manifestations of religious soft power, such as the creation of international bodies like the Muslim World League.

In the case of Iran, Shia history plays a prominent role in the construction of its foreign policy. The Battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Hussein – the Prophet’s grandson – located the idea of sacrifice and of standing up against oppressors within Iranian consciousness.37 This ‘resistance culture’ also lies in Khomeini’s concepts of mustakberin (the oppressors and arrogant powers) and the mustazefin (the oppressed and downtrodden), where the oppressed are Muslim people and Islam is painted as the solution.38 From this, after the 1979 Revolution the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy initially put a strong emphasis on the export of the revolution and on the support of repressed Muslims worldwide, which posed a clear territorial as well as ideological threat to Riyadh and other regimes.39 Since then, however, his predecessors promote a much more pragmatic and rhetorical interpretation of this message, with Khamenei saying that ‘This is what exporting the revolution means: to enable all nations in the world to see that they are capable of standing on their own feet, resisting submission with all of their strength by relying on their own will and determination and by replacing their trust in God.’40

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran associate regional supremacy with regime survival, meaning that their rivalry has long assumed an existential character, but the two powers were not always such harsh rivals. From the 1950s to 1979 they were both part of the US ‘Twin Pillars Diplomacy’, fighting the Communist threat and providing oil to the West in exchange for military, diplomatic and economic support.41 Therefore, while they were not allies, their relationship was characterised by mutual tolerance rather than overt enmity but the successful outcome of the 1979 Iranian Revolution drastically subverted that fragile equilibrium. That is to say, the deposition of the shah and his replacement with a revolutionary theocratic regime contributed to the creation of a new state identity for Iran, which turned into a strongly religious power openly opposed to monarchies and Western intervention.42 This new identity and the revolution combined therefore added a religious dimension to a rivalry that had previously been shaped by geopolitical concerns rooted in regional security struggles. The emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in conjunction with the rise of Islamist opposition in Saudi Arabia also highlight the key role that ideology plays both domestically and regionally in shaping other geopolitical factors, even though religious competition is long past being the main driver of the antagonism between the two countries. Rather, the Sunni–Shia divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran is better understood as being inherently political with a religious front.

Nevertheless, a key component of the religious dimension of this rivalry derives from the fact that both countries see themselves as ‘protector’ of the Islamic faith, being regional superpowers with a strong theocratic connotation. Saudi Arabian political institutions are shaped by Wahhabi principles and the monarchy’s authority directly derives from its original link with the ideology. The fact that the Kingdom hosts two out of the holiest cities in Islam within its borders, Mecca and Medina, makes the king the ‘custodian of the faith’ and gives him an ‘Islamic duty’ to fulfil towards all Muslims, meaning that Saudi Arabia portrays itself as a transnational spiritual leader.43 While the prestige that comes with such claims is hard to challenge, the same could also be said of Iran, as it is the first Shia republic in history and holds within its territory several of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Being a minority when compared to the global reach of Sunnism, from the very foundation of the Republic Iran emphasised the transnational and non-sectarian nature of its rhetoric, which rests on the core aims of the 1979 Revolution such as ‘justice’ and ‘resistance’. Therefore, even though Iran abandoned the active export of the Islamic Revolution in the 1980s, its commitment to transnationalism is evident in its support for actors and militias belonging to different denominations, such Hezbollah and Hamas.44 From this, it is easy to see why a sectarian lens has been applied to the study of the rivalry for such a long time; however, the exclusive use of religion as a category of analysis is more convenient than it is accurate, and fails to capture the other geopolitical dynamics that also drive this ongoing struggle.

Looking past the religious influence on both countries’ foreign policy, one can see that their rivalry is therefore driven by traditional security concerns that range from territorial integrity to economic competition and international alliances. Dupont notes that both powers share an inherent fear of political upheaval that is rooted in the ideology from the other nation, which highlights the political connotation of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran despite its veil of religious allusion.45 Hence, in addition to religious competition, the two states have also become increasingly involved in geopolitical competition both in the Gulf and in the region, which is arguably a reflection of these security concerns rather than a battle over religious legitimacy. If Iran had indeed succeeded in exporting the revolution to Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia this would have posed a very traditional geopolitical concern to the Kingdom, combined with a more ideational threat. As Rubin argues, states respond to ideational threats with ideational balancing, intended to boost one’s own ideological legitimacy and undermine the ideological legitimacy of one’s adversary.46

