Throughout the whole existence of human civilizations, the Middle East has been one of the most complex, but despite very underrated and ignored context so far the world has ever seen. That is due to many factors essentially, for this reason, it would be highly flawed to state one element as preeminent that drove/drives the Middle East environment and its states to form this patchwork design. Colourful as it is, when the big picture is observed, the dominance of religious entity of Islam and therefore the conflicts arising from this core is also evident. In the sense that, both within the Middle East, as well as without, (on an international framework) between the Middle Eastern states and the Western conflicts have been prevailing. The inner conflicts are not directly linked with the sectarian divisions of Islam; namely Sunni and Shia but rather more with the views of Islam, as well as being the “true leader of the widespread Arab World” notion. Initially, the disruption was between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, some scholars call this conflict a proxy war simply because these two states actually never fought with each other directly for any reason, but rather they used the other local conflicts and backed their people to win dominance over the Arab World.
Not to mention with this effort, a widespread “Sunni versus Shia” concept was created also due to the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia population is majorly Sunni and the Islamic Republic of Iran is Shia. These two states have managed to meddle in the war in Iraq, the Syrian Civil War and the Yemeni Civil War. Consequently involving them as the parts of a whole big picture, following with Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Qatar. The conflict and the unease grew as more states began to be involved in this so-called Cold War and naturally started splitting according to “who-do-they-follow”. One of the major plot twists was the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79, which changed the intensity of the conflict. Per described before, there was friction between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia led by the al Saud family, who has also been the founder of the peninsula in early 1900 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Kingdom was pretty confident in calling themselves the true leaders of the Arab World, also because the two holy cities of the Islamic World are located inside the borders of the Kingdom, which are Mecca and Madina. In the meantime, Iran was struggling to from its bases during early 1900 because of the constant intervention of outsiders, namely; the Anglo-Soviet occupation during the 1940s, twice, followed by a coup d’etat staged by the US in 1953 to overthrow the ongoing popular prime minister Mohammed Mohaddegh and place a secular monarch called Reza Shah followed by his successor Mohammad Reza Shah, in order to ensure Iran transforms into a Western-like, secular state using an authoritarian style also with his secret police force called “Savak”. However, Shah’s efforts backfired from a societal perspective because the mission and the vision of what he was trying to do were more or less imposing totally contrasting notions (Western thoughts) on a country with deeply embedded cultural and religious norms. Unlike popular belief, imposing a change does not necessarily mean the change will be easy and smooth, as it was the evident case in Iran. All linked to previously stated societal dynamics, even though both Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran were backed by the US, each of their societies feelings were different from their own.
Due to the autocratic regime dominated by the Shah in Iran, Iranian people felt uncomfortable with the imposed new norms incompatible with their cultures and in a desperate need for a possible revolution to alter this current state. It was the time in 1979 when they finally decided to fight back, using Ayatollah Khomeini as their true leader who would most appropriately be the head of the Islamic State of Iran, with respected Islamic values and therefore politics, the clergy being the head of the state. When the Iranian Revolution was finalized and the mass movement managed to overthrow the Shah and he escaped to the US, Ayatollah Khomeini became the Supreme Leader of Iran, restoring the religious (Islamic) core which already had been lying deep within the Iranian people’s heart. Strongly linked to this event, it was feared that this revolutionary crusade would continue to grow and spread to the whole Middle East, disrupting the present regimes and systems across the whole Arab World, especially the Saudi Arabia. As explained previously, the conflicts within the Middle East are mostly triggered by the mere idea of dominance NOT over the “whole world” but rather the whole “Arab world”. Linked to this notation, it is crucial; one more time to mention Saudi Arabia being extremely confident in calling themselves the acknowledged leaders of the Muslim World, due to the fact of geographically consisting the two holy cities of Muslim World within their borders; Mecca and Medina. On the other hand, in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, additional to the fear of spreading of the revolutionary ideas, Ayatollah Khomeini also accredited himself and Iran as the “legitimate Muslim state”, by having managed to achieve such a huge revolution by defending the most significant Muslim values and norms. In addition to all this extra friction triggered by the Iranian Revolution, it was also the time that the disharmony between two major sects of Islam; Sunni and Shia, appears to be an element of conflict of Saudi Arabi and Iran on top of everything, under the name of being a religious threat to the consensus within the Middle East. This point is quite an interesting one when evaluated thoroughly because some Western scholars make the mistake of drawing an analogy between Protestant Christianity and Catholicism with Shia and Sunni division.
However, historically it is evident that the conflict of Protestantism and Catholicism goes long way back in history and often it exists in a very violent way; including the Troubles, Thirty Years’ War, French Wars of Religion, Cologne War, Second War of Kappel and many others which eventually starts religious and expands as socio-political conflicts. Conversely, with Shia and Sunni division; it was merely a matter of conflict and indeed throughout history the communities of both sects have been inhabiting side by side in peace. Without a doubt, increasing problems in the Middle East during the early 20th century, mostly due to the intrusion of the West, conditioned every other existing factor in the Middle East for centuries, like the Sunni and Shia division; a problem. After the Iranian Revolution, the nightmare of many other Arab States, especially Saudia Arabia’s became real with the CIA leaking the export documents of Iran exporting its revolution in 1980. In the document, it was stated as “Iranian leaders, including Ayatollah Khomeini and President Bani-Sadr, are ideologically committed to aiding other Islamic revolutionaries. The Iranians see their revolution as an example for other “oppressed” people and believe that the organizational and ideological techniques they developed to topple the Shah can be used by others.” (1) This clearly exemplifies the effort of especially Ayatollah Khomeini in creating a widespread movement for the great Muslim world and being the legitimate leader of it, mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait and the Gulf States. Saudi Arabia needed to take action for these dynamics in order to defend its predominance over the Middle East and fight against Iran’s revolutionary efforts.
