The Middle Eastern board game

The Sunni/Shiite clash has led to a new feud among Sunnis: Wahhabism (petro-states) and the Muslim Brotherhood face off on both politics and economics

Houthi supporters in Sana’a demonstrating on the fourth anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/Contrast
Houthi supporters in Sana’a demonstrating on the fourth anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/Contrast

The attention paid by public opinion and Western mass media to what is going on in the Middle East has faded in recent months. The vanquishing of the Islamic State, at least as a territorial entity, the fewer terrorist attacks in the West and the US's see-sawing isolationism (which we'll get to later) have relegated it to the back pages and even the news of the drama unfolding in Yemen reaches the West in dribs and drabs. But there are more developments than meet the eye.

The recent past has been dominated by the feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has fuelled the sectarian clash between Sunnis and Shiites particularly in those Middle Eastern countries where the Arab Springs – and other events – left plenty of festering sores that were easy to exploit. Thus the Syrian insurrection against Assad has ended up being cannibalised by foreign powers, which have effectively turned it into a proxy war. Lebanon has once more become a (more or less brokered) battle ground for Tehran and Riyadh's scuffles, and Iraq is still in an ambiguous situation – which it is trying to work to its advantage, by posing as a possible intermediary – between its Iranian neighbour and Shiite ally, and the other Arab countries. By the same token the Houthi (Shiite) insurrection in Yemen has become another bloody chapter in this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But things are changing. The renewed American hostility towards Tehran, with negative fallout on the nuclear deal brokered by Obama, the aggressive approach now adopted by Israel (despite the uncertainty surrounding the political future of Netanyahu and his coalition), which seems to be waiting for the opportunity to pounce on Iran, or at least it's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and the competition provided by Russia, both allied with and a rival of Tehran, means that the dynamics underscoring the Sunni-Shiite face off are no longer the only ones that need to be taken into consideration if one wishes to understand the main developments on the Middle Eastern stage. These clearly haven't vanished, but they carry less weight than before.

Iran has at least partially turned inward. It continues to support the Shiite militias in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria and elsewhere, but, while the period between 2014 and 2017 witnessed a constant expansion of Iran's sphere of influence, now it would seem that Iran is having a harder time holding on to its established positions. In theory there are still another two years to go before the presidential elections, but, as the resignation of the powerful Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (subsequently rejected by President Hassan Rouhani) would seem to indicate, a power clash is underway, with the theocratic regime's hardliners bent on re-establish their leadership over the country in order to retreat into a more belligerent form of isolation, with further uncertainty linked to who might take the place of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who recently turned eighty.

With Iran weakened and in Israel's crosshairs and American support (Donald Trump  seems to have decided to send another 1,500 troops to the Gulf), Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Monarchy allies – and the United Arab Emirates in particular – seem to have focused their attention on another fault line that runs through Middle East and beyond: the one between regimes (military dictatorships like Egypt or the Wahhabi kingdoms like Riyadh) and the states that belong to the Shiite universe that have a different, and often incompatible, agenda, compared to that of the Saudis. These are primarily Turkey and Qatar, politically aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and ideologically a long remove from Saudi Wahhabism.

This fracture is of course nothing new. The Syrian rebellion, for example, paid a heavy toll to the disputes that have raged among its sponsors and their different agendas, with Saudi Arabia backing certain factions, both Salafi and secular extremists, while Turkey and Qatar backed other rival groups (often linked to the Muslim Brotherhood). Egypt, in the wake of the Arab Spring led by Mohamed Morsi, was backed by Turkey, while now, after Al-Sisi's military coup, it relies on support from Riyadh. In Libya the Islamic prime minister – recognised by the international community – Al Serraj is in league with Turkey, while general Khalifa Haftar has the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on his side.

As the examples show, right now Ankara plays a very important role in the internal clash within the Sunni world. The heir to the Ottoman empire would theoretically have the right profile – in terms of population, economy and society – to carry the fight to Riyadh from a position of strength, especially in the long term, but the country's economy is now flagging, weighed down by its president's spiralling fortunes. In the last five years Erdogan has compromised his alliances with the West, owing to American and European support for the Syrian Kurds in their fight against IS (although with Trump in the White House and IS defeated, American support for the Kurds has waned considerably compared to Obama's day). As a result, after losing the face off with Moscow that ensued after the downing of the Russian fighter bomber, Erdogan has ultimately drawn closer to Putin out of necessity rather than whim, and at no little cost. He has had to put a brave face to Assad's victory in Syria, effectively scuttling the ambitions of the rebels he had supported for years, in exchange for permission to occupy an area of Syrian Kurdistan as a buffer zone along its southern border, while putting relations with NATO at risk. The purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system could result in serious retaliation, even of an economic nature, on behalf of the Atlantic Alliance and the US.

