The Gulf and sectarianism

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At the negotiations in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear programme at the weekend, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that sectarianism was “the most serious security threat not only to the region but to the world at large.” A destructive legacy of the decades-long cold war between the Sunni-majority Gulf and Shia Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, sectarian politics have become a defining feature of the Middle East’s many conflicts, from Lebanon to Iraq and now Syria. ECFR’s latest issue of Gulf Analysis, edited by Fatima Ayub, explores the phenomenon of sectarianism and explains how governments in the region cultivate and manipulate sectarian agendas to pursue strategic policy goals. “Gulf Analysis” shows that many governments in the region use sectarianism as a convenient instrument to justify discrimination against minorities. A series of essays written by insiders from the region explain how sectarian agendas are deployed and how they shape the politics of the wider Middle East: Saudi Arabia: No other country is accused of doing more to propagate sectarianism than Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family sees itself as the rightful inheritor and guardian of Islamic orthodoxy and. The kingdom promotes distinctly sectarian policies in Bahrain and Syria, where it fears growing Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia shows noinclination to address the marginalisation of its own Shia population, which is often deemed seditious by virtue of its faith. Iran: Perhaps surprisingly, Iran seeks to establish strategic, not sectarian, alliances. Its effort to counter its regional isolation has led it to established partnerships with actors that share its interpretation of international and regional security threats rather focusing exclusively on allies from within its branch of Islam. Examples include an alliance with Iraq as well as the close partnership with Hamas and Assad’s Syria. Iraq: The political, social and economic crises that unfolded in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 remain unresolved and risk pushing the country into even deeper violence. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s use of sectarianism to consolidate his power is deepening divisions between the county’s majority Shia population and its Sunni minority. Qatar: Although Qatar has not explicitly sought to promote a sectarian agenda in its domestic or foreign policy, the attempts of its leadership to expand its influence in the Middle East and North Africa have nonetheless inflamed sectarian tensions at home and abroad. The country is seeking to chart an uneasy course between its support for Islamists abroad without alienating its own Shia citizens and restoring better relations with Iran. “As Syria deteriorates, sectarianism will become more prevalent there and elsewhere. But taking a broader view, the historical axis between the Gulf and Western powers against Iran exacerbates regional tensions. So the Geneva meetings between the E3+3 have implications for much more than Iran’s nuclear capabilities. If there is an agreement with Iran, it could mark the beginning of a slow shift towards a more pragmatic recognition of mutual interests rather than a continuation of the destructive proxy politics we now see in Syria.” - Fatima Ayub
   THE GULF AND SECTARIANISM  G  U L  F  A  N  A L  Y  S  I   S   A B  O U  T   Introduction by Fatima Ayub Has the Arab Awakening degenerated into a nightmare?  After its first experiment with credible elections, Egypt has reverted to the strongman politics of the deep state. A free Libya looks to be in free fall. Yemen’s managed political transition is stagnating. Bahrain’s national reconciliation is less a dialogue than a monologue by its self-assured monarchs. Syria is unravelling into an ever more divisive and brutal internecine conflict, jeopardising the political and economic health of already anaemic Lebanon and Jordan. The war in Iraq, metastasizing anew as the Arab  Awakening triggers new power struggles around it, claims hundreds of dead each month as it fuses with the war on its  western border. Perhaps the most worrying trend is that of sectarianism and in particular the re-emergence of identity politics along the Shia-Sunni divide.  A handwringing discourse has emerged casting the moment as the onset of a new Thirty Years’ War. 1  Implicit in this description is a fatalistic view of a region with fanatical By virtue of their confined political environments, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and their most important neighbours often remain impenetrable to domestic and foreign observers. And yet, the evolving politics of Peninsula countries, their relationship to one another and to the wider region, pose some of the most significant and unanswered questions for the changing geopolitics of the Middle East. Gulf politics are entering the most unpredictable and  volatile era since their establishment.Understanding these new trends as they unfold will be critical if Europeans and other international actors intend to rely on the Gulf states as nancial and political partners in the region. In the coming decade, the Gulf states  will be irrevocably caught between aging, archaic governing models and new political and social forces beyond their control. In  bringing together commentary and analysis from those observing these countries from inside and out, this series sheds light on key political debates and developments in the Gulf that have wider resonance for the region and the world. 1 See for example Anne-Slaughter, “The Syria Lessons”, Project Syndicate, 28 May 2013, available at; Thomas E. Ricks, “Is Syrian-related violence the beginning of the Muslim world’s Thirty Years’  War”,  Foreign Policy , 27 June 2013, available at worlds_thirty_years_war; Anatole Kaletsky, “Syria conict invokes Europe’s history”, Reuters, 5 September 2013, available at     G   U   L   F   A   N   A   L   Y   S   I   S 2    E   C   F   R   N  o  v  e  m   b  e  r   2   0   1   3  w  w  w .  