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Iran vs Saudi Arabia – a religious or political rivalry?

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Both countries employ sectarian discourse to camouflage their policies and mobilize their followers, professor say.

January 21, 2016—

The protests and regional diplomatic repercussions following the recent execution of a Shiite cleric by Saudi Arabia once again placed the rivalry between the Saudi Kingdom and Iran in a religious context. Experts, however, point up the political dimension of the conflict.

“One cannot claim that (this rivalry) is steeped in history. It is something that began after the 1979 Iranian revolution that changed the regime in Iran from a pro-West monarchy to an anti-U.S. revolution regime,” says Bassel Salloukh, associate professor of Political Science.

“The Iranian policy was to export their revolution and since Saudi Arabia has a significant Shia population, it was seen as destabilizing for the monarchy. But this is not a primordial Sunni-Shia conflict,” adds Salloukh, who recently co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon.

Lebanon, he says, was always perceived as the abnormal state in the region because it had institutionalized sectarianism, but other states’ resistance to  pluralism is what ultimately led to a new phase of regional sectarianism.

“Regimes that came to power after independence should have entertained the idea of regional decentralization. Instead they privileged the homogenizing centralized state.” Had Iraq been conceived as a confederacy or federal state after the British left, Salloukh maintains, it would have been not only a regional but a world super power.

Instead, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq triggered a far-reaching geopolitical conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which employ sectarian discourse to camouflage their policies and mobilize their followers. The problem, he adds, is that “once you securitize and institutionalize sectarian sentiment, it becomes very difficult to neutralize these sectarian and ethnic identities. People start thinking of them as permanent and steeped in centuries-old history, but they’re not.”

Fellow Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Social Sciences Marwan Rowayheb agrees. “The rivalry for regional dominance is centuries old, before the appearance of modern states, but I wouldn’t call it a religious war. It’s political,” he explains. While Iran may feel more sympathetic to Shia groups throughout the region, “they calculate to what extent they’re willing to support them for their own gain.”

The various groups and populations across the region are however susceptible to this power play, framing struggles for regional dominance within sectarian terms. “Sectarianism is filling the gap for the absence of loyalty to the state. Lebanon is a good example when you consider that my wellbeing depends on my sect, be it for health care, marriage, schooling. The state does not provide me with anything.”

The failure of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s drive for Arab nationalism and of individual Arab states to unify their diverse populations under one citizenship has led to the prioritization of sect over other determinants of identity. “Identities are used and abused in the pursuit of benefits and power,” explains Rowayheb, adding that sectarian overtones are merely instrumental and not one of the major shapers of identity.

As to whether one state or one sectarian identity will dominate the region, Rowayheb takes the long view. “Neither Saudi nor Iran will succeed in gaining the dominance they desire across the region. Syria and Iraq were once strong and competing for regional dominance. Egypt was once regionally dominant. The power balance always changes.”


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