Exploring the Possibility of a Saudi-Iran Alliance

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mohmad Saleem Sheikh

Mr. Sheikh is a PhD candidate at the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi.
Correspondence Email: rajasaleem735@gmail.com

Saudi-Iran relations have been tumultuous, and there is a need for both countries to establish strategic cooperation and foster stability in the region. This article identifies deep-seated reasons for the discord between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it offers pathways to bypass conflict and move toward regional peace. It highlights the need for both countries to respect each other’s sovereignty and core interests, avoid armed conflicts, oppose radicalism, and develop conflict-resolution mechanisms. China’s mediation is a strategic opportunity to regulate regional peace, and it is essential for Saudi Arabia and Iran to work toward resolving their differences via diplomacy and cultural exchange.


Saudi-Iran relations have been fraught since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, which put clerics in control of Iranian political affairs. This had a significant impact on Iran’s foreign relations, resulting in international isolation, an eight-year war with Iraq, regional conflicts, ideological rivalry with the dominant regional power of Saudi Arabia, the strengthening of militia groups throughout the Middle East, and a struggle to establish order in the region. Despite the challenges of volatility and instability, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Changing global dynamics, such as the rise of China as a major player in the region, may create new opportunities for diplomacy and compromise. Given China’s mediation, is it possible for Saudi Arabia and Iran to form a strategic partnership that addresses their longstanding rivalry?1 While detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, if not partnership, may be challenging, it is not impossible. By embracing the potential for change and progress, it may be possible for the two rivals to overcome ideological differences and work toward a more stable and peaceful Middle East.



Saudi Arabia and Iran have likely realized that confrontations over the past two decades have failed to provide economic or political benefits, and neither one has achieved the goal of establishing a favorable regional order or the attendant security. Instead, sectarian divisions have worsened, and state failures in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have diminished their credibility as responsible regional powers.


The rapprochement brokered by China—its first successful bid to settle rivalries among major Middle Eastern states—represents a potential shift in the regional power structure. It may complicate US efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia through the Abraham Accords, and it throws into question how Washington will pursue its own conflict with Tehran.2 The United States has been the undisputed regional hegemon for decades and a guarantor of Saudi Arabia’s security. However, the Americans have signaled that they are shifting their focus away from the region and acting as an offshore balancer, which has led to uncertainty among their Saudi partners.3 For example, when the kingdom suffered attacks on oil facilities in 2019, the Trump administration saw no need to “rush” to Riyadh’s aid.4 More generally, Washington’s “pivot” toward Asia, announced during the Obama administration, sought to counter China’s expansion—though its Belt and Road initiative in Gulf states and across the Middle East has provided it some leverage for creative diplomacy.5 These moves have signaled to Gulf partners that they will have to do more to shoulder their security burdens.


Mohammed bin Salman

The Gulf regimes have thus felt the need to resolves regional issues and differences through their own diplomacy, and to expand alliances beyond the United States and Europe. One of the first moves was made by Saudi Arabi and the United Arab Emirates, in the form of statements calling for relinquishing confrontational politics and engaging in talks to ensure national security. The Saudi-Iran decision to restore relations came as a surprise to the United States and Israel, but it indicates that the Gulf rivals see mechanisms that can better serve their national interests and secure their autonomy in the changing regional environment.


While it is in the Saudi and Iranian interests to cool the rivalry and move toward cooperation, it is also necessary for regional stability. The two countries will continue to feel anxiety about each other’s ambitions, but this deal potentially allows them to move down a path of mutual security. Both states must oppose radicalism—regardless of the form it takes—avoid stoking armed conflicts, restrict support for nonstate actors, be wary of encouraging state failures, desecuritize ideological and sectarian differences, and develop mechanisms for conflict resolution. This can be encouraged by opening the lanes of communication and economic activities, and protecting them against interference or interruption. Further, both countries must try to reduce the radicalization stemming from their domestic political spheres and encourage cultural exchange.



The 1979 Iranian Revolution set the course for a clash with Saudi Arabia, with politics, religion, and ideology combining to form a lethal mix. Iran’s new model of Islam was seen as potentially popularizing the revolution across the Gulf, threatening the legitimacy of the monarchies. This sparked a rivalry across spheres from religion to politics, domestic to regional relations, economics to society. The clash between the Islamic Republic’s Shiism and Saudi Wahhabism infected politics throughout the Middle East. Soon, proxy conflicts featured struggles for political power between sectarian groups, including civil wars in which Riyadh and Tehran supported opposing sides.


The religious sector presented the most lethal form of this rivalry, virtually dividing the region into Sunni and Shia. The roots of this can be traced back to the year 632 and a disagreement over the succession of a leader following the death of Prophet Muhammad. The contemporary form of this struggle took on a transnational character, with state and nonstate actors exploiting these divisions, and both Saudi Arabia and Iran participating. However, the conflicts are primarily driven by domestic sociopolitical and economic concerns and power struggles, not by disagreements over ideology or succession from the earliest days of Islam. Opponents often exploit religious differences to legitimize conflicts and exacerbate sectarian schisms.


