Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) attends a graduation ceremony for Saudi airforce officers at King Faisal Airbase in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia on December 23, 2018. Photo by Bandar Al Jaloud - Royal Palace / ABACAPRESS.COM/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Over the last half century the fault-line between Sunnis and Shi‘is has become of ever increasing political significance. Inter-sectarian hatred exploded in Iraq a couple of years after the 2003 US-led invasion. Many people associate today's toxic sectarianism in the Middle East with the Iranian mullahs but the West's ally, Saudi Arabia, carries greater blame.
Iran is rightly seen as a bad boy. It tries to act as the puppeteer of Twelver Shi‘i communities in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf, and appears to take sides in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts on a quasi-sectarian basis.
Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has been perceived in the West as a force for stability. There is some truth in this. It formulated what is probably the only workable peace-plan for Israel and its neighbours, and its diplomacy persuaded the Arab League to adopt it. There are other examples, such as its role in defusing the Lebanese civil war and its mediation between Bahrain and Qatar that led to those states resolving their boundary differences at the International Court.
Yet Saudi Arabia has used its oil revenues - which mushroomed in the 1970s - to export its intolerant Wahhabi brand of Islam which opposes nationalist sentiment and democracy, This has increased its soft power enormously. It is the diffusion of Wahhabi ideas, and their often subtle infusion into Islam as it is practised in many countries, that make Saudi Arabia more responsible today for the spread of Sunni/Shi‘i discord and hatred than Iran.
Indeed, ‘conservative’ Saudi Arabia comes out badly when contrasted with ‘revolutionary’ Iran in its creation, tolerance and manipulation of vicious sectarian rhetoric. Iranian democracy is deeply flawed, and the reality is that Sunnis in Iran are treated with disdain, but the Iranian constitution does at least recognise the main Sunni groups in the country as legitimate. There is even a ‘Sunni bloc’ in the Iranian parliament. By contrast, in Saudi Arabia Shi'is are completely marginalised and excluded from the levers of power. They have often been persecuted.
Saudi Arabia plays the sectarian card. Anti-Shi‘i rhetoric - sometimes demonising Shi‘is as apostates worthy of death - has been intrinsic to Wahhabism since it originated in the eighteenth century. There is no space to set out the differences between Sunnis and Shi‘is here, but in a nutshell the most crucial dispute is over an essentially historical question. During the decades after the Prophet’s death, should the Muslim community have looked to the Companions of the Prophet to elaborate the practice of the faith? Or should they have followed Islam as it was taught and practised by his nephew and son-in-law Ali and his descendants? As most of the Prophet’s Companions are considered by Shi‘is to have betrayed Ali, this is still a live issue. Wahhabis see the Shi‘i rejection of those Companions as tantamount to apostasy. This has led, down a winding and murky path, to the death of Shi'is at the hands of groups such as ISIS. Saudi Arabia’s soft power and projection of its influence have ratcheted up sectarian tensions in many other Muslim countries. Let’s consider just three examples.
Pakistan was created as a democracy in 1947, when there was little Sunni/Shi’i friction. In fact, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the state’s founder, was from the Shi‘i minority. Yet sectarianism seeped into Pakistani politics during the 1970s through the influence of hard-line Sunni groups, and then during the military rule of General Zia ul Haq during the period 1977-88. The inspiration behind his policies of ‘sunni-fication’ was Saudi Arabia, which financed Islamic colleges or madrasas across Pakistan, especially in areas with substantial Shi‘i communities. Today the legacy of this religious extremism and sectarian strife is still very much present despite the country’s reversion to democracy.
In Syria, a totalitarian government under the Assad family has ruled the country since 1970. Although Syria is a nominally secular state dominated by the Ba’th party, the Assads have staffed the army top brass and much of the security services with Alawi cronies, members of the esoteric Shi‘i group to which they belong. In a country of kickbacks and corruption (as well as extreme repression), this has inevitably led to anti-Alawi resentment by many Syrians, especially among the Sunni majority. Saudi Arabia has tapped into this for years. As long ago as the 1970s, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia told President Sadat of Egypt of his scorn for Alawis and Ba’thists, rebuking Sadat for "holding hands" with them . Much more recently, as already noted, sectarian Wahhabi ideas, born and bred in Saudi Arabia, have played a key role in developing the vicious ideology that activates ISIS.
Yemen, the poorest Arab country, is roughly two-thirds Sunni and one third Zaydi Shi‘i. In many ways the Zaydis are closer to Sunnis than to the Twelver Shi‘is of Iran. Historically, there has been little, if any, sectarian tension in Yemen but in the 1990s Saudi Arabia encouraged the spreading of a Wahhabi style message in the Zaydi heartlands. This caused a reaction, which took the form of the appearance of the Houthi movement made up of proud Zaydis who wished to reassert the independence of their tribes. The country fell into civil war between rival and fluctuating coalitions after the Houthis took control of the capital, Sana‘a, in 2014. The Yemeni conflict is now often portrayed as another proxy war with Iran backing the Houthis and Saudi Arabia and its allies supporting the official government. To the extent that there is a sectarian element in this conflict, Saudi Arabia’s policy of exporting its version of Islam lies at its root.
Saudi Arabia’s policies have been a major factor in entrenching divides between Sunnis and Shi‘is in many Muslim communities across the globe. The sectarian card has proved useful for Saudi Arabia against Iranian attempts to export its revolution. Yet at what cost? Quasi-tribal sectarian divides make it much harder for democracy to take root and flourish. There is nothing to indicate that this would bother the Saudi leadership.
 President Sadat of Egypt asserted this in a speech on Radio Cairo on 1 May 1979 containing an attack on Hafez al Assad, the Syrian president. King Faisal must have said this to President Sadat at least four years earlier, since he was assassinated in a family feud in March 1975. The relevant part of the speech is translated in Van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria, 1979/2011, p.93. In the speech Sadat also describes the Alawis as "dirty".
A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is by John McHugo is published by Saqi Books, January 2019.
Get our weekly email