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The Saudi-Iranian rivalry

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry
Tensions in the Middle East featuring both Iran and Saudi Arabia are getting from bad to worse. The first struck an expensive nuclear deal with the United States under President Obama. Now, under the new dispensation, Washington has been having second thoughts and is more than evidently leaning towards Saudi Arabia. The tensions carry dangerous implications for Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and beyond. The Saudi-Iranian confrontation is only the latest manifestation of a convergence of disruptive forces that promise to keep the region destabilised for the years to come. These include military actions by regional and foreign powers, alongside indigenous ailments such as militias, tribal warfare, terrorism, aggressive, frail and fragmenting states, sectarian tensions, religious politics and violence. But the Saudi-Iranian face-off is not just a leading example of these regional troubles; it directly influences localised conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere. The ambitions of strong regional powers hasten the slow collapse of traditional forms of statehood and sovereignty in other, weaker countries where more durable institutions are yet to emerge. Half a dozen Arab countries have become proxy battlefields for Riyadh and Tehran.
The continued contraction of the power, legitimacy and reach of many states in the region creates a vacuum to be filled by powers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and the United States. Naturally, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya and Yemen are all vulnerable. Beyond the major powers, these weak states play host to a variety of non-state actors, militias, tribal forces and anti-government rebel groups. Iran and Saudi Arabia are usually the most active external supporters of such groups across the region. Riyadh and Tehran often fight each other through local proxies, such as the Saudi-backed Hariri group, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iranian-backed government of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Saudi-backed Sunni rebels seeking to unseat him. In today's fluid Middle East, global and regional powers make war at will. This will not stop until a new regional order emerges. The reality is that all state and non-state parties across the Middle East, Arab and non-Arab, regional and foreign, use violence at will, totally ignoring sovereign borders, international humanitarian laws and notions of legitimacy and accountability. This leads to state fragmentation, criminalised economies and huge refugee flows. All of these and other ailments will be exacerbated by the current Saudi-Iranian crisis. The new regional order that emerges will require a genuinely negotiated social contract that is more participatory, equitable and accountable than anything the Middle East has experienced in its recent history.

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