The self-fulfilling prophecy of the Sunni v Shia myth

By Khaled Diab

Like in and Iraq, the conflict in Yemen is not sectarian. But political profiteers and jihadists are turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.
In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

Tuesday 31 March 2015

A Saudi-led coalition of 10 countries – including Gulf states, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan – has invaded Yemen ostensibly to push back Houthi rebels besieging Aden in the south of the country.

This latest troubling development has inevitably led to speculation about a monumental clash between Sunni and Shia Islam. “The bitter rivalry between the more fanatical adherents of Sunni and Shia Islam has now emerged as the region's defining conflict,” asserted Con Coughlin, defence editor at UK daily The Telegraph.

It is true that the regimes mounting the offensive in Yemen are Sunni and the Houthis are Shia, as are their suspected backer, . However, describing the brewing war in Yemen – or the conflicts in Syria or Iraq – as being primarily sectarian in nature is, at best, totally misleading, at worst, dangerous.

This is not least because the Zaidiyyah branch of Islam in Yemen – to which the Houthis belong – is neither Shia nor Sunni, but straddle the theological space between them. In Yemen, Zaidis are often referred to as “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, and Sunnis and Zaidis often pray together in the same mosques.

To see how simplistic, and often untrue, this characterisation is, we need only consider the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Yemen. If we rewind back to the 1960s, we will find the apparent paradox, at least from a sectarian perspective, of Saudi Arabia backing a Shia dynasty.

During the North Yemen civil war (1962-1970), Saudi allied itself to the royalist forces fighting to reinstate the newly crowned Mutawakkilite Imam Muhammad al-Badr, a Zaidi, while Egypt backed the republican revolutionaries who had mounted a  military coup known as the 26 September Revolution.

Though this may seem to be counterintuitive when viewed through the sectarian prism, considering the geopolitics of the time, it made its own sense.

At the time, North Yemen was ruled by a traditional monarchy, like neighbouring Saudi Arabia. When officers in the military, inspired by the Egyptian experiment, mounted a republican coup against the monarchy, they appointed as their president Abdullah Sallal, who was, interestingly, also a Zaidi.

Driven by self-interest and spurred by the fear that the secular, republican contagion would spread from neighbouring Yemen, Saudi weighed in behind the Mutawakkilite Yemenis. Egypt, for its part, got involved out of a motivation to arrest the spread of “reactionary” forces and to champion the “progressive” pan- cause.

In Riyadh, the demon most feared was Gamal Abdel-Nasser in , whose revolutionary message worried the royal house, and fed on longstanding bitterness and animosity towards Egypt which, in the 19th-century had brutally and bloodily crushed and repulsed the dramatic advances into Hijaz and Islam's holiest sites by the of the time, the al-Saud clan. A time-traveller from the 1960s would find the current Saudi-Egypt alliance in Yemen quite unfathomable.

Though much is made today of the supposed Sunni-Shia cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two were uncomfortable allies. They decided to co-operate together to use (presumably the divine right to rule) as a foil against the appeal of secular nationalism.

Likewise, the 1955 Baghdad pact saw the then Sunni monarchy in Iraq join forces with the Shia Shah in neighbouring Iran, also as a safeguard against the rising tide of post-colonial nationalism ­– which failed in the case of Iraq.

While socialism, communism and pan-Arabism were regarded as the mob at the palace gates by the established order and its Western backers in the 1950s and 1960s, the popular uprisings for , socio-economic justice and dignity which swept the region in 2011 were seen as the new, ungrateful and unruly plebs.

When crowds took to the streets in Yemen, which had one of the earliest and most protracted of these revolts, panic alarms were set off in Saudi. Like in the 1960s and the 1990s, Riyadh was terrified that the revolutionary virus in Yemen, which Saudi had long regarded as being its “backyard”, would spread across the border.

The deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council to transfer power from long-time incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy Abed Rabbu Hadi (ironically, on opposing sides of the current conflict), was largely an exercise in damage control, aimed at presenting the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo.

In fact, defending the status quo has been the overriding concern of all the established regimes in the , in order to maintain their domestic grip on power against both democratic movements and radical Islamist forces, and of the United States and its Western allies, who are struggling to maintain their traditional hegemony over their region. That is a  major factor behind the unreal alliances we have seen emerge in recent times.

But with upheaval and mayhem also comes opportunity. The chaos in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya has been seized upon by a dizzying array of regional and global players jockeying for influence in the emerging Middle East, as the century-old post-Ottoman order crumbles around us.

In this light, the proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh, like the Cold War between and , is one measure ideology but nine measures geopolitics and self-interest. And like with the US and the Soviet Union, Saudi and Iran are hiding the ugly face of their expansionism behind a thin ideological façade.

That is not to say that rivalry between Sunnis and Shia do not exist at certain levels, but these usually manifest themselves in domestic discrimination by the dominant group in certain countries, rather than a grand, age-old ideological struggle.

Likewise, in Iraq, painting the situation there as the latest episode in an ancient sectarian battle, can help the Anglo-American architects behind the disastrous destruction of the country and the power vacuum which led to the civil war, sleep more easily at night.

“Easily the most likely scenario is that Iraq would have been engulfed by precisely the same convulsion,” Tony Blair, who believed God wanted him to invade Iraq, wrote in his own defence, suggesting that Sunnis and Shia would have been at each other's throats anyway. “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we' have caused this. We haven't.”

In Syria, though memories have grown murky, the conflict there began as a democratisation movement for social and economic equality. The idea that it was sectarian was promoted by Bashar al-Assad (whose regime is largely Sunni outside the military), mainly for reasons of pure survival, and private Gulf backers who wished it to become so.

