An Analysis of the Triadic Relationship of Saudi, Iran, and Jordan and The Impact on Pan-Islamism in the Post-Cold War Era


The Cold War era in the Middle East saw the emergence of various colliding ideologies, with kingdoms ideologically deterring Nasser’s Pan-Arabism quest at the core of the mid-twentieth century. The post-Cold War era was just as scrambled in the Middle East as it was throughout the world. With global powers marking the end of their mega financial and security support to their-once-proxies, the Middle East was set for the emerging Sunni-Shia rhetoric to be heightened at its central stage. As such, Saudi Arabia and Iran began to exert their spheres of influence in the region, and by the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century, one can argue that Muslim states in the region are aligned with one sphere or the other. 

Despite different social and political ideologies penetrating Middle Eastern states at the national and local levels, Islamic ideologies retained their importance not only in shaping state dynamics, but also in shaping Pan-Islamism, as states pushed their own versions of the Muslim World. Since the decline of the Ottoman Empire and ultimately its fall, Muslim states sought to revitalize the role of the leader of the Muslim World. Three states have been at the forefront of this quest in the Post-Cold War era: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran see themselves as the rightful and legitimate leader of the Muslim World, while Jordan’s Hashemite leadership has advanced its own imaginative Muslim World through the lenses of Hashemite legitimacy. On the local level, the Arab Barometer Wave II illustrates that 54% of Saudi Arabian respondents and 44% of Jordanian respondents disagree that religious practices are private and should be separated from social and political life. Similarly, according to the World Values Survey, 94.3% of Iranian respondents and a staggering 99.5% of Jordanian respondents characterize religion as either “rather important” or “very important,” ultimately showcasing the role played by religion in state-state relations, state-society dynamics, and societal relations. 

While the conventional discussion of the Muslim World in the modern era automatically is inherently narrow, placing Saudi Arabia as the global leader of Sunnis and Iran as the global leader of Shiites, the role played by the Hashemites in Jordan is ought to be incorporated in the discussion of Pan-Islamism. As such, this paper explores the impact of the triad of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan on Pan-Islamism. It addresses the roles played and the avenues utilized by these states in filling the vacuum of Pan-Islamism and advancing their geopolitical interests. As such, this triad’s attempt to exert religious legitimacy and exercise the lead role in the Muslim World has changed in the past 28 years, and it has resulted in enabling non-state actors to pursue their own versions of Pan-Islamic thought, albeit through violent extremist means.

Analytical Framework

In order to explore the impact of this triad on Pan-Islamism, it is important to define what a triad and Pan-Islamism are. Alex Mintz defines triads in his article “Triads in International Relations: The Effect of Superpower Aid, Trade, and Arms Transfers on Conflict in the Middle East.” He indicates that triads consist of three members of the international community, such as countries A, B, and C. He adds that any two countries of a triad “may be linked through formal or informal alliance structures, while two may have a hostile relationship or one nation has influence on the other two nations.” Furthermore, Lee, Muncaster, and Zinnes explore triadic interactions through their module of: “the friend of my friend is my friend, the friend of my enemy is my enemy, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” The authors add that this rule manifests itself in the creation and preservation of the polarity of regions, as the nature of relations whether amiable or hostile intensify with time. These dynamics can be seen, at face value, in the triad of Saudi, Iran, and Jordan. With the first two in a clear intensifying hostility, Jordan’s position had to be determined with this increasing conflictual relationship.

As for the Muslim World and Pan-Islamism, Cemile Aydin, in his book “The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History,” explores these notions throughout the late 18th century until the end of the Cold War. The idea of the Muslim world and Pan-Islamism embrace and incorporate the notion of Muslim unity. In fact, Cemile Aydin illustrates that the idea of the Muslim World refers to narratives of geopolitics, civilization, and religious tradition. He adds that it does not mean Ummah, which refers to the Muslim community, expressing unity and theoretical equality of Muslims from diverse cultural and geographical settings. Both Cemile Aydin and Dwight Lee attribute the emergence of the idea of the Muslim World as well as Pan-Islamism to Europeans’ categorization of race. Aydin indicates that Pan-Islamists and Islamophobes utilized the imaginative idea of Muslim unity in ways to advance their own agenda, as they argued for and responded to racialization. Lee adds that Pan-movements emerged as a trend, responding to Europeans’ racialization of groups. He argues that Pan-Islamism “was probably adopted as an imitation of Pan-Slavism.”

Many of the themes and parameters he utilized in his analysis are still prevalent today, including Muslim unity and solidarity, narratives of Islamophobia, Pan-Islamic discourse, public opinion, and state and non-state actors attempting to fill the vacuum left by the caliphate. As such and given the rise of ferocious extremist organizations, it is important to analyze the extent to which the contemporary shape of the Muslim World, particularly the aforementioned triangle, contributed to allowing the motives and space for such organizations to advance their own agenda. The prevalent geopolitical rivalry of Sunna-Shia and its inability to produce appropriate responses to islamophobic narrative have fragmented the Muslim World and hindered Pan-Islamic thought and ultimately allowed for terrorist organizations to gain a voice in the discourse despite Jordan’s efforts.

