World View: Why Saudi Arabia should be under greater scrutiny

Relationship between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia descends to new low

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and other top officials attend a repatriation ceremony at Mehrabad airport in Tehran, last year for 104 Iranian pilgrims who were among at least 464 Iranians killed in a stampede at the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mina near Mecca, Saudi Arabia on September 24th. Photograph: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and other top officials attend a repatriation ceremony at Mehrabad airport in Tehran, last year for 104 Iranian pilgrims who were among at least 464 Iranians killed in a stampede at the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mina near Mecca, Saudi Arabia on September 24th. Photograph: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

 

The relationship between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, the crucial dividing line that polarises the non-Israeli Middle East, has hit a new low.

On Sunday Tehran said that tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims would this September boycott the hajj, a hugely important spiritual journey to Mecca by Muslims that more than two million are expected to join this year. It said the reason for this was the Saudi refusal to guarantee the safety of pilgrims. The latter claims Iran refused to sign an agreement on the movement of pilgrims and demanded the right to hold demonstrations and politicise a religious event.

More than 700 mainly Iranian pilgrims – the Iranians say the figure is far higher – died last year in a stampede outside Mecca, the latest in a long series of crowd management tragedies they blame on the kingdom whose control over the holy sites has been a running sore.

However, Iran’s move also reflects much deeper underlying problems not least the belief by many Sunni Salafists/ Wahabbists in Saudi Arabia that Shia Islam is not a genuine branch of Islam. It is just the latest tussle between the two states that militarily back different proxies for the leadership of the Islamic world in the various regional conflicts from Iraq and Syria to Yemen.

Riyadh broke diplomatic ties in January when its Tehran embassy was stormed over the Saudi execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, long the voice of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority. On Wednesday, the Saudis announced 14 further death sentences against members of the same minority, which is certain to escalate tensions.

Rebel militias

Relations between the two have remained particularly strained since the start of the conflict in Syria more than five years ago. Iran supports Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus, while Saudi Arabia supports rebel militias.

In Iraq, however, Iran finds itself on the same side as the government and its US and other allies. Its forces, and the Shia militias it arms, are crucial in the battle against Islamic State and not least in the bloody bid to recapture Sunni-majority Falluja where the involvement of the Iranians or their proxies is particularly toxic to the Saudis who warn of the dangers of a sectarian bloodbath.

Iran maintains that it is fighting terrorism and accuses Riyadh of fomenting the Sunni extremism that targets Shias.

The turning point in the region was the nuclear deal reached between Iran and world powers last year. To Riyadh’s dismay, the accord led to the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran and of its pariah status in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear programme.

Trade opportunities

There are certainly more voices in the US calling for a more critical view of the relationship with Saudi Arabia – the Saudi funding of extremism is more widely commented on, as is its appalling human rights record. Two weeks ago the New York Times carried an important investigation into the Saudis’ role in fostering extremism in Kosovo (also carried in The Irish Times). It will not have gone unnoticed.

Columnist Thomas Friedman added his tuppence worth recently in warning that the greatest threat to the US was not Iran: “Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernisation of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam – the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shia versions – and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.”

Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the US and an expert on Islam at the Hudson Institute, says: “The last few decades have seen this attempt to homogenise Islam”, with claims that “there is only one legitimate path to God”.

And when there is only one legitimate path, “all others are open to being killed. That has been the single most dangerous idea that has emerged in the Muslim world, and it came out of Saudi Arabia and has been embraced by others, including the government in Pakistan.” That religious vision now dangerously polarises an entire region. psmyth@irishtimes.com

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