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No observer can overlook the contrasting visions of two projects unfolding in the Middle East, which are the Iranian project, and the Arab project. Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries serve as the main proponents of the Arab project. The absence or preoccupation of other Arab countries with internal issues detracts from their ability to focus on “building a model” as regional chaos diverts their attention.

The concept of “model building” has been a recurring theme in my analysis of regional affairs. Military elites, revolutionary factions, and political Islam have all fallen short in establishing a sustainable model that promotes national prosperity and serves the people’s interests. Some have resorted to violence domestically and internationally, while others have clung to revolutionary rhetoric, resulting in disastrous outcomes and a marked decline in stability and progress.

The Iranian and Arab projects represent contrasting approaches in both methods and objectives, yet they exert varying degrees of influence on each other. During reformist periods in Iran, particularly under the leadership of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), there was a tendency among the ruling elite to foster regional openness.

Khatami’s conciliatory behaviour facilitated smoother interactions between the western and eastern shores of the Gulf. His background, having served as a minister of culture and in the imperial army, along with his circle of forward-thinking advisers, contributed to this diplomatic approach.

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"Attraction model"

During that period, cultural delegations visited Iranian cities, fostering connections with like-minded Iranians. Some perceived “reforms” in GCC countries as partly influenced by the Iranian revolution, highlighting the significance of soft power.

Years later, Saudi Arabia permitted women to attend football stadiums while Iranian women were banned. Just a week later of the Saudi decision, the Iranian women were granted access to matches. This sequence of events underscored the notion of the “attraction model”.

Following Khatami’s tenure, Iran transitioned into a period characterised by militancy, leading to strained relations with its neighbours. The onset of the so-called “Arab Spring” fuelled speculation that Iran’s influence was behind the upheavals.

This notion was further solidified by Hussein Amir Abdollahian’s book “Subh al-Sham,” initially published in Persian and later translated into Arabic. The book portrayed the so-called Arab Spring as an “Islamic spring” inspired by the Iranian revolution. However, the outcomes of this “spring” ultimately culminated in disaster.

I was delighted when my friend Mohammad Al Salami sent me a 24-page booklet published by the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah), which he manages. The booklet, titled “The Impact of the Saudi Development Model on the Iranian Home Front, offers a unique perspective that underscores the significance of establishing a model amid regional competition.

In today’s interconnected world, success in building a model that resonates with the public holds immense influence, transcending linguistic and informational barriers. Indeed, the ability to create a successful model stands at the heart of polarisation.

Indeed, on the eastern side of the Arabian Gulf, particularly Iran, there exists a competitive pluralism of political forces, primarily between two schools, if not more: the revolutionary school and the reformist school. Despite this, there are numerous shortcomings in both the economic and social realms in Iran.

While there has been relative success in hard power, history reminds us that hard power alone, without the support of a broad and contented middle class, as well as a robust economy, renders one akin to a giant “with legs of wood.”

The strength of Iranian influence in the fragile neighbourhood, such as in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen, cannot be overstated. However, this influence is more of a “follower” than that of a free ally, often driven by political or interest-based reasons.

This dependence has resulted in the fragmentation of the social fabric in these countries and has given rise to counter-political forces. These forces attribute the failures of their countries to Iranian influence, which they believe exacerbates conflicts and perpetuates oppression and poverty.

Re-evaluation of perspective

As detailed in the Rasanah booklet, there are Iranian elites today who acknowledge the success of the Saudi model in international diplomatic relations. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has hosted a series of successful regional and international summits and meetings, showcasing its ability to engage in trade and industrial exchange across continents while transcending polarity.

Additionally, the modernist development model implemented by Saudi Arabia has achieved remarkable successes in diversifying income, enhancing human capital, empowering women, utilising oil revenues for economic and developmental modernisation, and improving education and services. This stands in stark contrast to Iran’s plans and its failure to develop the economy and services, despite the abundant resources within its borders.

Hence, the book meticulously tracks the erosion of the previous Iranian (revolutionary) narrative regarding Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, a narrative that was championed and promoted by hardliners. In its place emerges another narrative that juxtaposes areas of success and failure, prompting a re-evaluation of perspectives and attitudes towards regional dynamics.

The Saudi model, with its historical complexities and contemporary advancements in development, not only faces opposition from Iran’s hardline regime, but also encounters resistance from elements within the realm of kinetic Islam. These groups launch orchestrated campaigns against the model, ostensibly rooted in heritage sentiments but fundamentally driven by anti-modern and regressive ideologies.

Employing a range of tactics from misinformation to outright deception, these factions seek to undermine the model’s achievements, resorting to subterfuge and manipulation to maintain influence in what they perceive as their traditional sphere of influence.

Therefore, it is crucial to vigorously uphold the path of modernist development and morally bolster it by debunking the falsehoods propagated by detractors. Through astute marketing that showcases achievements, it becomes evident that Saudi Arabia’s endeavours represent a regional breakthrough, compensating for missed political opportunities within the neighbourhood.

Mohammad Alrumaihi is an author and Professor of Political Sociology at Kuwait University