Special to WorldTribune.com
By Fariborz Saremi
In 632 the Prophet Mohammad died, leaving behind a struggle between Shi’ites and Sunnis over the true line of succession. Today this rivalry is still alive and well in the Middle East, in particular, between the Sunni/Wahabi Muslim Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Shi’ite Islamic republic of Iran.
To add to the bad blood running between the two countries, Saudi Arabia is a kingdom of ethnic Arabs and Iran is populated by ethnic Persians. The new Middle East Cold War comes complete with its own spy-versus-spy intrigues, disinformation campaign, shadowy Proxy war and supercharged state rhetoric and very high stakes.
Tensions between the two countries were exacerbated by the 1979 Iranian revolution. Saudi Arabia, largely pro-west in its political orientation, has had to live in fear that Iran’s expressed aim of seeing its revolution internationalized would indeed succeed.
There is a relatively large population of Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province (10-15 percent of the overall population of Saudi Arabia), and allegedly they have been demonstrating against the Saudi government’s neglect of their interests. By and large their complaints revolve around religious discrimination, marginalization and economic misery.
Their agitation is a serious worry for the Saudi government because the Eastern province contains the bulk of the Kingdom’s oil reserves, which of course must be defended.
Unfortunately, the government has not seen it necessary to allow the Shia population in the Province to benefit from the oil revenues to the same degree as Sunnis living in the Nejad region, for example.
In Bahrain too the Shi’ite majority has been voicing its deep dissatisfaction.
Moreover, the Saudis are convinced that Iran is fomenting a rebellion in Yemen’s north among a Shi’ite-dominated rebel group known as the Houthis. It would seem this is a view only held by the Saudi’s since few external observers see such close ties between Iran and the Houthis. In fact, it is clear that the Saudis are financially supporting separatist movements on the borders of Iran.
These days, geopolitics plays a major role. The two sides have assembled allied camps. Iran holds its sway in Syria and the militant Arab groups such as Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Shiite radical factions in Iraq.
In the Saudi sphere are the Sunni-Muslim Gulf monarchies, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah. The Saudi Camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel. There are even speculations that Israeli-Saudi intelligence services cooperate in the Middle East and the Israeli-Saudi Lobbies coordinate their policies in Washington, D.C. The Iranian grouping defiantly opposes Israel.
Given that both Iran and Saudi Arabia fear large democracy movements in their countries, the recent pro-democracy movements in the region have had a very unsettling effect. The Saudis, in particular, are worried that the general discontent may inspire its own population to rise up.
Iran on the other hand has been relatively happy to see the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as they could be interpreted as having been inspired by the 1979 Revolution.
Both countries have not been shy about interfering in the affairs of other countries, either in order to further their own agendas or to prevent outside influences spilling over into their sphere of influence. Over the decades, they have conducted a series of complicated game of moves and counter moves to weaken each other. They have built up various militias through which they carry out proxy and covert operations.
For example, during the long Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, Iran helped to form the Hizbullah, and the Saudis backed Sunni militias. As might be expected they are heavily engaged in Iraq and Syria through their proxies there.
Saudi Arabia indeed has been using its considerable wealth to exert influence all over the globe, whether in Germany or Afghanistan, where it has given substantial support to the Taliban.
Saudi Arabia was one of the three countries in the world to give official recognition to the Taliban government before 9/11, 2001. Moreover, the Saudi government is a keen funder of the Wahhabi radical groups operating within Pakistan, home to some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists.
Now Saudi Arabia, a long term ally of the USA and frequent customer of its weapons industry is showing signs of being rattled by the impending rapprochement between Iran and the USA.
The Saudis object to Washington’s current policies regarding both Iran and Syria because it threatens their deeply rooted anti-Shiite outlook.
The government in Riyadh has been pursuing systematic discrimination against the local Shi’ite population for quite some time. Furthermore, it also know that the U.S. might very soon become entirely independent of Saudi and Middle Eastern oil.
Dr. Fariborz Saremi is a strategic analyst based in Hamburg/Germany. He is a regular contributor to World Tribune.com, Freepressers.com and Defense & Foreign Affairs.