Saudi Sunnis and Iran’s Shiites—Why the U.S. Can’t Support Both
Policy + Politics

Saudi Sunnis and Iran’s Shiites—Why the U.S. Can’t Support Both

The stakes for the West have never been higher in the Middle East, only this time, it’s not just about oil, Kuwait, or al-Qaeda. It’s about a possible full-fledged tribal war between the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and its allies vs. the Shiites of Iran and its supporters. In the middle is the growing band of Islamic radicals who want to rule the world.

Fighting ISIS makes strange bedfellows. The United States is now supporting Iran — a member of  President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” — with airstrikes in an effort to keep ISIS from gaining in Iraq. Just to confuse things even more, the administration is also supporting the Saudis in their efforts to keep Iran-backed Houthis from taking over Yemen.

Related: Saudi Arabia, with US Support, Attacks in Yemen 

The Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthi positions in Yemen is just the latest step Saudi Arabia has taken to ensure that the delicate political balance of the Middle East stays to its liking. The Saudi actions have sometimes come with unintended consequences, and have even started a new spate of conflicts in the troubled region.

Saudi Arabia has been an ally to the U.S. since the establishment of the Kingdom in 1932. It enjoys a strategic location with a massive size and coasts on both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. It is also the largest oil exporter in the world. Moreover, it is the birthplace of the Islamic faith and hosts the two holy sites of Kaaba in Mecca and the Nabawi mosque in Medina. But while all that helps Saudi Arabia play a prominent and unifying role, it also harbors Wahhabism, an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam, making the Kingdom a dividing force in the region.

Wahhabis are the most anti-Shiite group among the Sunni Muslims. This is one of the reasons Saudi Arabia is in a regional competition with Iran, which is ruled by adherents of an extreme Shiite version of Islam. While the Obama administration was retreating from Iraq in 2011, and as the Arab Spring was emerging, the worried Saudis began a series of military interventions throughout the Middle East. They planned to protect friendly autocratic governments, overthrow others and attack rebel groups. 

The Saudi actions began in the small Shiite-majority kingdom of Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni royal family. The Saudis provided a small contingency force to suppress the Bahrainis who rose up against their government in 2011. In that case, the Saudi motivation to keep a Sunni government in power was combined with the fear that the fall of the Bahraini royal dynasty would open the door to similar uprisings in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries. Add to that the presence of a suppressed Shiite minority that lives in the oil rich eastern region of the Kingdom and the fear that Iran could control Bahrain — all were factors in the Saudi decision to act in Bahrain.

Related: Factbox--Saudi Arabia’s Coalition Against Yemen’s Houthis

In addition to supporting an unpopular autocratic dynasty, the Saudi intervention in Bahrain divided the Middle East. Iran and Iraq protested the move, while Sunni countries welcomed it. That deepened the Shiite-Sunni divide in the region.

Source: Financial Times

Two years later, the Saudis supported General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military ouster of the elected Islamist president in Egypt. The Saudis were threatened by the toppling of Egypt’s government and the election of a new president from the Muslim Brotherhood — if it could happen in Egypt, it could happen to the Saudi royal family. The Saudis claimed that Islam could only survive in a society where not only the religion but also the culture and education were tightly enforced through autocratic rule.

At first, the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic success in Egypt negated the Saudi claim. Once in power, the Muslim Brotherhood assumed they could leverage their growing support not only in Egypt, but also in other parts of the Arab world and operate within the system.

They were wrong. 

The military-backed coup ended their short reign, and the army started killing and imprisoning the Brotherhood's members, who went underground. Ever since, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have supported the Egyptian government with many billions of dollars to assure its stability. But the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has given ISIS another opportunity to expand. Egypt now suffers from a growing insurgency of ISIS radicals. 

Related: How Iran Is Taking Over the Middle East

Saudi support for Syria’s rebels (in the form of funding and arms) also had repercussions across the Middle East and contributed to the rise of ISIS. In 2014, after years of arming and funding the Syrian Sunni rebels who had risen against the Alawite minority rule of President Bashar al-Assad, the Saudis joined the U.S.-led alliance against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Whether by force or by persuasion, rebel groups' arms ended up in ISIS hands. As with the Bahraini issue, Iran and Iraq, in addition to the Syrian government, objected to the Saudis’ actions in Syria.

Now, the Saudis have formed a coalition of Middle East Sunni countries, from Morocco to Egypt, Sudan to Turkey and Pakistan, to launch an air campaign aimed at the Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite rebels who unlawfully seized power in Yemen. While the Saudi contribution to the air campaign against ISIS was welcomed by most Arab countries that is not the case with the current air raids against the Houthis. 

Iran and Iraq objected again. It is true that Yemen’s Sunni president needed support urgently. Otherwise, he would have probably lost his last stronghold in the south, bringing the rebel threat closer to Yemen's neighbor, Saudi Arabia. But with Yemen roughly 60 percent Sunnis and 40 percent Shiite Zaidis, and with a region suffering from two sectarian wars in Syria and Iraq, the Saudi further escalated the sectarian conflict in the Middle East.

Iran will not stand still while its Houthi allies are being attacked from the air. Iran's reaction will elicit another Sunni reaction and the crisis will intensify yet again.    

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