It is hard to believe but to a large extent, the turmoil and strife in the Middle East, deeply distressing as it is, have been a sideshow in a simmering contest between the two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The start of 2016 has seen those tensions rise to the surface dramatically, as relations between the two major powers degenerate.
Sheikh Nimr, a prominent Shia Muslim who has been critical of the regime in Saudi Arabia and was involved in the anti-government protests in 2012, was executed with 47 others at the weekend. Late last night, after unrest at the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Saudi Arabia announced that it would be severing all diplomatic ties with Iran and told its emissaries that they had 48 hours to leave the country.
Adding a further layer of complexity, Bahrain, which has a majority Shia population ruled by a Sunni minority, has followed suit and cut ties with Tehran. Protests have been sparked in other contries, while bomb blasts rocked two Sunni mosques in the Iraqi capital on Monday.
To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war, and for those who agree with Winston Churchill’s view on international relations, the suspension of diplomatic ties in what effectively is the Middle East’s Cold War is a deeply troubling moment in the history of the region.
Much of the conflict between the two nations is political. In the crisis engulfing Yemen, Iran supports rebel Houthis of the Zaydi sect, which despite having Shia origins has a close affinity with the ruling Sunni doctrine. This arrangement is first about building alliances and altering the balance of power within the region, and then a sectarian issue.
Yet political tensions in the Middle East are clearly underpinned by a religious schism in Islam dating back to its inception in 610AD, between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, and has fuelled centuries of struggle for influence, legitimacy and rights over scarce resources.
Islam began as a religion when Mohammed unveiled a new faith to the people of Mecca in 610AD. One hundred years after his death, Mohammed’s followers had built an empire which stretched from Spain to Central Asia, but couldn’t agree who was his rightful successor when he died in 632.
A coterie of prominent early followers of the religion elected Abu Bakr, who was a senior companion and father-in-law to Mohammed, to succeed him. Those who disagreed contended that Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law, cousin and blood-line relative of Mohammed, was the rightful heir. Sunnis, whose spiritual ancestors backed Abu Bakr, are followers of sunna or the ‘way’ of Mohammed. Shia comes from shi’atu Ali, Arabic for “partisans of Ali”, guiding the belief that only bloodline relatives of the Prophet, starting with Ali, are legitimate political and religious leaders.
The Sunnis won the day. Ali did indeed become leader of the Umayyad Caliphate in 656, but ruled for only five years before he was assassinated by the extremist Khawarij sect, which believed that succession to the Caliphate should be determined in battle rather than by appointment. In 680, soldiers from the Caliphate killed Ali’s son, Husayn. As the Umayyad dynasty continued to rule in Damascus, followed by the Abbasids in Baghdad until the 13th century, Shias came to reject the leaders of these empires as legitimate representatives of their faith.
Sunni dominance, which had then passed to the Ottomans, who operated an empire from Istanbul lasting from the late 13th century until 1923, was first challenged in 1501 with the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in Persia (now Iran). In 1511, a pro-Shia revolt within the Ottoman Empire known as Şahkulu Rebellion was brutally suppressed: 40,000 were massacred on the order of Sultan Selim the Grim, who regarded the Shia Qizilbash as heretics and reportedly proclaimed that “the killing of one Shiite had as much otherworldly reward as killing 70 Christians.”
The demographics of the Muslim world mostly conform to the dividing lines between the Ottoman and Safavid worlds. Sunni Islam claims a majority culture in Turkey, Egypt and Syria, while Shias are found in large numbers in Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan. While 85% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, with numbers boosted through centuries of trade in North and Central Africa, South Asia and Indonesia, there is something closer to parity within the Middle East itself. 191m Muslims or 56% of the population of the Middle East follow the Sunni interpretation, whereas 121m (36%) follow Shia Islam. Turkey and Iran have roughly equally sized populations.
1979 was a key moment in the development of much of the conflict in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world today. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, married spiritual and political leadership, the idea being that authority lay in the hands of the ayatollahs, who work as divinely inspired jurors interpreting messages directly from God. The revival of Iran as an overtly Shia power and the widely held interpretation of Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Iran in 1980 as an explicit Arab-Persian conflict have done much to fuel sectarianism over the last thirty years.
In the Sunni world, much of this has found expression in the ultraconservative ideology of Wahhabism, which currently legitimises the power of the ruling House of Saud and is the state-sponsored religion in Saudi Arabia. It is similar to the literalist and puritanical form of Islam followed by Salafis, who preach the original example set by Prophet Mohammed, and which has spawned various offensive jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda and its offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
As both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the status quo arrangement in Saudi Arabia rely heavily on religious verification, the two countries will always face the considerable temptation to deflate any domestic pressures through an expansionary foreign policy and proxy wars. This heightens the risk of direct conflict in the future.
The West is deeply entangled too. The United States and the Western world in general have been closely allied with the Saudi Kingdom since the Second World War. Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed that defence of Saudi Arabia was in America’s national strategic interest, coming on the back of discoveries by the California Arabian Standard Oil Company in the 1930s that suggested the country was flush with oil. With the rise of renewable energies and the growth of shale oil and gas in Europe and North America, however, the family of advanced liberal democracies may one day start reviewing its relationship with a regime so diametrically opposed to its values.
Meanwhile Russia has boosted its ties with Iran for economic and geopolitical reasons, with much of its support for the Assad’s Shia-led regime in Syria based on protecting its military installations in Tartus, a key warm-water port on the Syrian coastline. Deeper conflict in the Middle East, including any escalation of the proxy wars being fought in Syria, Yemen or Iraq, threaten to draw in other World Powers in a dangerous way.
Yet we don’t have to lose hope. Large majorities in the Middle East reject violent jihadism, and simply want opportunities to improve their lives. That much is true for the many refugees and economic migrants currently streaming into Europe. Writing for the Lebanese paper al-Safir, Talal Salman argued that irrespective of tribe, religion, sect or ethnic grouping, the one thing that those who took part in the Arab Spring asked for was dignity. “It was only over time that sectarian tendencies came to the forefront,” as we are seeing in countries ruled by members of minorities across the region.
We have to hope that the peaceful majorities of Sunnis and Shias, who know they can’t afford to plunge their societies into a new era of chaos, assert to their leaders their right to peaceful coexistence. Recent events suggest we have a long way to go.