Therefore, at least economically, Riyadh has as easy time calling the shots, but has to withstand Ankara's constant focus on the more unbecoming aspects of the Saudis image with the Muslim community: these range from its unprecedented links with Tel Aviv, in essence a betrayal of the Palestinian cause; the lack of effort in supporting Syrian refugees fleeing from a war promoted by Turkey as much as Saudi Arabia, but now welcomed only by the former; the murder of Khashoggi which has revealed the brutal and bloodthirsty side of the Realm of Saud and of its strongman, the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. For the Wahhabi monarchy, that has historically championed a pure and uncompromising form of Islam, these accusations are hard to counter, though it has to be said that Riyadh has a history of allowing reasons of state and pragmatism to prevail over any hard-and-fast  compliance with the principles it claims to defend and promote.

Trump would even be prepared to provide Erdogan with greater support, despite differences over the Kurds or Turkey's internal problems related to human rights and freedom of the press, on condition that it sever relations with Moscow and Tehran (the three countries came together to manage the last stages of the Syrian conflict). But having chosen Saudi Arabia and Israel as its main Middle Eastern partners, getting Ankara to toe the line, at least for the time being, seems a tall order. Similarly Mohammed bin Salman seems more concerned with eliminating any competition for the leadership within the Sunni camp than overcoming differences in order to fight a joint battle against Shiite Iran. The pressure on Tehran is still there, but it is not such an urgent issue to prevent Riyadh from fuelling the clash with its Sunni rivals.

Besides Turkey, the second Middle Eastern state that is in Riyadh's bad books is Qatar. Much like Ankara, Doha too has strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi's label a terrorist organisation. It has an independent approach (close to Turkey's) to Syria and is very critical of Saudi Arabia's leniency towards Israel, further proof of a general independence in foreign affairs that doesn't sit well with the Saudis. With the aggravating circumstance that it is a small state on the Arab peninsula which (as the Saudis would have it) should therefore acquiesce to its stronger neighbour. Two years ago this hostility boiled over, resulting in an embargo being imposed on Qatar by Riyadh, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (another Saudi Arabia satellite state where a Shiite majority is governed by a Sunni monarchy with the military backing of the Saudis).


Oman for example hasn't backed the embargo or joined the war against Yemen and the ageing sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has always tried to keep his country open to both political and trade relations with Iran. According to analysts, even Kuwait doesn't seem too supportive of the Saudi's hard line against Iran and soft approach to Tel Aviv. Even the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan headed by King Abdullah, economically dependent on Riyadh aid, doesn't seem to appreciate the leadership of the young and belligerent Saudi crown prince. In early May the country's head of intelligence was removed from his post with the accusation of plotting against the king and in December two of the king's brothers with key roles in the military were removed from office, and rumour has it that they entertained close links to the Saudis. Abdullah's fear is that in exchange for Saudi support for the Israel and Palestine peace plan for backed by Trump (and his son-in-law envoy Jared Kushner) Riyadh is hoping to be granted custody of the holy sites of Islam in Jerusalem, currently entrusted to Amman.

Among the other Arab countries that are also those taking a more stand-off approach, when not clearly in opposition of will of the Saudi monarchy: Syria has renewed diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates but is still very cold towards entertaining relations with Riyadh; Lebanon is divided but the Hezbollah and its Christian allies (with President and General Michel Aoun in the forefront) still carry considerable clout in the new government; Iraq, however much it appears to be open to relations with Riyadh, which has promised to fund the construction of a large stadium in Baghdad, is nevertheless a country with strong ties to Shiite Iran.

Even in North Africa Mohammed bin Salman's support is patchy to say the least: Al Sisi's Egypt, thanks to wealth of funding it receives from Riyadh, is clearly among its most faithful allies, but the collapse of the dictatorships in Sudan and Algeria is viewed with concern by the Sauds (who at least in Sudan, along with the United Arab Emirates, is funding the military to ensure they stay in power) and Morocco, after the Khashoggi incident, has voiced its outright condemnation of the Saudi crown prince's actions.

Even Pakistan, another long-standing Saudi ally, seems unlikely to follow the line promoted by Mohammed bin Salman, both in its approach to Iran (with which Islamabad has recently set up an anti-terrorist cooperation project) as well as towards those who, among Sunni countries, have ties with the Muslim Brotherhood or more in general adopt a foreign policy that does not meet the approval of the crown prince. The Asian nuclear power would prefer for Iran and Saudi Arabia to reach a compromise that might guarantee greater stability for the Middle East and nearby regions in Asia and Africa.

The dilemma that afflicts the leadership in all countries involved on the Middle Eastern stage – including Saudi Arabia and Iran – is exactly this: whether to apportion spheres of influence in order to find a shared balance of power or clash head on? Mohammed bin Salman seems more inclined towards the second option, and has had no qualms in seeking allegiances that Islamic public opinion finds hard to stomach (primarily with Netanyahu and Trump), and which are theoretically incompatible with a strict observance of Wahhabism, in order to promote his agenda. Time, after all, works against the Gulf monarchies: to date they still live off oil and black gold runs the risk of being gradually phased out in the world of the future. Their rivals, and particularly Iran and Turkey, have a past, a territorial presence and a society that seem more likely to win out in the long term. This is probably the reason why the young Saudi leader is adopting such an aggressive stance, which some consider exceedingly rash: he's all too aware that the glory days of the oil states are coming to an end.  


This article is also published in the July/August issue of eastwest.

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