Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Struggle for Islamic Hegemony

Amman, Yordania, – To be the center of the Muslim World, nowadays Muslim majority states sees the importance of making their Islamic educational institutions to be the most desirable and attractive for Muslim community around the world. Making it the vessel for teaching their favored religious ideas and doctrines that they upheld, which often has two sides, either for conveying a religious message and for practical political purposes.

Gaining the reputation as the center of Islamic learning contributes so much to the states’ image and prestige within the Muslim world. States that appeared as influential candidates in promoting their ‘Islamic brand’ and are looking to build this image are the likes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Türkiye, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Morocco. In the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is something that is filled with dynamicity due to the presence of hostility and conflict, as both greatly compete for the status as Islamic hegemony. In addition, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are two very opposing camps, namely with the case of Wahhabism-Salafism and Shiism.

Muslim powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Türkiye point out the importance of foreign policy that functions as a tool to pursue the role of authoritative power of the Muslim world. It is what in international relations termed as ‘public diplomacy’ that Muslim powers are intensifying towards the Muslim world.  This resulted to different layers of conflicts and hostilities between the Muslim divide, as for the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran it is namely the Sunni Muslim and the Shia Muslim, which heightens sectarianism in parts of the Muslim World.

Türkiye’s importance as one of the major Muslim states with significant influence in the Middle East power struggle and Islamic hegemony is comparable in scale with the Saudi-Iran rivalry, but even though Türkiye has such an influential role in its cultural and religious outreach to the Muslim world, it didn’t have the same conflict intent as its other competitors. The dynamics that Türkiye has faced and has become part of its priority and national interests in the past decade is its involvement in the war in Syria with the keen interest to defend their national security. The Syrian refugee crisis, the war against ISIL, and defending its security and territorial integrity of its border with Northern Syria from US-backed People’s Defense Units (YPG) which are Kurdish militias. Türkiye, despite being as important and has its well-known Islamic heritage behind it, did not exert more effort in the face of risks to its own national security interest in the region.

The widening of Islamic hegemonic struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran stated right after the Iranian 1979 Islamic Revolution, which marked the emergence of a new actor who had ‘revisionist’ ambitions in the Middle East region, and to its approach to global powers, namely the US. Saudi Arabia responded by increasing their spending and diversifying their efforts of cultural and religious outreach and propaganda narratives that discredit the Islamic Revolution, its ideals, and Shiism, in response to post- Iranian Islamic Revolution which disrupt the status quo of the Middle East and the Muslim world. The Islamic Republic launched a propaganda narrative of their own that discredited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The 1981 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is also a response to the Iranian Islamic Revolution, as the Arab states of the Gulf saw the need to form a political and economic alliance aiming to unite its member states common objectives, which also consist of similar political structure (monarchy), as well as their Arab cultural and Sunni Muslim based identities. On one hand, in the process of the establishment of the GCC, the KSA acted as the unquestioned (natural) leader of the council. While Iran on the other hand, in the first phase of the newly proclaimed Islamic Republic of Iran, with its appealing ideological and revolutionary ideals for the ‘Third World’ Muslim community, it presents itself as the main rival and revisionist to the Saudi Arabia’s quest for Middle East and Islamic hegemony.

The alliance known as the Axis of Resistance in the Middle East region, which is directed by Iran, is known for its opposition to the Western intervention in the region and as a force against Israel. Thus, it is also a force that kept Saudi Arabia and its Gulf states alliance in check.

With the realization of the Saudi-Iran peace agreement brokered by China in March 2023, does the struggle for Islamic hegemony appear to be easing and changing the focus point for the unity of the Muslic world which has been an initiative promoted by the OIC? The peace agreement succeeded to bringing Muslim powers back to one conference and negotiation table, which is a positive sign for the Muslim world in political process. But this doesn’t mean that both states have abandoned their hegemonic ambitions.

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