Can bitter rivals Saudi and Iran manage the historic Shia- Sunni divide?

The course that Iranian-Saudi relations will take in the coming years is somewhat obscure.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

Due to the religious tensions that drive the area, the unusual Iran-Saudi agreement on establishing diplomatic relations has raised the primary question of the deal’s longevity.

The Shi’a-Sunni conflict is a long-standing historical and doctrinal disagreement within Islam that stretches back to Prophet Muhammad’s death in the 7th century. The dispute began with arguments over who should lead the Muslim community and has been fuelled by political and sectarian tensions throughout the centuries. Shi’a Muslims believe Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, was the Prophet’s rightful successor. Sunni Muslims believe the community’s lawful leaders were the first four caliphs who succeeded the Prophet. 

Over the years, the conflict has manifested itself in various forms, including political and military clashes between Shi’a and Sunni administrations, sectarian violence, and discrimination against members of opposing sects. Geopolitical issues, particularly the desire for regional domination between Iran, a Shi’a-majority country, and Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority country, have only escalated the conflict.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two largest and most powerful countries in the Middle East and have been at odds for decades. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a Shi’a theocracy, whereas the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a Sunni monarchy. Saudi Arabia (currently about 35 million people) is primarily a Sunni Muslim country, with an estimated 85-90% of the population practising Sunni Islam. Shi’a Muslims make up the remaining 10-15%. Iran (currently about 87 million people) is primarily a Shi’a Muslim country, with an estimated 90-95% of the population practising Shi’a Islam. The remaining 5-10% are predominantly Sunni Muslims and smaller religious minorities like Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. Both governments have aspired to increase their regional influence and exploited their different sects to acquire support and legitimacy.

Sectarianism is an ideology that has its roots in the internal political dynamics of both states and spills over into international relations. Saudi Arabia controls the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, giving the Kingdom unprecedented power and reputation in the Islamic world and an equal resolve to keep it that way. Iran, which seeks to preserve its holy locations for the global Shi’a population, poses a challenge to the Saudis. Yet, none of Iran’s holy sites can compare to the religious sanctity of Mecca and Medina.

The government of Iran was eager to spread its zeal and ideas to other countries outside of its own. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first person to hold the state’s supreme leader position, provided substantial support to Shi’a militias and parties in other countries. As a counter to this, Riyadh sought stronger contacts with other Sunni nations, which led to the formation of multiple coalitions and the division of a region. As a result, these tensions have arisen due to their competition for position over other Middle Eastern nations. While Shias make up a majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, as well as a plurality of the population in Lebanon, Sunnis make up a majority of the population in over forty nations worldwide. Sunnis account for 87-90% (approximately 1.7 billion) of the global Muslim population, whereas Shi’a accounts for 10-13% (about 180-230 million).

Over the years, the religious dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia has taken many forms, including:


As mentioned, Iran is predominantly Shi’a, whereas Saudi Arabia is primarily Sunni. As a result, conflicts have arisen between the two countries and their different people and between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims in other countries.

Proxy conflicts

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been involved in several regional proxy conflicts, including those in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. Each country has supported opposite sides in these conflicts, with Iran supporting Shi’a groups and Saudi Arabia supporting Sunni forces.

Political rhetoric

Iranian and Saudi leaders have regularly employed religious rhetoric to mobilize support from their respective populations in their political discourse. This has frequently resulted in allegations of heresy and apostasy, escalating tensions between the two countries.

Hajj disputes

The yearly Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is one of Muslims’ most important religious rituals worldwide. Nonetheless, some Iranian pilgrims have been murdered or injured during the journey, resulting in diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

Diplomatic squabbles

Iran and Saudi Arabia have regularly battled internationally over religious freedom, human rights, and terrorism. Both governments have accused each other of backing extremist groups and causing regional instability.

The breaking point

In 2016, Saudi Arabia hanged a famous Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others on terrorism and sedition accusations. Sheikh Nimr was an outspoken opponent of the Saudi regime who fought for more rights for the country’s Shi’a Muslims.

Sheikh Nimr’s murder aroused uproar in Iran, where he was seen as a strong spokesman for the Shi’a minority. Iranian politicians condemned the killing, and hundreds protested in the streets. 

