Under King Salman, Saudi Arabia is expanding its confrontation with Iran ahead of the Middle East, no longer relying heavily on Western allies to smother Tehran’s ambitions outside the Arab world.
Since Salman came to power early last year, and Tehran struck a nuclear deal with world powers, Riyadh has adjusted its strategy for countering the efforts of its Shi’ite Muslim rival to build influence in Africa, Asia and even Latin America.
Most notably, the Sunni power has used Muslim networks to push states into cutting off contacts with Iran, including creating an Islamic Coalition against terrorism without inviting Tehran to join.
“Iran is the one that isolated itself by supporting terrorism,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a recent news conference. “That is why the world reacted to Iran, and particularly the Islamic world, say ‘enough is enough’.”
Tehran denies sponsoring terrorism, and points to its record of fighting the Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State through backing of Shi’ite militias in Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Riyadh is alarmed by Tehran’s support for the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and cut off military aid to the Beirut government after it failed to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
Likewise, Saudi forces have launched a war on Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.
But all this is part of its long-standing diplomatic, economic and military efforts to contain what it sees as a destructive expansion of Iranian activity in Arab nations.
“In many ways the dimensions of the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia are beginning to go beyond the Middle East. This is an interesting development historically,” said Mehran Kamrava, a professor at Georgetown University-Qatar.