Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings
Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings

Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings

Jun 1, 2014

It's tempting to see today's Middle East conflicts as the continuation of centuries-old sectarian divisions, but Frederick Wehrey cautions against it. "Sectarianism is really a local institutional governance phenomenon that needs to be addressed through political reform in the Gulf, through ending discrimination, through greater participation in governance."


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you for joining us.

It is a pleasure to welcome Frederic Wehrey to this Public Affairs program. Mr. Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

His discussion today will be based on his book, which is entitled Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings. This book was cited by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the five best books on the Middle East for 2013, and is said to be one of the best analyses of the new politics of sectarianism in the Persian Gulf.

Today's program is part of an ongoing effort to place moral inquiries at the center of transnational conversations on international affairs. Throughout this Centennial year and beyond, the Carnegie Council's objective bears repeating, which is to explore how ethical values are being tested by the challenges of our day.

For example, this afternoon the discussion will examine how we can reconcile the competing claims of different ethnic and religious groups around core moral values of equality and social justice. In raising such issues as how to think about allegiance to one's country rather than allegiance to one's tribe or religious group, and asking whether these dynamics can ever change so that we can live in a more peaceful, equitable world, it is our aspiration that this discussion, as so many others, will enrich your understanding of why ethics matter, especially in a connected world.

As the Middle East continues to reverberate from the Iraq War, we see now how the regional environment is punctuated with Saudi-Iranian rivalry, fallout from the Arab uprisings, and spillover into Lebanon as a result of war in Syria—all which have contributed to heightened sectarian tensions in the Gulf and revert back to the question of whether we can ever live in a more peaceful world.

While there is no single factor that can explain the dysfunctional nature of Middle Eastern politics, the fact remains that sectarian identification, the process by which forms of ethnic and/or religious identity are politicized, have impacted on the fractious course of governing in the region, especially in the Persian Gulf.

Scholars have devoted extensive efforts to diagnosing the roots of sectarianism across the Middle East. They found that while religious identities are extremely important and powerful, according to our speaker, what seems to be missing in these studies is a focus on the role of institutions and the political context in which sectarianism becomes prominent.

Filling in this gap, Mr. Wehrey investigates the roots of the Shia/Sunni divide and examines the factors that have exacerbated or tempered the sectarian tensions now dominating the Persian Gulf landscape. The study focuses on where the Sunni/Shia divide matters most: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait—to answer the question of why sectarianism is a recurring and much lamented fact of life in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf.

To tackle this question and more, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest today, Frederic Wehrey.


FREDERIC WEHREY: Thank you so much for the warm and very eloquent welcome, and thanks to the Carnegie Council for the kind invitation.

I also wanted to thank my editor at Columbia University Press, who is here somewhere, Anne Routon, who has been a confidante and mentor throughout this entire book. Her series at Columbia University Press is really geared toward making academia relevant to current policy debates.

As we heard, when we look at the Middle East today, sectarianism, Shia/Sunni strife appears to be all the rage. If you look at the map, this is a region that is tearing itself apart at the seams along sectarian lines. Obviously, the epicenter is the Syria War, but it is spilling over into Lebanon and Iraq. And it appears that these two major powers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are really fueling the conflict, throwing gasoline on the fire; they are egging on their co-religionists, they are backing rival factions. There is the sense in the region that America as a power is absent, there's a vacuum, and this notion that these two antagonistic sects of Islam are at each other's throats.

It is tempting, I think—and you see it in the media—to read this conflict as simply the continuation of something that has been happening in this region for hundreds of years, for thousands of years, going back to the time of Islam, going back to that fundamental split in Islam over succession that has become such a prominent part of the religion.

Now, this reading of the Middle Eastern map is not new. If we go back, obviously, to the Iraq War in 2003—I served in Iraq as a military officer during the initial invasion, and we grappled with this notion of Shia and Sunni. We didn't understand it. We went into Iraq and we didn't understand these identities. Obviously, the Iraq War devolved into a sectarian war and spilled over into the region.

We can go back even farther to the 1979 Revolution, when you had a major power in the region that was previously a monarchy that suddenly adopted an ideology that was expansionist and revolutionary and that was based on Shiism. This really exacerbated the Shia/Sunni divide.

