Sunni and Shia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies versus Iran, regional Arab-Persian conflicts… These and so many similar cliches fill the news broadcasts these days about the Middle East. But how much these are true, and what do they really signify? Since the new Cold War in the Persian Gulf is developing further every day and there are big changes on the horizon, it is imperative to address this matter, so to have bigger insight into the changes ahead of us. After all, it is not a coincidence at all that UAE is changing course now, which unnerved so far everyone in the region. So this week we look into a matter which, like so many, we feel we know it, yet in fact there is little that is known to us.
The impossible discrepancy
From the outside the Middle East often seems filled with riddles, contradictions and conflicts almost impossible to understand. So much so that often it is questioned whether those involved in these struggles truly comprehend the reasons themselves. One of the most known, almost cliche-like term is the Shia-Sunni dispute, which indeed seems to manifest in a number of conflicts from the war in Syria and Iraq, to competition for influence in Yemen, and of course now, the dispute over the Straits of Hormuz. As if the two sides of the Gulf are bogged down in an eternal quagmire, perfectly symbolized by the dispute even around the very name of Gulf, whether it is Persian or Arabian. The most intriguing part of this divide, or should be said the discourses around it, is that while the West has a completely different view on it than the Middle East, both have incredible inaccuracies. And here we should not even consider the source of these channels, since the Western, but Arabic speaking programs, like those of DW, France 24, or BBC echo the usual cliches of the Arabic narrative, since almost all the guests are themselves Arabs or Iranians, while Arabic, but English language regional channels tend to take the usual vague and blunt approach so characteristic of the Western narrative.
The Western narrative uses the term “Shia-Sunni conflict” as if it was a natural phenomenon. Never bothers to question the legitimacy of such a conflict on religious, or ideological grounds considering the main source of matter ended more then thirteen centuries ago. And also we never hear about the contradictions in details, which would, and in a good number of cases does undermine this approach. Yet even more puzzling to see Arabic programs, where guest from different Gulf countries, Iraq or Egypt, even from the highest academic of state advisory levels echo incredible slogans. Like that of Iran is a Ṣafavī imperialist state trying to colonize the Arabs, that Iran is a “gang state”, run by mafias like the Pāzdārān, and should change to be a state of institutions to be acceptable partner for negotiations, or than Iran is the main sponsor of terrorism in the expanse of its Gulf neighbors, and tries to spread sectarian hatred around to world amongst the Muslims. Most of these statements come from states like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or the Emirates, which have little problem with the military occupation of Bahrain, and to a certain extent of Yemen – quite imperialistic approach -, the support for all kinds of extreme organizations starting from the Jihadis in the ‘80s in Afghanistan all the way to al-Qā‘ida in Syria and Yemen. The most extreme of these claims is, however, is the idea that Iran is of a gang state, which once again come from the Gulf states. Now, Iran may have a number of issues to be dealt with in transparency and law binding, but at least have elections, open political disputes and high level of accountability, except some certain offices. We see none of that in the other side of the Gulf. The discrepancy between the claims and the state of those who air them is in fact so great, that should right away tell the matter is much deeper, but also something almost intangible.
The matter is even more intriguing if we go into the details of this seeming Cold War in the Gulf now. The the block lead by Riyadh – the Sunni block by traditional view – is not only fighting against Iran and its allies – the Shia Crescent -, but also Qatar and with it Turkey. Against which now Saudi Arabia designed a special vengeance and soon will turn up the heat. And they even have a very deep conflict of interests in Libya, where they all are interested and the competition is fierce. On the other hand, possibly the strongest ally of Iran in the region is Syria with a Sunni majority. Thought that is usually explained that the leadership – which of course in this narrative holds this as a brutal dictatorship – is of a Shia denomination, the ‘Alawīs, the same sources always hold them unreligious apostates, who therefore built a secular state. Let alone why the majority Sunni population would even accept that, the contradiction is clear that why would a non-religious group build alliance with a theocracy. The reason is clearly much bigger than some vague sectarian affiliation. But also, especially now, Iran has excellent, almost cordial ties with the massively Sunni dominated Pakistan. Why isn’t there any major problem? In fact, Tehran works very hard in these days troubled by the Kashmir matter, not only to be an effective conciliatory between India and Pakistan, but also to build lasting friendship with Islamabad. If Iran were really driven by sectarian zeal, why would there be any need for that? Especially since Pakistan was traditionally always close to Riyadh, which by the very nature of the state, can never fundamentally change.
