How has the Saudi-Iran divide affected the Middle East?

The two leading regional powers have been at odds for years, backing opposite sides in proxy wars in several countries.

Hezbollah supporters wave an Iranian and Hezbollah flags from a car
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah is a powerful force in Lebanon [File: Bilal Hussein/AP Photo]

Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to follow up on arrangements to reopen their diplomatic missions to Tehran and Riyadh respectively and to discuss resuming flights between them.

The agreement came as Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, shook hands in the Chinese capital, Beijing, on Friday in the first formal meeting of the two senior officials after a years-long rift between Tehran and Riyadh that fuelled instability in the region.

The two powers had agreed on March 10 to restore ties in a landmark agreement brokered by China. But the two leading Shia and Sunni Muslim powers in the Middle East were at odds for years, backing opposite sides in proxy wars in several countries across the region.


The rivals squared off after the Syrian war erupted in 2011. Iran backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and provided him with military forces and money to battle rebel groups, while Saudi Arabia backed opposition forces fighting to overthrow al-Assad.

As Iran’s support helped al-Assad turn the tide, Saudi backing for the armed and political opposition has waned, and there are now talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria to restore ties.

The Saudi-Iranian deal comes as Arab isolation of al-Assad is thawing. Saudi has said more engagement could even lead to Syria’s return to the Arab League.

Israel, which wants to normalise relations with Saudi, regularly strikes pro-Iranian military targets in Syria.


The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has had a detrimental effect on the stability of Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country whose ruling elite have long been aligned with foreign powers to maintain influence.

Relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia – which had backed Lebanon’s Sunni prime ministers for years – became especially strained following the 2016 election of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who is allied with Iran-backed Hezbollah.

In November 2017, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned unexpectedly while he was in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Hariri blamed interference in Lebanon by Iran and its Lebanese ally, the Hezbollah movement, for his decision to resign, adding that he feared an assassination attempt.

Although Hariri later withdrew his resignation, the move plunged Lebanon into a political crisis seen as part of a Saudi effort to counteract Iran’s influence in the country.

Riyadh, which once invested billions of dollars into the country and bolstered its luxury tourism economy, held off its support as Lebanon spiralled economically.

Last year, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, accused Saudi Arabia’s King Salman of “terrorism”, in the midst of one of the deepest political crises between Gulf Arab states and Lebanon. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia called on Lebanon to end “terrorist Hezbollah’s” influence over the state.


Iranian influence was previously kept out of Iraq by its former president, Saddam Hussein, who fought an eight-year war with the Islamic Republic.

But Iran has emerged as the most influential regional actor in 21st-century Iraq, filling a vacuum since the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003.

A number of Iraqi political parties have ties and receive funds from Iran, and some of the politicians who have led Iraq in the post-Saddam era spent time in exile in Iran.

Iran has also funded and trained paramilitary groups aligned with Shia political parties, some of which operate as part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which was established to fight ISIL (ISIS), but continues to enjoy a strong position in the country.

Yet opposition to Iran is growing in Iraq, which has opened a potential pathway for Saudi Arabian influence, particularly as Baghdad attempts to reintegrate itself more with its Arab neighbours.


In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition – backed by the United States – intervened militarily in Yemen in a bid to fight the Houthis, restore President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government, and reverse what they said was growing Iranian influence in the region.

The Iran-backed Houthi movement of mostly Zaidi Shia Muslims from northern Yemen opposed Hadi’s government. It made international headlines after seizing areas of northern Yemen in early 2014. It later moved southwards to seize the capital Sanaa, eventually forcing Hadi to flee his presidential palace in Aden for Saudi Arabia.

Amid the instability, several other armed groups have grown stronger, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the UAE-backed separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), and others.

The Saudi-led coalition has carried out more than 24,000 air raids since 2015, according to data collected by the Yemen Data Project. On the other hand, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have targeted strategic infrastructure across Saudi Arabia, including airports, gas fields and oil tankers in the Red Sea.

Years of United Nations-brokered peace talks have failed to break the deadlock. By 2022, 14.5 million of the country’s 30 million people lacked sufficient food, according to the World Food Programme. Nearly half of the country’s children under five face chronic malnutrition. In addition, at least four million people have been displaced by the seven years of war.

Source: Al Jazeera