Relations Among the Three States

Before discussing the roles played by the triad, it is important to provide a background about the relations between the three countries. The following section offers an overview of the relations of Saudi Arabia with Iran, Saudi Arabia with Jordan, and Iran with Jordan. 

Saudi Arabian-Iran Relations

The dynamics and relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran can be viewed through the lenses of the Realist international affairs theory, with emphasis on rivalry, distrust, and embracing conflictual relations to gain internal support. Scholars including Cemile Aydin in The Idea of the Muslim World, Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp in Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations and Regional Order, Gwenn Okruhlik in “Saudi Arabian-Iranian Relations: External Rapprochement and Internal Consolidation,” and Frederic Wehrey et. al in Saudi-Iranian Relations since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for US Policy, all provided analyses of Saudi-Iran relations through realism. 

Saudi-Iranian relations cannot be addressed without understanding the impact of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the dynamics it posed on the region in general and in Saudi Arabia in specific. In fact, the aforementioned scholars marked the revolution as the start of their rivalry, and this rivalry has been manifested in religious legitimacy and regional security and hegemony.  Aydin asserts that Saudi Arabia feared the impact of the revolution on its internal societal fabrics, given the sizeable Shiite community. Iran’s leadership began voicing an anti-West and anti-allies-of-the-West narrative, with Saudi Arabia at the core, as they saw the Kingdom as America’s eyes, ears, and hands in the region. As such, ties with the United States has been an integral part of Iran’s narrative in the region. More specifically, Iran sees Saudi as a “client of the US” who implements the orders provided from Washington, an outside force to which it denounces a “demonic role”. These orders include economic issues such as oil prices and political matters with Palestine at the core. 

The 1979 Islamic Revolution marked the beginning of the religious primacy rivalry. Aydin reports Ayatollah Khomeini’s narrative towards Saudi Arabia, arguing that the leaders of the Kingdom has failed to be a leader of the Muslim World, and it was time for Iran to demonstrate its religious legitimacy, as they questioned the compatibility of monarchy with true Islam. With time, the relationship between the two states became centered around competition for legitimacy as leaders of Islam. For Saudi Iran’s threat was about the power of the ideals portrayed by its leaders who sought to expand revolutionary Islam, as a foil to Saudi’s failed policies. As such, Iran’s model proclaimed the spread of true Islam, and that as its rightful leaders, they would speak as its imaginative universal authority. They saw Saudi’s approach as passive, unlike Iran’s which supported Muslim rights, albeit through militant means.   

Khomeini saw his divine right to rule and urged the Shiite community in Saudi to fulfill their roles and follow the example of Iran, whereas King Fahd of Saudi countered with asserting that Iran’s actions were “against the interests of Islam, the Muslim World, and the stability of the Middle East.”

Saudi Arabia was facing its own internal issues, including the ramifications of the 1979 Islamic Revolutions on the social dynamics, the rise of oppositions, Islamism, succession struggles, demonstrations, the effects of the Gulf War, and socioeconomic issues. With struggle comes opportunity, and for Saudi’s leadership, it was time to embrace an outside enemy to suppress the internal issues. Gwen Okruhlik argues that regimes facing issues at home create enemies abroad for the idea that external conflict results in internal cohesion, manifested in rallying around the flag. As such, Saudi Arabia began to move away from the possibility of reconciliation with Iran and more towards embracing it as its inherent ideological enemy, to face domestic issues. 

In a region of majority Arab Sunni states, Iran’s worldview of the Middle East has been one of insecurity, particularly following the 1979 Revolution, the subsequent war with Iraq, and the Gulf War. Kayhan Barzegar illustrates that while Iran’s posture in the Middle East is inherently one of insecurity, the solution does not lie within policies of containment, isolation, or destabilization. An International Crisis Group report titled “Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle East,” further highlights the roots of Iran’s sense of insecurity in the region, asserting that Iran was at the wrong end of a tremendous sense of strategic solitude throughout the war with Iraq. It was the fact that Arab states stood behind Saddam’s government in hopes of containing Iran’s revolutionary ideals from spreading into the region, thus pushing Iran towards forging relations with Hafez Al-Assad in Syria and establishing Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Consequently, with the fall of Saddam and the Baathists in Iraq, Iran’s arguably biggest rival was gone, resulting in further concerns in Saudi Arabia over Iran’s regional ambitions manifested in expanding its sphere of influence by not only physically surrounding the Kingdom with allies but also by outshining its leadership in major Pan-Arab issues including Palestine. Moreover, from 2003 up until the end of the first wave of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, all of a sudden, found itself surrounded by Iran’s allies and proxies. Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Qatar, and Yemen are now within Iran’s sphere of influence, gaining the Islamic Republic a geographic advantage over the Kingdom, thus, perhaps leveling the military superiority which has kept Saudi feeling safe.