The key point I want to make, though, is that the sectarian lens, the sectarian framework, for looking at the Middle East is often a very lazy and shorthand way to make sense of this complex region.

What we find often is that when we peel back the layers of simply the Sunnis and Shia, we find there is a whole host of other regions. Really, the sectarian conflict, the sectarian dimension, is the symptom for an underlying sickness, an underlying weakness in this region. This is what I want to talk about today.

Unfortunately, our own president has made several references in his speeches to sectarianism. He talked about the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain in the Gulf, that this was a state that was suffering from sectarian tensions, that the violence in that country was the result of sectarianism. He made another statement, saying that the Gulf would be a much calmer place if Iran were to stop its policies of sectarian incitement in the region.

There are two problems with both those statements.

The first one, with Bahrain. He says Bahrain's problems are because of sectarianism. No, they're not. Shia and Sunni in that country would probably live together and coexist were it not for the absence of real participatory governance of democracy, the lack of corruption. So again, the Shia/Sunni tension is just a symptom. We need to peel back the layers and ask: What is the real problem in Bahrain? Why did the uprisings start in 2011? They were over lack of housing, a judiciary that was incredibly repressive, unemployment. And guess who is suffering the most? The Shia, so that's discrimination. It's sectarian but it's really about governance.

The same thing with Iran. Is Iran inciting sectarianism in the region? Yes, they are. They are supporting Shia militants in Lebanon, they are supporting Shia militants in Iraq, and obviously in Syria. But are they the root cause? Is that something we really want to pin the blame on? No they're not.

And again, sectarian identity matters in this region. But if you talk to Middle Easterners, they will tell you that historically someone's sense of being a Shia or a Sunni has always coexisted with other identities—tribal, national, class, other forms of association.

So we have to ask ourselves: When and how does the Shia/Sunni divide surface; and, more importantly, what makes it toxic, what makes it malign?

Obviously, the breakdown of the state is the key reason. This is what is happening in Syria. But, more importantly, when the state fails to meet the needs of its citizens or when the state, more importantly—and this applies really to the Gulf—discriminates against parts of its citizenry, when it uses sectarianism as a ruling strategy. This is especially prevalent in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain today. This is the focus of my book that we are discussing.

These three states in the Gulf are of tremendous importance to the United States, both for strategic access to oil, but, more importantly I think—and this is what I want to emphasize—since 9/11 we have realized that what happens inside these states, the nature of their politics, how they treat their citizens, affects the broader world, affects the region, and it affects us, as we know from 9/11.

So when I talk to policymakers about this book, about sectarianism, I say it is in our interests to look very closely at what is happening inside Saudi Arabia and Bahrain with sectarian relations, because something is changing there, something is brewing. Yes, the Arab Spring bypassed these countries, but that doesn't mean all is well.

If you look at the populations in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, those that actually did revolt during the Arab Spring, who were they? They were the Shia, because they are the underclass—10 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia, 70 percent in Bahrain, and about 40 percent in Kuwait.

Now, if we go back to history, the Shias of these states certainly were inspired by the Iranian Revolution. When the Iranian Revolution arrived, the Shias of Bahrain and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were mobilized. They felt like this was a state that had an ideology that was empowering, and it had a contagion effect, it mobilized the Shia of the Gulf, and there were violent movements in the Gulf.

But what happened is that revolutionary course ran its course really, and in the early 1990s the Shia movements of the Gulf severed their political ties with Iran and they agreed to work peacefully within these states toward reform. They entered the process, they engaged in dialogue, they started participating in elections.

But the shadow of Iran's involvement, the shadow of Iran's ties to these local Shia, has really tainted them. You find this notion when you go to the Gulf, that the Shia of the region are simply pawns of Iran, they are agents of Iran, they are being used by Iran. This is partly a legacy of the Iranian Revolution, but it is also instrumental. The Gulf regimes use it very tactically to discredit Shia activists.

Many of these Shia activists are pushing for non-sectarian things. They are not pushing for their own sectarian rights as a religious minority. They are pushing for human rights, for democracy. They are cooperating with other reformists. But if I am a Gulf ruler, if I am a monarch, what is the best way to discredit those activists? To portray them as being backed by Iran, the Persian rival, the Shia rival. This is what you find is happening now in the Gulf.

