Observations of an ex pat: The Middle East explained

The Cold War-like conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is simmering quite nicely—and, like most Middle East problems, threatening to boil over. The roots, the causes, the issues and the problems are all part of that complex Middle East tapestry which closely resembles Churchill’s riddle wrapped in an enigma and perpetually shrouded in the shifting sands of Arabia.

But I will attempt to provide a guide on today’s state of play.

The Sunnis hate the Shias.

The Shias hate the Sunnis

The problem is a 1,382-year-old dispute over the religious line of succession

Iran is the dominant Shia power

Saudi Arabia is the dominant Sunni power.

Almost all the other countries line up behind either Iran or Saudi Arabia, although some try to take a middle route. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult as tensions rise.

The latest problems started with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and his replacement by a Shi-ite theocracy.

Another exacerbating factor was the demise of Iraq’s secular—but still Sunni– leader Saddam Hussein who has been replaced by a pro-Iranian Shia leadership in Iraq.

So Iraq shifted from support of Saudi Arabia to closer ties with Iran. The balance of power shifted accordingly.

Syria is an extension of the Iran-Saudi conflict. Iran supports President Assad. Saudi Arabia supports the rebels.

Iran is also the main backer of Hezbollah which is on America’s terrorist hate list. Iran and Hezbollah have become Israel’s biggest headache. The Arab-Israeli conflict is at the bottom of most of the Middle East crises, but at the moment it could almost be described as an Israeli-Iranian conflict as Tehran is currently taking the hardest line against the Jewish Homeland.

Hezbollah is part of a new complex coalition government in Lebanon. Prime Minister Saad Hariri was coerced by the Saudis to boot Hezbollah out of government. This causes problems in Lebanon.

Lebanon is a highly unstable melting pot of competing religions.

Israel is on the Saudi side because of the old axiom the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  However. Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia can publicly cooperate because Israel’s pariah status would damage Saudi Arabia’s reputation with other Arab states.

But don’t forget that Israel is the only nuclear weapons state in the region—at the moment

Poverty mixed with tribal conflicts makes Yemen another long-standing political hotbed. Those problems erupted into a bloody civil war two years ago. Iran and Saudi Arabia back rival factions.

At the moment Saudi Arabia is not being helped by its royal leader—32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. He recently staged a counter coup before a coup could be launched against him. Entrenched religious leaders and corrupt Royal family members oppose the Crown Prince who is attempting to inch Saudi Arabia into the modern world..

The United Arab Emirates are firmly in the Saudi camp. Bahrain is a bit of a problem because it has a Sunni ruler and predominantly Shi-ite population.

Qatar is a Sunni rebel. It finances and hosts Al Jazeera which is the only thing approaching a free media operation in the Arab world. Al Jazeera is one of the main reasons for the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar along its close relationship with Islamic fundamentalists and closer-than-desired ties with Iran.

Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are peripheral Saudi supporters, but they are supporting the Saudis in Yemen.

Finally there are the big outside powers. Donald Trump hates Iran almost as much as the Saudis. His second trip abroad was to the Riyadh where he announced a $110 billion arms deal. He has also withdrawn from the Iran-nuclear deal.

China takes a stand-off position. Russia is forging good relations with both countries and Vladimir Putin has offered to mediate in their dispute. Turkey’s President Erdogan has also offered himself as an honest broker.

The Europeans lean heavily towards the Saudis. France and Britain—along with the US—are providing intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi forces fighting in Yemen. The French and British also do very well out of arms sales to Riyadh—each about $4 billion in 2016.

And that is the current line-up, which could change tomorrow or the day after.


* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” was published on 15 October.

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  • Richard Underhill 24th Nov '17 - 1:20pm

    and Pakistan? nuclear armed? relations with Iran?

  • Jonathan Coulter 25th Nov '17 - 11:00am

    Problems are presented arising mainly from endogenous causes, within the Middle-East, and insufficient attention paid to the exogenous causes, particularly Western and Russian meddling intervention. I think a more balanced analysis would place us more centre stage instead of focusing so heavily on the Sunni-Shia divide. However, I have to agree that Al Jazeera makes an unusually positive contribution.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 27th Nov '17 - 12:57am

    The Saudis aren’t simply “Sunni”. The House of Saud rule the KSA as an absolute monarchy and are aligned to the Wahabbi sect, an extreme offshoot of mainstream Sunni Islam, from where Al Qaeda and ISIS ideology derive.

    Wahabbis have a fundamentalist literal interpretation of sunni islam who view all other forms of Islam as heretics, and believe all monuments of Mohammed and his family to be idolatrous and to be destroyed. The KSA’s population has an estimated 30% of Shia, but it’s difficult for anyone to be sure as the Shia population live predominantly where the largest oil fields are, and have few rights or presence in the large cities.

    The House of Saud took over the town of Riyadh from the Ottomans, the traditional leading pillar of imperial Sunni Islam in the 19h century. They set about expelling all Arab and Ottoman Christians and Jewish people from their area.

    100 years ago Britain thought it a great wheeze to undermine the WW1 Ottoman enemy by helping the Wahabbi House of Saud seize 2 of the 3 holiest sites of islam from the old, established Imperial Sunni order.

    This was done in the spirit of Britain’s romanticist ideas to destroy the middle eastern cosmopolitan, educated, effete societies it despised and place what it believed to be compliant, grateful ‘noble savages of honour’. It’s a broadly true generalisation that Wahhabi Sauds believe they are the equivalent to , say, the Papacy, in decreeing what the orthodox sunni way should be, and so have been a key motor through their petrowealth and cynical western govt patronage to pump funds across the world to evangelise their form of sunni islam, including their contentious, intolerant interpretation of the Koran and Hadiths – including Mosques, madrasses, and sometimes arms to insurgent ‘groups’ to fight their cause. These ‘groups’ sometimes morph into Al Qaeda, and even gave birth to ISIS.
    The Saudis are NOT simply ‘Sunnis’!

  • Ed Shepherd 27th Nov '17 - 7:36am

    I agree with some of the posters above who have said that there is not a stark Shia v Sunni conflict. When I first took an interest in Islam in the 1980s there was little commentary on a Shia v Sunni divide. That aspect of conflict seems to have been stirred up by certain regimes and no doubt by Western interference. Conflicts in that region have many causes but doubtless the root causes are the same as most modern conflicts: access to resources, oil, waterways, water supplies and other materials. The religious and ethnic divides are an aspect that sharpens conflict but does not necessarily cause it. Centuries of Western involvement inclcuding colonialism, the overthrow of regimes disliked by the west, suport for despots and the creation of artificial borders has been a big part of the problems suffered by thee people who live there.

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