Saudi Arabia’s influence in Iraq and fear of Iran


Since 2007, it has been clear that the United States withdrawal from Iraq will create disruption and a power grab for hegemony in the Middle East. The big oil players of the Persian Gulf- Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to play a balancing act of power. Iraq, now with Saddam Hussein out of the picture and with a decade of war and US occupation has been weakened, positioning Iran and Saudi Arabia as the next potential hegemons in the region. The movie Highlander explains it the best, “there can be only one.” Saudi Arabia without the support of the United States within Iraq stands little chance to have power and influence over the region. It is clear the Saudi’s do not want the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq to keep Iran at bay. Due to the change in balance of power, the Saudi’s position was originally against the occupation of Iraq in 2003 and now they do not want the US to leave.

Gregory Gause offers an interesting perspective to regional policy and influence, through the lens of Sunni and Shi’i sectarian divides and power balance theory and the Saudi Arabian people and their opinion of the regional situation. It has been corroborated that the Saudi’s have tried to manipulate sectarian identities in neighboring countries in an effort to weaken Iran and its influence around the region. Whether this manipulation by the Saudi government of sectarian divides is blatant or not, they are simultaneously trying to engage with Iran as well. “Ridyah wants to avoid direct confrontation with Teheran and remain open to cooperation with the Iranians.”

The invasion of Iraq has put Saudi Arabia in a difficult position for many reasons. Firstly, Saudi Arabia had good relations with the Americans but were adamantly opposed to the invasion. In order to maintain good relations with the Americans the Saudi’s agreed to help out with the invasion in term of military logistics. Simultaneously the Saudi’s didn’t want to look like betrayers to the rest of the region. During the Iraqi invasion Saudi Arabia was directly supporting Sunni groups as well as other groups in Iraq. Saudi’s in this case are playing both sides of the field, supporting Sunni groups that could be part of the opposition groups in Iraq responsible for fighting against the Americans. It has been rumored, though not supported by clear evidence, that Iran has tried to influence the same sectarian divides in Iraq and have been not nearly successful as Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has had a history of manipulating and influencing sectarian divisions in other inter-Arab conflicts. “Most notably in Yemen and Lebanon, the Saudis have developed close ties with various parties, mainly through the provision of financial aid and diplomatic support but sometimes with direct military aid as well, to affect the course of the conflicts and advance Saudi interests.”

As Gause hypothesizes, the Saudi’s are afraid that with the destabilized state of Iraq that the country could succumb to Iranian influence or break up in to civil war like it had in 2006. Either of these outcomes could result after the American withdrawal. Similar correlations have been drawn in Lebanon in particular the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel starting in 2006 strongly supported by Iran. Iran also strongly supports the Palestinian cause against Israeli and is positioning itself further as the power hegemon with the advancement of its nuclear program. This, Saudi Arabia cites as evidence for Iran gaining the dominated influence in the region.

Saudi public opinion:

The majority of the Saudi population is Sunni and views the conflict in Iraq in two main perspectives. Some support the armed resistance against United States occupation of an Arab land. Either way, many Saudi’s identify the need to support their fellow Sunni in Iraq. Others believe that the Iraq is a prime example of sectarian divides of Sunni and Shi’i. Since the beginning of the occupation of Iraq, many Saudi’s have gone to fight with the other Sunni’s in Iraq to fight against the United States occupation. There is no evidence that the Saudi government has encouraged Saudi’s to go fight in Iraq or offer financial support. When the fighting in Iraq escalated to civil war in 2006 between Arab Sunni and Arab Shi’I in Iraq the perspective of Saudi’s evolved to identify the conflict in Iraq as sectarian.

As seen from the governmental level and the grassroots level of Saudi Arabia, it is evident that sectarian divides and transitional identities have influenced behavior in the Persian Gulf. It becomes clear that Iraq is being heavily influenced by its neighbors and constantly rallied to take sides. The role of regional influence cannot be understated.


Naval Post Graduate School Center on Contemporary Conflict
Saudi Arabia: Iraq, Iran, the regional balance, and the Sectarian Question
Article written by Gregory Gause, III
From Strategic InsightsAuthor

Gregory Gause is an expert on the Persian Gulf and a proponent of the theory that sectarian and transnational identities are responsible for behavior and policy in the Persian Gulf and by extension the Middle East and North Africa.



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