Saudi Arabian-Jordanian Relations

Saudi-Jordanian relations are now among the most important and strategic in the region. Multiple data sources show that Jordanians have a high favorable views toward Saudi, with 83% of Jordanians describing their views as very favorable in 2017. Arab Barometer Data highlight the economic relations between the two states, as 78% of Jordanians indicated their hopes for the economic relations with Saudi to became stronger in 2017 than it was in the year before. Data from Konrad Adenauer Stiftung illustrate that 22.4% of Jordanians view Saudi as Jordan’s strongest ally, second to the United States, while 58% perceived Saudi to have an influence on Jordan. Moreover, current relations between the two countries are highly positive. One can argue that the relations are good because of economic reasons and because of geopolitical reasons. 

Jordan’s economic stagnation has caused tremendous tension internally. Saudi Arabia, concerned for the impact an unstable Jordan could have on an already gruesome situation in the region, ran to Jordan’s aid. In 2011 Jordan received $1.7 billion, in aid from the GCC, mainly Saudi, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar, as part of a $5 billion in financial aid for development in Jordan. In addition to this, Saudi Arabia is a home to a sizeable number of Jordanian workers. Of the 750,000 Jordanians working abroad, it is estimated that 400,000 work in Saudi Arabia, who actively send remittances home. These remittances sent by Jordanian workers in Saudi comprise for 10% of Jordan’s GDP ($3.8 billion) annually. These economic factors, in the form of foreign aid and remittances, are not the only factors shaping relations between the two countries, as geopolitical factors play an integral role. 

In fact, one can argue that Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Jordan serves towards its own sphere of influence to counter Iran’s. The rise of Iran as a geopolitical force along with its perceived threat on the region’s Sunni monarchies led both Jordan and Saudi to each other. At a first glance, the alliance is imbalanced with Saudi’s wealth far surpasses Jordan’s, who remains reliant on the financial support of its allies, including Saudi Arabia. However, Jordan is just as important for Saudi Arabia. Jordan’s location is strategic for Saudi in its quest for containing Iran’s expanding bloc. The two countries have implemented numerous military strategies together. On the ideological level, Jordan being a Sunni Arab monarchy is just like Saudi and a direct foil to Iran.

The current relations between the two kingdoms tend to turn a blind eye on their darker past. The two kingdoms did not always see eye to eye. King Hussein of Jordan over the span of 4 decades kept Saudi on their toes. He consistently highlighted his direct descent from prophet Muhammad and that he was the grandson of Sherif Hussein bin Ali, the leader of the Great Arab Revolt, thus giving him a legitimate claim over Arab leadership. King Hussein sent hints and messages at Saudi indicating that his ancestors came from Saudi and one day he could regain that. Given the nature of the rise of the Al-Sauds, such claims had to be taken seriously.

Putting these differences aside, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait sought to lure in Jordan with financial aid. In the 1970s, over 40% of all budgetary aid of the two Gulf countries was provided to Jordan in the form of grants, subsidized oil, or low-interest loans. Jordanian workers were sending remittances back to Jordan. Thus, both factors were enhancing Jordan’s economic stability. For Saudi Arabia, a stable Jordan was essential for its own security, as Jordan was a buffer from the Arab-Israeli conflict and radical ideologies. By the mid 1980s, Saudi and Kuwait began decreasing their foreign aid to Jordan, due to the ramifications of the Iran-Iraq war in which the two countries were spending big, as oil prices decreased. As such, Jordan turned to form alliances with two of its most immediate neighbors: Syria and Iraq. With Syria, Jordan had hoped to increase bilateral trade and form a united front in seeking funds from the GCC. Jordan’s alliance with Iraq was problematic for Syria and for Saudi Arabia later on. When Jordan needed to make a decision between Iraq and Syria, Iraq’s financial prospects to Jordan made the difference. 

Jordan’s relations with Iraq solidified, and in 1990, Jordan was one of the very few countries who stood with Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait. This has led to tensions between Amman and Ryadh. For King Hussein of Jordan, Baghdad was essential, and his alliance with Saddam Hussein was financially rewarding in aid and oil support. With the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Jordan remained a channel for Iraqi funds, businessmen, and even trade exchanges to circumvent the blockade. Later on, it dawned on Jordan that it had just lost one of its most important economic and political, let alone wealthy allies, sending Jordan back towards restoring and strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia. The situation this time was less problematic for Saudi, as King Abdullah II of Jordan was unlike his father. King Abdullah acknowledged his Jordanian identity and worked towards building a solidified Jordanian identity on the basis of pride in country and flag. The byproduct of such actions was that Saudi no longer feared a Jordanian imaginative divine return to Saudi lands as its rightful leaders. 

