The Sunni-Shiite Cold War
The Middle East and North Africa continues to be destabilized by no less than five ongoing civil wars (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia), while a host of other countries have experienced much higher levels of volatility in recent years, including regional powers such as Egypt and Turkey. While many of the causes of these conflicts are local and country-specific, one underlying division has dramatically raised tensions across much of the region, that between the region’s Sunni Muslim majority and its Shiite Muslim minority.
While less than 20% of the population of the Middle East is Shiite Muslim, Shiite movements, often backed by the world’s leading Shiite power, Iran, have made major gains in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, giving the appearance that the Shiite version of Islam is gaining political power across the Middle East. In response, Saudi Arabia has led efforts to enhance the political and defense ties among the region’s Sunni-dominated countries in recent years, including becoming directly involved in Yemen’s civil war. Now, with the United States potentially reducing its presence in this volatile region, the stage is set for a potential Cold War between a Saudi-led Sunni coalition and an Iranian-led Shiite coalition, one that could result in a full scale war between some of the region’s most powerful countries.
As during the original Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two leading powers in the region are finding themselves engaged in a series of proxy wars aimed at shifting the balance of power in their favor. Lebanon was the first sort of proxy war to involve Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the latter’s backing of Hezbollah igniting support for Shiite movements in other countries in the region. The first full-scale proxy war was later in Iraq, where the United States’ defeat of Saddam Hussein resulted in a Shiite-dominated government with close ties to Iran gaining eventual power in that country. Afterwards, Syria’s civil war was initially seen by Iran as a threat to its position in the eastern Mediterranean, as it viewed the uprising against the Assad regime as a Sunni-led effort to take political power from the Alawite-dominated government in Syria and to cut off Iran from its allies in neighboring Lebanon.
In contrast, it was Saudi Arabia that viewed the uprising by the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen as a threat to its position, as it viewed their shocking success in capturing much of Yemen as an Iranian-backed effort to implant a Shiite state at Saudi Arabia’s southwestern borders. In addition, the massive protests by Bahrain’s Shiite majority against that country’s Sunni monarchy was viewed with major concern by Saudi Arabia, leading to an eventual intervention by Saudi Arabia that has left Bahrain little more than a Saudi satellite. Altogether, Saudi Arabia and Iran now find themselves on opposite sides in nearly all of the conflicts and volatile situations across the region, a situation similar to that of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.
Like the Cold War, two alliances are emerging, this time with one led by Saudi Arabia and made up of largely Sunni-populated countries, and the other, led by Iran, that includes countries and movements comprised largely of Shiite Muslims. The larger and wealthier alliance is the Saudi-led Sunni coalition that, by some claims, has 34 members. In the war in Yemen, the Saudis are leading a military coalition that includes Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and Sudan (as well as the Yemeni government), the countries that have most closely aligned themselves with Saudi Arabia in its standoff with Iran. So far, Saudi Arabia has managed to increase the level of unity among these largely Sunni countries, and has tried to expand the alliance to include other Sunni powers such as Turkey and Pakistan.
In contrast, the Iranian-led Shiite coalition is much smaller and possesses a far lesser degree of economic and military power. This coalition includes Iran, the Iraqi government (and its Shiite militia backers), the government of Syria, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement. While this coalition possesses far lower levels of potential economic and military power than its Sunni rival, it has managed to go on the offensive in places such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, handing a series of defeats to its Sunni rivals. This is due, in part, to the relatively high degree of unity among these Shiite powers, in stark contrast to the struggle to unify the region’s leading Sunni powers.
While these two rival alliances have coalesced in recent years as their proxies do battle in countries such as Yemen and Syria, so far Saudi Arabia and Iran have avoided a direct conflict with one another. However, a number of factors are raising the potential for a direct conflict between the Middle East’s leading Sunni and Shiite powers. First, the United States’ move towards isolationism could result in the US playing a lesser role in the region, a dangerous factor as its presence has helped to prevent state-on-state conflict since the First Gulf War. Second, other outside powers, such as Russia, are playing a larger role in some of the civil wars underway in the region, threatening to force Saudi Arabia or Iran to intervene to protect their interests in these war-torn countries.
Likewise, ever-more radical militant groups, most notably the Sunni Islamic State (IS), are stoking sectarian tensions across the region and inflaming anger among the citizens of Saudi Arabia, Iran and other powers. Add to this mixture the fact that the economies of Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries in the region have been hit hard by nearly three years of lower oil prices, adding to the tensions across the region.
Should a full-scale war break out between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as both sides’ allies, the results would be devastating for the Middle East and would have a global impact. Such a war would likely be long and drawn out, as neither side has the capability of winning a quick victory against the other, while the conflict could spread across the region, from North Africa to Central Asia. Economically, such a war would severely disrupt oil and gas output in the Middle East, devastating the region’s economy and causing major problems for economies all around the world. Hopefully, like the Cold War, the leaders of the Middle East’s rival alliances will avoid a direct conflict, realizing the devastating that it would cause. However, the chances of such a conflict in the Middle East are clearly on the rise, as stability is proving elusive for that volatile region.
Michael Weidokal is the Executive Director of ISA (International Strategic Analysis), one of the world’s leading providers of economic forecasting, country intelligence and political risk analysis. ISA’s clients include many of the world’s largest businesses, government bodies and research institutions.