As of Tuesday about 150 direct monthly flights between Saudi Arabia and Iran had been halted as part of the archrivals’ spreading diplomatic spat. After Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric on Saturday, angry mobs in Shia Iran ransacked and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad. Saudi Arabia responded on Sunday by severing all diplomatic ties with Iran, as well as trade and travel.
And other Sunni allies of Riyadh have followed suit in spurning Tehran. Bahrain (which has a restive Shia majority but a Sunni ruling monarchy) and Sudan also severed diplomatic relations. Bahrain also announced it is stopping all flights to and from Iran. The U.A.E. downgraded its relationship with Iran, and Kuwait on Tuesday recalled its ambassador to Iran. (Egypt also vocalized its support for Saudi Arabia, though Cairo already severed ties with Tehran in 1989.) Other Sunni Gulf states, like Qatar and Oman, are trying to stay out of the dispute.
The dispute will hurt Iran most. Tehran had hoped to start 2016 with improved diplomatic and trade relations concurrent with the lifting of Western sanctions after the nuclear deal reached last summer. But now it’s becoming more diplomatically isolated. And Saudi Arabia has a huge structural advantage in their antagonistic relationship, because it is home to Mecca. According to Arabian Business, trade between Saudi Arabia and Iran is small compared to the size of their economies, but tens of thousands of Iranians travel to the kingdom every year to complete the haj and umrah pilgrimages — essential tenets of Islam.
There are not tens of thousand of Saudis traveling to Iran every year, meaning that Iran needs Saudi cooperation but not vice versa. And Iran’s other go-to leverage — cutting off oil and gas exports or flooding the market — is ineffective against mega-producer Saudi Arabia, which is already pumping without restraint in this global market of low oil prices.
The Gulf Cooperation Council of Arab states announced on Tuesday it will hold an extraordinary meeting in Riyadh on Saturday to discuss tensions with Iran. But even if the diplomatic spat continues or other Sunni countries join in, the impact will be limited. Simply, the long-running antagonism between the countries — fueled by sectarian proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen — will be formalized. And if relations are indeed restored in due time, the underlying points of contention will remain.