While current relations are positive, they are not at the peak they reached in 2011 – 2016 anymore, for two important reasons. Jordanian public opinion has been growing more critical of Saudi Arabia, particularly in regards to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The brutality of the action and the media attention it gained affected Jordanians’ views toward Saudi. The second important matter is the issue in Jerusalem, in what has become to be known as the “Deal of the Century.” Deal of the Century is portrayed as the ultimate solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it entails the end of the Palestinian quest and their right to return. Instead, more Palestinians will be expelled from their homes into Jordan as their “substitute home.” 

A brief analysis of the region shows that major GCC countries including Saudi Arabia have signed off on the deal, leaving Jordan behind as a strong antagonist to the deal. King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke consistently and repeatedly that Jordan is a red line and will never succumb to any pressures, and that he will continue to advocate for the Two State Solution. The Gulf countries led by Saudi seem to be persistent on realizing the deal. June of 2018 saw a major wave of demonstrations in Jordan against structural adjustments and taxation laws. Saudi Arabia and UAE pledged $2.5 billion in aid to Jordan, presumably to support the kingdom out of its economic struggles, though many sources suggest that the underlying message was to pressure Jordan towards accepting the deal.

Iranian-Jordanian Relations

Jordan’s relations with Iran are much more complicated to unfold. While 83% of Jordanians indicated high favorable views of Saudis in 2017, only 4% of Jordanians indicated high favorability towards Iran. Jordanian-Iranian relations have resembled a roller-coaster, with times the two states enjoyed great relations, with other times they would appear as bitter rivals. Interestingly, and despite Saudi Arabia’s influence on Jordan’s stance towards Iran, it was not until recent years that Jordan began dealing with Iran as Saudi’s rival. 

Dr. Mohannad Mobidien argues that Jordan-Iran’s relations were characterized by cooperation and understanding during Iran’s monarchy era between 1949 – 1979. King Hussein of Jordan and Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran inaugurated Jordan’s embassy in Tehran in 1959. Jordan and Iraq had agreed to counter the United Arab Republic by creating the Arab United Kingdom in 1965, however, the revolution in Iraq ended the prospect for that, thus pushing Jordan towards bolstering its relations with Iran to ensure sovereignty, independence, and security. In 1960, however, relations between the two countries began to worsen when Iran recognized Israel. While the Shah of Iran reiterated that it was not a new stance for Iran, King Hussein of Jordan urged him to change his position. Later on, while Jordan recognized the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representatives of Palestinians, Iran acknowledged Hamas as the legal representatives of Palestinians. 

Jordan’s leadership welcomed the new “Islamic Republic” following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran with open arms. Will Fulton, however, indicates that relations between the two countries were immediately strained with the establishment of the Islamic Republic. It was all due to the fact that King Hussein held close ties with the Pahlavi monarchy of Iran. Nevertheless, the war with Iraq meant that Jordan had to take a position. As such, King Hussein backed Iraq in all conferences, meetings, summits, and visits around the world. Jordan provided volunteer fighters to Iraq and established fifteen centers in Amman which recruited 2,500 volunteers to fight for Iraq. As King Hussein continued to support Iraq in all means possible, including granting access to port of Aqaba for transporting military supplies, Syria mirrored Jordan’s actions with Iran and provided it with ground and airspace, transporting 1,500 Iranian soldiers to South Lebanon.

After the Gulf war, Jordan’s alliance with Iraq against Iran hindered ties between the two countries, especially that many reports suggested direct Jordanian involvement with Iraq against Iran, an action that is harder to reconcile from. With the passing of Khomeini in 1989, Iran’s foreign policy in the region turned towards normalization relations with Arab neighbors, which meant that they had to ensure that their policies do not involve “exporting the revolution.” During the second Gulf War in 1990, Jordan’s position at the United Nations kept relations positive with Iran, as Jordan’s representative to Iran and later the Foreign Minister visited Iran. Such actions steered diplomatic relations back on track. The situation did not last long, as Jordan discovered a violent extremist organization under the name “Jadish Mohammad” who admitted receiving support from Iran. A few months later, Jordan discovered armories which it perceived as a direct threat to the regime. Hamas admitted that the source was Iran, but the aim was to supply the West Bank.

In 1994, Jordan signed the Wadi Araba Peace Treaty with Israel, which sparked massive criticisms from Iran. Jordan expelled Iran’s ambassador in Jordan along with 21 diplomats under the charges of establishing terrorist cells in Jordan for both Hamas and Hezbollah, and following the killing of a Jordanian diplomat in West Beirut. Three years later, the election of Mohammed Khatami as Iran’s new president saw the resumption of diplomatic relations. Once again, however, tensions flared quickly, as Jordan arrested four Palestinians coming from Iran carrying huge amount of money, believed to be for plotting operations against Israel. Then, Jordan discovered a 16-member cell and arrested 83 others who received training in Iran. King Abdullah II of Jordan raised the issue with George W. Bush, a move that was not received too softly in Iran and accused King Abdullah of inciting the US against Iran. 

