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Top 6 Reasons Why Saudi Arabia and Iran Are Bitter Rivals

The Iran and Saudi Arabia conflict has lasted for more than three decades. Although they agreed to restore their ties in 2023, they had a long-lasting and fiercely entrenched rivalry that significantly influenced the Middle East’s political climate. The main reason for their decades-long rivalry is religious differences. 

Saudi Arabia refers to itself as the Sunni Muslim nation while Iran is a Shia Muslim nation. Both countries did not stand with each other for a long time until March 10, 2023, when they agreed to restore ties and resume diplomatic missions. So, why did they fight for decades? What are the main reasons for their conflict? One has to learn about the historical background of this clash to get to the bottom of this question.

Historical Background

The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has a rich and complicated historical background that dates back several centuries and has been shaped by a variety of political, religious, and regional variables. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia began because of Shia and Sunni competition. Iran has the largest Shia majority in the world meanwhile Saudia has Mecca and Medina. Its population is mostly Sunni. Their historical interactions have been significantly shaped by this theological schism.

The Iranian Revolution on February 11, 1979, which changed Iran from a monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was a turning point in their history. The revolutionary fervor, anti-monarchist position, and backing for Shia movements in the area of the new Iranian government put it on a collision course with the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia. As their ideological and religious competition grew, the Iranian Revolution marked a crucial turning point in the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

During the Iran-Iraq War on September 22, 1980, Saudi Arabia and Iran became involved in a proxy war. Iran sponsored the Shia factions in Iraq, whereas Saudi Arabia supported Iraq. The theological divide between the two nations fueled the hostility, which was further exacerbated by this battle.

The two countries have also engaged in rivalry over control of the Muslim world. While Saudi Arabia views itself as the custodian of Sunni Islam and the defender of Islamic holy places, Iran positions itself as the defender of the oppressed Shia population.

The frustrations and mistrust between the two countries have also been exacerbated by significant incidents like the Mecca incident on July 31, 1987, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims, and the 2015 Mina stampede during the Hajj trip. The religious and political aspects of the dispute have been made worse by these events, further escalating the historical hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

What are the main reasons for their rivalry?

The rivalry’s historical background sheds crucial light on how complex and multidimensional the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict is and how closely related politics, religion, and regional concerns are to one another. Here are the main reasons for the Iran and Saudi Arabia conflict:

  • Geopolitical Rivalry
  • Religious Division
  • Proxy Wars
  • Economic Factors
  • Ideological Differences
  • International Mediation and Relations

1) Geopolitical Rivalry

Saudi Arabia and Iran have a fierce geopolitical rivalry as both are competing for power and influence in the Middle East. Iran’s geopolitical objectives in the area revolve around strengthening its position as a regional force and extending its sphere of influence. Iran sees itself as the protector of the Shia Muslim world, and its authorities work to advance the needs of Shia populations all around the world. As a result, Shia militias and groups have gained support in nations including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Iran also wants to defend its strategic interests, particularly in the Persian Gulf, as well as its territorial integrity.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has historically pursued a policy of upholding its dominance over the Sunni Muslim world. The Saudi monarchy works to maintain both its stability and that of the region’s Sunni-majority nations. The monarchy views Iran’s expanding influence, particularly through its support for Shia parties, as a direct threat to its position as the region’s undisputed leader.

Numerous actions that fuel the ongoing conflict have emerged from the struggle for power in the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia have both offered assistance to opposing parties in several conflicts, thereby converting regional conflicts into proxy wars. Syria and Yemen are two eminent examples of how this competition has created instability.

The geopolitical dimension of the Iran-Saudi Arabia war goes beyond individual countries and has extended to the whole Middle East. Increased sectarian tensions, terrorism, and instability as a result of the regional power struggle affect both neighboring nations and the entire region. Understanding the geopolitical competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia is crucial for understanding the conflict’s longevity and complexity since it has significant implications for the security and stability of the Middle East.

