Po­lit­i­cal ri­val­ries in the Mideast stoke danger­ous di­vi­sion


Across the Mid­dle East, fierce ri­valry be­tween Sunni Saudi Ara­bia and Shi­ite Iran is height­en­ing sec­tar­ian ten­sions, even in con­flicts that an­a­lysts say are pri­mar­ily po­lit­i­cal.

Riyadh and Tehran ad­here to dif­fer­ent branches of Is­lam and have of­ten backed mem­bers of their own sect in re­gional con­flicts.

But an­a­lysts say their ri­valry is driven largely by pol­i­tics, with sec­tar­ian sen­ti­ment more a use­ful — if danger­ous — tool.

Sec­tar­ian rhetoric is on dis­play most ex­plic­itly in the lan­guage used by mil­i­tant groups.

The Is­lamic State ji­hadist group, for ex­am­ple, reg­u­larly de­nounces Shi­ites and oth­ers as heretics.

But di­vi­sive re­li­gious rhetoric also ap­pears in of­fi­cial dis­course.

Saudi of­fi­cials have cast their in­ter­ven­tion in Ye­men, against rebels who ad­here to a branch of Shi­ite Is­lam, as a fight of “good ver­sus evil.”

Iran mean­while this week ac­cused Riyadh of com­mit­ting “geno­cide” with its mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion.

And in Syria, the gov­ern­ment and its al­lies, in­clud­ing Tehran and Le­banon’s Shi­ite group Hezbol­lah, la­bel all those in the Sunni-led op­po­si­tion as “ter­ror­ists.”

But ex­perts say th­ese con­flicts are about se­cu­rity, power, gov­er­nance, and the ri­valry be­tween Tehran and Riyadh — not the re­li­gious fis­sure that be­gan with a dis­pute over the Prophet Muham­mad’s suc­ces­sor.

“There is no eter­nal con­flict here,” said Jane Kin­nin­mont, deputy head of the Mid­dle East and North Africa pro­gram at Chatham House.

“But some­times th­ese dif­fer­ent re­li­gious iden­ti­ties can be­come caught up in wider po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic dis­putes,” she said in a video pro­duced by her think tank.

A Sec­tar­ian Prism

The ri­valry be­tween Riyadh and Tehran, both pow­er­ful Mus­lim oil-pro­duc­ing na­tions, dates back decades and has ex­pe­ri­enced lulls and upticks.

It was sharply ag­gra­vated by the af­ter­math of the 2003 U.S.led in­va­sion of Iraq, which up­set the re­gional sta­tus quo and saw Bagh­dad move into Tehran’s sphere of in­flu­ence.

It can be easy to per­ceive the re­gion’s con­flicts through a sec­tar­ian prism.

In Syria, Saudi Ara­bia backs the Sunni-led rebels, while Iran and Hezbol­lah sup­port Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s regime.

Sim­i­larly, in Le­banon, Riyadh is al­lied with a Sunni-led bloc that op­poses Ira­nian-backed Hezbol­lah.

In Bahrain, the Sunni royal fam­ily, sup­ported by Saudi Ara­bia, ac­cuses Tehran of fo­ment­ing un­rest among the Shi­ite-ma­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion.

And in Ye­men, Riyadh is backed by a coali­tion of Sunni na­tions in its battle against the Huthi rebels.

But, de­spite out­ward ap­pear­ance, th­ese con­flicts are pri­mar­ily driven by considerations like pro­ject­ing in­flu­ence, and pro­tect­ing bor­ders and sup­ply routes to al­lies.

Cast­ing th­ese power strug­gles as re­li­gious bat­tles is a way for pro­tag­o­nists to broaden sup­port for their nar­row po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tives.

“When it comes to re­gional geopol­i­tics, what is re­ferred to as ‘sec­tar­ian’ has noth­ing to do with mat­ters of sec­tar­ian iden­tity,” said Fa­nar Had­dad, a re­search fel­low at the Mid­dle East In­sti­tute of the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore.

“It is a stan­dard case of geopo­lit­i­cal ri­valry, but one in which sec­tar­ian la­bels play an out­sized role both in how the ri­valry is per­ceived, and in how it is pack­aged.”

Not a Sim­ple Divide

In­deed, sec­tar­ian ties of­ten prove no pre­dic­tor of shared in­ter­ests in the re­gion.

“It’s of­ten seen as a very sim­ple thing, t hat Sunni and Shi­ite are fight­ing each other be­cause they have dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Is­lam,” said Kin­nin­mont. “But a look at his­tory and a look at t he va­ri­ety of coun­tries in the Mus­lim world shows that that is not the case.”

Qatar and Egypt, for ex­am­ple, be­long to the coali­tion back­ing Saudi’s Ye­men in­ter­ven­tion, but they are at odds in other re­gional con­flicts, in­clud­ing in Libya.

And while Turkey and Qatar back Riyadh’s mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion, the three coun­tries have all com­peted fiercely for in­flu­ence in the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion Na­tional Coali­tion body, at times vir­tu­ally par­a­lyz­ing it.

Still, even as a byprod­uct of po­lit­i­cal ri­valry, an­a­lysts say that the sec­tar­ian sen­ti­ment in the re­gion is a danger­ous trend.

“The Shi­ite-Sunni split is very real, it ex­ists,” said Fred­eric Wehrey, a se­nior as­so­ciate at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace’s Mid­dle East pro­gram.

By ex­ploit­ing that divide, po­lit­i­cal ac­tors risk un­leash­ing vi­o­lence that can­not eas­ily be quelled, as seen in Iraq, where the coun­try has been rav­aged by sec­tar­ian mas­sacres.

“Although an in­di­vid­ual’s path to mil­i­tancy has many roots, sec­tar­ian vit­riol cer­tainly em­pow­ers those who ar­gue that the ‘ com­mu­nity of believ­ers’ (be it Sun­nis or Shi­ites) is un­der ex­is­ten­tial threat and vi­o­lence is nec­es­sary to de­fend it,” Wehrey said.

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