The Asymmetry in the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

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By Justin McCauley

As the power contest between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran intensifies, an important factor is Iran’s advantage in the area of asymmetric warfare, particularly with regard to Yemen and Syria. A major driver in the rise of the so-called “Shi’ite Crescent” has been Iran’s ability to spread its influence through a combination of well-placed and robustly supported proxies (both state and non-state), as well as a nuanced capacity to leverage parochial ethnic and sectarian conflicts to Tehran’s strategic benefit. Saudi Arabia has not even sought to acquire this skill set.
Over the years Riyadh has consistently invested in the kingdom’s military capabilities, but such efforts have focused on building a well-equipped conventional force – one geared largely toward territorial defense. While Saudi Arabia has prepared itself well for an interstate conflict, it has failed to establish the kind of asymmetric capabilities that Iran has used so effectively to build Geo-strategic alliances and influence battlefields and political systems alike.

These capabilities could prove to be a strategic game-changer as the Saudi-Iranian rivalry further intensifies. Why has Tehran been so successful? Why has Riyadh faltered?
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