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2) Religious Division

The religious component of the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry provides a major foundation for the Sunni-Shia difference, which has historically been a source of tension and conflict within the Islamic world.

There was a disagreement regarding who should have led the Muslim community when the Prophet Muhammad passed away in the 7th century. The Sunni-Shia divide was sparked after this fight. Sunni Muslims believe that the caliphs (the Prophet’s successors) should be chosen, while Shia Muslims hold that leadership should be passed down via the Prophet’s family, beginning with Ali, his cousin, and his son-in-law. This theoretical divide has become a significant religious and political rift in the Muslim world. The Sunni-Shia division, which has historically been a source of stress and conflict within the Islamic world, is strongly based on the religious part of the Iran-Saudi Arabia dispute.

Iran is the leading Shia-majority country in the world, and it stands up for the rights and interests of Shia Muslims throughout the Middle East. This has resulted in Iran supporting Shia minorities in nations like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which has been seen by Saudi Arabia as a danger to governments in the region with a Sunni majority.

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have risen as a result of these religious divisions. Both sides of the conflict have long-standing resentments and increased religious power of speech due to the conflict’s sectarian nature. Saudi Arabia frequently presents itself as the defender of Sunni Islam and the keeper of Islamic holy places, especially Mecca and Medina, and sees Iran’s influence on the Shia as a threat to its dominance.

Iran, on the other hand, positions itself as the protector of Shia Muslims and justifies its participation in regional wars as a reaction to the persecutory acts against Shia communities. 

The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a remarkable example of religious rhetoric because he frequently uses harsh anti-Saudi language in his speeches and writings. Similar rhetoric has been used from time to time by Saudi ministers to portray Iran as an existential danger to Sunni Islam.

The religious component of the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict has not only deepened sectarian tensions inside the Muslim world but has also complicated regional politics.

3) Proxy Wars

The struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia took the form of proxy wars, in which both countries back opposing sides in numerous regional conflicts. This increased instability led to humanitarian disasters. Syria, Yemen, and Iraq were major frontlines in this proxy warfare.

Iran has always backed the Assad government in Syria. Financial assistance, military hardware, and the use of militias supported by Iran, such as Hezbollah, are all examples of this support. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has backed several rebel organizations working to topple Assad’s regime. The Syrian conflict has produced a protracted and deadly civil war that has caused massive civilian casualties, widespread displacement, and excruciating human suffering.

Yemen was another notable proxy battleground where Iran supported the Houthi rebels that toppled the government of Yemen in 2015. To reinstate the overthrown government, Saudi Arabia and its coalition, assisted by other Gulf governments, started a military operation. Millions of people were in urgent need of food, medical care, and shelter as a result of the conflict in Yemen, which triggered one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history.

Iran had a strong influence on different Shia militias and political organizations in Iraq. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has backed Sunni political personalities and groups. The power struggle has made Iraq’s political and security issues more complicated.

These proxy wars had severe negative humanitarian effects. Millions of Syrians were forced to flee their homes, and the fighting claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Millions of Yemenis were on the verge of starvation and lacked access to basic amenities as a result of conflict and the country’s economic collapse. 

4) Economic Factors

The Iran-Saudi conflict has significant economic features like oil and gas. These two natural resources have been crucial for the economy of these nations. 

Competition for economic resources, especially the control and export of oil and gas, has been a central driver of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both nations are major oil producers, with Saudi Arabia being a dominant member of OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and Iran being a significant oil exporter. The rivalry extends to securing market share and influence within the global energy market.

This competition for these economic resources led to price wars between the two countries. 

They have occasionally oversupplied the market with oil as a way to undermine each other’s economic stability, which has caused changes in the price of oil around the world and had an impact on the economies of other countries that produce oil.

Sanctions have been crucial in this economic aspect of the conflict. International sanctions have been imposed heavily on Iran in particular because of its nuclear program and its support for terrorism. The restrictions have limited Iran’s ability to prosper economically and access international markets. In response, Iran has looked towards other economic alliances with nations like China and Russia to get over sanctions.

