With the proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia taking place across the region, the two countries’ recent head-on collision did not come as a surprise. Neither did the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr appear as the only milestone in a long path of tensions. This collision isn’t merely about the governments in Riyadh and Tehran. Their clashes of interests in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon and other arenas have transformed hostility between many ordinary Iranians and Saudis into a state of outright enmity. As this struggle has mounted, it has sharpened various differences, from sectarian to ethnic, and has even entered the sports arena. In Tehran and Riyadh alike, many ordinary people exchange political jokes with negative depictions of the other side. Meanwhile, on state-backed media and on social networks, the Iranian and Saudi governments are waging an unprecedented war of words against each other.
“Saudi Arabia is trying to find a way out of its current dire straits and unsuitable situation,” said Alireza Miryousefi, head of Middle East Studies at the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies. Miryousefi told Al-Monitor that Saudi Arabia is seeking to deflect attention from its domestic and regional challenges. “Saudi Arabia has made consistent efforts to fan the flames of sectarian differences between Shiites and Sunnis, and … it tries to use Iran as an excuse to divert attention from its iron-fist policies, in particular after 2011,” said Miryousefi.