In the 1990s you had this sort of rapprochement. The Shia agreed to stop militancy. But guess what? Nothing really came of that experiment.

When you go to the Shia areas of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, you find tremendous disenchantment; you find a marked difference in the standard of living. There is an entire new generation of young people that has been shut out of the welfare system of Saudi Arabia because of their religious identity. Meanwhile, in the education system, in the media, their religion, their sect, is being demonized.

It's not hard to understand why, when the 2011 revolution started in Tunisia, spread to Egypt, these Shia young people in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were inspired and they were mobilized. They were the ones that took to the streets in Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain in the eastern province.

When I talk to these young people, there is the sense that their uprising in these states was as much a protest against the government as it was against the older generation of Shia leadership that had failed to deliver any benefits to them.

I think this is an important dynamic that we need to keep in mind when we look at Gulf politics, is this generational change, that there is a new generation. This generation is obviously plugged into social media. We know this is a major mobilizing force in the region.

Now, what we find in the Middle East, if we go back to history, is that the Arab Spring was simply one of many different regional waves of change that impacted the region. Many of these waves have in fact exacerbated and heightened sectarian tensions.

When we look at state identity, the identity of citizens, we have to acknowledge that what happens outside their borders—if I am a Sunni living in Saudi Arabia, I am aware of what is happening in Iraq or what's happening in Lebanon because of that shared sense of Arab identity, but also because of media, especially in the age of social media.

So there have been a lot of regional waves that have crashed over the region. The first one, as I mentioned, was the Iranian Revolution. The second one was the Iraq War, the civil war in Iraq. Obviously, the Arab Spring, as I mentioned.

Another one was the 2006 Lebanon War. This was a major event, where a Shia militant group, Hezbollah, effectively almost defeated the most powerful army in the Middle East, the Israeli army. This had a powerful galvanizing effect on sectarianism in the region, because suddenly there was a Shia power that was seizing hold of the Arab imagination, that was fighting the Israelis. This had a ripple effect throughout the region.

Where are we at right now with a regional wave? Syria. Syria is a seismic event in the region that is changing sectarianism, changing identity, and it's spilling over—not just physically, I'm not talking about the fighting, but I'm talking about how people conceive of their own identities in the region.

Here again we have to look at what is new today. It's social media. The fact is that when Saddam Hussein was killing Shia in the 1990s, it did not affect the rest of the region as much as today because it wasn't being broadcast live. This is a huge, huge dimension that hasn't been, I think, fully explained by social scientists—the ripple effect of social media, the fact that this fighting is conveyed real time, the fact that Twitter allows citizens to participate real-time in the drama that is unfolding around them. And social media really arose, it really exploded, in the region at precisely the time when the Iraqi civil war was happening around 2006.

And now, with Syria, it has had an even more galvanizing effect. Obviously, the Gulf States are major players in the Syrian War. They are sending money, they are sending volunteers, they are sending jihadists.

What's the draw? Why are the Gulf states involved in that? To fight their strategic rival Iran. But many of these Sunni volunteers that are going to Syria, what is their motivation? Their motivation is to kill and to fight Shia, to fight a sectarian war. There have been studies done of terrorism recruitment, of jihadi recruitment, and they compared the Iraq War with the Syrian War. In the Iraq War, what was the magnet, what was the draw? If I were a jihadist and I wanted to go to Iraq, it was to fight the occupying army, it was to fight the crusaders, it was to fight the imperialist United States.

But the message in Syria now is, "I'm going to go fight the Shia," and that message has actually proven more and more powerful in terms of the numbers of Sunnis that it is drawing. So we are really in a dire situation in terms of the blowback effect of sectarianism.

But, to dial back to the theme of my book, if we want to really address the root causes in terms of things that we can change, certainly what is happening in the region in these wars matters. But that's kind of up here. We need to look in these states in the Gulf, in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, at the local level and we need to look at institutions and we need to look at governance in terms of how these states treat their citizens.