Saudi Arabia has felt the effects of the shifting energy landscape, although not being subject to the same degree of international sanctions. The kingdom’s long-standing supremacy in the oil market has been challenged by the development of American shale oil production and the global push for renewable energy sources. Saudi Arabia’s desire to maintain its influence in the area, which is in part driven by economic factors, has grown as a result of this economic transition.

The dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia has complex and extensive economic dimensions. Both nations are aware of the strategic significance of oil and gas in terms of both financial gain and political influence. With the effects of sanctions and the rivalry for economic resources, friction has increased significantly, complicating the already complex dynamics between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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5) Ideological Differences

The ideological differences between the monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the revolutionary government of Iran are a major aspect of the struggle between the two countries, significantly impacting both of their foreign policies as well as the dynamics of the larger Middle East.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution, which established an Islamic Republic governed by ministers and based on Shia Islam’s tenets in place of the Shah’s dictatorial reign, served as the ideological cornerstone of Iran. The Iranian regime sees itself as a defender of the weak and regards its form of administration as a role model for the Islamic world. This radical ideology encourages opposition to what Iran views as Western imperialism and aids like-minded forces all around the Middle East.

The House of Saud is the hereditary king that rules over Saudi Arabia with an alliance with the establishment of the religion. The custody of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in Islam, gives the Saudi royal credibility. Saudi Arabia has consistently sided with Western countries and advocates a conservative understanding of Sunni Islam. 

These ideological differences have a significant effect on foreign policy. Iran’s revolutionary government’s efforts to overthrow the current system of government and impose its interpretation of Islamic law generated support for revolutionary groups in the region. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia identifies with orthodox Sunni states and organizations to maintain its conservative monarchy and regional dominance. These opposing ideologies have resulted in a complex network of regional dynamics. 

6) International Mediation and Relations

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is complicated and has a long history, which made it difficult to make an effort for negotiation and settlement. The United States, Russia, and China had a significant role in determining the course of the conflict.

Diplomatic initiatives and consultations, such as those facilitated by the United Nations, have been a part of international efforts at mediation. The entrenched positions of Iran and Saudi Arabia, their geopolitical rivalry, and the underlying sectarian and ideological divisions restricted the success of these endeavors until 2023. China brokered a deal between the two nations in March 2023.

The United States has been actively involved in the conflict and is frequently viewed as a supporter of Saudi Arabia and an opponent of Iran. The dynamics of the conflict have been impacted by American actions like military support for Saudi Arabia and sanctions against Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), often known as the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, was a turning point in US-Iran relations, although its future is still unclear owing to recent events.

On the other hand, Russia has made an effort to develop ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has conducted diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and supported the Assad administration in Syria, which is backed by Iran. Russia’s involvement complicated the war by frequently exploiting disagreements among influential international parties.

International mediation efforts faced a lot of challenges in resolving the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict due to its complexity and deep-seated nature. The roles of major global players, including the United States, Russia, and China, shaped the conflict’s trajectory, while the rivalry affected international relations, contributing to tensions and instability in the Middle East and the world. 

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Humanitarian Impacts Of the Saudi-Iran Conflict

The battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia had terrible effects on mankind, causing enormous misery and instability in several Middle Eastern nations. Significant repercussions for the civilian population are associated with these outcomes, which include displacement, casualties, and limited access to essential services.

Violence has resulted in the mass displacement of civilians. Millions of people in Yemen, for instance, have to leave their homes due to the ongoing fighting and airstrikes. Millions of Syrians are seeking protection both inside and outside of the nation as a result of Syria’s protracted civil conflict, which has caused one of the greatest refugee crises in history.

Numerous civilians lost their lives in the battle. For example, civilians in Syria have taken the brunt of the bloodshed from various opposing sides. Numerous airstrikes and infrastructure damage have contributed to thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen as a result of the ongoing conflict.

