SAUDI ARABIA VS. IRAN: RELIGION, IDENTITY, LEGITIMACY IN A GEO-POLITICAL CONFRONTATION

by Glauco D’Agostino

This article was first published in “Geopolitica. Revistă de Geografie Politică, Geopolitică şi GeoStrategie”, Anul XII, nr. 54-55 (1/ 2014) “Lumea în mişcare” (A World in Motion), Editura “Top Form”, Asociaţia de Geopolitica “Ion Conea”, Bucureşti, 2014. Although written in late March, when the Iraqi situation did not have the current problematics, yet, it offers a stimulant key for an understanding of the ongoing events.

The Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrein breaking off of diplomatic relations with Qatar on March 5th, shatters political solidarity of the Arab States within the Gulf Cooperation Council, active since May 25th 1981 under the Treaty of Abu Dhabi. They officially charge Dōḥa with a failure to fulfill commitments for common security, and with a protection of organizations threatening the GCC strategy. On the background, the Saudi aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood (and therefore the events conducive to the ouster of Egyptian President Morsi), but especially the different positions (albeit readable in shades) on the long-run geo-political confrontation opposing Saudi Arabia and Iran.[1]

This issue, to be ostensibly confined in a political and economic contrast between two regional powers vying for a space of common and alternative interest, has actually complex implications, affecting aspects as are religion, identity and legitimacy of power. These aspects are often sacrificed by analysts to a logic of monitoring just inter-state interests, by considering not relevant the civil society dynamics in terms of groupings, loyalty, shared values, and dialogue chance.

In other words, the Middle Eastern historical and social complexity suggests a required deepening for the evaluation of events, which may supplement a geo-political view merely based on criteria of territorial influence and associated national advantages (i.e. instrumental to the Nation-State survival).

In the case of the ongoing (never outspoken) Saudi Arabia-Iran confrontation, while stressing a clear interest in maintaining and expanding territorial control over the huge oil resources, we must at least consider these following other factors constraining their behavior:

a) a different religious creed (Sunni and Shiite), although within the Muslim dogma, laying down a conflict for a religious leadership over hundreds millions of believers;[2]

b)  a multiple ethnic composition, even within their respective spheres of influence;

c) a diversified inclination towards types of participation in the exercise of internal power, which suggests introducing knowledge elements with respect to the consensus building (i.e. legitimation from people) in the geo-political evaluation, as well.

The subject here proposed is to try grasping how these factors impact the geo-strategic political change and whether they are able to complete a framework of understanding, frequently and hastily derived from political and military alliances with the superpowers, which are not always assumed, by the way.

As to the first point, a confessional affiliation does not necessarily determine the acritical alignment in favor of a contender.[3] Ḥamās, an expression of Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, was based and protected in Syria (an ally to Iran) before the outbreak of the Syrian crisis; then, under the Morsi’s presidency, relocated to Cairo, where it’s now unlawful; and many references accredit a possible its new rapprochement with Tehrān. In contrast, Saudi Arabia, a sponsor of al-Fataḥ and a long-time improperly deemed Ḥamās’ funder, as well, has been a partner of aiding and abetting the coup in Egypt and today is simply placed off the hook on the same positions of Israel,[4] its new ally, at least in the dispute with its usual mentor, the United States: obviously, this is a reaction to the fresh trust provided by Obama to the Ruhani’s Iran on the thorny nuclear quarrel, and to the U.S. softening inclination on the Syrian President Asad’s dismissal, as a condition for the arrangement of the ongoing bloody civil war in Syria. Moreover, U.S. support to the Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister al-Mālikī, right from the start interpreted by Riyāḍ as an endorsement to the regional power of Iran,[5] has resulted in the extension of Iranian influence even to Syria, Lebanon, and possibly the State of Palestine. Saudis consider themselves, as a strategic partner, ousted from all this international agenda, in favor of Turkey’s role, a historical Sunni counterbalance to the Iranian power, a NATO member, and certainly not with the same geo-political tendency of Riyāḍ, especially on the dossiers regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and the support to the various Sunni insurgent factions against the `Alawī’s power in Syria.[6]