This is the case as revolutionary Iran has been perceived as a threat by Sunni states and regimes since the 1980s, as countries with large Shia minorities, such as Saudi Arabia, and majorities, such as Bahrain, feared their mobilisation through the success of the Iranian Revolution, and started perceiving these groups as fifth columns.47 This hostility became a key part of both countries’ foreign policy, which also reflects the contrasting nature of their geopolitical goals: while Saudi Arabia aims to dominate and maintain the regional status quo, Iran has often sought or supported revolutionary change across the region. Iran’s transnational support for militias and Shiite parties and governments is matched by Riyadh’s alliances with other Sunni governments, militias and parties, which in turn translates into a political back and forth that divides the region through proxy conflicts and international coalitions, such as the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981. This mutual distrust is evident in the rhetoric and discourses of both powers, as Saudi Arabia and its allies routinely accuse Iran of supporting terrorist groups and militias across the region, from Hezbollah in Lebanon, political unrest in Bahrain, to Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Houthi rebels in Yemen.48 On the other hand, Iranian officials openly accuse Saudi Arabia of sponsoring terrorism across the region and of being a US pawn. Such accusations highlight a key component of the geopolitical struggle between these two powers, which is their contrasting vision of the organisation of security in the Gulf and the region more broadly, as Saudi Arabia historically maintains strong ties with the US and other Western powers, while Iran puts its focus on its own state sovereignty.49

Once again, while geopolitical aspirations are at the core of this ongoing rivalry, its often sectarian component shapes its perception as a struggle over claims for Islamic legitimacy, furthering views of religion as an instrumental political tool. Another element that complicates the process of looking beyond the ‘religious veil’ attached to the tensions between the two countries is the fact that both powers rely on the promotion of certain religious interpretation for regime survival, both regionally and domestically. Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid propose to look at such efforts in terms of ‘Islam as statecraft’, meaning that religion is incorporated into foreign policy as a form of ‘religious soft power’.50 When analysing the sources and manifestation of this rivalry, it becomes clear that both Saudi Arabia and Iran rely on the harnessing of the power of religious symbols and authority to fulfil greater geopolitical objectives, meaning that religion becomes both an instrument and a space for expressing conventional geopolitical rivalries.51 This aspect becomes even more important when considering that both Saudi Arabia and Iran, as autocratic theocracies, see regime survival as inherently linked to religious legitimacy. Considering the long history of internal dissent and the renewed waves of popular uprisings that both powers are facing, one can argue that the international projection of religion has little to do with foreign policy itself, but rather is a manifestation of the shifting balance of power between competing social and political forces on the domestic level. In short, it is traditional geopolitical and domestic concerns that mostly drive the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia and Iran, not the other way around – hence the incorporation of religion to further frame and disguise broader geopolitical goals. To conclude, while the long-standing Saudi–Iranian rivalry is partially based on sectarian competition, it is first and foremost a conventional geopolitical and existential struggle that should not be reduced to a simplistic understanding of the historical antagonism between Sunni and Shia Islam.


This chapter has examined the role that Islam plays within the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, aiming to demonstrate that its sources and manifestations go beyond the sectarian narrative that is usually employed to make sense of the tensions. Rather, while religion is undoubtedly a key component of both powers’ identity, foreign policy and survival, its role in shaping their geopolitical competition is often overstated. Ideology and religious legitimacy matter, without a doubt, but what mostly drives the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is competition over regional leadership and security concerns.

What makes it hard to look beyond this religious ‘smokescreen’ is the fact that Wahhabism and Twelver Shiism are deeply embedded in the political and social fabrics of each state, with regimes and ruling elites in both Saudi Arabia and Iran relying on the perpetuation of a very specific form of state-sanctioned Islam to legitimise their authority, frame nationalist projects and inform foreign policy decisions. These ideologies also play a key part in constructing identities that are often based on the threat posed by a sectarian ‘other’, which have been routinely co-opted through the use of religion as a political tool and screen to achieve national interests. This has been specifically the case from 1979 onwards, when the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran added a theological dimension to an already ongoing geopolitical rivalry.