e  c   f  r .  e  u powers exercising political and military resources to assert their supremacy. But the comparison is simplistic and dangerous, lending itself to binary choices that ignore the complexities of a region contending with deep and decades-long political, social and economic tensions. At one level, the ensuing conflicts since 2011, though not inevitable, are a predictable consequence of dramatic social and political change. In the eyes of powerful elites and Western allies, the old autocracies were both useful and successful in preserving their uneasy stability in the post-colonial order – in denying rights to anyone other than a privileged elite, they alternately tempered or inflamed rival nationalisms, competing identities and religious association as was expedient for consolidating the power of the state. Not only does the phenomenon of sectarianism – the promotion and deliberate deployment of sect-based allegiance in the pursuit of political ends – have complex causes, it also manifests itself in a diverse ways and at different levels: personal identity, social attitudes, religious ideology, political organisation, national policy and transnational movements. As Middle Eastern governments confront the single greatest challenge to their power since the establishment of these regimes – all the more serious as it emanates from their own citizenry – and the political landscape shifts dramatically, new and old discontents are  becoming more visible and extreme. The highest concentration of the world’s Shiite Muslims is in the wider Gulf region (which includes Iran). In Bahrain, Iran and Iraq, more than 65 percent of the population is Shiite. In Kuwait an estimated 25 percent and in Yemen an estimated 40 percent are Shiite. Where Shias constitute much smaller minorities of between 5-15 percent of the population – in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the United  Arab Emirates – they face varying degrees of marginalisation and discrimination. Such treatment is most pronounced in Saudi Arabia, where the country’s estimated 10 percent Shiite population are concentrated in the Eastern Province near Iran. Disenfranchised communities, including Berbers in Libya, Kurds in Syria and Shias in Saudi Arabia, have sought to capitalise on the changes created by the Arab  Awakening.  A major fault line Complexity notwithstanding, the present geopolitics of the Middle East rest on a single major fault line: the competition for power and influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia in their wider neighbourhood. While the two countries have never gone to war with each other and are unlikely to, their mutual animosity continues to inflame serious and bloody conflicts across the region, with Syria now the most egregious example. Even more so than the lightning rod of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this fault line has divided the region for more than three decades. In particular, the political alliances between the Arab Gulf states were consolidated by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which created a new model of quasi-participatory Islamist government in a country of 80 million people – that is, larger than the population of all the Arab Gulf states. Whether in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain,  Yemen or Syria, the incompatibility of Saudi and Iranian policies – for the former, limiting the rise of alternate models of Islamist governance, and for the latter, challenging a regional and Western order aligned against it – continues to shape politics and exacerbate tensions along sectarian lines in those countries. No wonder, then, that recent a single telephone call in September 2013 between US President Barack Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was so momentous. The first contact between leaders of the two countries since the Islamic Revolution, it could signal the first glimmer of a reconciliation between Iran and the West, and eventually  between Iran and its neighbours, including those in the Gulf. But within the Gulf, engagement with Iran is seen a zero-sum calculation; any positive movement to end Iran’s international isolation is seen as abandoning the Arab Gulf states. There are some pragmatists in both Iran and Saudi Arabia  who support security and economic co-operation. In the 1990s then-Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah and President Mohammad Khatami were receptive to security cooperation.  As head of Iran’s National Security Council in 1997, Rouhani himself signed a security agreement with Riyadh, which was meant to initiate a process of regional security cooperation,  but the efforts faltered and went up in smoke with the Iraq war. Potential spoilers for a reconciliation include the decades of antagonism and mistrust (memories of the Iran-Iraq war remain strong); Israel’s pugilistic foreign policy towards Iran, with which the Gulf itself often quietly colludes; the legacy of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s populist-driven hostility; and an ever more conservative religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia: cultivating sectarian spaces No single country is considered to do more to propagate sectarianism than Saudi Arabia. As Andrew Hammond  writes in his essay in this issue of Gulf Analysis , the Saudi royal family sees itself as the rightful inheritor and guardian of Islamic orthodoxy. Saudi Arabia’s formal interpretation of Islam is ideologically sectarian, condemning all other traditional schools of Islamic thought and religious communities as heresy. The state and private citizens put millions every year into evangelism (known in Arabic as da’wa ), the establishment of schools and mosques worldwide and financial support to print and broadcast media that promote its interpretation of Islam.  