Iran did not directly retaliate for the killing of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia. Protesters in Iran attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and set fire to the Saudi consulate in Mashhad. The Saudi embassy attack in Iran strained already fragile relations between the two countries. The entire world, including the United Nations, strongly denounced the incident, which urged Saudi Arabia and Iran to display restraint and work together to resolve their problems via communication and diplomacy.

There were several incidents of violence and unrest in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which has a significant Shi’a population, following Sheikh Nimr’s execution. Some observers have speculated that these incidents were a form of retaliation by Shi’a groups in the region. The Shi’a population of Saudi Arabia is concentrated in the country’s oil-rich eastern area, which is critical to the country’s economy. The Saudi Shi’a Muslims’ domicile is significant since it is home to the oil corporation Saudi ARAMCO and numerous big oil fields, giving the community considerable socioeconomic and political influence, as a regional rebellion may destroy the Kingdom’s oil-dependent economy.

The Saudi government accused Iran of meddling in its internal affairs, and as a result, it severed diplomatic relations with Iran and ordered Iranian officials to leave the Kingdom.

Notwithstanding these tensions, no major acts of violence or conflict occurred between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The death of Sheikh Nimr and the subsequent diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran highlighted the region’s profound sectarian tensions and the two countries’ enduring rivalry. It also emphasized the difficulties of fostering stability and togetherness in areas where religious and political disputes are frequently linked.

Support for extremist groups

Saudi support for extremist groups against Iran

According to reports, Saudi Arabia has sponsored extremist groups in the region to oppose Iran’s influence. These charges have centred on the Syrian crisis, in which Saudi Arabia has sponsored rebel organizations fighting the Iranian-backed Syrian government.

Apart from the Syrian crisis, reports have surfaced that Saudi Arabia has supplied support to extremist groups in other regions, including Yemen and Iraq.

These charges have been controversial, and the Saudi government, which has denied financing extremist groups, has refuted them. 

Iranian support for extremist groups against Saudi Arabia

There have also been allegations that Iran has funded extremist organizations in the region to undermine Saudi Arabia’s influence. These charges have centred on crises in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, where Iranian-backed forces have been accused of sectarian bloodshed and other extremism.

In Syria, Iran has backed President Bashar al-government, Assad, which has been accused of multiple human rights violations and war crimes against opposition organizations. Iran has also been accused of supporting numerous Shi’a militias in Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Iranian government has vigorously refuted these charges, claiming it assists legitimate governments and parties in the region in their battle against terrorism and extremism.

Yemen Crisis – on the Saudi doorsteps

There have been reports in Yemen of Saudi and Iranian assistance for various extremist organizations involved in the country’s continuing conflict.

Saudi Arabia has led an Arab military coalition in support of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s internationally recognized government in its struggle against the Houthi rebels. The Houthis are a Shi’a militia accused of obtaining weaponry and military instructors from Iran.

On the other hand, Iran denied helping the Houthis and accused Saudi Arabia of committing war crimes and fomenting extremism in Yemen through its military assault. Iran has also been charged with supporting other Shi’a militias in Yemen, including the Houthi-aligned Yemeni Republican Guard.

Meanwhile, Sunni extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (ISIS) have been accused of terrorist attacks and other types of violence in Yemen. Whether these groups have received help from Saudi Arabia or Iran is unknown, but both nations have condemned their operations and backed regional efforts to combat terrorism.

The Future of the conflict

The course that Iranian-Saudi relations will take in the coming years is somewhat obscure. Iran is currently facing sanctions from the international community due to Iran’s nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia faces ongoing internal tensions and modernization practices spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Given that the occurrences of history have ultimately compounded Iranian-Saudi relations into what they are today, filled with fear of political action and regime upheaval due to religious differences, it is clear that the political sectarianism that has been in place between states will remain for many years to come and may never truly subside until the sects can align harmoniously with one another. 


  1. Should the religious side only is considered, clearly there is no reason – or hope – this “Highlander-like” affrontement reaches the end. But if this agreement between KSA and Iran is analyzed in the wake of the Russia/Ukraine war, one can state, according to Wegener’s continental drift theory, that the plate “Middle East” is separating from the plate “North America”. And we know an opening in the Ocean’s floor always results in major volcanic eruptions.


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