Basically, becoming the anti-Ayatollahs’ axis (instrumentally based on Iranian nuclear potential) more nuanced, the alleged Sunni solidarity, at least in its anti-Shiite form conceived in the rooms of ruling national powers, is breaking down. But the Middle Eastern Muslim public opinions are extraneous to all this, because, with regard to international issues, they line compactly up, beyond their sectarian belief, only when Muslim identity of a population under attack is in danger, as was the case in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and even more in the resistance struggle against the Israeli occupation. Of course, governments’ approach is a different matter, because they pay closer attention to national interests or to maintenance of their political power, as well. The attitude of many analysts to equate the official views of the governments and the perception of their own people (or the political movements which in various ways represent them) is less forgivable. For example, when Israel assaulted Lebanon in 2006 and the Shiites of Ḥizb Allāh sprang up in defense of the tiny Country of Cedars, a full solidarity with them was granted by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, among the hesitation of Riyāḍ, Cairo and Amman governments, while some Saudi religious authorities forbade support or even prayer for the Ḥizb Allāh fighters.[7]

It’s not that mistrust between Shiites and Sunnis is really an invention, but it’s certainly politically motivated, when demands of an international nature would be interested in splitting the two fields: in other circumstances, a peaceful co-existence among the believers of both creeds has been considered a resource for Muslim (even political) dialogue, by giving rise to collaborative forms against commonly perceived dangers, as imperialism and Western secularism. Just recently, with the eight-year-long Iraq-Iran war and the leadership change in Baġdād following the 2003 U.S. invasion, their mutual relations have drastically cracked.[8] But, in spite of otherwise requests, there have been calls to a greater unity of intent, as evidenced by the Ayatollah ‘Alī Sistāni’s and Muqtadā aṣ-Ṣadr’s efforts in seeking a readjustment of social relations within the revived Iraqi state.

Saudi Arabia has frequently played and still plays the pan-Arabic ethnic card, by requiring solidarity on this ground with anti-Persian or even anti-Turkish purposes, if and when an opportunity arises. Surely, the issue of religious minorities in the Arabian Peninsula shakes the Arab Muslim world, in particular where Shiite groups are suspected of offering their loyalty to a religious appeal, rather than ethnicity or national belonging. However, this line of argument seems an expedient more responding to geo-political pretenses than to current real dangers for region stability. Quite often concerns worrying such minorities are social claims, rather than internal challenge to national power in religious terms; partly because the Shiite doctrinaire fragmentation (for instance Shiites from Bahrein are mostly Akhbārī Twelvers, i.e. traditionalists divergent from Usūlī Twelvers of the Iranian Ayatollahs, Zaydi prevail in Yemen, and so on) prevents a required cohesion to compactly gather under a unifying religious authority.

Anyhow, analysts are well aware that Arab nationalism, previously mainly magnified by a Nasser-style secular socialism, has no longer the imperative appeal to mobilize Arab masses, at least starting from the disastrous military defeat in the 1967 war against Israel.[9] By contrast, while national identities turn down, other identities exceeding the Nation-States boundaries are likely to prevail as reference entities for the Middle Eastern people, and that, sooner or later, geo-politics will have to deal with, too. These groups include religious aggregations and partnerships of ethnic and tribal solidarity.[10]

The weakening of national identities in the Middle East and North Africa is fully rooted into a matter of legitimacy,[11] partly for historical origins from which those pseudo-identities are derived, partly because of the artificial arrangements by which they were constituted. In practice, following the Ottoman Sultanate dismantling and the Caliphate fall, the resulting state entities have been built according to influence spheres of the victorious European powers and on the basis of more or less legitimate governmental authorities. Since 50’s and 60’s, an authoritarian, centralized, not available to dissent and highly repressive Nation-State model has been established, mostly justified by reasons of national security:[12] it’s the season of secular- and socialist-inspired Republican coups (Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, Libya), that inaugurated domestic and international instability, still persisting nowadays. Alongside them, the Monarchies whose power is assigned by prophetic lineage values (Jordan and Saudi Arabia) or dynastic power (future states of the Gulf Cooperation Council) ensured and still are providing inner and international stability.[13] Iran, which was previously ruled by a royal dynasty (but come to power in a military coup), has upset any Islamic institutional paradigms and the Middle Eastern and South-Asian international scene, by creating a Shiite Islamic Republic through a popular uprising.

