May Gulf Arabs have blue eyes

Fear of Iran runs deep in the Gulf - why is it?

Fearing Iran, Arab Gulf states are seeking proximity to Israel - their former arch enemy. The fear of the big neighbor in the east has deep historical roots and is also based on the Arabs' lack of self-confidence.

The balance of power in the Persian Gulf is imbalanced - especially when it comes to population figures. On the one hand is Iran with over 80 million inhabitants. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia numbers only 34 million, with a third of them being foreign workers. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) only 10 percent of the 10 million inhabitants are citizens of their own. These unequal proportions have long been causing unease among Iran's Arab neighbors. The fear is now so great that individual Gulf states are openly seeking an alliance with Israel against Tehran. Bahrain and the Emirates recently normalized their relations with the Jewish state. And even in Saudi Arabia, this step is being considered.

Discomfort with Iran has grown steadily since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. With the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of a democratic system of government, representatives of the Shiite majority took power in Baghdad. The Mesopotamia came under Iranian influence and became part of Tehran's Shiite "Axis of Resistance", which extends through Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia to the Mediterranean. Saudi Arabia had warned the US of the negative consequences of an invasion and the collapse of the Saddam regime. Washington is serving Iraq to Tehran on a gold platter, criticized the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in 2005.

Political Islam is shaking the Gulf monarchies

However, the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 is considered to have triggered the Cold War in the Persian Gulf. Its leader, Ruhollah Khomeiny, wanted not only to overthrow the Shah, but also the other monarchies and regimes in the Middle East that were allied with the United States. The Ayatollah had developed a deep dislike for the Saudi royal family early on and did not recognize them as a worthy guardian of the holy places of Islam in Mecca and Medina. In his book "Kashf al-Asrar" ("Unveiling the Secrets") Khomeiny wrote as early as 1945: "The camel drivers of Riyadh are the most notorious and wildest members of humanity."

Up until the Islamic Revolution, the conservative monarchies in the Middle East feared above all socialist infiltration orchestrated by left-wing Arab regimes. But now revolutionary Islam suddenly became a powerful political factor. Not only the Shiite minority, but also the Sunni majority population in the Muslim world first celebrated Khomeiny's triumph against the secular Shah regime supported by the US and Israel.

In addition, two other events shook the Saudi monarchy in the key year 1979: On November 20, up to 500 Sunni extremists occupied the Great Mosque in Mecca, where thousands of believers had gathered for morning prayers. Their leader accused the Saudi royal family of serving themselves to the West, corrupting Muslims and abusing religion in order to maintain their own power. Inspired by the Iranian revolution, protests by the oppressed Shiite minority broke out in the oil-rich east of Saudi Arabia practically at the same time. The protesters held portraits of Khomeiny and called for more rights.

In response to these two events, the Saudi royal family reversed previous steps of modernization in order to dispel any doubts about their own piety. Among other things, women were no longer allowed to moderate television programs. The clergy received billions to promote the Wahhabi state religion - a fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam - nationally and internationally. Shiites are all godless heretics in the eyes of the Wahhabis. The ideology is therefore perfectly suited to demonize the Islamic Revolution in the predominantly Shiite Iran.

Iran was the great power, Saudi Arabia the junior partner

While 1979 explains the heightened ideological tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the region, the Gulf states' fear of Iran goes back further. Not the Arabs, but the Turks and Persians dominated the Middle East in the past centuries. The majority Shiite Bahrain, for example, was under Persian rule for a long time. To this day, Iranian politicians remind us from time to time that the small island state is actually an Iranian province. After the withdrawal of the British colonial power, the Shah's troops also conquered several islands in the Strait of Hormuz in 1971, which are still claimed by the Emirates to this day.

"Under the Shah during the Cold War, Iran was the military superpower in the entire Middle East," explains Middle East expert Toby Matthiesen, who is currently leading a research project at the London School of Economics on the influence of the Iranian Revolution on Sunni Islamists. “The small Gulf states were still British protectorates at the time and were only slowly becoming independent. Saudi Arabia was also still weak, ”says Matthiesen. "The inferiority complex and the fear of Iran as a great regional power go back to this time."

Basically, Iran and Saudi Arabia were both US allies at the time. But in the fight against communism, Riyadh was only the junior partner. "With Nixon and Kissinger, the Shah reorganized the entire region from Africa to Asia," says Matthiesen. With the Islamic Revolution and Iran's international isolation, this geopolitical constellation changed completely. Saudi Arabia rose to become an indispensable partner of the USA in the Persian Gulf, Iran was degraded to a rogue state.

Some Gulf states fear at least as much as a nuclear-armed Iran would a return of Tehran as an equal and economically strengthened actor on the international stage. “They don't have the feeling that a common economic area helps everyone,” says Matthiesen. Rather, they feared a relative loss of power. This seems to explain at least in part why Saudi Arabia or the UAE, like Israel, vehemently rejected the nuclear deal with Iran and welcomed the US sanctions against Tehran, even though they ran the risk of Iranian aggression. "The Gulf States are ready to take a little more risk for tough economic measures against Iran, but all want to prevent a war in the region," says Elana DeLozier of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Even if they fear a military confrontation with Iran, a latent confrontation with international support is in the interests of the Gulf States. On the one hand, it guarantees close relations with the USA; on the other hand, the anti-Shiite discourse supports the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain domestically. The specter of a revolt fueled by Iran justifies the restriction of civil rights. The journalist and Middle East expert Kim Ghattas wrote: "The painful truth for Saudi Arabia is that it needs the Iranian regime to survive."