In 2010, King Abdullah urged president Obama to refrain from military force against Iran, referring to it as “Pandora’s Box.” King Abdullah asserted that Iran’s strength lies in rhetoric of injustice against Palestinians and Jerusalem, and that once those cards are off the table, Iran’s influence through Hezbollah and Hamas decreases substantially. He added that Iran has positioned itself as an advocate of Palestinian affairs, and as long as Israel commits human rights violations against Palestinians, Iran will keep revamping its military and causing tension in the region.

Despite all of these tensions, the situation never escalated further than that. The influx of Iraqi refugees into Jordan, however, brought a sizeable portion of Shiites. They slowly organized themselves and managed to convert tens of Jordanian Sunni families. In 2015, Jordan and Saudi affirmed their rejection of Iran’s approach in the region, and in 2016, Jordan rejected Iran’s request for half a million visas to visit Shiite holy sites in Jordan. Jordan’s situation was clearer, and it backed Saudi in its rivalry with Iran, especially that in 2018, Jordan’s Minister of Industry ruled out any economic or commercial rapprochement with Iran because of “the political divergence between the two countries.” Instead, Jordan reestablished its close economic ties with war-torn Iraq, a step Iran fears due to the historic ties of Jordan and Iraq, and the ability for economic prosperity to change Iraq’s stance in the region. Then, Iran’s “Shia crescent in the Eastern Mediterranean” could lose a major ally to one of the “wild cards.”  

Ultimately, Saudi and Iran are bitter rivals and are at a quasi-cold war through proxies; Saudi and Jordan are close allies with shared interests in the region, except for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and Jordan and Iran experienced rivalry and allegiance, as the current situation can be explained through Lee, Muncaster, and Zinnes’ module of “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” or the “friend of my enemy is my enemy.”

Individual Strive for Pan-Islamic Leadership

This brief overview of the direct relations between the triad sets the stage to analyze the roles they have played in filling the vacuum of Pan-Islamist leadership. Cemile Aydin described that feelings of Muslim solidarity would be heightened when religious freedom is oppressed and threatened. The Ottoman Empire long served as the leader of the Muslim World, but its collapse left an ideological power vacuum. Saudi Arabia and Iran attempted filling the role. With Abdel Nasser’s policies of Pan-Arabism, Muslim solidarity was becoming more unattainable. Leaders of Saudi and Iran saw a united Muslim World as a solution to global and domestic issues.

Saudi Arabia

King Faisal of Saudi Arabia worked to rebuild the Muslim World in an age of nation states Saudi, who was worried about internal strife, feared Iran, and developed its internationalism narrative focused on Sunni message. Iran saw itself capable of leading Pan-Islamism, as it signaled out the Gulf monarchies and secular states for allying with USA. While Suliman’s Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” was under massive scrutiny, Khomeini capitalized and emerged as a spokesman of an imagined Muslim World and revealed that Muslims in the west were an extension into the heart of western civilization. Khomeini attempted to reform the Muslim World along the lines of postcolonial region still humiliated by the USA, Europe, Britain, and post-colonial Muslim elites and secular states allied with the West, mainly Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The following section explores the means through which the triad sought to demonstrate leadership of the Muslim World in the Cold War era. It also analyzes the impact of their actions on Pan-Islamist thought. 

Saudi Arabia’s quest for Islamic leadership has taken multiple shapes in the past. Aydin illustrates that King Faisal sought to modernize the country by utilizing oil. He was cited to have used narratives of Pan-Islamism to rally Muslim-majority states behind Saudi’s approach so that Saudi can emerge as the true leader of the Muslim World. The idea was that in a world of nation states interacting in a world economy, economically advanced countries have more agency in the world. 

Nawaf Obeid explores the dynamics of religion in Saudi’s governance. He indicates that the rules of Saudi have long shared power with the religious “Ulema”, a powerful group of spiritual leaders. Al Saud controlled the state and the Al Ash-Sheikh who are descendent of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab controlled religious institutions, albeit with the king holding the position of the country’s supreme religious leadership, mainly as the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest two shrines. The Ulema hold many important positions in public institutions, such as judges, lawyers, and imams.

As such, Saudis consider themselves as the custodians of true Islam, Islam’s holiest two sites, and they consider themselves to preach the right form of Islam. Saudi’s leadership believe that the fall of the Ottoman Empire placed the banner of Islam in their hands, yet they believe it is their divine right to spread Wahhabi Islam, as Wahhabis managed to exert influence since 1979. Such an approach has led to the spread of violent forms of political Islam in many areas. Saudi’s view of their divine right to lead is manifested in their belief that they were chosen by God through the Prophet and the Arabic language, the language in which Islam was brought. This belief is contradictory to the essence of Islam which places morality over ethnicity. Ultimately, they managed to combine religious and nationalistic factors well to convince the world of their legitimacy as the supreme dynasty to carry the banner of Islam through their ethnicity and Arab origins. This approach, which Heghammer assigns the terms of “socio-revolutionary Islamism”, “classical jihadism”, and “global jihadism” to it, entails that Saudi’s Pan-Islamism is centered on macro-nationalism of an imagined Muslim community.