These extreme contradictions, especially that they are being recycled almost every day even by intellectuals, and these many time constitute the core of regional policy have to be addressed.
The historical depth
The historical struggle between the Shia and the Sunna are well known and a substantial amount of literature is available one the subject. Those once followed Caliph ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib in his internal war within the young Islamic state, and his descendants later on became known as the Shia, which in time divided many branches. Those who opposed him, and supported the Mu‘awiyya, and later on the Umayya dynasty founded by him became known as the Sunna. In time Sunna became the mainstream, not really divining into branches or ideological cliques almost until eighteenth century, while the Shia gained remarkable following among non-Arab Muslim proud of their cultural distinctiveness. Like the Persians, and the Berbers in North Africa. That struggle, which was initially personal and became political in a wider view gained ideological depth as theological differences were born, mostly around the question of leadership. The Sunna believes in comprehensibility of the Quran by any man, the complete equality of the believers, therefore a non-hierarchical religious construct – at least in theory – and the possibility of leadership given to any believer, though usually favoring monarchies. The Shia on the other hand holds that some parts of the Quran can only be understood by the chosen one – descendants of ‘Alī and their chosen -, therefore there should be hierarchical religious institutions and the leadership in any given form can has to be approved by this “clergy”. This rift between the different views, more on group mentality than on actual conviction, was many times exploited for justification by peoples trying to hold on their cultural distinctiveness, or by struggling dynasties justifying their actions on sacred grounds. These matters had their historical reasons, but by the nineteenth century lost most of their real value, which is well testified by the fact that we don’t really see new factions arising, and there is no great migrations between the two groups any more. In other words, to a certain degree similar or Europe, sectarians boundaries solidified more on historical, than on convictional grounds. And even thought most of the real difference, especially in the daily life on the individual disappeared, the distinction remained and even now exploitable for political purposes, since many of these differences are detectable.
Thought the first Shia state, the Idrīsī dynasty (778-974) was born in modern day Morocco, and the only Shia Caliphate, the Fatimid Empire in Tunisia and once ruled over most of North Africa, so these were built upon Berbers, it was Persians who truly embraced the Shia. In both cases that was driven by cultural differences. Yet even in the case of Iran it was not until the sixteenth century, when in the time of the Ṣafavī dynasty (1501-1747) – ironically a Kurdish-Turkish family leading an originally Sunni Sufi order -, the Shia became state religion in the modern day Iran. While the Shia attributes disappeared from North Africa in time, only some cultural specifics remained, Iran stayed to be a Shia state ever since.
It is true that the Ṣafavī Empire was the height of the Persian influence, which ruled over large areas inhabited by Arabs, like Iraq, and certain parts of the Gulf, this historical image is mixed with one much earlier. The Sasanian Empire (224-651) even before Islam, on its height ruled over most of the Gulf, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and had its center in Iraq. And that dynasty was toppled by the Arabic Islamic Empire. As the two image mixed, the term Ṣafavī gained an idea of Persian revenge on the Arabs once again oppressing them, and as they were infidels before Islam, they returned to heresy in the form of Shia. That idea gained special support in the Gulf, even after the fall of the Ṣafavīs, only to be picked up by Ṣaddām Ḥussayn in the ‘80s as a perfect political slogan justifying his invasion. And since the term resonated well in the Gulf, the continued support for Iraq in the war was easy to justify as act of – unspoken – revenge. Though it should be noted that most of the Gulf states lived in very poor conditions until the oil age and therefore there was always a very apparent jealousy, which in time only grew.
