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Saudi flagBy Tim Marshall.Iran flag

The breaking of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the latest manifestation of the deep Sunni/Shia split in the Middle East. The Saudis’ execution of their country’s leading Shia Muslim Sheikh, Nimr al Nimr, who had trained in the Iranian city of Qom, has simply put the spotlight on the problem.

It is a historical divide going back to the 7th century but the current widening of this divide partially goes back to 1979 and the Iranian Revolution. The newly religiously-emboldened Shia Iran began to export its brand of Islam across the region. At about the same time the oil rich Saudis set out to spread their severe Wahhabi Sunni Islamic religious philosophy. Each sees itself as the true Islam, meaning the Iranians do not accept the Saudis’ self-appointed role of ‘Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques’ – Mecca and Medina. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and allies exacerbated these tensions by unwittingly delivering a Shia dominated/Iranian influenced government in Baghdad. Riyadh and Tehran have been fighting a proxy war ever since.

The reaction of the nations in the Middle East to Saudi breaking relations with Iran is rooted in this divide. Other factors are at play, but a clear sectarian pattern is apparent.

IRAQ: With a Shia majority population, and a Shia led government, it was not a surprise that Iraq sided with Iran and condemned the execution of the Shia Sheikh. Two Sunni mosques were attacked in Shia dominated areas.

SYRIA: Given that Iran supports Syria’s President Assad while Saudi Arabia backs elements within the Free Syrian Army opposition it was no surprise that Syrian information Minister Omran al-Zoubi described the executions as “an assassination of liberties and human rights, and a reflection of the policy of the oppressive and disturbed Al Saud regime.” President Assad is from the Alawite sect of Shia Islam while the majority of the FSA are Sunni Muslims.

Sheikh, Nimr al Nimr

Sheikh, Nimr al Nimr

LEBANON: In a country split between Shia, Sunni, and Christian religions, national government reaction was limited. However, the country’s top Shia cleric, Sheikh Abdul-Amir Kabalan condemned al-Nimr’s execution calling it “a grave mistake”. There were anti Saudi demonstrations in Shia dominated districts of Beirut.

BAHRAIN: The kingdom is ruled by a Sunni royal family despite having a majority Shia population. The family is close to the Saudis who bailed them out when sections of the population rose up against the status quo. Both Saudi and Bahrain accuse Iran of stirring up unrest so it was no surprise when Bahrain followed Riyadh’s lead and cut ties with Iran. There were anti Saudi demonstrations among some of the Shia communities.

UAE: A Sunni dominated conglomerate, and member of the Saudi led Gulf Cooperation Council, it looks nervously across the Gulf to its giant Iranian neighbour and it too followed Saudi’s lead – downgrading diplomatic relations, expelling several Iranian diplomats, and recalling its ambassador from Tehran.

KUWAIT: Another state with a Sunni royal family. It strongly condemned Iran for allowing the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. However, mindful of its significant Shia minority population it stopped short of breaking relations.

EGYPT: Despite having one of its own nationals executed with the other 46 people last week the overwhelming Sunni Egypt sided with the Saudis who are signed up to deliver up to $3 billion in grants and loans to Cairo.

SUDAN: Khartoum used to have close relations with Iran but these have been growing cooler for several years and in 2015 Sudan, a Sunni Muslim country, gave support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen. This week Khartoum expelled the Iranian ambassador. The civil war in Yemen is itself partially sectarian – Iran backs the Shia Houthi rebels against the Sunni dominated government forces who are supported by Saudi Arabia.

USA – The Obama administration believes its signal foreign policy achievement is the Iranian nuclear deal. It also does not wish to be drawn into this fight. Washington D.C.’s condemnation of the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran was as muted as its criticism of the mass executions in Saudi Arabia. The State Dept. said Nimr’s execution “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions”.

UK – Reaction in London was similar to that of Washington D.C. and for similar reasons. With massive arms sales contracts to Saudi Arabia to consider the British issued a statement saying they were ‘disappointed’ at the mass executions.

With relations broken Iran and Saudi Arabia will now be even more verbally belligerent towards each other. They will continue to seek to undermine each other militarily especially in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.


8 Comments on "The Why Of the Reactions To the Saudi/Iran Row"

  1. Thank you for that, Tim and your usual brief yet information-rich words.

    My question for a brief reply (if anyone feels brave enough) is:

    Why do Sunny and Shia Moslems hate each other and want to kill one another?

