Until the 20th century, the Sunni-Shia division had existed on social tiers and particularly didn’t achieve political overtones. After World War 1, the political balance of power was seriously shaken and the Middle East was divided into several politically carved and artificially made nation-states when the Ottoman’s yoke of dominance fell apart. In the post-Ottoman political configuration, nations were created devoid of primordial nationalist belongings – and came into being solely on pragmatic lines and political considerations. So, concocted nationalism was willfully integrated as a political objective in the social fabric to subsume the secondary differences.

Religion became the most adhered national identity amid this political chaos. Furthermore, WW2 gave impetus to organizing religious movements hatching an alliance with the downtrodden minorities to remove colonial masters. For instance, the British faced opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the French battled the Islamic resistance in Algeria, and the Soviets put down a revolt by the Basmachis in Central Asia. Subsequently, as newly-established states were weakened to the core and emaciated to their fullest, they started marginalizing minorities and tending to encourage recourse to identities that do not align with the nation-state, such as sect, ethnicity, or tribe, to provide a community, in particular, igniting sectarian concerns among the population. Before long, the politics of social regeneration and popular mobilization in the name of religion shackled the region.

During the 1960’s, Britain defeated by her own limitations to imperially stretch so far withdrew troops from the region; the vacuum was suddenly filled by two cold war titans i.e US and USSR and the Middle East became the political chessboard of tactical trickery. American twin pillar policy welded the two significant monarchies i.e Saudi Arabia and Iran together which served as political balancers against soviets in the region, until 1979.  Similarly, Eisenhower doctrine was purposed at liquidating communist influence from the region after worrisome soviet intrusion in already recalcitrant Egypt.

Furthermore, Iraq’s Baathist regime was another stronghold of the USSR which was later fielded by the US against Iran after the 1979 Shia revolution. Iranian government desired to export revolution to geographically proximate states with foremost priority accorded to Iraq but it led to a severe fiasco and ignited a deadly wave of sectarianism. Iraqi government benefiting from the war, to counterweight Iran’s religious struggle and demonizing her opposition invented a nationalist ideology predicated upon Shia hatred. Therefore, the Iran-Iraq war is often accentuated as the reference point marking the end of Sunni-Shia bonhomie in the region. In the 1990’s, reinforcing budding nationalism Saddam resorted to violence against Shias in northern Iraq and the gulf between Tehran and Baghdad kept on widening. After 9/11, the US invasion of Iraq overthrew the ruling Sunni regime and later on rival Shia elements were persuaded to gain political control. Capitalizing on the status quo, Iran disseminated Shia revolutionary ideology and Iraq was neutralized as a threat. The elimination of Iraq from the political scene intensified Saudi-Iran rivalry and made the geopolitical tug of war fiercer.

By the same token, the Arab spring altered the political milieu by subverting the longstanding leaderships through popular protestations and the Gulf States underwent a decisive political shift. Some states were easily rescued from sliding into tumult e.g Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain but others failed to adjust themselves to this new political development, notably Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon because of their dysfunctional state apparatus and unresponsive political structures. Latter states operated as regional proxy grounds for Iran and Saudi Arabia, only powers left to be reckoned with after Iraq. In this competition, Iran emerged victoriously and Saudi Arabia suffered defeat because of her waning regional clout and domestic polarization. At present, Yemen is predominantly controlled by Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia’s Operation decisive storm failed miserably. Iraq is governed by an allied Shia regime since Saddam’s fall and Iran wields enormous influence over there through her political agents and religious clerics. Similarly, regional powers have lost the field in Syria and President Assad still rules as an undisputed leader commanding majoritarian opinion.

Lastly, Lebanon after the recent Beirut explosion is crumbling for political stability following Hassan Diab’s resignation – created a vital opportunity for Hezbollah to capture power. Other Middle Eastern countries have assumed less relevance in this regional rift. In Kuwait, Al-Sabah ruling party and the Shia community have had developed a strong old alliance preventing any social derailment through sectarian collision. Besides, Ibadist Oman is politically and socially incompatible to none and so a possibility of sectarian takeover is elusive. Since Sultan Qaboos, Oman has refused to be partisans in global affairs and therefore, attains a de-hyphenated response to the Iran-Saudi cold war.  Of all the countries affected by the Arab Spring, only Bahrain had managed to avert Iranian influence despite the majority Shia population. Bahrain’s king, amid 2011 protests, introduced economic and political reforms as appeasement policy in National Action Charter. Enlightened people appreciated the policy and refused to resort to sentimental politics. However, remnants of Iranian fueled sectarianism were clamped down upon by the GCC shield force.