Hence, the problem of Saudi Arabia towards Iran: a possible contamination by an Islamic revolutionary model, i.e. originating from a popular legitimation, in a sharp ideal contrast to the top-down model of government provided by the Saudi system.[14] Hence, its reaction, not so much according to the classical canons of religious heresy (not very effective in geo-political terms), but by allegations of imperialism, of spreading Shiism as a political gimmick to expand Iranian influence in the region (also by the alleged nuclear weapon to be built), of representing “radical” instances antithetical to the pro-Western (even though Wahhābi) “moderatism”. It’s how a narrative of extremist monster, of Ayatollahs’ danger, of an anti-Jewish specter was born, to be actually befriended and stimulated by Western powers (United States, Europe, Israel) because of obvious reasons of economic and military control of the region, to such an extent by having provided support for Ṣaddām Ḥusayn during the war against Iran. With this background, it’s therefore intelligible a today’s bitter disappointment of Saudis, facing the U.S. openness to dialogue with Ruhani, which may jeopardize their hegemony in the area.

A similar problem of Islamic legitimacy placed by revolutionary Iran persists in the Saudi attitude towards the winning outcomes of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the so-called Arab Spring. At the turn of 2011 and 2012, within three months, some political parties affiliated to the Brotherhood or close to it won parliamentary elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. Four months later Moḥamed Morsi won even the Presidency of Egypt, putting the seal on the legitimacy of democratic processes as a normal tool for political Islam to achieve power.[15] In fact, as early as 2002-2003 in Turkey first Abdullah Gül and later Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had democratically reached premiership, and in 2007 the former had also become President of the Republic. And even Ḥamās in 2006 had won the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, seating one of their leaders as Prime Minister of Palestine. But, whereas in the first case the event was outside the scope of Saudi Arabian action, in the latter, Riyāḍ had armed al-Fataḥ and jihadi groups hand to confine Ḥamās legitimate government only to the Gaza Strip .

Therefore, once more difficulties arose for Saudis, concerning the origin of legitimizing state authority, that they quickly liquidated in Egypt by their petro-dollars for helping the military coup. The question Muslim Brotherhood posed was and still is the compatibility between the application of the Sharī’a legal principles and the consensus building into an institutional system, as a complement to spontaneous actions arising from civil society. Here the emphasis is on civil society and on the participation process.[16] This choice is understandable, because it has its source in a centralist state (like most of Arab States), where participation was restricted to political groups emanating from the dominant power and any dissent opportunities were ruled out, especially the Islamist ones. Right Muslim Brothers from the many countries where they were rooted had been paying the price for 60 years: during that time, their demand to be recognized as a political constituency has always been firmly rejected. Yet, at least since the early 70’s, Muslim Brotherhood has rejected the sole options at that time available to Islamist debate, in order to contain the attack launched to the Muslim world traditions:[17] the option of a military action against the alleged external enemy (e.g. Israel, the Christians) as a priority, or rather attacks against the regime inner stability.[18] Since then, Muslim Brothers have begun revising, systematizing and implementing what already their founder al-Bannā’ had left them as a cultural and political legacy. The result is a clear political doctrine, based on popular participation and social justice, which could in the past and can now reach a consensus neither by authoritarian regimes (old secular autocrats, military in Egypt, Saudis), nor by the globalized finance networks, usually a direct expression of the Western materialistic conception.[19]

In short, Muslim Brotherhood program points that regularly put in crisis a typical and recurrent political model of the Arab governments, are about the following priorities:

• a pluralist democracy;[20]

