Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Fanack Annual Event 2018

Royals and Revolutionaries: The Saudi-Iranian Battle for the Future of Islam and the Middle East

On 16 October 2018, Fanack held its annual conference at Het Spaansche Hof in The Hague. Due to the high number of requests for copies of the speeches, we have decided to publish the speeches by our keynote speaker Roger Cohen, journalist, author and columnist for The New York Times, and Mouin Rabbani, Dutch-Palestinian Middle East analyst specialized in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Hosted by the founder of, Dr Antonie Dake.

Fanack- Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen. @Fanack

Earlier this year, I went to Doha and met with the Qatari foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. Among the erratic things that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has done is to impose a virtual blockade on Qatar, accusing it of underwriting terrorism. That, from the Saudis, is a bit rich. So, I asked Al-Thani, what do you make of this 33-year-old upstart, M.B.S.?

“He cannot strip away the dress of terrorism,” that Saudi Arabia “was wearing for more than 40 years and now just put it on Qatar like this,” he said.

For the Saudis, Al-Thani went on, “terrorism is not the act of terror. Terrorism is you are disagreeing with me.”

Terrorism is you are disagreeing with me.

Fanack- Mouin Rabbani
Mouin Rabbani. @Fanack

I have been asked to assess the impact of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before offering my assessment, I’d like to note that in 2018 it is very difficult to examine this question in isolation from other forms of regional and international polarization that have emerged in the Middle East in recent years. This is not least because these polarizations are often at some level related. I’m thinking in particular of the GCC Crisis pitting KSA, UAE and several other Arab governments against Qatar; the regional tug of war between KSA, Iran, and Turkey; and the various dimensions of the Syria conflict. But there are also others.

With this in mind I would identify the following as the main repercussions of the ongoing regional polarization upon the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Fanack- Paul Aarts
Paul Aarts. @Fanack

1. My first remark relates to Cohen’s observation about the ‘Sunni-Shia competition’. I doubt that is as relevant as he might imply. Surely, I have my qualms when an explicit reference is made to the battle at Karbala (680). By doing so, doesn’t he risk overestimating the role of religion, i.e. religious differences, when the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia can better be understood as another form of a Cold War rivalry – [with each country] looking to expand its regional sphere of influence?

Having said that, yes, it’s true that increasingly sectarianism has been creeping in, also in more recent Iran foreign policy acts (here I refer explicitly to bringing in Shiite militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the war zones in Syria). However, generally speaking, comparing Iran and Saudi Arabia’s foreign policies in this regard, for sure Saudi Arabia has a much more ‘Sunni’-focused orientation than Iran has a ‘Shia’-focused orientation.

Fanack- Carolien roelants
Carolien Roelants. @Fanack

Not only have the Turkish media been given unprecedented freedom to cover the disappearance or murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Iranian press are also celebrating happy times. For once, it is not Iran or its supreme leader who are the bad guys in the eyes of the world, but Iran’s major rival Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “Saudi Arabia is looking horrific,” an Iranian press agency reported. Indeed. How wonderful this is.

Before you all raise your hands in protest: Iran itself is of course no stranger to assassination campaigns – assuming that Khashoggi has been killed, as the Saudis now seem to have confirmed after ten days of official denials. But I remember very well how former Iranian Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar was assassinated in France in 1991, and how four Iranian Kurdish opposition leaders were gunned down in a Greek restaurant in Berlin the following year.