It's really about exclusionary policies that have kept segments of the citizenry out of government and discriminated against them on issues of land ownership and provincial development, in the labor market. We can go down the list. Virtually every segment of society and economy in these states is split along sectarian lines—banking, government ministries, in the security forces.

The security forces is a huge thing, a huge issue, in Bahrain. The Shia are 70 percent of the population, but the security forces and the army are overwhelmingly Sunni and, more importantly, these Sunnis are brought from outside Bahrain. So there is this sense, if I am a Shia in Bahrain, that the people who are policing my streets are not even from my community and, more importantly, they are mercenaries that are brought from outside the country. This is a huge irritant on civility in the country and on security really.

The same thing in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where the Shia are located. This is the oil-rich area. The Shia there complain that the police are all Sunnis brought from elsewhere, from outside that region.

Education is a huge sphere of discrimination. We know that a place like Saudi Arabia has a real problem with tolerance in its curriculum and world view. This is especially so in its views toward the Shia.

When I talk to Shia parents in Saudi Arabia, one of their major grievances is, "I send my kid to a school and he is taught in the education system that his sect is a heretical sect, that all Shia need to be killed." This is a huge irritant in social relations in that country.

Obviously, in the religious and cultural sphere—in most of these countries there are official clerical bodies where clerics have a say on law, on family law; they have their religious endowments. But the Shia have been really cut out of that.

Media: I have already talked about the effect of social media on sectarianism. But more important is the impact of official media. The fact that the Saudi government controls so much media, both official and semi-official, through the funding of princes, has allowed sectarian vitriol to permeate its media. So you find these preachers, these clerics, that are peddling a sectarian narrative. This also exacerbates sectarianism.

The important thing to remember here is that in the context of the Syria War, the sectarian narrative in the media has really shot up because the Saudis are playing this media card in their media to demonize the Iranians, and it is having a blowback effect locally on the Shia.

Let me talk just a bit about how local Shia have tried recently to press for their rights.

What has their reaction been to this? It's important to note that for the time being they have not mobilized toward violence. They are still pursuing their rights through peaceful means. They are still trying to press the government through reform.

But, more importantly, what are they doing? They are trying to build bridges, they are trying to build cross-sectarian bridges with other like-minded reformists, liberals, Sunnis who have similar goals. They are doing this also really through social media, which is very interesting. So social media can be a tool for religious division, for creating tension between sects, but it can also be a tool for bridging sects.

You find this especially among the younger generation of youth. This is actually encouraging. Some of these youths that I talk to seem to have a sense of their Shia or Sunni identity that is actually quite progressive, this notion that sectarianism is really something that afflicted their fathers and their mothers, and they want to move beyond that. They talk about a post-sectarian generation, where they are reaching out to Sunnis and they are trying to find common ground with other sects. It is encouraging.

But again—and this leads me to my final point—the obstacle that they are running into in this approach is that the regimes in these countries, in places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, are trying to divide and rule the opposition. They are trying to prevent real reform cooperation between Sunnis and Shias because the regimes are using sectarianism, I think, very instrumentally as a ruling strategy, again to divide and rule the opposition, to prevent a groundswell movement that could threaten their rule.

It is very interesting to note that what is happening in the region has really bolstered the regimes' ruling strategy of using sectarianism. What has been happening in the region for the last 10 years is sectarian chaos. If I am a ruler in Saudi Arabia—and Al Saud would say this—they say, "Look at what is happening in Iraq. The Iraqis had elections, they had an experiment in democracy, and guess where that led them? Down a path of civil war." And they say to their citizens, "Do you really want to challenge the status quo, do you really want to stir things up and revolt, because look what's happening in Syria. Do you want to go down that path?"

There is a sense in the Gulf right now, in a place like Saudi Arabia, that, as bad as the Al Saud are and as bad as things are in the kingdom, and it is getting worse with the demographics, with the economy—we can talk about that later; there's a lot of stuff brewing beneath the surface—as bad as it is, it is still not as bad as what is happening elsewhere, in the shakeup in the rest of the region, in places like Syria.

So there is a sense of tolerating what is happening. Again, it results from that sectarian card that is being played.

The other strategy that they use, as I mentioned, was to demonize the Shia as agents of Iran. They are playing that in the media still. That has only picked up with tensions with Iran.