The Arab Spring posed a tremendous threat to Saudis quest for Pan-Islamist leadership. In essence, the empowerment of Islamists in many neighboring countries such as in Egypt and Tunisia, amongst others, entailed that Saudi Arabia was losing its “unique Islamic credentials.” While the Saudi regime was eager to contain these movements to maintain its regime and stance as the sole Islamic model in the region, the military coup in Egypt, which ousted Morsi breathed a sigh of relief for Saudi.

However, the rise of Prince Mohammed bin Salman into power saw a substantial change in Saudi’s Pan-Islamist aspirations. Bin Salman is changing the Kingdom into a secular state more than a theocratic one. His approach reasoned that Saudi’s sole role in the region in the past has been centered around its religious status, and to place that status at risk can result in a greater role in the region. Moreover, as Faisal Devji argues, Saudi’s project to turn into a politically-defined state rather than a religious-defined one can demolish the vision of an Islamic geography. Devji adds that this may also result in Islam finally becoming a truly global religion while the Middle East may still enjoy the pride of the place of its origin despite the fact that the vast majority of its believers reside elsewhere in the East. Devji concludes that Islam would inevitably find its home in Asia, as most of its followers live there in addition to the fact that wealth and development is achieving substantial results there. Saudi Arabia, with Mohammed Bin Salman’s vision, is on the verge of abandoning its quest for Pan-Islamic leadership, and with time, its only importance in Islam will remain merely in Mecca and Medina as the destination of pilgrimage.

This transformation in Saudi’s regional foreign policy has been manifested in the narrative. While Saudi’s allies in the region tend to be Sunni-majority states and its rivals tend to be Shiite-majority or Shiite-backed states, Saudi now reasons its approach through geopolitical narrative rather than religious. Part of this changing narrative has been Iran’s transformation in its regional foreign policy from exporting the revolution to advancing the interests of its leadership in gaining geopolitical importance. 


Iran’s Pan-Islamist leadership aspirations has long used Saudi Arabia as its foil. Iran claims that Saudi’s alliances with neo-imperialist global powers, mainly the United States, has weakened Saudi’s legitimacy as well as its Islamic identity. Instead, Iran views its resistance narrative as a more legitimate representation of Islamic geopolitics. As such, Iran’s worldview of the Muslim World and its Pan-Islamist narrative places United States as the enemy of Islam. For instance, Iran’s current president Hassan Rouhani urged Muslims of the world to unite against the United States. He added that if Muslims were to submit to the West and the United States, they would be betraying Islam and the future generations of the Middle East.

Unifying against a common enemy has long been a module utilized by nationalist movements, but in this context, Iran uses such narratives for Pan-Islamist and geopolitical purposes. Ayatollah Khamenei reduced the solution to the contemporary Muslim World to merely “unity amongst Muslim states” and “the weakening of America.” He added that only by following this module, Muslims of the world would be able to enjoy a bright future and Ummah would prosper. As such, Iran’s narrative of “unification of the ranks of Muslims against the enemies of Islam” was highlighted in 2008, which was referred to as “the year of Islamic unity,” and this is a shift from its previous efforts to spread the revolution. Moreover, Iran, after 40 years of its Islamic Revolution, has not exported its revolution, but it has, in fact, expanded its influence in the region. Iran’s leadership now utilize their 1979 movement to help Iran secure its interests and enhance its role in the region.

Iran now holds an annual Islamic Unity conference and its charter illustrates its guiding principles, manifested in Iran’s aspiration for Islamic cooperation. This document urges Muslims of various sects to refrain from “name-calling” or takfir (denouncing one’s faith or belief). This is the embodiment of Iran’s vahdat of Pan-Islamic unity. Despite the promise of this charter, much of Iran’s Pan-Islamist aspirations is geopolitical, to enhance its position as a leader of the Muslim World. These aspirations remain somewhat unattainable or hard to achieve given Iran’s characteristics as a Shiite Persian state, unlike Saudi Arabia who has used its Sunni Arab traits to advance its geopolitical interests in the past.

Iran’s Shiite traits placed limits on its aspirations, but recently, Iran’s leadership has turned towards embracing its Shiism and assume its role as the protector of Shiites within the Muslim World. Iran now embraces the Shiite communities around the Middle East to spread its sphere of influence to advance what King Abdullah II of Jordan referred to as “the Shia Crescent.” The pressing question is: has Iran been advancing a Pan-Islamist narrative or a Pan-Shia narrative. The short answer is both. Research shows that Iran aspires to utilize a Pan-Sha approach in order to advance its Pan-Islamist aspirations. In essence, Iran acknowledges the shortcomings of Pan-Shiism experiences in Central Asia and the Caucasus. They also know that to establish the Shia Crescent will not achieve any results beyond being denounced by Western powers, antagonizing Sunni Powers, and block Iran’s influence. As such, Iran seeks to refrain from any intra-Islamic confrontations in order to expand its sphere of influence beyond Shiite-majority areas. This explains Khamenei and Rouhani’s narrative in Muslim unity, refraining from takfir practices, and rallying under the banner of Islam against their imagined enemies in the West. 