And herein lies the rub. Because it is convenient for certain vested interests – from political profiteers to millennialist jihadists – to describe the upheavals in the Middle East as sectarian clashes, it is now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 March 2015.


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13 thoughts on “The self-fulfilling prophecy of the Sunni v Shia myth

  • Interesting article. Part of it reminds me of the late William Catton’s work Overshoot in which he states that too often resources are the real cause. Catton discusses this in terms of carrying capacity.

  • “During the days of the Shah, Saudi and Iran were in cohoots against the secular pan-Arabist republics.” Sure, but the post-revolution regime changed political direction in almost every detail. And what did that regime play up to a very large degree, from before the revolution on through the constitution? Shia Muslim identity.

    I’m not saying that there has to be inter-Muslim fighting. I agree it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy- because the rhetoric is used to advance the real-politic, but also because to a degree it shapes that realpolitic and underlying agendas and strategies.

    It’s hard to know what Saudi Arabia would look like today if the political leadership didn’t face the political constraints that their own conservative religious leadership imposes. But I suspect it would be somewhere in between the present status quo and what many of the Saudi elite do away from home. So yes, those narratives both shape and are used to frame political issues and conflicts, and are worthy of focus, if not sole focus.

  • Mostafa, neither of the articles you posted actually proves much. Even if a handful of revolutionary guards have been in Yemen, what possible difference could they make? The US military has been training the Iraqi army for the best part of a decade and look what good that has done. But one thing is clear: with the Saudi-led invasion, the Houthis will overcome their reluctance to become an Iranian proxy and will probably accept arms from Tehran, which it may well willingly give to counter Saudi Arabia. Self-fulfilling prophecy.…/2015/mar/30/yemen-houthi-enigma/

    Shmuel. Yes, they’re interconnected up to a point. Your case is undermined by two fact that there’s scant evidence of much active Iranian involvement and that Saudi Arabia has bullied and attacked Yemen for decades, regardless of the ethnic or religious make-up of the ruling elite. As for the Saudi-Iranian conflict. It is not a constant. During the days of the Shah, Saudi and Iran were in cohoots against the secular pan-Arabist republics. In addition, the Sunni, Shia motifs used are to a large extent window-dressing to mask the naked avarice of both. It’s a bit like how the US and Soviet Union used to give their imperial expansionism an ideological veneer of respectability. And the ideological colour doesn’t actually matter all that much when there’s power politics at play. Russia was seen as contrary to and at odds with Western “values” (usual meaning geopolitical interests) even in the days when it was under Tsarist control.

  • “But in nine cases out of ten, especially when it involves states rather than ideological groups, real politick trumps ideology. ” But they’re interconnected. The real-politic is Iran and KSA fighting for regional influence and interests, and their historical enmity and tensions are both absolutely tied to Sunni-Shia history, as well as manifest and advanced via Sunni-Shia motifs and rhetoric (to their respective supporters).

  • The members of the Iranian revolutionary guard were not definitely sunbathing in Yemen

  • I’m no fan of Iranian expansionism but how many seriously want to revive the Persian empire? Besides, I’m not sure if Saudi expansionism is actually any better – & by entering this war, Egypt is strengthening the hand of Saudi and its Wahabbi counterrevolution. As for Iranian arms, is there any actual hard evidence of this? I’ve seen nothing beyond conjecture. It even appears that a lot of the arms the Houthis are using were originally given to Yemen by Saudi – a bit like the Americans in Iraq. Above all, every time the Americans or Arabs have intervened to limit Iranian influence, they have only succeded in strengthening it – from Saddam’s disastrous war to the Americans’ disastrous invasion of Iraq.

  • I agree with you that looking at what’s going on in Yemen from a mere Sunni Vs Shia spectrum is an overly simplistic analysis, but at the moment Iran is a good excuse! bearing in mind the fact that the Saudis are quite worried about the role played by Iran on their northern borders (Iraq) and a status quo ante in Yemen (leaving San’a to the Hauthis with uninterrupted flow of Iranian weapons and money) would have precarious ramifications on the future of the region. The Iranians have even been unable to hide their expansionary plans and their mythical dreams of reviving the Persian empire!…/14389-sanaa-is-the…

  • I disagree. In Yemen, Iran is an excuse. Saudi has been meddling in Yemeni affairs for generations – and Egypt has allowed itself to be pulled back into this quagmire.

  • We’re dealing with a totally different reality in the region, I would agree with you that “the current Saudi-Egypt alliance in Yemen quite unfathomable” only if you would exclude Iran from the picture!

  • Good that you posted this. It is quite manifest that a lot of the anglophone journos at least (I don’t know about Spanish- and French-speaking) really don’t know much about this part of the world at all – with very few exceptions of old hands who were maybe correspondents there. Most particularly, very few have tracked the very longstanding relationship between the Americans and the al Saud – going back at least 7 decades, uninterrupted and still very enmeshed indeed. The journalists have much more access to the US’s relationship with Israel, but of course the Saudis are so enmeshed, they hardly need a lobby! And as the writer says, it’s little to do with theological disputes, everything to do with resources and influence.

  • Indeed, it doesn’t. But in nine cases out of ten, especially when it involves states rather than ideological groups, real politick trumps ideology. That explains, for instance, how it is that the US and Saudi have enjoyed a solid decades old alliance despite the fact that, ideologically, they despise almost everything the other stands for.

  • You have to rewind far less to get to US-Bin Laden/proto-AlQaeda alliance against the USSR in Afghanistan. Doesn’t mean that AQ and Bin Laden’s followers aren’t on the opposite side with the US today.


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