Let me conclude with some final thoughts. A lot of the details are in the book. I have laid out the broad frame. The book really goes into the strategies of the Shia in each state, how the governments have responded.

But I think in terms of a policy level, in terms of the broader public, when we look at this region we have to really peel back the discourse of religious strife and get to the root causes.

Certainly the Shia/Sunni split matters. But again, this is a region that has institutionalized sectarianism, that has used it for very political reasons. We should care what happens inside these states. Al-Qaeda is thriving on sectarianism right now. There is something new brewing in Syria with the way al-Qaeda is developing and with these fighters going there. I think we should be very concerned about what happens when they come back.

The Al Saud are talking about imprisoning these people, they are talking about amnesty. But I think more importantly they need to focus the lens on their own ruling arrangements, and especially the way they treat their own Shia population.

It has often been said in Washington that if the Saudis and the Iranians were simply to bridge their differences—and that is starting to happen; you are seeing the Saudis reach out to the Iranis—if these two powers were to somehow reach an agreement, that that would trickle down in the region and there would be a calming of sectarian tension. That might happen to a certain extent. I think it would free up some space.

But that doesn't negate the point that I have been making, that sectarianism is really a local institutional governance phenomenon that needs to be addressed through political reform in the Gulf, through ending discrimination, through greater participation in governance. People in the Gulf tell me that the reason people revert to their identities, whether Shia or Sunni, is because they are shut out of governance because the ruling structure, the nature of the political structure, does not allow them any other identity.

So they talk about the way to inoculate people against sectarian strife or against a very toxic form of religious identity is to have more representative institutions, to create a pluralistic civil culture through education and a fair media. I think this will do much more to lower the tension in the region, and acknowledging this will really move us back toward a more accurate reading of the region's problems that talks about policies that could be corrected rather than the sense that these two sects have always been in conflict throughout history.

I will leave it there and we can get into questions.


QUESTION: James Starkman.

Let's go back to square one, 1,500 years ago. What is the theological difference between the Sunnis and the Shia? You mentioned a war of succession. Would you go into detail about what that really involved? Was it the son-in-law [Ali] of Muhammad leading forces against the followers of Muhammad, etc.?

FREDERIC WEHREY: It was really about succession passing through Muhammad's lineage or being chosen. This is the real crux of the matter. It goes to how Muhammad's followers were to be chosen—is it through his lineage or to be chosen?

Shiite means literally "the partisans of Ali." The important thing to remember is that that initial succession battle, while it was important, I think became wrapped up in a whole host of ethnic and national questions, the fact that Shiism became adopted by Persia. There is a whole class dimension, especially that the Shia traditionally in the Arab world had been the underclass. So again, the early debates are important.

Another important dimension that evolves is the nature of clerical authority. In Sunni Islam there is no established clerical class; religious authority is much more dispersed. In Shia Islam you have a clerical class that is very hierarchical, that receives funding from the state or from society. This is really the backbone of the Iranian Revolution, the Iranian ideology. So another debate is over the question of clerical authority.

There are multiple dimensions. There are ritualistic dimensions in terms of prayer, in terms of how you worship, the places of worship. So it's certainly the succession question, but there is a whole host of other layers on top of it.

When I approach the region today, I don't see those differences as meaningful as the political economy questions, the fact that the Shia in the region have been the underclass. The Shia of the region historically have been drawn to other mobilizing ideologies, like communism, even Baathism for a while. So they have been the underclass. I think this is a powerful explanation for why you see them mobilizing.

QUESTION: Edith Everett.

Given all of this great insight, how does this inform American foreign policy? Do we try to democratize all these people? Do we go for regime change? What should we be doing?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Yes, absolutely.

Well again, I think, as someone who served in a complex place like Iraq—and I was just telling Ann over lunch that when I arrived there in 2003 we were totally unprepared to deal with the landscape that confronted us, Shias/Sunnis, and I don't think we truly understand. This is a region that has to ultimately deal with its own problems. We saw the fruits of a nation-building exercise that went terribly awry in Iraq.

I work a lot on Libya now, and I'm thankful that the United States is still holding back on that country and not getting involved.

So no, we're not going to get involved in nation-building. I don't think we can manipulate these sects by so many puppet strings.