Despite King Abdullah’s warning of the Shia Crescent in 2004 when he wanted to bring the attention to Iran’s regional behavior, Iran has been able to expand its influence in the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are now all under Iran’s direct sphere of influence. King Abdullah’s theory did not account for Saudi Arabia’s influence, using very similar approach. Yet, Iran seems to attempt to upstage Saudi in matters pertaining for Pan-Arabism. Muhammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, asserted that Iran will continue to support oppressed peopled globally, mainly Muslims. Nevertheless, analyses show that Iran only interferes when it concerns its own national interests, and while it mainly supports Shiites, it does support Sunnis if it is within its best interest to do so.

Iran’s policies in the region has served to develop loyalty to the region, and it has been successful with developing Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen who are trained by Iran and serve to preserve Iran’s influence. For instance, its support for the Houthis, a Yazidi Shiite sect, is explained through the lenses of protecting Shiites around the region. Iran has also been utilizing education, culture, and media to advance its geopolitical interests, by investing in Karbala and Najaf in Iraq, supporting the Islamic Azad University networks in Syria and Iraq, and producing Arabic-speaking radio and television programs to affect public opinion, with Hezbollah in Lebanon being the embodiment of Iran’s approach in the Middle East, as it blends soft and strong power. 

Many of the scholars reviewed earlier asserted that Saudi Arabia transformed itself from preaching Pan-Islamism to advance its economic development, to highlighting its ethnic-religious superiority as the divine chosen leaders of the Muslim World, and eventually to stepping back from this role, as the new leadership seeks to enhance its geopolitical role, through social and secular reforms. Iran has also undergone certain changes in its Pan-Islamist narrative. Whereas Khomeini sought to expand the revolution, more recent approaches saw Iran preaching Islamic unity. Nowadays, Iran adopts a mixed method of Pan-Shiite and Pan-Islamist narrative, albeit for geopolitical purposes. 


Jordan’s Pan-Islamism narrative is different from the duo. Jordan’s Pan-Islamic leadership aspirations can be seen as both reactionary and proactive. Both King Hussein who served as King of Jordan between 1952 – 1999 and King Abdullah II (1999-) highlighted their Hashemite heritage and direct lineage of Prophet Muhammad. King Abdullah II has been far more active in pursuing a Pan-Islamist leadership than his father, who was more concerned with Nasser’s Pan-Arabism, among other geopolitical challenges. King Hussein lived in a fragmented era, given the 1967 war, the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran, the Iraq-Iran War, and the Gulf Wars. As such, he was more concerned with politics than religion, and he was content with Saudi Arabia assuming the role of leaders of the Muslim World, as he did not want to antagonize the Saudis. 

On the night of November 9th, 2005 Amman witnessed a major terrorist attack, as 3 hotels in the capital were bombed, leaving over 60 people dead and hundreds wounded. This gruesome event propelled Jordan to react. In a region of colliding Saudi Sunni messages, Wahhabism, Iran’s Pan-Shiite rhetoric, and terrorist organizations, Jordan’s leadership sought to assume a role of an advocate for moderate Islam.

King Abdullah II denounced radicalization and violent extremism as Islam’s biggest and most threatening enemy. He drafted the Amman Message, which was a document that sought to reiterate Islam’s true message. A year later, he enacted the “Kalema Sawaa’” and established the Inter-Faith Forum in efforts to establish effective dialogue amongst different world religions, highlight their similarities, and stress on the fact that violent extremism is the enemy of all religions. The inter-faith forum is a continuation of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Study established in 1994 by Prince Hassan bin Talal. He spoke at multiple international conferences with moderation, placing himself as a leader of moderate Islam, as he denounced the extremists as “Khawarej (the outlaws) of Islam.” His efforts received global recognition, as he received the Templeton Prize in 2018 due to his efforts in seeking “religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions.”

More recently, Jordan has been under scrutiny in the region amidst efforts by regional leaders to shake Jordan’s position on the “Deal of the Century.” King Abdullah affirmed conspiracies penetrating into Jordan’s political and security apparatus to cause tension in the country and weaken its position on Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause as a whole. As such, he reiterated multiple times that his position is final and that “Jerusalem is a red line to him and all of his people” and that “his position on Jerusalem is unwavering.” In a transcript published by the Hashemite Royal Court, King Abdullah II was quoted affirming that Jordan’s position on the matter cannot be pressured and the answer will remain negative. He added that “Arabs and Muslims will stand with us.” 

