This diplomatic crisis is indicative of how even those countries that could previously boast good Sunni-Shia relations are being affected by this issue, and how the response of states to regional disputes is becoming increasingly unpredictable.
Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan swiftly followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in downgrading diplomatic relations with Iran. They were subsequently joined by Qatar and Somalia. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also suspended flights to Iran. More tit-for-tat measures affecting travel and trade across the Gulf are likely, as are protests outside Iranian and Saudi diplomatic missions, particularly in Lebanon and Iraq.
The response to a mob attack on Saudi Arabia’s Embassy in Tehran on Sunday is symptomatic of relations across the the Gulf. There are indications that – like the attack on the UK Embassy in 2011 – there was some Iranian official complicity in the incident. Unlike some observers in the international press, we think that although a diplomatic crisis has occurred as a result of recent events and escalations, this outcome was not necessarily the motive of the Iranian or Saudi governments.
Rouhani has repeatedly called for those behind the violence at the Saudi embassy to be punished. And the executions seemed to be mainly aimed at a domestic audience, to demonstrate the Saudi authorities’ anti-IS stance, while pandering to hardliners. So we do not expect the dispute to escalate beyond posturing and diplomatic tit-for-tats. Nor is it likely to significantly accelerate the already negative trajectory of other regional crises such as the wars in Yemen and Syria.
For hardliners on both sides, this spat provides an opportunity for them to demonstrate their anti-Iranian or anti-Saudi credentials. Further sectarian and provocative rhetoric is likely, including from high-level officials. This is exemplified by the Iranian authorities’ response to a Saudi airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, on Thursday. The airstrikes appears to have occurred in the general vicinity of the Iranian embassy. But Iran was quick to allege that its diplomatic mission was damaged and guards injured. Yemeni journalists who visited the site say this is not the case.
Across the region, this diplomatic spat will almost certainly deepen existing sectarian divides and popular conspiracy theories. It will probably also aid attempts by Saudi Arabia and Iran to push regional states to take sides. This can be seen in Sudan’s recent rapprochement with Saudi, which has seen the country provide troops in support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, accompanied by made trade and investment deals.
The response of Bahrain and the UAE in the diplomatic spat is also hardly surprising; Bahraini officials claim to have uncovered several ‘Iran-backed’ terrorist groups in the last year, most recently on Wednesday. However, Kuwait has previously tended to be more moderate in its position on Iran. That it was quick to follow Saudi’s lead on this issue seems to reflect what several well-regarded academic and journalist observers of the country have previously written is a recent rise in sectarianism and concern about Iran in Kuwait.
Across the region, Sunni extremists have both caused and exploited these tensions, prompting politicians to pander to such sectarianism. In our view, this diplomatic crisis is indicative of how even those countries that could previously boast good Sunni-Shia relations are being affected by this issue, and how the response of states to regional disputes is becoming increasingly unpredictable.
Image: NASA, derivative work of John Nevard Creative Commons