What are the primary drivers of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry? Why have relations between them been incredibly conflictual at some moments in time and relatively stable at others? Most studies in the existing scholarly literature explain the dynamics of Saudi-Iranian relations through the prism of balance of power theory or from a constructivist perspective. This thesis provides an alternative theoretical explanation by making the case that the single most important element in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is the politics of regime security. Rather than changes in the power balance or the normative environment, it is more specifically the extent to which they find their respective regime security interests compatible or in conflict which provides the best explanation of the ups and downs of Saudi-Iranian relations. The thesis presents “the neoclassical realist theory of threat perception,” which allows us to account for changes in perceptions of threat over time, based on a typology of four distinct perceptual prisms of threat. The empirical analysis explains why particular perceptions of threat emerged for Saudi Arabia and Iran, and how they were subsequently maintained in the periods 1979-1989, 1990-2002, and 2003-2011. Each of the three chapters accounts for major changes in the trajectory of Saudi-Iranian relations, and they demonstrate collectively the centrality of regime security interests in shaping and conditioning the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. This study will be of value to all with an interest in Middle East politics, interstate rivalries, and international relations theory.
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