But I do think what we can do—and not a forcible, shrill push for democratization, because I do think this region has to proceed at its own pace, and their notion of democracy might look very different than ours—but the notion of inclusiveness is not too much to ask for. The notion of respect for the other is not too much to ask for. Education systems that treat all citizens equally is not too much to ask for. Our government is doing a lot of that through civil society promotion.

In the Gulf we are doing it very, very carefully. The Gulf is a region that, unfortunately, has proven the exception, I think, to American policy, where we supported the overthrow in Egypt, we backed the overthrow of Qaddafi, we backed the revolution in Tunisia. But when it came to Bahrain, we didn't really raise a fuss there, because we've got naval assets there, we've got a huge strategic presence there, we depend on these states for oil. So this region, the Gulf, has sort of been insulated from American pressure.

I argue that is not in our long-term interest. We need to demand more reform in the Gulf to stave off more challenges down the road.

People have been predicting the fall of Al Saud for quite some time. I don't think it is imminent, but I do think there are real problems coming down the road, and the Al Saud need to address them soon.

So again, from a U.S. policy perspective, I think we do need to get back into the business of reform promotion, but doing it in a very discreet and delicate way.

I think, more importantly, as I mentioned, we need to in our statements, like the president made, not take this sectarian divide at face value. It's not about Shias and Sunnis fighting each other; it's about real problems of governance that can be addressed through real policies.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Within the context of the Arab Spring, we now have elections in Egypt, so that there are even more divisions, not just sectarian/religious divisions but also secularist. How do you relate all of this because, as you said, with the media something that happens one place has an influence on every other place?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Egypt is a huge concern. Its importance in the Arab world cannot be understated. I have a colleague at Carnegie Endowment who once compared Egypt to the whale of Arab politics, that when the whale goes under the ocean everything gets pulled with it. I think which way Egypt goes will determine so much. I think, unfortunately, Egypt is taking a very authoritarian turn. I mean the Sisi effect, what happened there, that you had effectively a coup d'état, that has had a ripple effect across the region. You are seeing it in Egypt. You are seeing it elsewhere.

Yes, Egypt is a very divided society. The divide there is not obviously Shia/Sunni; it's liberals versus Islamists; there's the Coptic Christians. So the divides are very real there.

Unfortunately, in the region what has happened time and time again is people, in the interest of security and stability, when sectarian strife or these divisions get too much, they will welcome a strongman to come in. Someone like Assad or Saddam did keep sectarianism under clamps. They ruled through a strong arm. That's a terrible bargain to make; you're voting in somebody who is going to repress you just to keep these divisions under play. I mean, democracies are messy places.

So yes, Egypt is very worrisome. I have Christian friends in Egypt who initially supported Sisi's crackdown on the Brotherhood because they were afraid of the Brotherhood, but now they are looking at what Sisi is doing and they are saying, "Hey, this isn't such a good idea," and they are trying to vote for other people as well. So you are seeing a lot of splits there.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy is really hamstrung on Egypt. I think the administration has kind of said, "We're in a very tight spot here" and they're not really doing much of anything. Sorry to be so pessimistic.

QUESTIONER: Realistic.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Yes, realistic.

QUESTION: Tyler Beebe.

If I can squeeze in two questions. The first would be you mentioned that political reform is maybe one distant hope for reducing sectarian hatred and so forth. Which country in the Gulf, assuming five or six countries that you deal with, do you think has the highest probability of achieving some kind of meaningful political reform?

The second question would be: Looking at Syria, is there any chance that the bifurcation that we see now between Kurds and Sunnis and Alawites and Shiites and so forth will ever be resolved in the sense that it can become a cohesive single country again, or is it destined to be one big mess?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Those are tough questions.

Within the Gulf, if there is one state that is a bright spot, it is Kuwait. I include Kuwait in my book. Kuwait does have sectarian tensions. It has a Shia population that is about 40 percent of the population. But the Kuwaiti ruling arrangement is somewhat unique, in that the monarchy there, because of its history, depends on the Shia for support. The Shia are actually very well off. The Kuwaitis were ahead of the rest of the Gulf in that they actually have a constitution that holds the monarchy accountable, and they have a parliament that actually plays a role in holding the executive branch accountable and can legislate some laws.

