Has Saudi Arabia ever been important


Guido Steinberg

Dr. Guido Steinberg is an Islamic scholar and works for the Science and Politics Foundation. Since 2006 he has also been a consultant in numerous proceedings against Islamist terrorists in Germany, Austria, Denmark and the USA. In 2020 his new book on the "Cold War" between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be published (Verlag Droemer Knaur).

There are many currents in Islam. The two most important are Sunnis and Shiites. Their contrast not only shapes the foreign policy of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Islamic scholar Guido Steinberg explains how an old religious contrast developed to a current political-religious conflict.

The Shrine of Fatima Masuma in the Iranian city of Qom is an important place of pilgrimage for Shiites. Shiite and Sunni are the two main currents of Islam. Your conflict is currently shaping the Islamic world. (& copy picture-alliance, AA)

The contrast between Shiites and Sunnis goes back to the early days of Islam in the 7th century. The focus is on the dispute over the legitimate succession of the Prophet Muhammad (died 632). After his death, loyal companions took over the office of caliph (Arabic for successor). The followers of the Prophet's blood relatives protested against this. They insisted that his closest male relative, Ali Ibn Talib - cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad - was his rightful successor. Although Ali became the fourth caliph in 656, when he took office a civil war began, which ended in 661 with the death of Ali and the seizure of power by his adversaries. Ali's supporters, who were also called Shi'at Ali (= Ali's party, hence the name Shiites), were still only considered to be the direct descendants of Muhammad and Ali, who were named imams, as legitimate rulers of the Muslims.

Ali's son and third Imam Husain failed in the year 680 with the attempt to conquer power in the Arab world empire. After his death in Karbala, Iraq, the following imams accepted their fate, but were persecuted nonetheless. Their line ended with the twelfth Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi (al-Mahdi = the rightly guided), who disappeared in the year 874 (finally 941) and, according to Shiite doctrine, will return to earth as savior at the end of time.

In the centuries that followed, Shiites remained an often oppressed and persecuted minority and developed a political theory that was heavily influenced by powerlessness and persecution. According to the prevailing opinion among the Shiites, political power in the absence of Imam Mahdi was illegitimate and scholars and believers would have to stay away from the political rulers of their time. The Islamic empires of the next centuries were mostly ruled by Sunni dynasties - such as the Abbasids, Mamluks, Mughals and Ottomans - in which recurring conflicts between denominations alternated with long periods of peace. Larger disputes usually ensued when Shiites took over political power, for example when a Shiite dynasty, the Fatimids, ruled parts of North Africa and Egypt between the 10th and 12th centuries, and a Sunni counter-reaction ensued that led to the destruction of the Fatimid Empire.

An ancient contrast becomes the conflict of the present

Up to the present day, Shiites and Sunnis have mostly remained separate from one another and harbored deep-seated resentments towards one another. With the rise of Shiite and Sunni Islamism since the 1960s, however, the old religious antagonism turned into a present-day political-religious conflict. Of the approximately 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, an estimated 85 to 90 percent are Sunnis. In Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan and Bahrain alone, Shiites are in the majority.

Current Shiite Islamism was primarily shaped by "Khomeinism". Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) revolutionized Shiite political theory by rejecting traditional political distance and quietism, i.e. the passivity of his learned colleagues in public affairs. Rather, he argued that the leading legal scholar of his time had to lead the believers not only religiously but also politically until the longed-for return of Imam Mahdi. Khomeini called for an Islamic state in which the clerics supervised all areas of life. The successful revolution in Iran in 1979 not only gave him the opportunity to develop the theory of the “rule of the legal scholar” (Persian velayat-e faqih) to put into practice, but to act as that scholar himself.

The events of 1979 sparked today's conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. In order to spread their ideas, the Iranian revolutionaries looked for allies in the Arab world and found them mainly among Shiite groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, which was founded in 1982. Above all, states in which, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, lived strong Shiite minorities, rightly saw the policy of exporting revolution as a direct threat. The governments there now increasingly viewed the Arab Shiites as a potential “fifth column” of Iran. As a result, discrimination against Shiites increased, as did their resistance.

