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Home Feature Iran-Saudi Rivalry in Africa: Implications for Regional Stability (Part 1)

Iran-Saudi Rivalry in Africa: Implications for Regional Stability (Part 1)


Dr Riham Bahi

The ongoing reshuffle in the Middle East has generated new competition among regional powers, the resurgence of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry being a major one. It is sectarian (Sunni vs Shiite), ethnic (Arab vs Persian), ideological (U.S.-allied vs US-opposed), and geopolitical. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia present themselves as the leaders of both the Middle East and the Muslim world, and their competition has expanded to include Africa. This re-search paper offers an analysis of the role of Africa in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, touching upon the strategic importance of the continent’s untapped natural resources and location. It will also analyze the effect of the rivalry on alliance formation and stability in Africa.


Geopolitics is often associated with zero-sum behavior and geopolitical expansionism. Traditionally defined as the interplay between geography and power in shaping international relations, the concept has expanded to include “the broader use of statecraft and state assets (geographic, economic, military, demographic, environ-mental and cultural) to gain influence in international affairs.” Geopolitical analysis also suggests that there are some areas or regions that form the “epicenter of geopolitical upheaval, with consequences that can extend far beyond their point of origin.”

Regional fragmentation, insecurity and violent conflict following the 2011 wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and the subsequent competition for regional leadership have led to the revival of geopolitical thinking. Iran and Saudi Arabia have sought to take advantage of the ongoing regional fragmentation to raise their political profile by pursuing a larger agenda in MENA and beyond. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been leveraging regional disorder to perpetuate political stasis at home and abroad. Iran has so far been successful in tipping the regional balance of power in its favor, particularly since the Iraq War of 2003. Saudi Arabia has been concerned with the potential impact of regional reconfiguration on its domestic politics. The kingdom is primarily driven by a sense of vulnerability, focusing on ensuring security at home and continuity in the larger geopolitical setup. Each country is trying to outmaneuver the other by taking the rivalry to Africa, a new arena of competition among regional powers. Thus, African states have been drawn into intra-Gulf and intra-Arab conflicts.

For instance, the Qatar-GCC rift has triggered the withdrawal of peacekeepers from Eritrea and Djibouti, resulting in the re-emergence of their territorial disputes. After two decades of military and economic assistance from Iran, Sudan has sent troops to participate on the Saudi side against the Shia Houthis in Yemen supported by Iran. In short, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been developing ties with a number of African states on economic, security and ideological levels.

The Iran-Saudi competition is taking place during a unique stage of MENA’s relations with international powers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington has dictated the regional agenda in the Middle East. The United States has always played a role in preventing independent regional powers from gaining prominence, but the Obama administration began limiting the United States’ security engagement in the Middle East. This new approach to regional affairs was met with great concern in “a region hard-wired for the exercise of American power.” The new U.S. role — exemplified by the Iran nuclear deal — made traditional U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel nervous about the perceived U.S. pivot to Iran. Saudi Arabia was obliged to carve out a geopolitical agenda independent from the United States. These developments demonstrate the beginning of a departure from the unipolar U.S.-led regional agenda to multipolar national interest-based agendas. To that end, Saudi Arabia successfully lobbied the Trump administration, which was eager to sell arms, appease Israeli interests and ensure an aggressive anti-Iran stance.


In order to understand the contemporary rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Africa, it is important to consider its historical roots. Despite the Sunni-Shiite difference, “the period after the formation of Saudi Arabia and before the Iranian revolution in 1979 was characterized by a degree of suspicion, but not overtly hostility.”5 The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran brought Islam to the forefront of the rivalry. The new Islamic republic challenged the main source of Saudi legitimacy, historically secured through Islam and the protection of its two holy sites. Iran also sought legitimacy from the Islamic world and embarked on a rhetorical campaign to discredit the Islamic legitimacy of Saudi Arabia. Fearing Iran’s expansionist aspirations, Saudi Arabia provided financial support to Iraq in the Iraq-Iran War, deepening the tensions with Iran. The two have continue to manipulate sectarian divisions in various countries in the region in pursuit of their geostrategic ends.

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran intensified after the onset of the Arab Spring, creating a power vacuum, altering regional power balances and exacerbating leadership competition. Iran and Saudi Arabia have sought to take advantage of the regional fragmentation to raise their political profiles by pursuing larger agendas in the MENA region and beyond. The Arab Spring and the rise of political Islam provided Iran with the opportunity to claim leadership of the Muslim world and end the Arab-Persian divide. Iran tried to provide an interpretation of the Arab Spring as a “delayed extension of the Iranian Revolution.”This interpretation would give Iran a prominent role, leading by example, and the rise of political Islam would neutralize the Arab-Persian divide. Saudi Arabia’s main security concern is Iran’s expanding its influence in the region. The kingdom accuses Iran of supporting terrorism and interfering in Arab countries; it considers Iran to be more of a major threat to regional security than Israel. Sau-di Arabia sees itself “encircled by the Shia crescent stretching from Iran across South-ern Iraq through Syria and into Southern Lebanon,” in addition to being pressured by the unrest in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.8 Consequently, Saudi Arabia is trying to lead “an essentially Sunni and Arab alliance against Iranian inroads in Arab politics.”

The nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers- the United States, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany — promised to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions and freeing up tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue and frozen as-sets. Since the nuclear deal, Iran has been pursuing a more assertive foreign policy aimed at challenging the influence of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia did not welcome the deal and publicly announced its doubts about Iran’s intentions and compliance. Saudi Arabia perceives this deal as an enabler of Iran’s ascendance to regional leadership. With the U.S. retrenchment and the nuclear agreement, Saudi Arabia feared abandonment by its main patron and was forced to take responsibility for its own security. Consequently, seeking allies has become a key security policy.

Currently, Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposing sides of several regional conflicts: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain. Several events created the perception that Iran was behind unrest across the Middle East, particularly within Shiite communities. A newly hawkish Saudi Arabia has demonstrated its willingness to use military force to try to roll back Iran’s influence in the Gulf. The Saudi-led Arab intervention in Yemen has brought GCC forces into direct conflict with the Iran-backed Houthi militia. The Iran-Saudi rivalry has created a vicious circle, in which “regional conflicts exacerbate the animosity and mistrust be-tween Iran and Saudi Arabia, which in turn exacerbates the regional conflicts.”


Historically, Africa has not been high on Iran’s agenda. Under the Pahlavi regime (1925-79), Iran had no presence there, except for relations with Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the Moroccan monarchy and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. These relations were part of the pro-U.S. bloc against the Soviet Union. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran severed ties with the Apartheid regime in South Africa, a move appreciated by the African National Congress when it came to power in 1994. Isolation was imposed on Iran during the recent decade as a consequence of its uranium enrichment program. Consequently, the Islamic Republic sought to expand its influence in Africa. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made significant efforts to expand Teh-ran’s relations with African states. Those efforts were aimed at compensating for Iran’s deteriorating ties with its traditional economic partners in Europe and in East Asia. Iran has been trying to assert its influence in Africa through high-level bi-lateral meetings and a network of relations with many African states. Former President Ahmadinejad made more than six trips to countries in West Africa, gaining Iran observer status in the African Union. During his term in office (2005-13), Ahmadinejad exerted efforts to establish an Iranian presence in Africa in order to offset Saudi influence there and elsewhere and to promote a South-South strategy in both Africa and Latin America.

Iran remained isolated until the JCPOA of 2015. Following the deal, Africa was not a top priority on Iran’s agenda. The regime focused on taking advantage of the Western interest in Iran, which had man-aged to become, despite sanctions, the second-largest economy in MENA. More-over, Iran ranks second in the world in natural-gas reserves and fourth in proven crude-oil reserves. It has well-developed processing and manufacturing capabilities, a strong industrial base, an educated work-force and a potential consumer market of over 77 million. The new atmosphere of engagement between Iran and the West after the nuclear deal led to an increasing number of visits by Western political and trade delegations to Tehran and to mounting interest in opportunities to re-enter the Iranian market. Iran has experienced significant economic improvements since the signing of the deal. World Bank figures indicate that, following a growth-rate con-traction of 1.3 percent in 2015, Iran’s final year under sanctions, the Iranian economy witnessed a 13.4 percent growth rate in 2016, largely thanks to oil sales. While non-oil GDP growth was limited at 3.3 percent, it achieved its highest growth rate in five years.

Furthermore, scholars pointed to developments such as deals reached with Boeing and Airbus to supply planes and an increase of the country’s exports to Europe of 344.8 percent and imports of 27.8 per-cent in 2016 as evidence of the JCPOA’s economic benefits. The deal also provided an opportunity for the United States and Iran to cooperate against the Islamic State (IS) and to work on issues of shared interest such as solving conflicts in Iraq and Syria. However, despite the hopes that the JCPOA would lead to a broader change in the relationship, progress has been limited. Trump’s election and his administration’s approach towards Iran have only created further challenges. The risk now is not only that the nuclear deal will not translate into a broader rapprochement, but that even the small achievements will unravel, leading to renewed tensions, especially after Trump’s unilateral decision to exit from the JCPOA.

As attempts to improve its relations with the West risked reversal, Iran became active in Africa as an important region for soft- and hard-power projection. In October 2017, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif participated in the thirteenth Iran-South Africa Business Forum held in Pretoria. He discussed the expansion of economic and trade ties between the two countries and urged the South African government to resume banking relations with Iran. He asserted that “Iran and South Africa can make valuable efforts for inter-national peace and stability as well as for developing countries’ interests by cooperating at international fora.” Likewise, in a meeting with his Sierra Leone counterpart in May 2017, Zarif stressed that Africa was of paramount significance for Iran in political, economic and cultural terms. Iran sought to gradually extend its influence deep inside Africa, relying upon various assets, strategies and alliances to further its interests. Iran exploited Shiite communities —approximately 5-10 per-cent of the African Muslim population — to spread its doctrine in African countries through scholarships, specialized educational institutes and cultural centers in order to breach the Saudi monopoly on Is-lam. In West Africa, Iran has been spreading Shiism through cultural, economic, diplomatic and media initiatives.

Dr. Bahi is an associate Professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University.



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