  2. Hello David, well mostly – they don’t. In most places, at most times, they get on fine. In Saddam’s time there were many mixed marriages in Iraq. But – just as orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats were at war in the 90’s, so sometimes the Shia/Sunni tensions break out in violence. Things have not been helped by the Saudis spreading Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world leading to, for example, radical Pakistani Sunnis murdering large numbers of Pakistani Shia.

  3. It’s like Catholics and Protestants.

    Basically there was a fight over who should succeed Muhammad. One group went one way and the others the other way and they have continued to bear a grudge (and diverge theologically) ever since. For the practical differences, Google is great and Larry Page and Sergei Bryn are the prophets.

  4. To me as a relative newcomer to these matters it looks as if the money, weaponry and numbers overwhelmingly favour the Sunni, led by the Saudis, in the event of an all out conflict. As against that it would seem that the Saudis in particular have a “soft underbelly” in terms of the Gulf States and their current financial difficulties. In addition the most aggressive player in the Great Game at present is Russia, siding seemingly with Iran in Syria. The Turks – another Sunni majority – would presumably line up with the Saudis, and the Americans – very, very reluctantly – would do likewise. So are the Iranians really spoiling for a fight, or is it just bluster?

    • Bob, I agree with your outline but they dont have to go to war with eachother yet,they can try and further their interests in proxy conflicts in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon.

      • What I find hard to understand, Tim, is what both sides consider their “interests” to be. With the Nazis Hitler was limpidly clear – kill all the Jews and create a 1,000 year Reich. The Americans’ interests have always been money. Ours was “Empire”. But in this likely upcoming conflagration both sides are sworn to destroy the infidels and bring about an Islamic paradise. But both sides are Islamic, though perhaps they each see the other as honorary infidels.
        What would either side see as a vital interest which must be protected or developed by war if necessary?
        Although the odds seem to favour the Saudi team, perhaps the Iranian side does have one special advantage – they really do seem to believe the primary Islamic teaching in a very fundamentalist way, whereas the House of Saud do not follow the strict rules but seem to use Islam as a convenient way of furthering their more worldly goals. In an existential crisis you would be a brave man not to back the fanatics, especially armed with North Korean missiles and H-bombs.
        I assume the Israeli government is taking a “wait and see” approach, hoping both (all!) sides will knock lumps out of each other, and prepared to react to any nasties coming their way. Sorry if this is rambling, but every day seems to bring another complication wrapped in an enigma etc etc.
        Meanwhile back in the real, hard world of politics, we can dissect Mr Corbyn’s reshuffle and latest social gaffes.

  5. “their financial difficulties” – I mean the Saudis’ financial difficulties, not the Gulf States’.

  6. I have a deeply-seated conviction that religion is actually about politics – power, wealth, and controlling. Religion has been used as a tool of governments since recorded history began and most likely well before that. The ancient stone monuments such as Stonehenge, pyramids and more sophisticated places of worship have apparently also been important symbols in government.

    All of the great empires have had strong links with a strong church and it’s intriguing to see what’s happened at time of great change in the religion. Akhenaten who changed Egypt’s religion to monotheism and on his death was air-brushed (by cold chisel) from statues and other public masonry and multitheism was brought back. Rome, did it more gradually and adopted Christianity. Through the ages we have mostly had a great temporal power going hand in hand with a particular brand of religion. The USSR and Nazi Germany seem peculiar in not having that link…but neither of them lasted very long, either.

    Does the survival of a religion (or a particular sect of the same religion) depend on how government-friendly it is? Or vice versa, of course. What are you looking for in a government-friendly religion?
    a) Church supports government’s plans for war
    b) The pulpit is reasonably on-message
    c) Religious doctrine of an individual’s ‘place’ in society – leaders and the led or ‘class’ – ruling class?
    d) Law and Order (to include crime and punishment)
    e) Compliant moral support by church of state. e.g. killing people is wrong unless we are doing the killing with the blessing of the church

    Any religion or sect that doesn’t provide the state with those factors is not fit for purpose. Christianity is fairly compliant and has become ‘Established’ in many states. Would it be fair to say that Mohammedanism has proved to be inconvenient for states and governments and even this long after its foundation, Islam still needs a radical, fundamentalist and warlike caucus to counter governments? Is that perhaps the root of the problem with Islam in the modern world?

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