The other side of the conflict is just as clear. Thought the memory of Ṣafavī era in Iran is does not invoke much nostalgia, its cultural and architectural achievement are noted and it feeds national pride as the first state truly Persian in nature – thought not in origin – after centuries of Arab-Turkic-Mongol rule. And it is a very peculiar feature of the Iranian mindset, that while they uphold the legacy of Islam, they despise the Arabs viewed as culturally inferior and as a cultural corruption on their own civilization. Even more interesting that in Iranian mindset, especially where the distinction disappears between Persian, Kurdish, Azeri, Baluch, Lori and all others, the term “Arabs” only mean the people of the Gulf, mostly those at odds with them. The peoples of Syria, Iraq, Egypt or Tunisia are usually referred to by their countries, not as Arabs. And while the general mindset does not despise them, they very much look down upon the Arabs of the Gulf, as in is often said in the grand bazaars of Iran, where Gulf tourists are frequent: Arabhā faqaṭ mī-horan(d) o mī-haran(d). And in general, especially among the non-religious youth, there is sense the Arabs brought their Islam upon their own much higher culture, only to enslave them with their religion. Thought this idea is strongly contested by the clergy, it took roots in many parts of the Arab world from Syria and Iraq to North Africa, as they themselves start to renounce themselves as Arabs.
In short, there is much bad blood between the two sides of the Gulf, even long before Islam. And that rivalry, while Iran usually got the upper hand, always got a spin in every era and continued on religious and on ideological ground, so does today. And what really shows that this rivalry is not of religious or ethnic nature, and also that Iran is the dominant player in it, is that since the ‘50s until 1979, when both sides were under American influence, the ties between were cordial. When the shah visited Saudi Arabia in the ‘70s, not only he spoke amicably about his partners, but it was the current king Salmān, who – being an influential prince – danced for him.
The new rounds of insults
Seeing that the age old rivalry could be overcame, or at least dealt with in the ‘70s, and now seeing that in the last two decades relations plummeted, we should ask what went wrong. What pushed the sides to struggle against each other once again? As that picture, especially since 2017 is far from being a clearly Sunni-Shia matter, since in this new rounds of conflicts Oman chose to be neutral from the very beginning, Kuwait after initial steps for reconciliation chose to stay out as well, and Qatar is now quite friendly with Iran. Even more than that, after withdrawing from Yemen, now even the Emirates hold high level meetings with Iran and chose a much more restrained rhetoric.
The blame for the renewed hatred can be put on both sides, as both did much to aggravate the other. Undeniably the breaking point was the Islamic Revolution, which changed everything. It is customary to say that the rivalry started again over the claim for the leadership of the Islamic world. As Saudi Arabia holds Mecca and Medina, the holiest places of Islam, its eminence is generally uncontested, or it was as Iran became a contender for that role via the Islamic Revolution. That idea is not entirely false, but of course the main flaw is obvious, as a Shia state cannot run the whole Islamic umma, nor a state, which has no control over Mecca and Medina. Even the most zealous supporters of the Islamic Revolution know that, and that is exactly as easy would have been for Riyadh to shake off this rivalry. But Iran, especially the Iran of Homeīnī stretched out to export the Revolution to other parts Middle East. In one hand to gain supporters, but even more to solidify itself, if this new trend becomes the norm in the region.
Iran indeed did much to support the suspicion and the later fear of the Saudis that a similar revolution is imminent in their own territory. The first major blow was the overtake of Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979 by a rebellious group, which lead to the siege lasting for two weeks, and in which the Saudi authorities had to resort to outer help, even from France. The group had little to do with Iran, as the ringleader, Ğuhaymān al-‘Utaybī believed his brother-in-law, Muḥammad al-Qaḥṭānī was the Mahdī and called for support for him. His claim was that the Saudi family lost legitimacy as they became puppets of the West, and went astray, therefore the whole Saudi state should be dismantled. However, when the Saudi authorities regained the Grand Mosque Homeīnī held a radio speech, in which he renounced the violent action as shame on Islam only serving American Imperialism and Zionism. Thought Iran was not part of uprising, nor the rebels had any sympathy for Iran, they echoed the same concerns that the Saudi dynasty and the whole state was merely a puppet in the American hands, just like the Pahlavī Iran was, and to cleanse Islam the way the Islamic Revolution toppled one puppet, so shall the Saudi state fall. The shockwaves of Homīnī’s speech were so big that there were protests all over the Muslim world, and the following day the American embassy was burned to the ground in Islamabad.