Since then the two powers have been involved in an escalating geopolitical struggle that is shaped by foreign policy concerns, but is often read through a sectarian lens and portrayed as a competition over Islamic legitimacy. Yet, the argument that there is more to the rivalry than religious competition does not aim to diminish the existential importance of this struggle for both theocracies, as the ideological threat that either country poses to the other is key, but the internal political dynamics of each state and the way in which they influence foreign policy also need to be part of the analysis. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia present itself as a stable monarchy, a Western ally and as a protector of the Gulf’s status quo and, more recently, of moderate Islam. On the other, Iran plays the role of a revisionist power opposed to Western interference, an opponent of the current regional order and a supporter of popular Islamic movements.52 It follows that both countries pursue competing foreign policy goals as they battle for regional authority, and that their regime survival is directly threatened by the expansion of the other’s power and religious beliefs. Nevertheless, both powers are struggling with domestic discontent fuelled by decades of exclusionary policies meaning that the survival of their theocratic regimes is under direct threat from within the state, with domestic insecurity being translated into foreign policy and regional competition rather than the other way around.

To conclude, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have benefitted from the politicisation of sectarian differences and religious discourses to mask political agendas, and to better advance geopolitical interests that are overarchingly aimed at maintaining national identities and ensuring regime survival. However, the instrumentalisation of religious competition risks becoming a self-perpetuating narrative for academics and policymakers, which once again highlights the need to look beyond the struggle for Islamic legitimacy when analysing the long-standing rivalry between the two powers. As both Saudi Arabia and Iran struggle with rising popular discontent and challenges to the relations between rulers and ruled, their domestic insecurity will undoubtedly reflect their competition for regional hegemony, as what is at stake here is ultimately regime survival rather that regional leadership.