Ebrahim Raisi

The repercussions of this divisive transnationalism have been felt in the domestic spheres in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where it has become a routine practice to denounce the legitimacy of the other through media and public discourse. This has emboldened internal opposition to the regimes, which they decry as violations of sovereignty. It is true that such conflicts existed before the Iranian Revolution, including Saudi Arabia’s 1943 execution of a Shia pilgrim, which upended Saudi-Iran relations until 1946. More recently, the Saudi beheading of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016 roiled the domestic sphere in Iran: Saudi diplomatic offices were ransacked in Tehran, and officials adopted rhetoric that threw into question the Riyadh’s religious legitimacy.

Ebrahim Raisi 14010222” by Khamenei.ir is licensed under CC BY 4.0.


In addition, Tehran has objected to Saudi support for Iran International, a television station based in the United Kingdom that avoids state censorship by broadcasting over satellite to audiences inside the Islamic Republic.6 And Riyadh has also aided opposition militias such as Mojahedin-e-Khalq, which seeks regime change in Iran.7 Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed to establish religious supremacy in the broader Islamic world, which has spread divisions accompanied by sectarian violence. Islam has thus appeared intrinsically divided and prone to violence and extremism.


In this way, the Saudi-Iran rivalry has involved deterrence through ideological conflict, proxy wars, and the formation of alliances with state and nonstate actors. This has been evident in the Iraq-Iran conflict, and in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, where the rivals have exhausted military, economic, and diplomatic resources to support opposing groups and weaken each other’s interests. Iran’s support to Houthi revisionism8 resembles the threat to national security posed by the Egyptian intervention in northern Yemen in 1962-68.9 In that earlier conflict, Cairo’s actions gave Saudi Arabia and Iran a strategic impetus to join in fighting against Egypt’s Pan-Arab ideology. Now, in the wake of Arab Spring conflicts, Saudi Arabia and Iran may again be able to form a strategic alliance and counter the threat of extremism.



China’s influence has not only increased in the region, it has allowed Riyadh and Tehran to see the potential for a rapprochement that can help them escape uncertainty, increase security dialogue, and accelerate economic activities to resolve tensions. The comprehensive strategic-partnership agreement signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s December 2022 visit to Saudi Arabia represented a shift in strategy.10 For China, stability in the Gulf is imperative for its interests. Normalization and diplomatic engagement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a requirement for safe passage of energy supplies. Both Riyadh and Tehran are significant oil exporters to China, the second-largest economy and energy-consuming country in the world. The East Asian power alone represents about 30 percent of Iran’s total international trade.11 As well, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest oil-export market, and Saudi Arabia is often China’s largest oil supplier.


Xi Jinping

While the United States appears to have stepped back, it has developed a new policy of engagement with regional partners by encouraging their cooperation and alliance. This has manifested itself through the Abraham Accords, the bilateral normalization deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, which the Americans have hoped to expand to Saudi Arabia. The United States has also formed the I2U2 with the UAE, Israel, and India, an initiative for investments in energy and technology. At the same time, Washington has suffered somewhat in its relations with Saudi Arabia and has not been able to convince Gulf partners to shun Russia amid the Ukraine war. The Americans have sent strong signals that it is time for the monarchies to address their own security concerns. This has prompted them to rethink the confrontational politics that had benefited the United States for decades.


Saudi Arabia and Iran may be seeing the potential benefits of cooperation over instability. While Iran has been able to increase its sphere of influence from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and Yemen, it is facing isolation, sanctions, and distrust in the region—not to mention problems of domestic unrest. Its nuclear enrichment has been the source of insecurity for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Israel. For its part, Riyadh has found it difficult to exercise influence over regimes and nonstate actors in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. It has also been unable to resolve conflict in Yemen, either through violence or talks, given the resilience of the Houthis, who have been strengthened by logistical and weaponry support from Hezbollah and Iran. Saudi Arabia sees disengagement from Yemen as key; normalization with Iran may help it achieve a workable framework for resolution. The cooperation may also help end the stalemate in Lebanon.


Again, history indicates that there are paths toward a friendlier Saudi-Iranian relationship. For example, the two sides in 1929 entered the Friendship Treaty of mutual recognition and establishment of diplomatic relations. The period from 1950–1980 saw the two countries recognizing the strategic importance of agreements such as partitioning the neutral zone between them in 1978 and settling disputes over the islands of Al Arabia and Farsi a year later. Iran’s agreement to respect the Gulf security concerns and Tehran’s inclusion in a regional-security system in the wake of Iraqi aggression against Kuwait suggested grounds for the possibility of comprehensive regional cooperation. A security agreement in 2001 and strategic talks between 2006 and 2007 indicated areas of mutual interest, especially regional stability.12 These moments of cooperation indicate the potential for mending ties over issues concerning Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.13


