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HomeGeopolitical CompassArabian PeninsulaQuest for Regional Hegemony: The Politics of Ontological Insecurity in the Saudi–Iran...

Quest for Regional Hegemony: The Politics of Ontological Insecurity in the Saudi–Iran Rivalry

Authors: Umut Can Adısönmez, Recep Onursal, Lacin Idil Oztig

Affiliation: Izmir University of Economics, University of Kent, Yildiz Technical University

Organization/Publisher: Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, SAGE Publications

Date/place: November 8, 2022/ UK 

Type of Literature: Research Paper

Word Count: 6689


Keywords: Ontological Security, Sectarianism, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Regional Rivalry


The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a multifaceted power struggle shaped by historical, geopolitical, and religious factors. This article explores the role of fatwas in shaping ontological security narratives in Saudi Arabia and their impact on the Saudi-Iran rivalry. By analyzing the historical context, ontological security dynamics, the influence of the Arab Spring, and the proxy wars in the region, this study provides insights into the evolving nature of the Saudi-Iran rivalry and the centrality of fatwas in maintaining ontological security.

The Saudi-Iran rivalry not only affects the two nations involved but also has reverberations throughout the wider Islamic world. Saudi Arabia claims to be the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina, which gives it religious authority and influence. The authors suggest that this plays a role in the rivalry as each country seeks to establish itself as the rightful representative and protector of Islam. This contest extends beyond mere power struggles and encompasses a battle for religious legitimacy and ideological supremacy, with far-reaching consequences for Muslim communities worldwide. Therefore, understanding the role of fatwas in shaping ontological security narratives is crucial for comprehending the complex dynamics at play in this enduring rivalry.

Historical Context of the Saudi-Iran Rivalry: The Saudi-Iran rivalry has deep historical roots entrenched in ideological and geopolitical differences. These differences can be traced back to their divergent interpretations of Islam and their quests for regional dominance. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, marked a turning point in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The article argues that the revolution posed a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy, advocating for a new order based on revolutionary Islamic principles. By exporting its revolutionary ideology, Iran threatened Saudi Arabia’s established regional influence. This marked the beginning of a fierce competition between the two powers as they maneuvered to assert their authority and expand their spheres of influence.

The historical context of the Saudi-Iran rivalry is also shaped by the broader regional dynamics in the Middle East. The authors maintain that the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent redrawing of borders created a power vacuum, fueling rivalries among regional actors. Saudi Arabia and Iran emerged as major players, each seeking to fill the void left by the declining Ottoman Empire. Additionally, the discovery of vast oil reserves in both countries further intensified their competition for economic and energy dominance in the region. The control over oil resources provided economic advantages and contributed to their geopolitical leverage and ability to shape regional politics.

Ontological Security and the Saudi-Iran Rivalry: To understand the dynamics of the Saudi-Iran rivalry, it is essential to examine the concept of ontological security, which pertains to the sense of stability and order in individuals and societies. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have employed various strategies to establish and maintain ontological security, with religious narratives playing a central role.

In Saudi Arabia, ontological security is closely tied to the religious narratives propagated by the state. The ruling elite has sought to maintain its legitimacy by presenting itself as the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites and the protector of Islam. The Saudi monarchy has invested significant resources in the preservation and expansion of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, reinforcing its religious credentials and asserting its leadership within the Muslim world. Fatwas, religious edicts issued by Islamic scholars, play a crucial role in shaping ontological security narratives. They are mobilized to justify domestic and foreign policy choices and respond to perceived ideational threats from Iran. The religious authority vested in fatwas provides a sense of certainty and reinforces the collective identity of the Saudi populace.

Iran, on the other hand, pursues ontological security through a different approach. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran sought to establish an Islamic government based on the principle of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), granting religious scholars a central role in political decision-making. This system aims to create an Islamic society governed by the principles of Shia Islam. By promoting its revolutionary ideology and exporting its revolutionary rhetoric, Iran seeks to ensure ontological security by reinforcing its religious and ideological identity domestically and internationally.

The Arab Spring, Fatwas, and the Saudi-Iran Rivalry: The Arab Spring, a series of protests and uprisings across the Middle East, had a profound impact on the Saudi-Iran rivalry. In Saudi Arabia, activists mobilized both online and on the streets, demanding political reforms and highlighting social, economic, and political inequalities. The Saudi regime, aware of the potential threat to its power, utilized fatwas as a tool to suppress the protests and maintain the ontological security regime.

Fatwas were strategically employed to discourage political action and preserve the existing power structure. The Council of Senior Clerics in Saudi Arabia issued fatwas declaring demonstrations as forbidden, framing them as sources of strife and division. By equating political dissent with the idea of fitna (political disorder or chaos), the Saudi clerics sought to delegitimize protests and maintain social order. These fatwas served to limit political space and maintain the status quo, leaving little room for alternative political articulations.

The Saudi-Iran rivalry also played out in proxy wars across the region, most notably the war in Syria and the Yemeni Civil War. The authors also view the conflict in Yemen as a Sunni-Shia rivalry with Saudi Arabia and Iran competing over maintaining political power in the country. They allege that Iran mobilized Shia militias to support the Syrian government, while Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen to restore the Sunni government. Fatwas were instrumental in justifying these actions and framing them as necessary measures to counter the perceived threat from Iran. The religiosity associated with fatwas enhanced the moral justification for military interventions, galvanizing support among the Saudi population and reinforcing the ontological security narrative.

The article concludes that the Saudi-Iran rivalry is a complex interplay of historical, geopolitical, and religious factors. Understanding the historical context of the rivalry provides insights into the origins and development of the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The concept of ontological security sheds light on the strategies employed by both nations to establish and maintain stability and order. The use of fatwas as a tool to shape ontological security narratives is evident in both Saudi Arabia and Iran, albeit with different approaches. The Arab Spring and the wars in the region have further intensified the rivalry, with fatwas serving as a means to suppress dissent and justify military actions. By examining these aspects, a deeper understanding can be gained of the dynamics at play in the Saudi-Iran rivalry and its far-reaching implications.

Furthermore, the Saudi-Iran rivalry has had reverberating effects beyond the borders of the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in diplomatic and economic maneuvers to garner support from international actors. The competition for alliances and influence has played out in various international forums, such as the United Nations and regional organizations. These efforts to secure external backing and project power globally have added another layer of complexity to the Saudi-Iran rivalry, shaping the perceptions and interactions between the two powers on the international stage.

Moreover, the paper infers that this rivalry has escalated tension, particularly in Syria and Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran took different sides, and external actors, such as the United States and Russia, further complicated the rivalry, adding geopolitical dimensions to the ongoing power struggle.

By: Dr. Setareh Sadeqi, CIGA Researcher



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