Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes?
Frequently Asked Questions
Which country do you like more, Saudi Arabia or Iran?
I became a U.S. citizen in 2008, but I also care about Saudi Arabia and Iran equally.
As a U.S. citizen, how does that make you feel?
I always say that Iran is my flesh and blood, Saudi Arabia is my child, and the United States of America is where I found my freedom. I conducted the research on the book in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but I opted to write the book in the United States which enabled me to develop a balanced and detached understanding of diverse views on the Saudi-Iranian relationship.
Did you share any parts of the book with policy makers before it was published?
Yes. I shared the first three critical chapters of the book with the White House and the U.S. State Department, and with colleagues in Saudi Arabia, over a year and a half before the book was published. This was before President Obama discussed his theory of "equilibrium" between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the same theory which I had elaborated on in detail in the chapters I sent to the White House and the State Department. I offered to share the same chapters with Iran’s authorities, but received a request once the book had entered publication and was under copyright controls. Since I could not share the chapters then, I gave an interview on the Saudi-Iranian relations to the political reform journal, Iran-e Farda, which is read by Iran’s senior political decision makers.
Who funded the book project?
For obvious reasons, I could not take informal or other potential offers of financial assistance sourced from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Likewise, I could not take on proposed advisory roles with senior policy influencers in the two countries in the course of writing the book. The book project was entirely self-funded. This ensured my ability to produce work that offers a balanced perspective and unbiased writing to best serve Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Are differences and conflicts between Shias and Sunnis the main cause of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry?
No. The Shia-Sunni divide is a driver of the Saudi-Iranian policy roles, but it is not the primary motive. The primary motive of those roles is to preserve stability and security for the Saudi and Iranian states. Once that goal is ensured, Riyadh and Tehran have throughout their shared history shown a great deal of ability to reign in the ideological undertones of their foreign policy behavior.
Have you been asked to help build bridges between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
I was asked informally by one party to serve as a mediator with the understanding that the party would remain committed to my efforts even if the mediation took several years. The other party did not respond to the offer formally, but it sought my assistance informally after relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran broke down in January 2016. By then, it was too late to help in my capacity as an informal mediator, communicator and policy strategist. But since then, European policy institutes have read my book and sought my advice on how to adopt mediation strategies between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
When was the idea for the book first conceived?
In November 2001 I decided to write the book after I was invited to interpret the private discussions held at the United Nations in New York between then Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud and President Mohammad Khatami.
Did events inspire the writing of this book?
Yes. I am a product of the violence that erupted in Iran after the 1979 revolution and the 1980-1989 Iran-Iraq war. Two of my relatives were imprisoned each for four years after the revolution, and I lost friends and family during the war. My family and I fled our home dozens of times to find safe shelter with friends, family or in abandoned warehouses or shops across Iran during the war. These lessons inspired me to understand and analyze Iran’s events, and I aspired to find an answer to the unresolved conflicts in Iran’s regional foreign policy.
How many policy and decision makers did you interview for the book?
I conducted over 110 interviews with senior Saudi and Iranian policy and decision makers, and included 96 interviews in the book.
Who are some of the key people you interviewed for the book?
In Saudi Arabia, I spoke to former Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud, and former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud. I spoke to three former Saudi ambassadors to Iran, a minister, and multiple senior researchers, journalists, and policy makers. Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and former foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, each gave me three interviews. In addition, I accompanied the former president, Mohammad Khatami, to numerous meetings with Arab heads of state at the United Nations in New York which indirectly influenced the book. I twice interviewed Iran’s current foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, once in person in New York, and once by phone during his vacation in Esfahan. I interviewed multiple other senior Iranian officials, clerics and ambassadors.
Who are the people you dedicated the book to, and why?
The book is dedicated to my paternal grandparents and my father. My grandmother Effat who shares a name with Saudi Arabia's most beloved queen, Effat Al Thunayan, literally raised me on her lap through my twenties whenever I was in her loving care and company. My grandfather and father were seasoned foreign ministry employees and diplomats in pre-revolutionary Iran. My grandfather was a charitable man who handled the downfall of his fortunes after the 1979 Iranian revolution with the same grace that he carried when he seemed to be on top of the world before the revolution. My father taught me to be impartial and unbiased in analyzing policy and political events. As a child, I aspired to follow in their footsteps and become an international diplomat someday.
Why did it take so long to publish the book?
The book is a personal and professional journey for me. I wrote a first draft to receive my Ph.D. degree in 2007, worked part-time, had a child and became a self-supporting parent. I decided to change the dissertation into a book after my advisors at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Boston College strongly recommended that I do so. I traveled to Saudi Arabia and Iran multiple times to be able to publish the book based on primary sources, gather and translate historic archival material in the Arabic and Persian languages, and conduct interviews with senior policy and decision makers. It took three years to be able to travel to those locations and compile the research material. I began writing the book in 2012 and completed the writing in mid-2015.
Was it difficult to travel to Saudi Arabia and Iran?
I was fortunate to be able to travel to Saudi Arabia and Iran multiple times, and despite the usual hurdles of field work, I was greeted warmly and with great hospitality. I was also highly respected by Saudi and Iranian men as a sole and determined woman who endeavored to write about the challenging topic of the Saudi-Iranian relationship.
As a former well known simultaneous interpreter, how did that help the research for the book?
I received access to senior political decision makers in Iran, which also helped my access to senior political officials and policy influencers in Saudi Arabia. Reciprocally, my experience as a policy and communications strategist directly helped policy influencers in Saudi Arabia and Iran build a better understanding of the political, social and cultural norms that impact the relationship.
How do you view the Saudi-Iranian relationship?
I see it as a great love story, and like any epic love story, it is filled with bad blood (and sometimes real blood). Saudi Arabia and Iran admire each other as neighbors, and yet they talk past each other.
Are Saudi Arabia and Iran friends or foes?
I won't do justice by offering a quick response to this critical question, but I can say that they are neither friends nor foes. To appreciate my answer fully, I hope you will enjoy reading the book, available for purchase in English from Palgrave Macmillan at: http://www.palgrave.com/br/book/9781137576279, and in Arabic from Dar Al Saqi at: http://www.daralsaqi.com. The Farsi version of the book is scheduled for release in 2017.