What's up with Saudi Arabia?

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Saudi Arabia is one of the key players in the Arab world. It’s home to the first and second holiest sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. Lately, Saudi Arabia and its Middle Eastern neighbours (think: Yemen, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq) have been making headlines for their “it’s complicated” relationships.


Everything Saudi Arabia is doing outside of its borders, and within its country, is about Iran. It can be summed up like this: Saudi Arabia is a little (read: a lot)  jealous of the rising influence Iran has in the Arab world.  

Saudi Arabia has oil, like a lot of oil, like enough oil to make Busta Rhymes release a song about Arab Money and still not even be close to explaining how rich Saudi Arabia is because of it. But, Iran has a lot of oil too, and a bigger population.

Saudi Arabia, a notoriously ultra-conservative country, has been loosening its grip on the country’s restrictive rules. Rules like demanding women to wear the burqa, banning alcohol, and punishing people for things like witchcraft and adultery. Homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. But the new Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has let a few things slide lately: i.e. letting women drive and allowing them into stadiums to attend sports games. These shifts could be for PR or they could be a reaction to an increasingly chaotic situation in the region. Which has been made worse by a) the U.S. wanting to shift its influence away from the region, b) Iran’s rising influence, c) S.A’s costly war in Yemen and, d) the very high cost of keeping the peace at home.

Some definitions you should know:


A rebel and political group based in Lebanon that has strong ties to Iran. Several countries including Canada and the U.S. consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization.


A lot of the tension in the Middle East is between two branches of Islam – Sunni and Shiite (or Shia). Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni. Iran is mostly Shiite.


Since the birth of Saudi Arabia, the country has been ruled by the Al-Saud family. Saudi Arabia’s reigning monarch and head of state is King Salman. Prince Mohammad bin Salman, 32, is the current Crown Prince. He’s being groomed to replace King Salman (See? Keeping it in the family). The Crown Prince has been playing a strategic Game of Thrones, getting rid of people he thinks will get in the way of his rule. Publicly, the Crown Prince wants to bring the country into more modern times, but behind the scenes, his empire is focused on staying steps ahead of Iran.


A politically infused religious rebel group in Yemen that’s supported by Iran. Meaning, they’re definitely not tight with Saudi Arabia. They dislike Saudi Arabia as much as Saudi Arabia dislikes Iran. A group of countries that back Saudi Arabia has been dropping bombs on Yemen to get rid of the Houthis. Houthi rebels have been fighting back with their own missiles. Regular civilians in Yemen are feeling the effects of the fighting – Saudi Arabia cut off Yemen’s lifeline by blocking food, water, and fuel from getting into the country. 


One fifth of the world’s population follows the religion of Islam. The text of the Quran (similar to the Bible) teaches that there is only one God, Allah, and the Prophet Muhammad is God’s messenger.

Seems like a political game of chess

Pretty much. Despite having some friends, Saudi Arabia has a burn book. Here’s a handy list of enemies, frenemies, and allies.


The Issue: Everything Saudi Arabia is doing is about Iran. Iran has the second-largest economy in the Middle East. That makes Saudi Arabia jealous. Iran also has some of the world’s most natural gas and oil. Saudi Arabia thinks Iran has too much power over the region. Iran’s strained relationship with Saudi Arabia also comes down to their different interpretations of Islam. Both countries want to be the leader. Their cliques differ too. Iran’s squad is China, Russia, and Cuba. Not the most progressive countries. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is aligned with the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Both countries have accused each other of supporting terrorism.

Relationship status: Broken up with no chance of reconciliation.


The Issue: They’re fighting the same one. Terrorism. And the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia and its fight against Iran-backed rebels. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have been in a relationship of convenience for the past 60 years.

Relationship status: In a happy relationship.


The Issue: Yemen has been a base for the U.S. army to fight off terrorist group, al-Qaeda. But Saudi Arabia has also been a very active participant in the violence in Yemen because it’s the home base of the Houthis. Rigorous airstrikes have left Yemen cities utterly devastated. The Houthis fought back by firing off missiles towards S.A’s capital, Riyadh. In response, Saudi Arabia blocked and shut down Yemeni ports. i.e how Yemenis get their food and resources. Because of that, Yemen is now the most dangerous place for children.

Relationship Status: Couldn’t be worse.


The Issue: Saudi Arabia has a warm(ish) relationship with Lebanon. The prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, is a close ally of Saudi Arabia. But because the Lebanon-based Hezbollah group is backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia still stirs up trouble in the country. Saudi Arabia wants to make sure Hezbollah is under control. Hezbollah keeps trying to prove it doesn’t take orders from anyone.

Relationship Status: Good. As long as Lebanon complies with Saudi Arabia.

Jacqueline Leung