• participation[21] and Shura (the Assembly of Consultation);

• a strong state intervention in economy, but a restricted role of the state in politics;[22]

• empowerment of civil society;[23]

• acceptance of modernity, but not in its Western version;[24]

• introduction of an Islamic finance, alongside the traditional commercial banking system, as a contribution to the global crisis resolution.[25]

Thus, Muslim Brotherhood, well known prior to 2012 as “one of the most successful social and political movements in modern Arab history” and also “mainstream Islamists (who) represent the overwhelming majority within the Islamist political spectrum”,[26] points out aims that may perhaps be reflected in the Rein Taagepera’s words, when he says: “One may well desire the fruits of democracy but not be willing to pay the price in terms of cultural change”.[27]

By now, it seems clear that no geo-political debate about Middle East can be ignited without regarding issues such as religion, identity, legitimacy. The challenge under way between Saudi Arabia and Iran, from which we started, belongs to a wider context that is not only territorial, economic and military. Indeed, to assume different premises means, at least, intentionally ignoring that “Islam is not territorial in its character”, to paraphrase the poet and philosopher Muḥammad Iqbāl.[28] It also means accepting that social changes, not always shaped by the will of national governments, are often able to influence geo-politics, rather than vice versa, and that we must wait for the long wave of history to evaluate them. Otherwise, we would not have had an Iranian Islamic revolution and a slow, but inexorable rise of a participatory political Islam.

The 2011 uprisings against oppressive regimes of North Africa and the downfall of some of them have shown popular masses can mobilize not only being pushed by material or external geo-strategic interests, but also being urged by internal, ethical and spiritual reasons, as well. And they can help to alter the bases of political and social relationships not just inside a single country.

Saudi Arabia, while preserving its institutions, may take note of it, and, at least, concede these transformations may enable neighboring Muslim populations to identify themselves in a participatory Islamic model, that so groundlessly it fears.

Because, as always in history, the Middle Eastern Muslim world may prove the adaptation in space and time that Sharī’a allows in its stated flexibility. And because today, more than ever, the World is in motion.



[1] On a recast of regional alliances taking place on both Saudi and Iranian sides (and affecting Qatar’s foreign policy), see Ali Hashem: Iran, Qatar recast regional ‘resistance’ alliance, in Al-Monitor, The Pulse of the Middle East, March 17, 2014.

[2] Mari Luomi: Sectarian Identities or Geopolitics? The Regional Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Working Paper 56, 2008, p. 5. Luomi says: The main reasons for the Sunni states to reinforce their sectarian (state) identity are, first of all, the state elites’ fears about Iran’s regional power ambitions and, secondly, anxiety about possible increased calls for influence for their Shia populations. In the long term, this power game can possibly lead to a regional system divided into two spheres: the Shia and the Sunni – led by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively.

[3] Ibid., pp. 39-40.

[4] Some analysts have argued that there has been a longtime intersection of interests. For example, Luomi said in 2008: Sunni-led Arab states are also discovering that their security interests increasingly converge with those of Israel. (Mari Luomi: Sectarian Identities or Geopolitics?, cit., p. 4). And again: Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led states have begun a subtle rapprochement towards Israel and have been engaged in incorporating sectarian rhetoric in their foreign policy discourse. (ibid., p. 5).

[5] F. Gregory Gause III: U.S. Trying to Soften Saudi Hard Line toward Maliki Government, interview for Council on Foreign Relations, 6 August 2007.

[6] Merlini and Roy had a different view in 2012: The crisis of the Assad regime and the protracted and bloody civil conflict in that unfortunate country have the potential to strengthen the Sunni camp, diminish Iranian influence in the Arab Middle East, and isolate Hezbollah (Cesare Merlini and Olivier Roy: Arab Society in Revolt. The West’s Mediterranean Challenge, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., U.S.A., 2012, p. 10).

[7] Mari Luomi: Sectarian Identities or Geopolitics?, cit., p. 20.