The Arab Spring exacerbated tensions between the two sides. The civil conflicts sparked by the protests overshadowed the earlier occasions when the relationship deteriorated but did not pose a threat of spillover. For instance, Riyadh’s backing of Iraq during its 1980–88 war against Iran and the tanker war of 1984–1988 generated phases of antagonism but nothing as lethal as the recent civil wars in Yemen and Syria. For Saudi Arabia, the conflict in Yemen has not only been unsuccessful militarily, it has sparked an unprecedented increase in attacks on its oil facilities and territory.14


The Middle Eastern regional system is undergoing diversification with the rise of Russian and Chinese influence, which has diminished the unipolar dominance of the United States. States are adjusting their security policies in response. The current phase of Saudi-Iran relations reflects an international order characterized by multipolarity, where hegemony and dominance are shared. The increased Chinese muscle in the region, combined with the enduring power of the United States, may lead to stable ties between Tehran and Riyadh. Threat perceptions could decrease, making the region more secure against potential sources of instability, including sectarianism.



The longstanding conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has posed significant challenges for strategic partnership and Middle East peace. However, the rise of China as a major global power with increasing influence in the region presents an opportunity for these two countries to overcome their ideological differences and work toward detente and stability. China’s mediation efforts have demonstrated its willingness to engage with both sides and to provide a platform for constructive dialogue and diplomacy.


By embracing the potential for change and progress, Saudi Arabia and Iran can take advantage of this opportunity and move toward a more cooperative relationship. However, this will require a willingness to continue negotiations and to compromise, as well as to focus on how to reduce sectarian tensions across the region. The actions of external powers like the United States and Israel, and the domestic politics in both countries, will also be key to the extent and durability of this rapprochement. While the challenges are significant, China’s mediation offers a promising path toward a more stable and peaceful Middle East.




1 “Joint Trilateral Statement by the People’s Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 10, 2023, http://se.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/zgxw_0/202303/t20230311_11039241.htm.

2 Stephen Kalin et. al., “Saudi Arabia, Iran Restore Relations in Deal Brokered by China,” The Wall Street Journal March 10, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-arabia-iran-restore-relations-in-deal-brokered-by-china-406393a1?s=08.

3 Emma Ashford, “Unbalanced: Rethinking America’s Commitment to the Middle East,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 12, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 127-148.

4 Chris Megerian and Nabih Bulos, “Trump says ‘no rush’ to respond to attacks on Saudi oil facilities,” Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2019-09-16/trump-faces-difficult-options-on-iran; Ben Hubbard, Palko Karasz, and Stanley Reed, “Two Major Saudi Oil Installations Hit by Drone Strike, and U.S. Blames Iran,” New York Times, September 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-refineries-drone-attack.html.

5 Douglas Stuart, The Pivot to Asia: Can It Serve as the Foundation for American Grand Strategy in the 21st Century? (Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College Press, 2016).

6 “Saudi Arabia funds Iran International TV,” Islamic Republic News Agency, October 15, 2022, https://en.irna.ir/news/84912551/Saudi-Arabia-funds-Iran-International-TV.

7 Ali Gharib, “Saudi Supports Anti-Iran Fanatics,” Lobe Log, July13, 2016, https://lobelog.com/saudi-supports-anti-iran-fanatics/.

8 Seth G. Jones, Jared Thompson, Danielle Ngo, Brian McSorley, and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “The Iranian and Houthi War against Saudi Arabia,” The Centre for Strategic and International Studies, (2021).

9 A. I. Dawisha, “Intervention in the Yemen: An Analysis of Egyptian Perceptions and Policies,” Middle East Journal 29, no. 1 (Winter 1975): 47-63.

10 Rawan Radwan, “Saudi Arabia, China emerge as comprehensive strategic partners as Chinese President Xi Jinping wraps up state visit,” Arab News, December 10, 2022, https://www.arabnews.com/node/2213756/saudi-arabia.

11 Jon B. Alterman, “China Headaches for Iran Deal,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 22, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-headaches-iran-deal.

12 Khaled Al-Maeena, “Kingdom, Iran Sign Historic Agreement,” Arab News, April 18, 2001; https://www.arabnews.com/node/211187; Howard Schneider, “Saudi Pact With Iran Is Sign of Growing Trust,” The Washington Post, April 17, 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/04/17/saudi-pact-with-iran-is-sign-of-growing-trust/fbdde133-8ef9-48d2-9deb-5393b7f314d4/?itid=lk_inline_manual_10.

13 Emir Hadzikadunic, “Iran-Saudi Ties: Can History Project Their Trajectory?” Middle East Institute, October 22, 2019, https://mei.nus.edu.sg/publication/insight-215-iran-saudi-ties-can-history-project-their-trajectory/.

14 Mohammad Salami, “Saudi-Iran reconciliation: Why Riyadh and Tehran felt the time was right,” Middle East Eye, March 13, 2023; https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/iran-saudi-rapprochement-why-felt-time-right.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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