As Shiite communities inside Saudi Arabia and around it constitute the largest and most organised group of such “heretics”, it deliberately subjects them to particularly stringent criticism and discrimination. Even before the Arab  Awakening, the rise of an Islamist, Shiite Iran, and then a Shiite Iraq had already posed a serious threat to a Saudi and Wahhabi influence over the region. In the last two  years, Saudi Arabia has predictably turned to trenchantly  3 sectarian policies in Bahrain and Syria, where it fears Iranian encroachment, and within its own borders, where Shias have  been protesting since 2011.Saudi Arabia’s responses at home and abroad are reinforcing the worst repercussions of sectarianism. With Hezbollah’s public declaration of support to the Syrian regime earlier this year, Saudi media and Salafist groups in turn became noticeably more hostile. In the troubled kingdom of Bahrain,  where protests against the government occur with weekly regularity beyond the eye of most reporting, Saudi Arabia has intervened militarily to protect the minority Sunnite kingdom against the grievances of a Shiite majority. Alarmed and perplexed at the spectre of democratic revolutions, Saudi officials took Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s statement of support to the Assad regime as vindication of its claims that the government’s violence is Shia-inspired (thus, of Iranian pedigree) and should be challenged with force. This  view has also shaped Saudi discourse towards its own Shiite citizens, whose protests against their marginalisation are cast as seditious unrest. Countering Iran and its potential influence is as much about containing models of Islamist governance that contradict Saudi Arabia’s own as it is about containing Shiism, and understanding this imperative is key to interpreting Saudi regional policy more broadly. Where Saudi Arabia has not been able to play on anti-Shiite sentiment – such as  with the new Islamist forces in Egypt – it has sought both to undermine the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and to support more extreme Salafist parties, which adhere to Saudi interpretations of Islamic governance. It has cultivated the rivalry between the Brotherhood and the Salafists in order to prevent them making common cause against it. But in Egypt, the country whose branch of the Brotherhood gives the kingdom most cause for concern, this approach has already led to blowback: in June, Saudi and Egyptian Salafist clerics convened in Cairo and declared a religious obligation to wage jihad in Syria, a move that only served to inflame fears of a more radical Islamist convergence. The fact that President Morsi attended the rally reconfirmed Saudi fears that a Brotherhood government anywhere would also fan the flames of Islamist discontent against the kingdom. Qatar: blowback for brinksmanship Qatar is not historically considered to have promoted an avowedly sectarian agenda in its regional policies. Hassan Hassan writes that Qatar, with a small and well-integrated Shiite minority among its 300,000 citizens, has miscalculated the consequences of its political adventurism in the last two  years. Though its Sunni Muslims also adhere to Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, Qatar’s leadership has disavowed the official enforcement of doctrine in the country as part of its intent to shape a more open society. But as in Saudi  Arabia, the government must also pacify its very conservative religious establishment, which is not tightly regulated and is increasingly disconcerted by the liberalisation of the country. Under the former Emir Hamad, Qatar’s interest in developing an ambitious network of alliances in the Middle East and North Africa and further afield meant it could not afford to embrace strictly sectarian policies. It has historically maintained better relations with Iran, with which it shares control of South Pars-North Dome, the world’s largest gas field. But it also supports policies agreed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) such as the boycott of the Shia-led government in Iraq and support for the Bahraini monarchy in its fight against popular discontent from its Shiite citizens. In May, when the prominent Doha-based Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued his now-infamous condemnation of Shias as heretics and called on Muslims to join in holy war against them in Syria, Qatar’s own Shiite community also felt targeted. However, in Syria Qatar has supported groups that espouse an avowedly sectarian agenda in hopes of boosting the chances of Muslim Brotherhood victory in a post-Assad order. Al-Jazeera, a key tool of Qatari soft power, has seen its viewership diminish across the Arab region and its sometimes biased reporting sustains criticisms that Qatar’s policies serve the interests of its old and new allies. Fearing the impact in Qatar itself, the new Emir, Tamim, has slowly moved to rein in the most visible and problematic aspects of his father’s foreign policy. Despite taking a quieter tone, Qatar is unlikely to abandon its new allies within the Muslim Brotherhood parties across the region. It is uncertain how it  will navigate a more fraught regional climate in which Saudi  Arabia and the UAE are increasingly hostile to Islamists. Iraq: The perils of rising sectarian conict Like Lebanon before it and Syria after, Iraq has also  witnessed the destructive ramifications of neighbourly concerns premised on sectarian agendas. Iraqi Shias, long caught in a cycle of disenfranchisement, are politically dominant for the first time since the inception of the modern Iraqi state. Hadeel al-Sayegh writes that the political, social and economic crises that unfolded in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 remain fundamentally unresolved and risk pushing the country into even deeper violence. The process of debaathification, itself an attempt to reverse the balance of power between the Shia majority and Sunni minority, is  widely considered as excessive and abusive and has left Iraqi Sunnis in a position of political and social vulnerability and  without means of redress for legitimate grievances.The ongoing violence inflicted on civilians by Sunni insurgent groups is as much a remnant of the preceding decade of conflict as it is a renewed effort to capitalise on the real and perceived grievances of Sunnite communities  who feel themselves underserved by the state and besieged  by the wider society. Neither has Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki done anything to reverse these perceptions. Since the 2010 parliamentary elections, when hundreds of Sunnite candidates were disqualified from running (ostensibly for links with the former Baathist regime but in reality because they were Sunnis) established a naked sectarianism in the     G   U   L   F   A   N   A   L   Y   S   I   S  4    E   C   F   R   N  o  v  e  m   b  e  r   2   0   1   3  w  w  w .  