So the Kuwaitis have always been ahead of the curve. In terms of where the Gulf has always followed, the Kuwaitis set the trend. The Kuwaitis have not necessarily bought into the sectarian narrative that the Bahrainis and the Saudis are peddling. They have always been sort of modern. So that's the state that I would watch.

Certainly they have problems. A lot of their charities, and some of their Sunnis are fighting in Syria. They are sending money there. They've got their own Sunni radical problem. But the monarchy does have a system of checks and balances.

Syria is going to be difficult to put back in the bottle. I think you are having geographically such a separation of political zones really—the Kurds, the ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], the al-Nusra Front—that it is hard for me to see that this state will ever be coherent again. If it does come back together, you are going to have to have some sort of federation. The Kurds have basically set up their own autonomous state there. The Alawites are in their camp. It's going to be very difficult to see how that is going to come back.

People have talked about Syria leading to the breakdown of the Sykes-Picot arrangement in the region, that the borders are going to be withdrawn, and these borders were always fictitious. I don't necessarily buy that. But I think you are seeing zones of states becoming semi-autonomous, becoming the purview of ethnic groups like the Kurds or the Nusra and ISIS guys. So it's going to be hard to put it back.

QUESTION: Omar El Okdah with the International Peace Institute.

You mentioned the possible rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran and how that might impact the sectarian balance. But actually, stepping back, how might the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, or possible rapprochement, that we are seeing now in this nuclear deal affect that very Saudi-Iranian balance, then therefore affecting the sectarian balance in the Middle East overall?

FREDERIC WEHREY: That's a great question. With an Iranian colleague we actually just put a piece on our website on that. We are a bit pessimistic that the U.S. warming of relations will lead to a Saudi-Iranian warming. The Saudis, I think, in terms of their reading of the region, see a lot of problems with Iran and the Syria conflict. They are not ready, I think, to make that sort of grande détente. You are seeing some limited rapprochement. But will that really lead to a détente? I am not optimistic.

The Iranian leadership, I think, is a big problem here too. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are so invested in Syria right now, and it's hard for me to see the Saudis really bridging the differences with Iran or negotiating some sort of deal as long as the Iranians are involved in Syria right now. The Iranians I think would have to pull back from Syria to give the Saudis some sort of face-saving way to come to the table. That's my sense right now.

When you look at domestic politics in Saudi Arabia, the last time the Saudis had a real rapprochement with Iran was in the early 1990s, when they both shared the threat from Iraq. In the Saudi leadership, you had a crown prince who was very strong, Crown Prince Abdullah, who was consolidating his power in a very strong position that allowed him to make that kind of deal.

Saudi politics today is incredibly unsettled, factionalized. There's a succession question. You have the very weak Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin. You have the ailing king. The crown prince is ailing as well. So the sense I get from Saudi politics is they are not in a position domestically to make that kind of deal yet with Iran.

You could argue the same thing in Iran. Rouhani doesn't have the clout either. The Revolutionary Guards are still calling the shots a lot.

I could be proven wrong, but this is our sense. Sorry to be pessimistic again.

QUESTION: Matthew Olson.

I didn't have anything to ask you until you brought up the Copts in Egypt. When we talk about sectarianism in the Middle East, things aren't going well for the Copts, things are not going well for the Christians in Iraq, things are not going well for the Christians in Palestine, the Christians in Syria are scared to death, and not necessarily everything is going well in Iran. So there is this deal with the Christians in the general area that we generally do not talk about. Can you talk about that?

FREDERIC WEHREY: That's an excellent point. My definition of sectarianism was very narrow, looking at Shia/Sunni. But of course the broader problem is one of religions tolerance. Of course those Christians have borne an incredible burden there.

I saw it in Iraq. As a student in the Middle East, I was staying with a Christian family on the West Bank.

Again, what is the root? I think it is partly the rise of radical extremism, that Salafism as a phenomenon has taken hold, and Salafism is antagonistic toward the Shia and also antagonistic toward the Christians and it is antagonistic toward the Sufis. So the fact that you have had this growth of Salafism over the last 50 years is part of the problem.

