Has Arab Spring mutated into sectarian strife?


After Saudi Arabia’s execution of leading Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr sparked a violent protest at the Saudi Embassy in Iran’s capital, Tehran, Saudi Arabia quickly severed ties with its longtime regional rival, NPR reports:

The cleric was an outspoken critic of the Saudi government, calling for more rights for the country’s marginalized Shiite community.

Saudi Arabian Shias say they’re treated like “second-class citizens because they don’t conform to the strict Sunni interpretation of Islam that defines the nation,” as NPR’s Leila Fadel reported from a mostly Shiite province in Saudi Arabia last year. “They can’t hold high-ranking government or military positions, and they can’t teach religion in public schools,” Leila said.

The rivalry between Saudi and Iran has been aggravated by the virulent spread of sectarianism through Middle Eastern societies, The FT adds:

Some of the Arab spring revolts, which began with calls for democracy, have mutated into political struggles amplified by the centuries-old Shia-Sunni divide, such as Syria, Yemen and Bahrain…..

Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at Oxford University, said the decision to execute Nimr was rooted in Saudi’s complex domestic politics. He saw it as an attempt by Riyadh to shore up support among the large segment of the Saudi population who are sympathetic to Isis, the radical Sunni group, or who backed sectarian and anti-Iranian policies. Of the 47 executed on Saturday, 43 were Sunni jihadis, whose insurgency against the ruling al-Saud was quashed a decade ago.

“They threw in a few Shia among the Sunni militants to say ‘we are even-handed, we execute both Sunni and Shia’,” said Mr Matthiesen, author of a book on the Saudi Shia.

“It is also supposed to show that Saudi does not tolerate any sign of dissent, whether violent, through demonstrations or through speeches and public appearances.”

“This is partly a warning that life is about to get financially very tough, and a warning for the Shia — for whom it is likely to be even tougher — not to try to rise up,” said James Spencer, a regional analyst.

“The situation now is probably at its most tense since the height of the Iran-Iraq war which saw several instances of direct confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of Rice University’s Baker Institute.

But some analysts said fears of a sectarian rupture across the Middle East were premature, and the break in Saudi-Iran relations could be more a symptom of existing strains than evidence of new ones, Reuters reports.

“The fact that the UAE was unwilling to cut off ties with Iran completely, despite the closeness of its relations with Saudi Arabia, shows the difficulty that the Saudis will have in trying to isolate Iran,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The downgrading of ties is not fundamentally a question of responding to executions and the storming of an embassy… (but rather) a function of a much deeper conflict between the two states,” he added.

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