The conflict had a significant impact on people’s ability to obtain basic amenities including clean water, healthcare, and education. Millions of Yemenis are in desperate need as a result of the continued fighting and damage to the country’s infrastructure. Hospitals and clinics have been targeted, severely affecting Syria’s healthcare sector.

The loss of agricultural infrastructure and the hunger restriction in Yemen have resulted in the interruption of food supplies, leaving many Yemenis in dire need of food. In Syria, areas affected by the fighting have limited access to food.

End of Rivalry

Iran and Saudi Arabia decided to restore their diplomatic ties on March 10, 2023, after more than seven years. 

By May 2023, the regional rivals agreed to reestablish their embassies in Tehran and Riyadh. The agreement, mediated by China, also saw the execution of a 1998 agreement to improve trade, investment, technology, and cultural cooperation as well as a 2001 security cooperation agreement. The Islamic Republic and the Gulf kingdom reaffirmed their adherence to “non-interference in internal affairs” and “respect for the sovereignty of states.”

On April 4, 2023, Iran’s first vice president Mohammed Mokhber stated that President Raisi accepted a Saudi invitation to visit the country. On April 6, 2023, China again helped arrange the meeting of the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Beijing. 

Both countries switched their ambassadors. Alireza Enayati, the Iranian ambassador, arrived in Riyadh. Abdullah bin Saud al Anzi, a former ambassador to Oman, arrived in Tehran as the Saudi ambassador on September 5, 2023.

If Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon, Prince Salman warned that Saudi Arabia would “have to get one, for security reasons, for balancing power.” He claimed in a Fox News interview that the Islamic Republic does not require the most lethal weapon in the world since it cannot use it. He said, “Any country using a nuclear weapon means they are at war with the rest of the world.” “There cannot be another Hiroshima in the world. You are at war with the rest of the world if 100,000 people are killed in front of the globe.

Also read: China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy & Its Core Foreign Policy 


The war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a complex and long-standing rivalry involving elements of history, religion, ideology, and geopolitics. Its significance has an impact on regional stability, international relations, and the humanitarian situation not only inside the Middle East but also on a worldwide scale. Although there are many obstacles to peace and reconciliation caused by the conflict, there are potential de-escalation routes, including diplomatic dialogue, regional mediation, and confidence-building initiatives.

Significant barriers, such as ingrained prejudices, proxy wars, and global politics complicate the pursuit of peace. The humanitarian impact, as evidenced by mass displacement, casualties, and restricted access to essential services, emphasizes how urgent it is to find a long-term solution

Although Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to restore their ties, they have a long history of conflicts. After decades of opposing each other, they have opened their embassies. China is trying to strengthen its political and economic influence around the world, which is why it played the role of a broker in the 2023 agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

The de-escalation of tensions with Iran is a component of Saudi Arabia’s broader foreign policy initiative to assist its Vision 2030 socio-economic growth plan. A conflict with Iran could jeopardize the project’s finances, discourage much-needed international investment, and put an end to Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to become a regional and global hub, particularly for cloud computing, logistics, trade, and industry. The kingdom is investing billions of dollars to put the plan into action.

Iran is under pressure from domestic protests, punishing international economic sanctions, and diplomatic isolation on the other side of the Gulf. These elements make Iran more dependent on economic assistance from China as well as its wealthy neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia. It has made both countries restore their diplomatic ties and move along without further conflicts.


Did Saudi Arabia and Iran Normalize Relations?

Yes, Saudi Arabia and Iran reestablished their diplomatic ties for the first time in 7 years. On March 10, 2023, these two nations opened their embassies to each other with the help of China.

Why Is Saudi Arabia in Conflict With Iran?

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting for one major reason, which is the religious division of Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims.  

Are Iraq and Saudi Arabia Friends?

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has become better after the 2023 agreement in Beijing. Both countries have opened their embassies to each other, promising continuous future cooperation.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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