The Saudi-Iran Rapprochement; Will Tensions Decrease in Afghanistan?

In the past half-century, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have been influential countries in Afghanistan; one due to geographical proximity and the other due to religious connections, and of course, both due to their oil wealth and its use for regional influence. In recent months, as their strained relationship improves with the mediation of China, the question arises as to what impact this change will have on Afghanistan and whether it will contribute to peace, stability, and the improvement of the people’s situation.

In the past, there was intense competition between these two countries for leadership in the Islamic world, especially after the Iranian Revolution. One relied on its revolutionary ideology, while the other relied on its unique position as the Muslims Qibla. Oil money provided both countries with the opportunity for greater ambitions. Afghanistan became one of the battlefield and proxy wars between these two superpowers during the ongoing rivalry of the Cold War. Saudi Arabia, during those years, specifically prioritized support for Salafism and generally supported any form of political Islam. This served two simultaneous purposes: expanding its soft power in the region and appeasing Western countries, especially the United States, in their fight against communism. Iran, on the other hand, with a similar policy of supporting political Islam, focused on supporting other groups that had little connection with Saudi Arabia but played a role in expanding the country’s soft power in the region. The end result of this fierce competition and the enormous sums of money being spent was an increase in religious tensions, particularly Sunni-Shia tensions in the region, fueled by extremist interpretations of these two sects.

However, Saudi Arabia has adopted a different approach in recent years and strives to reduce the criticisms that have been directed at the country for many years by implementing reforms in various fields. A part of these reforms is dedicated to the religious policies of the country, which were previously influenced by influential Salafi figures and institutions. Now, the young prince of Saudi Arabia has diminished their influence to allow for the expression of other segments of society in the public sphere.

The reduction of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran can potentially decrease one of the sources of tension in Afghanistan, which would be beneficial for the Afghan people. However, Iran’s policy of supporting the Taliban, despite temporary disagreements that arise between this group and the Afghan government, will contribute to another wave of internal tensions in Afghanistan. The Taliban, perceiving the change in Saudi Arabia’s approach, do not have much hope for that country and instead seek to strengthen their relationship with Qatar and some other Arab countries that are more explicitly supportive of political Islam. Extremism is still a tool that finds ample buyers in this region, and its profitability is evident in the larger power games. Therefore, we have a long way to go before we can uproot this phenomenon.