Islamists on both sides fuel the conflict

On the Sunni side, the Islamists became the most important bearers of anti-Shiite ideas. But it was above all the Islamist branch of the Salafists that fueled the conflict. Salafists seek to transform their societies by returning to the way of life of the time of the Prophet and his companions. The return to the time of the "pious ancestors" (Arabic as-salaf as-salih) but often had the effect of rekindling the old debates about whether the Sunnis caliphs or the Shiite imams were the legitimate successors of the Prophet Muhammad. For the Salafists there is no doubt that the claims of the Shiites are illegitimate and that they are by no means Muslims, but rather infidels.

The Salafists and their hatred of Shiites have been more visible since the 1960s because the movement has grown with the help of the Saudi Arabian state. In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, a variant of Salafism, is the official interpretation of Islam, and the kingdom, which has developed into the leading power of the Sunni camp since the 1960s, has since supported Salafist scholars and groups around the world. From 1979 this policy served primarily to contain Iran, but it also led to the spread of the Salafists' hatred of Shiites. An unintended result was the formation of militant Salafist and jihadist groups that were more or less orientated towards Saudi Arabian Wahhabism, but rejected the Saudi Arabian state. The most hostile to Shiites among them was al-Qaeda, founded in Mesopotamia in 2004 and later renamed Islamic State (IS). The "two-stream land" (Mesopotamia) of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers mainly includes Iraq, but also parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran.

Escalation since 2003 and 2011

The conflict picked up pace after the US intervention in Iraq in 2003. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Shiite Islamists took power in Baghdad and did not even think about involving the old, mostly Sunni elites in it. Against the new rulers, Sunni insurgents fought, among which the Iraqi al-Qaeda was the most hostile to Shiites. Their attacks not only hit Shiite politicians and religious dignitaries, but also thousands of civilians. The result was a civil war in Iraq between 2005 and 2007, which was primarily one between Shiites and Sunnis, and was fought with great brutality and ruthlessness. Although the US troops regained control together with the Iraqi government, the religious conflict soon spread to other states.

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country tumbled into a brutal civil war from 2005. (& copy epa-Bildfunk)

The Arab Spring of 2011, like the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the Iraq War in 2003, were an epochal date for the conflict of denominations. The protests and unrest led to the overthrow of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, bloody civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen, and widespread instability across the Middle East. In the face of disintegrating state systems, many people withdrew to ethnic or religious communities that alone still promised effective protection.

At the same time, the Shiite and Sunni Islamists took advantage of the situation. Iran began an unprecedented expansion by intervening in the Syrian civil war together with the Lebanese Hezbollah from 2012, in Iraq after 2014 participating in the fight against IS together with loyal Shiite militias and since 2015 supporting the Yemeni Houthis in the war against Saudi Arabia. In all of these countries, anti-Shiite resentment grew at the same time, so that Salafist and jihadist groups could use the instability to expand their own influence. This was most clearly seen in the example of IS, which managed to establish a proto-state in large parts of Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017. The victims included the Shiites and Alawis, who were murdered in their thousands. The Alawites are followers of a heretical sect that emerged from the Shia.

Stability as an antidote

After 2011, the Arab and Islamic world divided more and more into two opposing camps. ISIS was defeated, but the Iranian-Saudi Arabian conflict over hegemony in the Persian Gulf retained its denominational dimension. This conflict last faced a military escalation in September 2019 when Iran attacked two oil plants in Saudi Arabia with drones and cruise missiles. Subsequently, the confrontation between the USA and Iran superimposed the conflict between the regional states, which tried at short notice to prevent further escalation. However, the continuing tensions in the Persian Gulf suggest that the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis will shape the history of the Islamic world for even longer.

The slight relaxation in Syria and Iraq shows, however, that the dispute does not have to be a constant in Middle Eastern politics, but rather intensifies or relaxes depending on the political situation. It is a religious contradiction that becomes politically relevant and therefore dangerous if Sunnis or Shiite enemies try to use it to achieve their goals.

The extremists on both sides have benefited primarily from instability in Iraq and then across the region. If it becomes more stable again, the opposite will also lose importance again. If there are major military clashes between Iran and its opponents, it will intensify again.