Sectarianism is a deviation from mainstream religious practice and traditions. Every religion appears to have heretics, who disagree with entrenched teachings of faith and introduce a different interpretative explanation of beliefs on a rational basis. This heterodoxy is always treated as an intolerable insult upon officially accepted normative structure of a religion. Ordinarily, these elements are in minority and so, followers of such a faith are subjected to oppression and coerced to follow the majority-held belief. Sectarianism in Islam is also underlined by such conclusions. It has grown in minority groups affected by majoritarian rulings. Shia faith was a similar dichotomization from Sunni religion and hence, faced subjugation and rejection in one way or the other for being lesser in number. Consequently, Shia religion has had become politically more activated and socially more vibrant, unlike Sunni faith. In the 20th Century, political identification of Islam is usually associated with the Iranian revolution which came up with a coherent plan to counter anti-Shia tendencies and boundless propagation of the sect. However, Sunni transnationalism appeared to be gaining ground in response to nurturing Shia internationalism, of which Afghanistan served as the most initial incubator during Talibanization.

Intensifying sectarianism is an omen of death for the Middle East because; Sectarian wars are ideological in nature and hence are fought irrespective of time and place constraints. The spillover of migrants and terrorism could pose serious demographic as well as political challenges to the global community, volatility in the global oil market could inflate the price of oil to unprecedented levels and an arms race could be triggered by virtue of the security-insecurity paradox. With globalization where came global homogeneity (cosmopolitan culture), the world has witnessed rising political fragmentation along ethnic, cultural, historical and religious lines. Among which sectarianism emerged as an oft-employed force, having the potential to lead to world conflagration.

The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is fundamentally a geopolitical struggle for regional influence that uses sectarianism as a means to mobilize popular support. Sectarianism has exacerbated this geopolitical competition and put the region in perpetual disarray because in retrospect large scale empires like the Ottomans and Qajars had ensured peaceful co-existence accommodating religious digressions. Terrorism which has long-established roots in this region has also contributed a lot in this politico-religious struggle. Terror outfits like Al-Qaeda and ISIS are the facts on the ground rendering the issue incapable of being resolved. Prospectively, the Saudi Arabia-Iran equation hinges on two factors; 

  1. After the failure of JCPOA, Iran’s re-nuclearization could instigate other regional actors especially Saudi-Arabia to follow suit, leading to endless arms build-up. Even, the USA would not aid Riyadh against a nuclear Iran.
  2. Iran’s gradual reintegration in the international system despite stringent sanctions marks a tragic policy failure for The White House. Shia crescent is a few miles away to be materialized with Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen dominated by Iran. Furthermore, Iran’s opening up is evident from significant economic overtures made by other regional stakeholders to the displeasure of Washington. For instance, Iran is the second-biggest supplier of Oil and Gas to Turkey and many other collaborative initiatives have been signed, too. The Indo-Iran partnership of worth 8 billion dollars could provide Iran a transnational connectivity avenue through Afghanistan and the deal also contains several partnership agreements in the energy sector. China approaches Iran with a massive 400 billion dollars investment scheme which could possibly throw a lifeline to the embattled regime. Russia has had signed a historic 20 billion dollars oil for goods agreement – both countries have also been much cooperative in agriculture and telecommunications.     

However, Saudi Arabia’s influence is declining in the face of multiple threats that it confronts both domestically and internationally. Firstly, Riyadh is currently failing in dealing with serious fissures in her Sunni camp – Every state in the Middle East doesn’t perceive Iran as a threat anymore. Turkey has refused to adopt an aggressive policy-posture towards Tehran. Qatar’s diplomatic blockade is reminiscent of weakness in the Saudi-led coalition. Oman engages with Iran based on mutual respect and interdependence. Only Israel and Saudi Arabia can afford the persistence of the cold war with Iran because Iranian objectives are an affront to their geopolitical ambitions and ideological motivations.

Secondly, unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia doesn’t enjoy the popularity of being the center for unified Sunnism. Followers of this faith don’t look up to her as an ideological or religious powerhouse. Therefore, Riyadh can hardly mobilize sectarian sentiments against Iran, in this geopolitical confrontation. Thirdly, wild speculation suggests that by 2030 the United States of America will be self-sufficient in oil production, and will no more be relying on Saudi Arabia for the purchase of this commodity. Also, Iran doesn’t replace the Soviet threat for which the alliance between US-Saudi Arabia was formalized, and currently, China is a far greater concern for the USA than Iran could possibly be. These factors can direly affect the cordial relationship enjoyed between the two nations since the 1930s.

The future of the Middle East revolves around the prospects of Shia revivalism and Sunni response to it. However, to accelerate the healing of wounds and to avert the future possibilities of any drastic degeneration, a few suggestions could be relevant;

  1. Accommodating unity within diversity.
  2. Inclusion of minorities in the political spectrum
  3. Eschewal of military options.
  4. The State apparatus is to be strengthened.
  5. Foreign intervention is to be diminished and regional stakeholders must deal based on bilateralism.

Taimoor Raza Sultan is a Law Student at Punjab University and is reachable at taimoor.patriot@gmail.com

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