Should Britain side with Saudi Arabia?

Iran and Saudi Arabia won’t become friends any time soon. We need to decide which side we’re on.

There was a "roar of outrage" from Shiites throughout the Middle East, after the 2 January execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite religious leader from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, says Damien McElroy in The Times. Protestors torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned of "divine revenge". Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite former prime minster of Iraq, declared the Saudi regime would be "toppled" for its actions. Nimr was put to death along with three others accused of being involved in popular protests against the regime during the Arab Spring in 2011, and 43 members of Saudi Arabia's Sunni majority who had been convicted for acts of terrorism.

The Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East is 14 centuries old. Saudi Arabia and Iran, "bitter rivals" in the region, are currently waging proxy wars against each other in Syria and Yemen, says The Guardian. While this week's events are unlikely to lead to direct military conflict, it only worsens a "toxic relationship" at a time when efforts to bring peace to Syria and Yemen "need all the help they can get". So it is imperative now that embassies have been shut and diplomats recalled that the West helps to reopen channels of communication, says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam in The Independent.

And we should not confuse this for a religious war. Both sides use religion for geopolitical purposes, but this is essentially about power, and "competition is likely to flare up until Iraq, Syria and Yemen are pacified". Saudi Arabia is also "nervous" about the rapprochement between Iran and the US, now that the nuclear deal has been "implemented smoothly" and high level communications re-established.

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Iran and Saudi Arabia won't make friends any time soon, and so we need to decide which side we're on, rather than trying to play peacemaker, says Con Coughlin in The Daily Telegraph. The answer should be self-evident: Saudi Arabia. It is "pretty much an open secret" that Iran wants to "topple the Saudi royal family, not find a means of co-existence", agrees Roger Boyes in The Times. Seen through Saudi eyes, Iran is "taking its challenge for supremacy into the kingdom's back yard". It encourages Shia dissidents in Bahrain, supports the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, and keeps an eye on the "restless" Shia in the Eastern Province, through which "much of Saudi oil flows".

Yes, says Boyes, Saudi's judicial executions may be "stomach-curdling" and its treatment of women "abysmal", but there is still "no kind of moral equivalence" between it and Iran. The Saudis have put together a Muslim alliance to combat terrorism in the region; Saudi Arabia is trying to create a united platform for Syrian opposition groups to take part in a peace process; it's cracked down on jihadis; and has provided useful intelligence for the West. Iran is backing Syria's Bashar al-Assad, bankrolling Hezbollah and providing arms to Hamas. Saudi Arabia may be "an imperfect ally", but it is fundamental to stability in the Middle East; "the same cannot be said of Tehran".

Emily Hohler

Emily has extensive experience in the world of journalism. She has worked on MoneyWeek for more than 20 years as a former assistant editor and writer. Emily has previously worked on titles including The Times as a Deputy Features Editor, Commissioning Editor at The Independent Sunday Review, The Daily Telegraph, and she spent three years at women's lifestyle magazine Marie Claire as a features writer for three years, early on in her career. 

On MoneyWeek, Emily’s coverage includes Brexit and global markets such as Russia and China. Aside from her writing, Emily is a Nutritional Therapist and she runs her own business called Root Branch Nutrition in Oxfordshire, where she offers consultations and workshops on nutrition and health.