By Robert A. Vella
What’s happening in the tumultuous Middle East is undoubtedly complicated with various interests and factions competing over land, resources, and political power. However, underlying all the conflict in this terribly fractured region – and beyond – is a worsening sectarian crisis within Islam between Sunni and Shiite (Shi’a) Muslims.
Adding fuel to this raging fire are three powerful external factors:
- The renewal of Cold War animosities and geopolitical intrigue between the U.S. and Russia.
- The covert machinations of an increasingly militant and nationalist Israel.
- An unstable oil market (the Middle East’s most valuable commodity) negatively impacted by a weak, transitioning global economy as well as the looming threat of catastrophic climate change.
From Al Jazeera – Allies back Saudi Arabia in showdown with Iran:
Saudi Arabia’s regional allies have stepped up diplomatic pressure on Iran, breaking or downgrading relations with the country following an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which followed executions in the kingdom.
Bahrain announced on Monday that it was closing its embassy in Iran, and called upon Iranian diplomats to leave the country within 48 hours.
Bahrain frequently accuses Iran of being behind protests among its majority Shia population.
Within hours of the announcement, Sudan also said it was cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran “in solidarity with Saudi Arabia.”
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates said it was downgrading its ties with Iran, replacing its ambassador with an embassy officer-in-charge.
The latest developments come as Saudi announced on Monday that it was also cutting commercial ties with Iran and cancelled all flights to and from Iran, according to Reuters.
From the Independent – Sunni and Shia: Islam’s 1,400-year-old divide explained:
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran fundamentally boil down to two things – the battle to be the dominant nation in the Middle East and the fact the countries represent the regional strongholds of two rival branches of Islam.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ruled by a Sunni monarchy known as the House of Saud, with 90 per cent of the population adherents of their leaders’ faith. The Islamic Republic of Iran, meanwhile, is overwhelmingly Shia, with up to 95 per cent of nationals belonging to the denomination.
Both countries are major oil producers but while Saudi covers a significantly larger land mass, Iran’s population is more than twice the size.
It is the theological divide that really drives the wedge between the two countries, however, with each unable to accept the legitimacy of the other nation’s dominant faith.
The vast majority of the Muslims in the world are Sunni, amounting to as much as 85% of the religion’s adherents. They are spread all over the globe – from Morocco to Indonesia – and make up the dominant religion in North Africa and the Middle East.
Only lran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain have a Shia majority, although there are also significant Shia populations in Yemen, Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria and Qatar.
Despite being members of the religious minority, the Saudi-backed Kingdom of Bahrain has long been ruled by the Sunni House of Khalifa. Equally Iraq was ruled by the Sunni Saddam Hussein for more than 20 years, during which time he brutally oppressed Shia Muslims.
The current conflict in
IraqSyria [correction by TSJ] is fuelled by sectarian rivalries too, which embattled President Bashar al-Assad and his family members of the Shia Alawite-sect, while many of the insurgent groups in his country – including the Islamic State terror group – are Sunni adherents.
And of course the current civil war in Yemen has become a sectarian proxy war, with Iran backing the Shia Houthi rebels who overthrew the country’s Sunni-dominated government, while a Saudi-led coalition has since intervened to reinstall the Sunni leadership.
The U.S.-led Five Eyes coalition – which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K. – is generally aligned with Middle East nations governed by Sunni Muslims because they are more amenable towards western capitalism and the existence of Israel than are the Shiite-governed nations. Russia, having significant economic ties with Iran and Syria in addition to having a deep-seated political impulse to oppose U.S. hegemony, is generally aligned with Shiite-controlled countries. Mainland Europe falls somewhere in between these two geopolitical rivals.