Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran - what does it mean?

Is this ok, good, or really bad? I’ve read the news reports but can’t get a take on what this means for the region and/or the rest of the world.

Can anyone explain this, using small words?

Since the effect is debatable, let’s move this to Great Debates.

General Questions Moderator

Higher tensions, thus bad for everyone. Sectarian violence, which will spill out of the region, thus bad for us.

Saudi Arabia reminds me of Tsarist Russia

Aside from the Sunni-Shia split, Saudi and Iran are the two biggest oil producers in the region and if a foreign country buys oil from one, the other gets pissy about it. While Saudi has a treaty and an alliance with the US, they also indirectly fund a lot of Islamic militants. So does Iran. My inclination is to let them fight it out and deal exclusively with the victor, but I’m not in on foreign policy sessions.

To answer the factual question, it means that they no longer have established, formal, credentialed diplomatic relations. Iran had diplomats and an embassy in Saudi Arabia up until this, they’ve been given 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia. After which if they remained they would not enjoy diplomatic status. This happens from time to time between countries–for example the United States doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Iran for example. The key thing this means is the countries no longer grant each other the permission to establish an embassy or consulates on their soil, and they no longer “credential” their diplomats (meaning offer them diplomatic status and its rights and privileges.)

The practical effect is it closes down easy lines of communication. When you have formal diplomatic relations, there are teams of career foreign service / diplomatic corps types stationed in the foreign country and vice versa, they can handle and work on lots of “low level issues” and basically ensure a consistent “path of dialogue” remains open. The ambassadors and higher ranking diplomats can engage in higher level discussions. When you sever diplomatic relations, it doesn’t mean you can no longer physically communicate, it’s just now not being facilitated by trained diplomats. With the embassy staff gone, it also means most discussions will be limited to high level talks, which can cause a degradation in relations even further as lots of minor things that low level diplomats can work out on a day-to-day basis no longer get handled.

When negotiations or discussions need to occur, it’s more of a hassle without diplomatic relations. It typically involves the two countries sending representatives to some neutral third country where they both have friendly relations, to hash things out.

An immediate foreign policy political effect of severing diplomatic ties is it also sends a message of strong condemnation. Generally States don’t sever diplomatic ties lightly, it is one of the more serious things that can be done between states and basically is like saying “we detest you so much we no longer which to discuss things as civilized states with you.” It is often a prelude to armed clashes and outright war (but that’s not likely to happen directly between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but the long-running proxy war they’ve fought throughout the Middle East is likely to continue, of course.)

Further effects are speculative at this time, but it’s going to represent a “rising of tensions” in the region. There’s no reason they can’t walk this back, but I think it’s unlikely to happen soon.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are about to get astro turfed arab springs, each financed by the other, and the region will implode. At some point, nuclear weapons will be used, and a general war will ensue and the losers will really be the palestinians, since everyone else is going to be hiding behind Israel.


Yeah, no. Since nobody in the region ahs nukes except Israel, it’s unlikely this will escalate to that extent. But what might happen is some serious skirmishing. OPEC is really pissed that the Saudis have been pumping so much oil, and they have little support in the region. If the US would grow a pair and realize that the Saudis ARE NOT ON OUR SIDE, it would help.

How can you astro turf an Arab Spring in a non-Arab country? This is a kerfuffle about the execution of a Shiite Cleric in Saudi Arabia. It will pass.

I agree it’s likely that Saudi Arabia and Iran are now going to start trying to overthrow the other’s regime.

But I’m not sure Israel will be able to stay out of it. When Middle-Eastern countries are in conflict, they often compete by seeing who can be more hostile towards Israel.

Nobody but Israel and Pakistan have a working nuclear program, loose nukes on the other hand, is a possiblity, as Pakistan was able to finance their program with Saudi money.


Yeah, Israel is not that important and is at the other end of the region. Any clashes a likely to be towards the Gulf.

As it is, this example and the execution of the cleric shows that the House of Saud is officially losing its collective mind.

I am using Arab Spring generically, otherwise ,I would imagine revolution would work just as well if your concerned about the label. Its no longer about the cleric, its about cutting ties, usually something countries do before going to war, otherwise an ambassadorial recall is good enough for a straight forward kerfuffle.

Will it pass, possibly.


I’d say this is different, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the last two powers standing, other than Israel. Syria and Iraq are out of contention, being handled by the US and Russia. I’d expect Jordan to heavily lean towards Israel, and Egypt being a proxy fight between Iran and Saud.


Does Saudi Arabia have any kind of mutual defense treaty with the US?

Has Saudi Arabia shot itself in the foot through manipulations of oil prices? Between that and 79% of the 9/11 hijackers being Saudis I wonder if they might find themselves on their own if the conflict turns military.

I am under the impression that the Saudi military is garbage. See for example thirteen years of comments here:

(Scroll up for the original post)

I am also under the impression that Iran is prepared to fight hard and has more recent experience in doing so. I just saw an article about how Iran has more missiles than they know what to do with. If things escalate, I think Saudi Arabia is in for a very bad time.

