Blog Post

“We are at the end of some of these dynamics that 1979 launched” - Kim Ghattas on the Saudi-Iran Rivalry from 1979 to 2021, and Beyond

November 2021

On November 4, 2021, Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative (MEI) welcomed journalist and author Kim Ghattas for a public seminar hosted by MEI’s Faculty Director Tarek Masoud on the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry and the major regional dynamics that have changed since 1979. 

Ghattas presented three significant geopolitical events in 1979—the Iranian Revolution and rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, the seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—as inextricable, exemplified by Saudi Arabia’s concession to the country’s clerical establishment after seeing the rise of Islamic Iran.  

Ghattas recounted how Saudi Arabia initially welcomed Khomeini until he began challenging Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Muslim world and portraying himself as the leader of anti-imperial movements. The resulting geopolitical competition gave rise to Saudi Arabia’s decision to support the militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, where the Saudis had ostracized religiously radicalized young men causing problems for the Kingdom. 

At the same time, Saudi Arabia began portraying Shiite Muslims (the predominant sect of Iran) as "tools in the service of Khomeini.” In doing so, they established a sectarian narrative, weaponizing the role of religion in the region. Ghattas used this case to emphasize how religious intolerance in the Middle East has grown out of a web of intensifying political tensions, rather than a single defining factor. 

Ghattas believes that “we are at the end of some of these dynamics that 1979 launched” and outlined three major trends to follow going forward: the decreasing importance of religion for young people, the yet unknown effects of the Abraham Accords, and movements against corruption, dictatorship, and sectarian politics. 

In response to audience questions, Ghattas emphasized that it is not necessarily individual attitudes that have changed since 1979, but rather “freedom of choice.” She lamented that the ability to debate various topics openly has been lost due to religious extremism, a detrimental development for the region. She is, however, hopeful that the younger generation will catalyze change. 

Ghattas remains skeptical about a détente in the region. Proxy conflicts and strategic interests in the region will, in her view, likely prevent progress in the near term. Still, Ghattas encouraged the audience to work within their means and the given circumstances to “chip away at systems that don't work for freedom of thought or freedom of expression.” 

Watch the recording of this event here

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: “We are at the end of some of these dynamics that 1979 launched” - Kim Ghattas on the Saudi-Iran Rivalry from 1979 to 2021, and Beyond .” MEI Minute, November 2021,