Jordan’s position on the matter is threefold: first, Jordan holds a vast majority of Jordanians of Palestinian origins as well as Palestinian refugees and it is in Jordan’s best interest to advocate for their right of return. Secondly, Jordan sees the “alternative homeland” strategy within the “Deal of the Century” as undermining its own sovereignty and Palestinians’ right of return. Thirdly, Jordan’s Hashemite leadership is the legitimate custodian of the Al Aqsa mosque and other Islamic and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem. This custodianship dates back to Sherif Hussein bin Ali, the leader of the Great Arab Revolt. The Hashemite’s custodianship is also recognized by the Palestinian Authority and is documented in the 1994 Wadi Araba Peace Treaty with Israel.

Further Discussion

Amidst the turmoil in the Middle East and the failure of regional powers to produce concrete solutions to the issues, radical alternatives became more attractive, particularly for young, disenchanted people. Saudi’s fixation on Iran and Iran’s disturbing behavior in the region left a void in the leadership of the Muslim World, as Jordan’s role was reactionary at heart. With that, violent extremist groups gained support to advance their own versions of Pan-Islamic worldview. In fact, the failures of regional powers contributed to the deepening of what is known as “the Fall from Grace.”

Fuller asserts that Islamist groups carry the banner of Islam in their rhetoric because it makes their quest for gaining legitimacy easier. The Fall from Grace is a romanticized notion and refers to an era in which Islamic civilization produced literary and technological innovations. Such groups, consequently, attribute the decline of the Muslim World to the transformation towards modern nation states and to the deviation from religion. With that, multiple violent extremist groups utilized this narrative in their quest for reestablishing the Caliphate, the most recent of which was Daesh, who denounced the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries as the enemy due to their failure in upholding religious law and resolve the region’s most pressing issues.

The rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia was to contain and counter Shia revival in Iran. Since then, Saudi Arabia emphasized its divine role as the rightful leader of the Muslim World. However, now that the state has developed its economy, the new leadership looks to give up its historic role in the region to move beyond a mere religious leader towards a geopolitical leader. On the other hand, Iran had initially sought to spread its revolution in the region, but slowly moved towards establishing a concrete geopolitical stance, through establishing and strengthening its sphere of influence. Now that Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, and Yemen have all, in varying degrees, fell within Iran’s influence, the Islamic Republic continues its “Shiization” policies, as it recruits people from East and Central Asia and sends them back with a new ideology.

Iran’s leadership argues that their approach to assuming leadership of the Muslim World is through Pan-Islamist mechanism, however, their actions portray a Pan-Shiite end goal. This can be described a “cognitive dissonance”, a term borrowed from the field of psychology. In essence, Iran’s discourse is different than the policies and actions implemented. Iran’s interference in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain fall within its Pan-Shiite strategy to strengthen its geopolitical position in the region. It is not to protect Muslims despite their sects. 

The geopolitical relations amongst the triad of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan has done more harm to the Muslim World and Pan-Islamism than good in the Post-Cold War era. Saudi-Iran relations have been fragmented, and the two states are practically at a cold war. Jordan-Saudi relations have moved past the Hashemite-Saud rivalry over religious legitimacy and have moved on to develop close geopolitical strategic ties, to counter Iran. Jordan-Iran relations have gone through ups and downs, until Jordan chose to side with Saudi Arabia to stop the spread of the “Shia Crescent.” With the exception of a few initiatives led by Jordan such as the Amman Message, Kalema Sawaa’, Inter-Faith Forum, and its position on Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause, which have all been reactionary in nature, the three states, particularly Saudi and Iran have failed to demonstrate true leadership of the Muslim World. Instead, they remain wary of one another and craft their regional foreign policy in that regard. While Saudi is moving past its historic role as the leader of the Muslim World, Iran’s Shiite trait limits its quest and its aspirations remain cognitively dissonant, as Jordan’s prospects are contained by regional pressures. These geopolitical dynamics have enabled non-state actors to gain agency and pursue their own versions of the Muslim World and Pan-Islamism. 

In the midst of uncertainty over leadership of the Muslim World, Turkey is in fact slowly positioning itself a popular alternative to replace Saudi Arabia. In a study conducted by PEW Research Center in 2017, about 79% of respondents from the MENA region see Turkey as gaining a prominent actor in the region, tied with the Russia with 3% behind the United States and ahead of Iran, despite is regional behavior. Furthermore, 66% of Jordanians surveyed indicated favorable views towards Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second to King Salman of Saudi Arabia with 86% favorability. These percentages may be closer nowadays following recent events in the region. Nevertheless, Turkey is slowly positioning itself to gain the role of the leader of the Muslim World, as the true successor of the Ottoman Empire. 

The complexity of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey nowadays pose challenges in the region but also creates opportunities, politically and religiously. To capitalize on these challenges and opportunities, a potential Pan-Islamist leader would need proper resources. Jordan cannot afford the resources, especially nowadays with the pressure posed by regional and global powers, but Jordan’s prospects has and will remain the consensus that a stable Jordan is in the best interest of all actors involved. Should religion remain highly important in the region, and World Values Survey data illustrates that it is, then Jordan could become the next leader of the Muslim World. The Hashemite leadership provide the legitimacy, and the actions taken by Jordan in this context have been moderate and portrayed leadership. 


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