Is the escalating conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran a conflict between Sunnis and Shias? Not exactly. Similar to many other so-called religious wars, this is a political, economic and geo-strategic problem that is translated into religious language. Nevertheless, since politicians have been abusing religious sentiments for centuries, the issue has become complicated and thus there is a religious dimension to the conflict.
The Saudis are afraid of their Shia minority and have been oppressing them. Similarly, Iran is afraid of its Sunni minority and has been oppressing them. The issue has, of course, a transnational dimension, too. Thus, while Saudi Arabia sides with the Sunnis in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, etc., Iran sides with the Shias.
Yet all this must not obscure the fact that the motivations of both the Saudi and Iranian elites are not religious. What they do in their countries does not have anything to do with Sunni Islam or Shia Islam, either. They are just like authoritarian despots in other parts of the world. What they are trying to achieve is not related to Islam, either. Islam has been rhetorically manipulated to entice their peoples and to get international support. If Muslims all over the world can get rid of their obsession of looking at conflicts through sectarian lenses and can look at the concrete evidence and material facts, they will be more just and will not be deluded by despotic elites.
Yet, all this has been helping the Iranian influence that is increasing in the region, which the Saudis hate. Iraq has become an Iranian ally. Syria will remain so, despite its Sunni majority. Bahrain and Yemen may come under Iranian influence. And, Saudi Arabia’s Shias, some 20 percent of the population who predominantly live in oil-rich regions, are not happy at being oppressed. The void that has been left by the US’s partial departure is being filled by Iranian ally Russia and this is not good news for the Saudis, either. The Saudi dynasty has serious internal tensions among its own elite. The Saudi population has been becoming politically more active. Moreover, many Saudis have been radicalized for a long time. Just remember that 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudi citizens. It is doesn’t take rocket science to know that the Saudi ideology of Salafism/Wahhabism has been a conveyor belt to the so-called jihadism of violent groups such as al-Qaeda. Furthermore, there are many allegations of financial support to these groups by some of the Saudi elite. On the other hand, Iran has been militarily involved in the Syrian war and has been supporting Hezbollah.
Even if a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is prevented, proxy wars between these two countries will most probably increase in number in the coming years. Turkey must never become involved in any of these tensions. The only thing that it can do is lobby third parties such as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the EU, NATO, Egypt, India, etc. to force the two parties to reach a sustainable settlement. I know, this is almost impossible but the alternative may simply be World War III.
This article first appeared at Today’s Zaman, one of Turkey’s largest daily. Click here to go to the original.