Eh, foreign relations is hard, and the Saudis are a good example of how it’s hard. Is the House of Saud on our side? Well, sometimes. They undoubtedly help us a lot with intelligence gathering, we were allowed to use their territory as an important staging ground for the invasion of Iraq during Persian Gulf 1, we can frequently count on them to match our dollars when we want to route money to certain groups in the Middle East, they tend to be firmly against “international jihadist” groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS and have helped materially in the fight against both.

But the House of Saud isn’t on our side–you’re correct on that, they’re on their side, and when our interests coincide with ours they’ve been an important ally. There have even been times when they haven’t, where they’ve bitten bullets for us.

The negatives are well known. They are repressive, they fund a lot of militant groups we wish they wouldn’t fund, they meddle in the affairs of other countries on the reg in a way that is destabilizing to the rest of the Middle East. Their state sanctioned brand of Wahhabism has been exported and serves as at least a large portion of the ideological underpinning of most of the worst Islamic terrorist groups.

On the other hand, and here’s the real kicker–the House of Saud is materially “less bad” on virtually all of these things than a popularly elected Saudi Arabian government would be, as the royals are markedly less ‘batshit crazy’ than the general populace.

OPEC is pissed about Saudi Arabia, the Saudis are trying to push shale oil drillers out of business. Can they? Sure, eventually. But it’s going to take a lot longer than the Saudis hoped. With their huge currency reserves, and the fact that they still make a profit at $40/barrel oil means they have the ability to keep pumping for as long as it takes to wipe the shale drillers out. However, it will be painful for them, a lot of their budget projections and various largesses were based on the forecast of long term > $100 barrel oil.

But Venezuela, Iran and several other OPEC members cannot keep going on as they have been without disastrous consequences. $40-45 / barrel oil is actually below the cost of production for Iran and Venezuela, and for several other OPEC members, and no other OPEC member had the sort of massive currency reserves built up that Saudi Arabia did to weather this storm.

Then of course there’s a strategic question a lot of OPEC members have to consider. Does it really matter if SA succeeds and wipes out the shale drillers? The large consensus is it doesn’t. Shale plays are very different than traditional oil projects. Traditional oil projects may involve vast capital outflows involving hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars building out drilling facilities, years of construction etc. The way shale drilling has evolved in the United States, it takes a couple weeks to get a well pumping. What’s going to happen (and has started to happen) is some of the big oil/gas majors who will not be bankrupted by a collapse in shale drilling (because they have significant investments in traditional oil production globally) will start buying up the wells and land rights of the weaker shale players that Saudi Arabia is / will drive out of business. We’ll eventually get to a point where a large portion of shale production has stopped, and the price of oil will go up. Saudi Arabia may then start to tamper with production again to try to get the price back to where it wants it (around $100 barrel.)

But what’ll happen then is the oil majors who by then will have bought up all the shale drilling rights, will simply turn it back on, sell contracts for a few years worth of oil a little bit below the new market high, and pump away. It’ll happen in less than six months. Basically, Saudi Arabia cannot actually do much to keep America from producing large amounts of oil long term. It can cause it to spike by washing out some weaker players, but any rise in price will see the wells pump again. Back when it took years to build out drilling capacity their ploy might work, but it really can’t now. It’s more realistic growing commitments to fighting climate change limit American production than the Saudi’s quest. If that’s really what they’re doing, some speculate the Saudis aren’t doing it for economic reasons at all, and are just doing it to blow Iran up because Iran is put in really bad shape by oil priced so low.

There’s not any realistic reason to expect outright open war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If it were to happen, Iran would have the military upper hand due to having a much larger population and a much larger military. Saudi Arabia is much more reliant economically on the Straits of Hormuz being open than Iran is, so likely Iran would shut the straits by mining them to hell and back fairly early in the conflict.

That being said Saudi Arabia spends a huge portion of GDP on their military and they will have a big technological edge in terms of equipment. The reality is Tehran couldn’t realistically invade Saudi Arabia because SA would have the advantage of being on the defense and technology, SA couldn’t invade Iran because it lacks the manpower to realistically hope to succeed in that goal.

I think the House of Saud is taking a more…unfortunate turn with the new King, this generation of Sauds have been ruling since the original King died since the crown just keeps passing around in the same generation, there’s a hope that when this King dies it may go to the next generation which might be a little less crazy about things. But neither the Saudis or Iran are crazy, and aren’t going to start a war that isn’t winnable by either side.

Also unless Obama is still President when it happens, if the hypothetical war starts with an Iranian invasion (either across the Gulf or by pulling a WWI style German assault through two neutral countries by going through Iraq and Kuwait) the United States likely will attack Iran pretty aggressively. Even if Saudi Arabia is bellicose at times most American Presidents won’t allow Iran to roll through two neutral Middle Eastern states and invade Saudi Arabia without responding militarily.

Maybe both regimes will destroy each other.

The chances of Iran trying a land invasion are almost zero. If open hostility breaks out they’ll just mine the strait of Hormuz and then funnel money and arms to the shia minority in saudi arabia and sit it out.