In 1987 something similar happened in the time of Hajj, when Shia pilgrims organized a protest over Saudi’s stance in Gulf War, which lead to a riot and left 402 people dead. After this event again, though this time Iran organized the action for political purposes, Homeīnī once again called for the overthrow of the Saudi dynasty. This political nature of Iran, though was indeed understandably menacing in the ‘80s, has passed with the death of Homeīnī and especially during the presidency of Rafsanğānī (1989-1997) much was done to reform the Iranian foreign policy to be a practical, not and ideological one. With carefully selected people put in charge, many of them now in last six years getting into leading positions, an adaptive strategy was introduced, which indeed bring s the results ever since.
On the other hand, as it is always recalled by the Iranians, it was a serious source of frustration that all the Gulf states stood firmly by Iraq during the war, and heavily financed the war effort. From the Saudis’ point of view it is clear why, but should we not forget that most Gulf state not long before that became independent – Kuwait in 1961, Qatar, Bahrain and the Emirates in 1971 – and were understandably shocked by the prospect of an Islamic Revolution.
Ever since the war, thought it is long gone, both sides did much to support proxies to wrest their influence, and both sides fear the other. However, Iran, especially since the early 2000s started a new approach built on economic cooperation and support, rather then direct confrontation and that gained much better results. The main idea behind it, however, is also a consequence emanating from the Islamic Revolution and that still causes fear in many Gulf circles, much more than the religious claims. Especially, since these seem to work, while the Saudis fail and that drives them to ever more panic.
The matter of self-determination
Ever since the I. World War as the first, at least formally independent Arab states were born, and the borders were drawn by the great powers between them, with detrimental effects up to this very day, there was a question still important today. The question of orientation. Should the Arab states unite, either in one state, or in a loose confederation, or not and from there which way to go? Should faith be put in the British and later the Americans, or should all colonialist pushed out? If the latter, should that be achieved with outer support, or built upon their own power? That matter might seem to be an Arab question, but in fact that attitude towards modernization, cultural orientation and a choice between the West, the Soviet Union, or a self-chosen path was pressing for all regional states, Turkey and Iran not being exceptions. That manifested in Turkey between legacy of Atatürk, and the path chosen after Menderes. The same fundamental question was driving the struggle between the shah and Moṣaddeq in Iran. And that kept manifesting in the Arab world as well over and over. After the II. World War the colonizing powers, wherever they at least formally withdrew, left behind themselves monarchies, either highly dependent on the former colonizer’s support, like the case of Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, or Saudi, or being a mere puppet, like that of Libya or Tunisia. Only few, like Syria, Lebanon, and much later Algeria achieved their independence right from the start as republics, yet even they faced the same problem of orientation. After the II. World War a fury of anti-colonialism swept through the Arab world, only fueled by the wars with Israel, which is viewed as an extended colonialism by people from Europe. That wrath in time swept away many pro-Western governments. The most significant change happened in Egypt, where after the monarchy ‘Abd an-Nāṣir called rallied support behind every anti-colonialist struggle from Morocco and Algeria to Sudan and Yemen. And that brought the first major confrontation in this matter, over the Baghdad Pact in 1955, a joint security alliance with the Western powers – practically an extension of the NATO – against the Soviet Union formally, but for the safety of these governments against popular uprisings in reality. While ‘Abd an-Nāṣir did everything to sabotage the Baghdad Pact, the Iraqi monarchy lead by king II. Fayṣal, the former regent ‘Abd al-Ilāh, and their Richelieu, Nūrī as-Sa‘īd – one of the brightest Arab politicians – argued that only Western weapons and Western support can guarantee their future. The pact did materialize, but the Iraqi monarchy collapsed in 1958 as a direct consequence and the leading trio was dragged around in the streets of Baghdad and hacked to pieces. At that time there were revolutionary governments in Egypt, Syria and even in Iraq, so it seemed that self determination would prevail, which was always a threat to the monarchies. That is why Riyadh always supported the overthrow of these revolutionary states.
In time, however, it seemed the expectations of Riyadh were much more valid than all the revolutionary utopias. Egypt after ‘Abd an-Nāṣir slowly slipped back to the Western realm, cannot even be recognized by now, to be the first Arab state to openly betray a common cause. In Iraq, though ‘Abd al-Karīm Qāsim became a similar strongman leading Iraq for independence, he was overthrown few years later by his own comrades and his execution broadcasted on national tv. All events up to the Arab Spring seemed to justify Riyadh original pact with the Americans first made between king ‘Abd al-‘Azīz and President Roosevelt in 1945. All states that did not bow before the West either had to change, like Egypt or Algeria, or suffered tragedy, like Libya or Iraq before. And that was drawn for Syria as well.
