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The Big Picture – Conflict in Middle East: Shia Vs Sunni?

The Big Picture – Conflict in Middle East: Shia Vs Sunni?


The entire Middle East starting from the Gulf state of Saudi Arabia to Iran is in a crisis. The relations between the two countries which was already tense has exacerbated further in the last week or so. The execution of 46 people belonging to Shia sect on charges of terrorism by Saudi Arabia has created a major divide. The divide which is taking place between Shias and Sunnis is being seen as a concern for the entire region. This conflict has seen other countries in the region getting involved too. Meanwhile, the fight against ISIS is getting affected due to this. Within days, the stand-off has snowballed into a full-blown diplomatic crisis with sectarian overtones. Saudi missions in Tehran and Mashhad were ransacked by protesters. In return, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan have cut diplomatic relations with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates has downgraded ties.

West Asia is already witnessing sectarian conflicts. Iraq, which is torn apart on sectarian lines, is taking baby steps under the new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to rebuild national unity. The country witnessed a bloody phase of sectarian strife in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. Parts of the country, including the second largest city, Mosul, are still under the control of Islamic State, which is carrying out a systematic campaign against non-Sunni religious groups. In Yemen, the Shia Houthi rebels are fighting forces loyal to a Saudi-protected government led by Sunnis.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have a long history of enmity. The former considers itself the leader of the Islamic majority Sunnis, while the latter is the leading nation representing the minority Shias. For decades, one of the main sources of instability in West Asia has been the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Though the ultimate goal of both nations has been regional supremacy, they use sectarianism as a vehicle to maximise their interests. Now, with the recent incident the stage is set for a dangerous Shia-Sunni conflict across the region.

The Sunni-Shiite schism may also provoke violence between Muslims in such places as Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia. About 85% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunnis. Shiites form a majority only in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, which is ruled by Sunni royals. Where Sunnis are a majority or dominate government, Shiites frequently complain of discrimination, and vice versa.


The latest fallout will have a bearing on the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and will increase the lack of cohesion among nations fighting this menace. The interests of different countries in the region have often been at cross-purposes with no unified plan to date. Saudi Arabia and Iran should be exploring means of compromise now. The international community must hasten to mediate and urge the two countries to meet halfway, with the United States in the lead. If hostility deepens between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which are major oil producing countries, it is feared that their deteriorating relationship could influence the crude oil market and global economy. Unless tensions are dialled down between these two heavyweights, there will not be peace in West Asia. Both the U.S. and Russia, allies of Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, have called for calm. The U.S. and Russia should use their influence to rein in further escalation of tensions. Unchecked, the Saudi-Iran rivalry could plunge the region, already torn apart by invasions, civil wars and terrorism, into further chaos.

This conflict could have repercussions for India too, which has adopted a position of neutrality since it enjoys good relations with both countries. However, the situation is worrying for India since the Gulf region has vital economic and strategic significance for the country. Additionally, the rift could see many Gulf nations with a sizable number of Indian expatriates picking sides. The region has seven million Indian nationals who account for about $40 billion of the $70 billion that India receives in remittances annually. Saudi Arabia has the maximum number of Indian passport-holders outside the country. But with oil prices falling and Saudi Arabia grappling with mounting unemployment for people under 30 who constitute 70% of its population, there are concerns that the kingdom will not remain a key employment destination for Indians for long.

India also enjoys robust security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, which has deported several most wanted terrorists such as Abu Jundal, linked to the Mumbai attacks case. Although such steps do not in any way diminish the strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the growing security cooperation is of vital significance for India. Iran also holds the key for India’s ambitious connectivity plans for the oil and gas-rich Central Asian republics and to provide land-locked Afghanistan access to the sea via Iran’s Chabahar port, bringing down Kabul’s dependence on Islamabad.