But we also have to look at the breakdown of the state—the breakdown of Iraq, the breakdown of Syria; in Egypt you had the breakdown of state structures. That opened up the playing field for sectarian strife.

It is a real problem. I don't know the figures, but there has been a massive exodus of Christians from the Middle East too. The population now in Iraq has been really decimated.

An interesting parallel there is that, like the Shia, the Christians of the Middle East have been demonized as being agents or proxies for outside powers, that because you are Christian you look to France or you look to Rome or the United States for authority. That has been used against them I think, like the Shia have been accused of being allied with Iran. It's a real problem.

How much does the United States care about this? I think we are really concerned. The State Department has an entire office on religious diversity. When I talk to foreign diplomats in embassies there, they are reporting on these abuses, they are concerned about issues of religious tolerance. So it is certainly an issue. Whether it rises to the level of a real strategic security threat to the United States, unfortunately, is another matter.

QUESTION: Ernestine Bradley.

I have maybe not so much questions, except for the frame of not only your presentation, but in general.

Most of the presentations are from a purely American interest point of view. I would like to mention, because I am not born American, that Europe for centuries had the most vicious religious wars, the total extermination of some states. Although this is of course horrible and should not be accepted, only if you come with the enlightened democratic point of view can you point the finger at what is going on now with sectarianism, forgetting where we are all coming from, from a lot of battles that we are not allowing—I mean it's a horrible thing to say we should allow Shias and Sunnis to battle each other. But it happened in Europe and we had to go through this before we came to a moderate sense of enlightenment.

The next question—I don't even know whether you have reason to comment on it—is that the Enlightenment grew out of the battling in Europe. We, the Western enlightened people, have never given the Gulf people or Islam or even—I mean Hinduism, okay, was allowed under the British Raj—but Islam . . . The one thing, why do we now pontificate and tell Islam they should do what we want them to do, meaning the oil and the economy and education, all of that?

FREDERIC WEHREY: The comparison to early modern Europe is appropriate. There is actually a conference at Columbia University in November on this very topic, comparing the battle within Islam now to what was happening in early modern Europe.

But again, I think that can only get us so far. Obviously, I think something is happening in the Arab world right now in Islam and it is going to take future historians time to make sense of it. It's generational, it's huge, and some of it will have to run its course.

I agree with you, I admit in the United States we have sort of a social engineering approach to the world because of our history, and perhaps a little realism is in order.

But I would disagree that when we talk about respect for the other. These are universal values, these aren't Western. If you look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these are values that apply to everybody.

The interesting thing is that even within Islam that is enshrined in Islam. There were periods of rule in the Islamic world, under the Ottoman Empire for example, where minorities like Christians and Jews actually had status. The Islamic world is capable of developing these values on their own and they have that history and that capability to do that. So I don't think it's chauvinistic for us to demand that. I think we are promoting something that is universal.

JOANNE MYERS: Why do you think Tunisia has moved more towards democratic governance in some ways? Are there any lessons that one could take from this to apply to some of the other countries?

FREDERIC WEHREY: That's the big question. Everybody right now in the think tank community is asking that.

Unfortunately, I think it is an exception because—I am not a specialist on Tunisia—but because the ingredients were there: you had a robust middle class; you had a lot of contact with Europe; it was very secular; you had a military and a security structure that actually sided with the reformists or sided with the activists, that didn't get in the way; you had Islamists who proved to be very accommodating in terms of writing the constitution, that actually made some compromises.

So it was a combination, I think, of these historical/structural factors that perhaps cannot be replicated elsewhere.

But then, the policymakers in that country and the leaders of both the opposition and the government made certain choices and actually proved to be very wise.

We had the leader of Ennahda, the main Islamist party, come and speak at Carnegie Endowment. He proved to be a very enlightened politician who made these sorts of pragmatic compromises.

That model, I think, should be an inspiration. But I'm not sure it can be replicated, say, in a place like Libya, which is a completely different place, or Egypt, or the Gulf, with its different divides. A lot of Arabs are looking to Tunisia right now, but whether it can be really replicated is unclear.

JOANNE MYERS: On that optimistic note, we will adjourn. I'd like you all to continue the conversation. Thank you very much.

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