Ok, first things first, definitions. A proxy war is defined as a war instigated by a major power, but it is not directly involved.
The proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is fuelled by one major schism inside Islam, often called the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. The vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s population belongs to the Sunni sect, whereas the majority of Iran’s population belongs to the Shia sect. Sunni’s constitute 90% of the global Muslim population and Shia create the minority 10%. These sects have the same fundamental beliefs but they have slightly different theology, law, ritual and practices. This means that in countries where religion is enshrined within the state (such as in Iran and Saudi Arabia), elements of the Sunni or Shia practices can reflect in the governing laws, founding principles and foreign policy.
As a consequence, conflicts within the Middle East almost always relate back to the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. In this instance the proxy war is fuelled by religious differences and each country’s desire for over-riding authority in issues concerning the Middle East.
The proxy war officially started when America invaded Iraq in 2003, which created a power vacuum, that changed the region’s overall power balance. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia tried to influence the remaining Sunni majority government, with Iran supporting the remaining Shia militia to create a Shia government, but Saudi Arabia supported Sunni militia. This only caused sectarian violence, exacerbated by political instability. Later, similar exploitation occurred in Lebanon. This shows that Saudi Arabia and Iran wanted to oppose each other more than help rebuild Lebanon and Iraq. Following on from 2010, similar sectarian manoeuvring occurred during the Arab spring which created power vacuums in Algeria, Libya, and Egypt.
At the moment, events akin to 2003, 2010, 2011, are transpiring in Yemen. A rebel group, backed by Iran overthrew the Saudi supported President in March 2015. Now, there is another power vacuum in Yemen. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are attempting to fill the vacuum by supporting militia with weapons and supplies.
Meanwhile, since the start of the Yemeni conflict, 50000 people have been killed or injured, famine has become widespread and the UK is fuelling this conflict by selling £5.6 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia.
If you’re interested I recommend reading this article from Al Jazeera:
Until next time,
The Geography Duo