AUC Professors Argue that the Saudi- Iran Rivalry is Political Not Sectarian

Press release
Published January 20th, 2016 - 06:15 GMT

At the Media Roundtable Discussion series "Behind the Headlines," titled, "The Saudi- Iran Rivalry and the Changing Landscape in the Middle East" held yesterday at the American University in Cairo (AUC), professors discussed the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the implications of the latest tensions between the two countries on the region and the changing landscape of the Middle East. Speakers were AUC professors, Bahgat Korany, professor of international relations and the director of AUC Forum and Mustapha El Sayyid, adjunct professor of political science. The roundtable was moderated by Ahmed El Sawy, former managing editor of Al Shorouk newspaper and a regular columnist in Al Masry Al Youm, Al Tahrir and Al Shorouk.

El Sayyid explained that while the Saudi- Iran rivalry appears to be a sectarian conflict, based on Sunni and Shia disagreements, the conflict is political. “After the execution of Nemr Al Nemr by Saudi Arabia, protests took place in Iran because he was a Shia Muslim and thus there was spontaneous support. Also it was a chance to express all that was hidden toward Saudi Arabia from the Iranian side. The dangerous aspect in this conflict is how it involves this type of irrational and primal kind of support.”

Korany noted that the conflict is geopolitical, “the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is an old one. Relations were amicable  since the time of the Shah of Iran, yet there were differences and rivalry which escalated after the Iranian revolution. While 47 Saudi civilians were executed, Iran only protested for one person, because he was a Shia Muslim, so Iran gave the conflict a sectarian essence.”

In assessing the balance of power between the two countries, El Sayyid explained that both countries have their points of strength and weaknesses. “Iran supersedes Saudi Arabia in terms of scientific research and military advancement, as Iran produces its weapons. In addition, despite the economic boycott on Iran, it has fared well. Diplomatically, Iran has managed to continue its nuclear experiments and at the same time worked for the lift of the boycott. In general Iran appears to be in a better position.” On the other hand, El Sayyid added, “The unemployment rates in Saudi Arabia are lower than Iran and the kingdom can still handle the decrease in oil prices better than Iran.

On Egypt’s role in the conflict, El Sayyid explained that Egypt could work on reconciliation efforts between the two countries, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Korany noted that Saudi Arabia has changed its policies drastically since the 1980s, “what we see now is different, we see intense and agitated policies with no transparency in the decision making process, I don’t fear that we become partners to Saudi Arabia, but to become partners in emotional policies. Egypt has an elite diplomacy and has the ability to mentor and guide before a crisis takes place,” he said.

For the future of the conflict, Korany said,” I hope that the decision makers in both countries think in a geo-political way, which could lead to a resolution of the conflict in contrast to thinking of the conflict in a sectarian manner. I am worried that the more sectarianism is used and repeated in the media as the source of conflict, it would become a reality.”

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Background Information

American University of Cairo

Founded in 1919, AUC is a leading English-language, American-accredited institution of higher education and center of intellectual, social and cultural life of the Arab world. Its community of students, parents, faculty and staff, trustees, alumni and other generous sponsors represent more than 60 countries. The University stands as a crossroads for the world’s cultures and a vibrant forum for reasoned argument, spirited debate and understanding across the diversity of languages, facilities and human experiences.

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