The Sunni-Shia imbroglio in the Middle East

Asghar Ali Engineer | 07 Jun 2020

The US invasion of Iraq has heralded many unintended consequences, uppermost of which is the umbrella of sectarian strife that is enveloping every political initiative in Iraq. Although Saddam was no doubt a dictator who imposed severe restrictions on the Shia community who were denied representation under his charge, Iraq was far more peaceful before US invasion.

At the heart of the turmoil in Iraq is the Sunni-Shia demographic make-up. Although 62 per cent of the population in Iraq is Shia, it was the Sunnis who wielded political power under Saddam. The only other country in the Middle East today that reveals similar realities is Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni minority. Both Iraq and Bahrain are nestled in immediate neighborhood of Iran and political reverberations in Iran have traditionally caste its shadow on the politics of the former countries. Iran appears keen to observe what goes on in Iraq and Bahrain and even in places where there are sizable Shia minorities in the Middle East, such as in Saudi Arabia.

More dramatically, the power shift in favour of the Shia community in Iraq has shaken up the Middle East with Sunni-dominated countries eyeing Iran with trepidation and its growing influence in the region, especially since some of the foreign policy values of the Iranian regime find resonance among their own Sunni populations. The growing clout of Iran and its gumption to fight a proxy war against Israel through the Hezbollah in 2006, while fending off US threats has reinvigorated a sense of pride among many across the Middle East, both Sunni and Shia, much to the discomfort of many Sunni leaders.

A fundamental issue Sunni leaders are grappling with concern their own minority Shia populations, which could grow more assertive in view of developments in Iraq. The oil-rich eastern regions of Saudi Arabia host a substantial Shia population while Kuwait, another oil rich country, counts thirty percent of its population as Shia. Although there is no unrest of serious note among the Shia minorities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the sense of apprehension has increased since US policy begun unraveling in Iraq.

What is more worrisome is that Iran is likely to become a nuclear power, a reality that will give it a substantial degree of pre-eminence in the region. Although Saudi Arabia has not taken any public position on Iran developing nuclear power, it is likely to be concerned about such a development at the very least. For the sake of maintaining status quo, additional US-led pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions is likely to be in Saudi interests.

The common theory is that the invasion of Iraq by the US has engendered a bastion of Shia influence in the Middle East, a development that is likely to be watched by Al-Qaeda and the Sunni leadership in region. However, this view is increasingly being called into question. Although the majority of Iraq is Shia, it is also true that Iraqi Shia are Arabs, not Persians like their brethren in Iran. This reality is played out in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia too. There are reasons to believe that Arab solidarity may play greater role than sectarian solidarity in tracing the future landscape of the Middle East. This was proved during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, where Iraqi Shia remained loyal to Saddam's forces.

Thus it may not be easy for Iran to extend its influence over Iraq. In fact, there is one more dimension that we have to keep in mind. Though Iran and Al-Qaeda are poles apart in their sectarian as well as ideological points of view, both share an enmity with the US and both support cause of Palestine, strongly opposing Israel. A look back into history is revealing again. Immediately after Islamic revolution in Iran, Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO, was given heroes welcome in Tehran with Arafat positing that the road to the Palestinian revolution passes through Tehran.

A cursory glance at the political landscape in the Middle East reveals a highly layered environment with several factors at play. The US alleges that Iran and Syria are supplying weapons to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But on reflection, one can reject such an allegation. The Syrian regime is Alavid Shiite, and is quite unlikely to support the Al-Qaeda cause. Similarly, why should Al-Qaeda accept any help from the Shia leadership in Iran? At most one could suggest that Shia militant groups, such as those led by Muqtada al-Sadr, do look to Iran for support. But Iran is likely to support a Malike regime which is a recognised Iraqi Shia political caucus, rather than support a militant faction and hedge its bets against the duly elected government of Iraq.

The Shia-Sunni contest in the Middle East is not a new one. While the rivalry is organic to its own dynamics, there are external political factors which play an equally important role especially since the situation is currently rather fluid and thus, difficult to predict with any certainty. Until the contours of the new Middle East, forged on the back of sectarian strife in Iraq becomes clearer, US foreign policy in the region is likely to play a primary role in shaping the future of the Middle East.


Asghar Ali Engineer is the Chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, India.

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