By Tim Marshall.
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.
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.