1 See, for example, H. Furtig, Iran’s Rivalry with Saudi Arabia between the Gulf Wars (Reading: Ithaca Press, 2006); S. Chubin and C. Tripp, Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations and Regional Order (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1996); B. Keynoush, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); and R. Mason, Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014).
2 V. Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007).
3 S. Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015).
4 P. Mandaville and S. Hamid, ‘Islam as a Statecraft: How Governments Use Religion in Foreign Policy’, Foreign Policy at Brookings (November 2018), p. 2.
5 Ibid., p. 6.; see also E. Wastnidge, ‘The Modalities of Iranian Soft Power: From Cultural Diplomacy to Soft War’, Politics, 35:3–4 (2014), 364–377.
6 H. Mavani, ‘Khomeini’s Concept of Governance of the Jurisconsult “(Wilayat al-Faqih)” Revisited: The Aftermath of Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election’, Middle East Journal, 67:2 (2013), 207–228.
7 A. R. Sheline, ‘Mohammed bin Salman’s Plan to Moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia’, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (November 2017), p. 3; for a more detailed analysis, see T. Hegghammer and S. Lacroix, The Meccan Rebellion: The Story of Juhayman al-Utaybi Revisited (New York: Amal Press, 2011).
8 P. Mandaville, Islam and Politics (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 14.
9 For the purpose of this chapter, ‘Islamism’ is understood as the wide manifestation of different forms of social and political activism advocating that public and political life should be guided by Islamic principles, be it through the Islamisation of society through the exercise of state power, or through grass-roots social and political activism.
10 Mandaville, Islam and Politics, p. 9.
11 Mandaville and Hamid, ‘Islam as a Statecraft’.
12 J. S. Habib, ‘Wahhabi Origins of the Contemporary Saudi State’, in M. Ayoob and H. Kosebalaban (eds), Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism and the State (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008), p. 57.
13 Ibid., p. 36.
14 F. Vogel, Islamic Law and Legal System: Studies of Saudi Arabia (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 169–221.
15 Saudi Constitution, (accessed 12 May 2021).
16 M. Al-Atawneh, ‘Is Saudi Arabia a Theocracy? Religion and Governance in Contemporary Saudi Arabia’, Middle Eastern Studies, 45:5 (2009), 721.
17 A. Al-Yassini, Religion and State in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Boulder: Westview Press, 1985), p. 59.
18 Ibid., p. 68.
19 J. Nevo, ‘Religion and National Identity in Saudi Arabia’, Middle Eastern Studies, 34:3 (1998), 34–53.
20 M. al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 15–20.
21 For a more detailed analysis of internal fragmentation and dissent in Saudi Arabia, see M. Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent (New York: Palgrave, 2001); and J. Teitelbaum, ‘Holier Than Thou: Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Opposition’, Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, Policy Papers no. 52 (2000).
22 S. Lacroix, Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 143.
23 A. Ibrahim, ‘Sahwa: The Awakening Movement under Pressure in Saudi’, Al Jazeera, June 2019, (accessed 1 May 2021).
24 J. Hoffman, ‘Religion, the State and Politics in Saudi Arabia’, Middle East Policy, 26:2 (2019), 45.
25 For more details about the Saudi Shiites, see F. Ibrahim, The Shi’is of Saudi Arabia (London: Saqi Books, 2006).
26 A. Coogle, ‘Saudi Arabia’s Reforms Do Not Include Tolerance of Shia Community’, Human Rights Watch, September 2018, (accessed 12 May 2021).
27 M. Khalaji, ‘Iran’s Regime of Religion’, Journal of International Affairs, 65:1 (2011), 132.
28 Ibid., p. 140.
29 Iranian Constitution, (accessed 10 May 2021).
30 K. Aarabi, ‘The Fundamentals of Iran’s Islamic Revolution’, Institute for Global Change (2019), p. 22.
31 Khalaji, ‘Iran’s Regime of Religion’, p. 133.
32 W. Buchta, Who Rules Iran? The Structures of Power in the Islamic Republic (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000), p. 12.
33 Ibid.
34 O. Roy, ‘The Crisis of Religious Legitimacy in Iran’, Middle East Journal, 53:2 (1999), 201–216.
35 L. Boroumand, ‘Iran’s Exclusionary Republic’, Journal of Democracy, 29:2 (2018), 174; B. Tofangsazi, ‘From the Islamic Republic to the Green Movement: Social Movements in Contemporary Iran’, Sociology Compass, 14 (2020), p. 9; P. Rivetti, ‘Political Activism in Iran: Strategies for Survival, Possibilities for Resistance and Authoritarianism’, Democratization, 24:6 (2017), 184.
36 S. Helfont, ‘Islam in Saudi Foreign Policy: The Case of Maʿruf al-Dawalibi’, The International History Review, 4:3 (2020), 451–455.
37 S. Mabon, ‘Saudi Arabia and Iran: Islam and Foreign Policy in the Middle East’, in S. Akbarzadeh (ed.), Routledge Handbook of International Relations in the Middle East (New York: Routledge, 2019), p. 142.
38 Aarabi, ‘The Fundamentals of Iran’s Islamic Revolution’, p. 15.
39 A. R. Mahtab, ‘Velayat-e-Faqih (Supreme Leader) and Iranian Foreign Policy: An Historical Analysis’, Strategic Analysis, 36:1 (2012), 113.
40 Ibid., p. 118.
41 A. Altoraifi, ‘Understanding the Role of State Identity in Foreign Policy Decision-Making: The Rise of Saudi–Iranian Rapprochement (1997–2009)’ (PhD diss., London School of Economics and Political Science, 2012), p. 33.
42 L. Gimenez Cerioli, ‘Roles and International Behaviour: Saudi–Iranian Rivalry in Bahrain’s and Yemen’s Arab Spring’, Contexto Internacional, 40:2 (2018), 298.
43 Ibid., p. 300.
44 E. Wastnidge, ‘Religion and Geopolitics in Iranian Foreign Policy’, in S. Mabon (ed.), Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Struggle to Shape the Middle East (N.p.: The Foreign Policy Centre, 2018), p. 9.
45 K. Dupont, ‘Religion or Politics? An Analysis of Sectarian Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia’, Cornell Policy Review (2019), p. 2.
46 L. Rubin, Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), pp. 4–5.
47 Ibid., p. 40.
48 S. Mabon, ‘Introduction: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle to Shape the Middle East’, in Mabon (ed.), Saudi Arabia and Iran, pp. 3–5.
49 Dupont, ‘Religion or Politics?’, p. 6.
50 For more detailed analysis, see Mandaville and Hamid, ‘Islam as a Statecraft’.
51 Ibid., p. 2.
52 Gimenez Cerioli, ‘Roles and International Behaviour’, p. 296.
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Saudi Arabia and Iran

The struggle to shape the Middle East


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