Muslims undertake the Hajj pilgrimage

Our MENA Manager, Nicholas Wade, argues that three factors currently underpin the tension in the region and that, despite the current headlines, the ‘Sunni-Shi’a’ question is not one of them. When explaining the current and future conflicts of the Middle East, narratives like sectarianism — that claim to trump state borders — should be treated with caution. Realpolitik, and rivalries between or within states at a local level, gives a better answer. Questions or comments to Nicholas.wade@menas.co.uk

We don’t do a complicated region justice when we reach for simple answers. But when it comes to Iran and Saudi Arabia, and in particular the occasional failure of their two ruling regimes to conceal perennially poor relations, the broad brushes quickly come out.

We’re told that ‘Sunni’ Saudi Arabia and ‘Shi’a’ Iran are leaders of a sectarian divide that might plunge a febrile region into a grand conflict. Some, like the Islamic State group, would love such a war to occur. But it won’t, because the narrative of sectarianism isn’t a one-stop explanation for what’s going on in the region. Sectarian tension is a consequence — and only one of many — of the three dynamics that are actually driving change in the region in 2016. If you want to read those, then skip to the last paragraph. Here I explain why the ‘sectarian explanation’ is a distorting one.

Rather than explaining the Middle East, the sectarian narrative has acted as an excuse for why we never will: It’s always been like that, it always will be, it’s too complicated, and riven by ‘ancient hatreds’ that we, who are not part of them, will never understand. But the region is not too complicated to understand; there are just a lot of moving parts that need appreciation. This requires local explanations, not ones that try and encompass the whole region.

So there are places where the Sunni-Shi’a issue is obviously salient: Lebanon and Iraq are foremost among them, but even here there are other significant issues. Sectarian tension is certainly relevant in Syria and Yemen, but to reduce these complicated conflicts to solely sectarian wars is wrong. Let’s look at how, and how much, ‘sect’ matters in some tensions. And let’s understand why, in others, it doesn’t matter at all.

  • The first and most obvious point to make is that the split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam is ancient, but historians haven’t spent all the interceding period discussing the imminent prospect of a sectarian war. Something modern is clearly at play here, not primordial prejudices. Saudi Arabia has been a unified state for less than a century, and its foreign-policy clout dates from the 1970s. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime hasn’t yet marked its fortieth year. Both draw on ancient histories (and the fact that one of these is Arab and the other is Persian seems to be entirely overlooked in our rush to the sects), and their rivalry is real. But that rivalry is defined by the modern Middle East, as much as defining it.
  • Secondly, both countries are experiencing significant internal tensions at the moment. Saudi Arabia is saddled with low oil prices and a difficult war in Yemen even as it sees vulnerabilities in a delicate succession dynamic and the prospect of its Iranian rival being empowered by sanctions relief. Iran may want to cash in the nuclear deal, but that conceals an intense internal debate between ‘reformists’ and ‘conservatives’ about what the future of the Islamic Republic should be. It’s wrong to say that these regimes can ensure their people’s obedience by stressing a threat across the Gulf, but the maintenance of that threat does provide justification for certain policies – not least in the defence and foreign policy sphere – that elements of these regimes find useful.
  • Thirdly, Saudi Arabia and Iran both like to define themselves as leaders of Sunni and Shi’a Islam, but it is wrong to mistake these internal narratives for something that is accepted by all Muslims or all Islamic countries. States in MENA region are, more than at any point in their histories, ‘doing their own thing’ at the moment. Their alliances are pragmatic, and often brief. In terms of their populations, these often draw on local religious influences that are usually far closer, and stronger, than those of the Iranians and Saudis.
  • That feeds into my fourth point, that the idea of a ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shi’a’ world is a myth. The Shi’a are a minority among Muslims, and they’re not loyal to Iran wherever you find them. Yes, there are alliances: Shi’a Hezbollah is backed by Iran (so is Sunni Islamist Hamas) and Shi’a-majority Iraq has good relations with Iran (even though some of Iraq’s Shi’a factions, such as that of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, are more sympathetic to the US). But local distinctions endure.

Sunni Muslims are a majority in Islamic community, and in most of the MENA region’s states. But there are divisions within these states: Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are all overwhelmingly Sunni, and their internal tensions gave us the Arab Spring and its aftermath. There are also external rivalries between them: Turkey and Egypt (replace if you want with Algeria and Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia etc), both with overwhelmingly Sunni populations, currently have poor relations.  To understand any of these situations, ask me about the nuances of the region, not a ‘Sunni’ or ‘Shi’a narrative’.

Three things have caused, and will perpetuate, the current instability of the MENA region:

The greatest period of popular unrest in the region since the end of the First World War (the Arab Spring and its aftermath), the greatest global power shifts since the end of the Second World War (the decline of the US’ will and ability to forcefully intervene in the region’s problems), and low global energy prices. What this adds up to is intense rivalry at the local level, in which many identities have become more salient. That of ‘Sunni’ or ‘Shi’a’ is one of them. That of ‘secular’ or ‘Islamist’ is another that has mattered profoundly, and there are others too. But the greatest rivalry in the region, as I argued in my 2016 predictions, will continue to be that between its states. Iran and Saudi Arabia are just two of them, and by understanding the others you’ll see how some conflicts in the region may be resolved, while others may be yet to commence.