Whenever a conversation of the concept of Islamic state is opened, Saudi Arabia and Iran are immediately raised as examples. Both countries are similarly run as religiously backed states. Yet, they are rather different in terms of type of authority, democratic scale, and historical development. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia derives its legitimacy from applying Sharia law by a king who has the legitimacy through Bay'ah (the recognition of obedience to the Muslim ruler), while the Islamic Republic of Iran claims its legitimacy via both applying Sharia and an elected authority. It is thus an attempt to understand political philosophy of modern state in the Middle East in a different way than typically found in Western philosophy.
Theology and Sectarianism
The theological and jurisprudence differences between Sunni and Shia sects play an active role in the legitimization of the state structures of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Thus, the sectarianism in the Middle East goes beyond theology and salvation to matters contemporary political legitimacy. These sectarian tensions are primarily motivated by the question, 'who should rule the state' based on Islamic heritage. The methods that Sunni and Shia Muslims believe as appropriate for selecting and/or accepting their leaders based on this Islamic heritage is furthermore different: the de facto ruler versus the pious teacher. Applying these bases in modern history, the successors of the de facto ruler is the political leaders (i.e., monarchs and presidents) regardless of their piety levels. On the other hand, the successor of the pious teacher is the mullah "clergy" irrespective of their political history and knowledge. Therefore, the clergy have the divine legitimacy as wali al-amr in Shi’ism, while for the Sunni this legitimacy is reserved for the political ruler.
Thus, Sectarianism among Muslims today is largely a result of the disagreements of the legitimacy of the particular ruling power based on sacred texts and historical account, not merely a theological debate over Islamic history. Such a matter explains the reason behind the current active sectarianism in the Middle East, as politicians utilize religion to legitimize their policies.
State Formation and Power within Society
To have a comprehensive understanding of the state structures of both countries, we need to review the historical context of building the current state of each (i.e., absolute Monarchy "Saudi Arabia" and Islamic republic "Iran").
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy where the royal family and its close circle monopolize the political and economic spheres in both theory and practice with no legislative elections. On the other hand, the theocratic-democratic structure of Iran restricts the political sphere through theocratic appointment of high positions. Other available positions such as non-sovereign ministries and the membership of parliament are appointed through election. In theory, all positions—except the Supreme Leader and the membership of Assembly of Experts—are open to all citizens, including non- theocrats. In practice, the loyalty to the Islamic revolution is a considerable feature for candidacy
When Ibn Saud started building the kingdom in the early 20th century, the Arabian Peninsula was under the rule of different families (Sheikhdoms) controlling limited territories and following strict patriarchal systems. Thus, the only way to gain power in Arabia during that period was through military force led by a strong individual. Such patriarchal rule fits with Weber’s model of traditional authority. Just as Saudi families followed the patriarchal system with the father of the family as the highest authority, at the top of the national patriarchal hierarchy are the Saudi rulers. The King is the "father of the nation"—whose Islamic title of wali-almr literally means the guardian with authority over his dependents. In Islamic literature, wali-almr is the leader of the Muslim nation in state affairs. This literature considered it normal for the father to control the economic functions of his family—or in the case of a state, its subjects/citizens—and manage the sources of production and distribution. Saudi Arabia is a rentier-economy state. The state owns and controls the natural resources and provides public services such as education, health care, and social security. In addition, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that gives the King and his closed circle the full authority to control the enormous wealth coming from oil, helping to keep political power connected to economic power for the Saudi elite. Bearing in mind that Saudi society has never experienced any other sort of regimes; any advocacy of democracy would be considered a challenge to the Islamic government.
On the other hand, the current Iranian state/republic was established in 1979 on the ruins of a constitutional monarchy with absolute power residing with the Shah (1906-1979). The Islamic regime inherited a state that included a parliament and modern/westernized institutions. Thus, regardless of the conservative mullahs’ desire, people who revolted over what they called an autocratic regime would not accept an absolute authority held by an individual. The values of freedom and democracy were such popular slogans at that time that even Khomeini adopted them. Democracy is beyond an available option for the new Islamic Republic; it is an inevitable matter. Yet, theocrats handle the game by controlling the democratic life and filtering the candidates who run to elections. Denying a number of individuals their political rights would not harm the regime, but it keeps the keys of the game in the theocrats’ hands.
The theological and jurisprudence differences between Sunni and Shia sects play an effective role in legitimating the state structure. At this point, studying the state structure of Saudi Arabia and Iran needs to consider history and jurisprudence that play key role of legitimacy of ruing Muslim societies. This essay might light up future studies of Islamic movements and/or parties that seek to govern Muslim societies.