e  c   f  r .  e  u Iraqi government. With a standing army of a million strong and unreported numbers of intelligence officials, informants and private militias, built under US auspices as a bulwark against terrorism, al-Maliki has extended the reach of the presidency well beyond its constitutional limits. As a close ally of Iran – the only other Shia-majority and Shia-led government – al-Maliki’s government antagonises the Gulf on sectarian and political grounds. The substantial but unquantifiable financial support that Iraq is providing to the regime of Bashar al-Assad underscores these ties. Iran: strategist or sectarian? Does Iran, with the largest Shia population in the world, pursue an unwavering sectarian agenda? Mohammad Shabani explores the complex character of Iranian politics and argues that, despite the Islamist and Shiite character of the Islamic Republic, Iranian foreign policy has faced constraints in a Middle East in which neither Persians nor Shias are the majority. Whether under the Pahlavis or the clerics, Iran has always sought strategic, not sectarian, alliances. But since the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the policy of containment by the West and Gulf, Iran has had few partners to choose from. Rather than pursue a “Shia-only” policy, Iran has also sought partnerships with countries and actors that both share its hostility to what it perceives as a Western-backed regional order and its own perceptions of security threats. This orientation accounts for its support of Sunnite Hamas  well as Shiite Hezbollah and of the secular Baathist Alawite regime of Assad. The closeness of Baghdad and Tehran is not simply about building a relationship with the second-largest Shia-majority country – after all, in the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqis  were perfectly willing to kill their fellow Shias in Iran and  vice-versa. When it comes to Islamists more generally, in particular since the advent of the Arab Awakening, Tehran’s positions follow from the twin considerations outlined above. Though Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei initially heralded the uprisings as a triumph for revolutionary Islamism, Tehran’s responses have been decidedly mixed. For example, whereas there  was a brief attempt at a rapprochement with Egypt during the short-lived Morsi administration (a move that alarmed much of the Gulf), Tehran has been noticeably lukewarm to Ennahda in Tunisia and flatly dismissive of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. In Bahrain, where Iran could have been more interventionist in making common cause with Shiite communities, it has been more muted. But as tensions and conflicts elsewhere become increasingly divided on sectarian lines, Iran will find itself more and more constrained in its ability to build relationships with non-Shia groups. Breaking the sectarian cycle The conscious exploitation of sectarian policies and discourse,  which in turn strengthens sectarianism, is likely to be a feature of Middle Eastern politics for years to come as key governments and private citizens channel financial support to groups who espouse an avowedly sectarian agenda. Once such vectors of conflict are set in motion, they become very difficult to quash; those communities targeted now have a legitimate grievance against the groups that target them. Syria is the latest sectarian crucible not because Shias, Sunnis, Alawis, Christians and others can only manage to settle their differences violently, but because some groups are actively encouraged, inculcated and funded to do so on  both sides. This cycle of grievance and vengeance continues to play out in Iraq and threatens to pull Lebanon into a similar downward spiral.Breaking this cycle demands a complex, generational transformation in the Middle East, but ensuring the protection and fair political representation of minority groups will be a necessary first step. Insofar as policymakers in Europe and elsewhere have a role to play, it is in reassessing the approaches in other countries that deliberately or unconsciously align them with the Arab Gulf states against Iran, whether in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen or Iraq and in encouraging any prospect of a thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations. As so much of the region’s wider instability is a product of this divide, any effort to bridge political divide in the Gulf will help diminish sectarian tensions more generally. Such a shift will come in small and incremental stages, but exploiting the opening offered by Rouhani’s election and  building on prior Saudi willingness for engagement as the potential resolution of the decades-long standoff between  with Iran over its nuclear programme could be a start.   Fatima Ayub is a policy fellow in the Middle East and North  Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign  Relations. She has a background in political analysis, research and advocacy with experience in Europe, the  Middle East, the United States and South Asia. She holds an M.A. in International Studies from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Acknowledgements ECFR would like to extend its thanks to the governments of Sweden and Norway for their support for this publication and for ECFR’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
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