The Shared Interest of Saudi Arabia and Iran

April 30, 2015 | by Hainer Sibrian

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is well-known. In their battle for regional hegemony, each fears that the spread of the other’s sectarian ideology may undermine their own regime’s stability. However, less often discussed is the common role that both Saudi Arabia and Iran play as twin pillars of authoritarianism whose policies hamper the spread of democracy beyond their borders. Having developed elaborate systems of repression at home, Saudi Arabia and Iran extend their authoritarian influence abroad in three similar and fundamental ways:

  1. Challenging international human rights norms. In order to shield their regimes from criticism about domestic human rights abuses, Saudi Arabia and Iran argue that the principal of national sovereignty allows them to reinterpret human rights through an Islamic lens. Iran, a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and Saudi Arabia, a member of the UN Human Rights Council, both criticize and ignore provisions of the UDHR, citing contradictions with their strict interpretations of Islamic Sharia. Both states actively promote an alternative human rights declaration based on an undefined interpretation of Islamic Sharia, which creates space for each regime to arbitrarily leverage domestic legislation against human rights activists for vague religious crimes, including blasphemy, apostasy, enmity to God, and sorcery and witchcraft. At a recent Arab League event, Saudi Arabia used this argument as a rebuttal against criticism from Sweden’s Foreign Minister about the Kingdom’s human rights abuses. Despite Iran’s diplomatic isolation, in international organizations the Islamic Republic consistently defends the sovereignty of authoritarian states which share its anti-hegemonic worldview to preserve shared interests in suppressing peaceful domestic dissent.
  1. Supporting authoritarian allies. Following the Arab Spring protests, Saudi Arabia and Iran strengthened their alliances with other authoritarian regimes in the region to suppress potential democratic movements. In addition to providing military and economic support to like-minded regimes, Iran and Saudi Arabia also influence their allies’ domestic politics in order to establish a regional authoritarian standard favoring their respective regime. Saudi Arabia and its regional partners, including the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt, have adopted vague counterterrorism laws which enable them to arrest, extradite, and convict human rights activists located in each others’ territories. Iran, on the other hand, has provided political, economic, and military support to allies and to factions which aim to destabilize non-allied governments in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
  1. Disseminating disinformation to shape domestic and regional narratives. Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a battle over the political and social narrative of the Middle East. Using media holdings owned by the ruling family, such as contending London-based pan-Arab newspapers al-Hayat and aSharq al-Awsat or the Dubai-based news outlet al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia promotes the notions of "Gulf Exceptionalism" and Arab complacency with autocratic rule while encouraging self-censorship of coverage portraying the Kingdom in a negative light. In the same vein, Iran uses its media outlets, such as IRIB subsidiaries al-Alam or PressTV, to promote an anti-democratic narrative based on conspiracies and anti-Western or anti-Saudi rhetoric, often citing fabricated stories designed to undercut the legitimacy of other states. The ultimate result of this duel for control of the Middle Eastern narrative is that independent regional media are drowned out, allowing Saudi Arabia and Iran to influence the tone of news coverage that reaches global audiences.

While Iran and Saudi Arabia may compete against one another regionally, their foreign policies obstruct the development of democratic principles and enable authoritarianism internationally. Fearing another Green Revolution or Arab Spring, the tactics of both regimes demonstrate that in order for them to survive at home, they act in similar ways to stifle human rights and civil liberties abroad.

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