Therefore, Saudi Arabia bolstered its relationship with the US even more. Considering the fact of prevention of Iran’s revolutionary efforts also being extremely favourable to the US, from the perspective of the US’s desire to be constantly involved in the Middle East through its relationship Saudi Arabia; both geopolitically and economically, this move made sense. Consequently, the Gulf Cooperation Council was formed in order to create a body of co-existence, as well as to strengthen the defence of all the Gulf Monarchies against Iran. When the intensity of these conflicts escalated, Iran was also a dangerous threat to the neighbouring countries, like Iraq. Expectedly, the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980, hoping to stop the Iranian revolutionary expansion as well as to gain some oil reserves in Iran. The war turned into mass destruction with the use of chemical weapons and heavy civilian casualties ending up in stalemate reaching out for no conclusion. Until after a while Iran became the predominant winner in the war. Considering the evolving events of fear, Saudi Arabia decided to back Iraq up with weapons, money and logistical help so that the war and Iran’s effort would not expand into their territory, and this went on until 1988, meanwhile, Iranians blamed Saudi Arabia for chaos and the war because of their intervention. After fifteen years, Iraq found itself again in a proxy war, when the Supreme Leader of Iran was Ali Khamanei. By then in 2003 the US invaded Iraq and swept Saddam Hussein off the scene, however, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia wanted this to happen since Iraq was a buffer between them. From a local point of view, the US sparked the fire for Iraq to become a failed state, since, after the execution of Saddam Hussein, the US could not manage to replace him, so that a vast problematic era started for Iraq filled with civil wars and the rise of local Sunni and Shia militias in the territory, trying to claim the control of the country while fighting between them and creating even more tension as well as disruption among the Middle Eastern people. Many of the militias were extremist groups threatening the proxies; Saudi Arabia and Iran being the most important ones. Therefore, Saudis were supporting and sending money and weapons to Sunni militias whereas Iran was doing exactly the same for the Shia groups. This proxy war went on until 2011, when another revolutionary mass movement started spreading across the whole Middle East, consisting of anti-monarchy groups of people, the phenomenal Arab Spring. Arab Spring was revolutionary in its nature, as often many revolutions still have drastic consequences on the territories even after a very long time.
Indeed, the Arab Spring had diverse effects on the countries. From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, considering their monarchy as the ultimate pro-status quo power, this was another extreme threat that would trigger the stable autocratic monarchical regime in the territory, since there was a fearful case of inspiring the Saudi people to rise up against their government. On the other hand, Iranians were the most anti-status quo power, trying to alter and substitute the Middle Eastern power distribution for decades. During this era, the whole Middle East, regardless of their proxy to Iran and/or Saudi Arabia has started stirring up by strings pulled by these two enemies and the mass revolutionary movements through Arab Spring. Such examples can be given as; in Tunisia; Saudis were supporting this dictator; Zine el Abidine as the president of Tunisia while Iranians were doing the same for anti-government protests and protesters to prevent him rising to be the president, whereas in Bahrain; Shii population was protesting against the government in which Saudi Arabia sent military troops to control the unrest, likewise in Yemen; Saudi military fighting against this rebellion group called “Houthis”, in Syria; Hezbollah militia is being supported by the Iranian military while also backing up the President of Syria Bashar Al-Ashad in fighting with the Saudi aided Sunni militias. Similar scenarios could also be seen in Libya, Lebanon and Morocco; eventually, creating major turmoil within the area. Without a doubt, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran should or would be interested in a war since the mass destruction also damages them from many aspects. However, it must be true that hypothetically both of those countries feel threatened in some ways over a decade ago and since the problem is very far-fetched with the current civil wars and problems, at the moment there is not one but rather many knots which can no longer be easily solved. As the time goes by and the range of issues vary on a very wide spectrum, also with the undeniable existence of globalization; the situation evolves to be a complex scenario rather than a perennial complicated one.
A lot of pioneers are involved in the Middle East synopsis, a lot of them with innumerable reasons, including the US as the obsolete intruder. One must never forget nor neglect the rare tradition and culture the Middle East territory holds, only then a real change is bound to happen in this neck of the woods where there lies a great hidden and often ignored capacity. As the Vice President of the United States once told in his speech in Jerusalem, January 22 2018: “Those who call the Middle East their home have more that unites them than divides them.” Conclusively and undoubtedly it is important to acknowledge the existence of uniqueness of the Middle East and the Middle Easterns, then leave them to decide on their own, for their own.
Bibliography and Endnotes
- Tagharobi, Kaveh; Zarei, Ali. “Modernism in the Middle East and Arab World”. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. 2016, May 9. The UK. Accessed 1/6/20. https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/accommodating-an-unexpected-gue st
- Bell, John. Exploring the History of Protestant-Catholic Conflict. In: Wolffe J. (eds) Protestant-Catholic Conflict from the Reformation to the Twenty-first Century. Palgrave Macmillan, London. 2013. Accessed 4/6/20.
- (1) Central Intelligence Agency – National Foreign Assessment Center, Iran: Exporting Revolution, PA 80-10121, 1980, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP81B00401R000500100001-8 .pdf
- Bromley, Simon. “Rethinking Middle East Politics”. University of Texas Press Austin. 1994. Great Britain. Accessed 4/6/20. https://books.google.com.cy/books?id=N7xK0WBjgqgC&lpg=PP1&ots=NMXA-TiIy C&dq=middle%20east&lr&pg=PP6#v=onepage&q=middle%20east&f=false