The main difference
That is where the path changed with Iran. When the Islamic Revolution started that was for the Gulf nothing new. The faith of Amīr ‘Abbās Hoveydā, the shah’s favorite right-hand-man, much resembled that of Nūrī as-Sa‘īd and ‘Abd al-Ilah two decades earlier, as similar pictures were circled around the world. These, the bloody vengeance on royalties and their main advisors were always very alarming for the Gulf royalties, but they got used to it. For long they were convinced, that what happened in Iran is no other of what happened in Iraq in 1958 and as Qāsim was shot in live broadcast so shall something similar happen to Homīnī. All those who topple a monarch and insult the Saudi dynasty will reach the same end, just like al-Qaddāfī. Especially if they question the Saudi-American alliance. ‘Abd an-Nāṣir, exceptional as he was, might have escaped this faith but his state as well, in time returned to the previous stance. Meaning his mission in time failed.
The reason, why all these states, and all these approaches to end the Western influence might have been successful temporarily, but failed eventually is that they all relied on persons, not institutions. The main leader might have been strong enough to rule, at least for some time, but all was dependent on him. If he failed or lost support, so tell the whole structure, and surely he could not pass on the power to his follower and still hold the same trajectory. And that is where Syria to some extent and Iran absolutely differed from all previous experiments.
Syria might have been fundamentally shaken, but the state built by Ḥāfiẓ al-Asad prevails against the West. In Iran not only Homeīnī is long dead, but most of policies as well, yet the institutions and the main trajectory set up by him run the state relatively smoothly. But even more shocking, that regardless all the economic war waged by the West against these states, they achieved much more, not only for themselves but for the region, than the Gulf. The very obvious example is that in Yemen Saudi failed miserably, even though has the world’s third biggest military budget, yet Iran reached its aims in Iraq and Syria, though only had a very limited engagement. That shows in the result as reoccurring in Gulf complaints: “Why Trump is a lion over the Arabs, then becomes a bunny in front of Iran.” The Saudis are the biggest partners of the Americans on economic and security matters in the region, yet the president openly mocks them saying he will “milk them”. And there is no response. While Iran resists, shots down a drone, survive all the sanctions, and the Americans might curse them, but don’t react. Iran proves such an effective resistance, which is unprecedented so far.
As Foreign Minister Ẓarīf recently put it: “You mistook us with your servants, who whatever you say they are obeying. Iran is of a different kind.”
That is what is triggering this hatred by Riyadh, since the very existent of Syria and Iran are the living proofs that thinks can be done differently and the West is not omnipotent.
Recently, however, a third ground came to life, which is that is Qatar and by now Turkey, with more states possibly joining soon. These states, while have good connections with the West and only in rare occasions defy it, they concentrate on their own interests. Regularly swing between the struggling camps achieving the most from both and securing their own interest. So did Qatar with Saudi Arabia, and now swinging between Iran and the US, and so does now Turkey between the EU, the US and Russia.
The arise of this third, alternative group is even more shocking for the Saudis, since more and more are joining these ranks. Ten years ago Riyadh was the unquestionable ruler of the GCC, now only holding on to Bahrain as even the UAE is dropping claims against Qatar and slowing taking the same course.
So the whole struggle in the Gulf has indeed historic and religious depth, but in fact has a much more pressing reason. Saudi Arabia was betting on one course ever since its foundation and so far successfully. Yet now things seem to change as more and more regional states slip out of their hands, even start to cooperate, and by now this is an existential threat. Once Homeīnī thought that Iran can never be safe, until the biggest example of American imperialism, the Saudi state exists. Now right the opposite is true. Riyadh cannot rest, until the biggest example of defiance against Washington goes unpunished.
 “Arabs only eat and buy”. Meaning Arabs, specifically the Gulf people, are without any appreciation of culture or taste, only come to eat and waste their money, though they have no idea what are they buying.