[8] Vali Nasr: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

[9] James W. Robert: Political Violence and Terrorism in Islamdom, in William J. Crotty: Democratic Development & Political Terrorism: the Global Perspective, Northeastern University Press, U.S.A., 2005, p. 107.

[10] Mari Luomi: Sectarian Identities or Geopolitics?, cit., p. 48.

[11] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[12] For an assessment of Nasser’s Egypt in this regard, see Amr Hamzawy and Nathan J. Brown: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment, Carnegie Papers, Number 19, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carnegie Middle East Center, Washington, D.C., March 2010, pp. 4-5.

[13] F. Gregory Gause III: Kings for All Seasons: How the Middle East’s Monarchies Survived the Arab Spring, Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper n. 8, September 2013, Executive Summary, p. 1.

[14]Andrew McKillop: Geopolitics and Islam in the MENA, in The Market Oracle website, Sep 02, 2013.

[15] Cesare Merlini and Olivier Roy: Arab Society in Revolt, cit., p. 8.

[16] Denis J. Sullivan and Sana Abed-Kotob: Islam in Contemporary Egypt. Civil Society vs. the State, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado (USA), 1999, p. 13.

[17] Fawaz A. Gerges: The Far Enemy. Why Jihad Went Global (Second Edition), Cambridge University Press, New York, N.Y., 2009, pp. 2-3.

[18] Barry Rubin: Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East, Routledge Middle Eastern Military Studies, New York, N.Y. (U.S.A.), 2009, p. 4.

[19] Dijkink says: American post-war foreign politics (Iran, Vietnam) suffer from the silent assumption that other nations have the same materialistic view as “we” do. (Gertjan Dijkink: When Geopolitics and Religion Fuse: A Historical Perspectives, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006, p. 193).

[20] Gudrun Krämer states: The debate about Islam and democracy is by no means new. Since the 1980’s, it has witnessed some fresh thinking and considerable movement on the ground. A growing number of Muslims, including a good many Islamist activists, have called for plural democracy, or at least for some of its basic elements: the rule of law and the protection of human rights, political participation, government control, and accountability. (Gudrun Krämer: Islamist Notions of Democracy, in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork: Political Islam. Essays from Middle East Report, Middle East Research and Information Project, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 71).

[21] according to the slogan of movement “participation, not domination” that marked the direction of its General Guide Muḥammad Badi‘ (Amr Hamzawy and Nathan J. Brown: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, cit., p. 2).

[22] Amr Hamzawy and Nathan J. Brown: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, cit., p. 12.

[23] Sami Zubaida relates a definition of the concept of civil society in the thought of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the well-known sociologist and writer: (he) argues that reinforcement of civil society is the condition for building up democratic sentiments and institutions in the Arab world. He opts for a definition in terms of voluntary associations…The main examples of such associations are trade unions, professional associations, voluntary societies and clubs, pressure groups, and political parties. (Sami Zubaida: Religion, the State, and Democracy: Contrasting Conceptions of Society in Egypt, in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork: Political Islam, cit., p. 52).

[24] James W. Robert says: Even the most radical followers of the three writers mentioned here [Quṭb, Mawdūdī and Khomeini] – even bin Laden himself – do not advocate giving up the airplane, the telephone, the microchip, or the pursuit of modern science. They do not reject modernity. What they reject is the Western version of it. They do not want to abandon the modern project – they want to tame it, to bring it within the scope of the received corpus of Islam…Indeed, the Islamists are joined in this by almost all the other voices in Islamdom today. (James W. Robert: Political Violence and Terrorism in Islamdom, cit., p. 109).

[25] Amr Hamzawy and Nathan J. Brown: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, cit., p. 26.

[26] Ibid., p. 3; Fawaz A. Gerges: The Far Enemy, cit., p. 3.

[27] Rein Taagepera: Prospects for Democracy in Islamic Countries, in William J. Crotty: Democratic Development & Political Terrorism, cit., p. 99.

[28] Gertjan Dijkink: When Geopolitics and Religion Fuse, cit., pp. 192-93.

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