The Shi'ite Factor in Gulf Politics

Professor Michael Doran

October 1, 2003


The Shi'ite / Sunni conflict underlies Gulf politics.

Saddam Hussein's regime tried to show a pan-Arabic face to the world. In Iraq, that ideology meant Sunni dominance over the Shi'a. The Shi'a saw Saddam's pan-Arabism as an attack on their version of Islam.

The discourse in the Gulf is full of coded speech that masks the depth of this Sunni / Shi'ite conflict from those that miss the coding. Arabic language websites demonstrate the virulent nature of the conflict.

One Sunni extremist, affiliated with Al Qaeda, wrote a pamphlet listing the threats to Sunni Islam. He identified four threats of equal danger.

1. Jews
2. Christian Crusaders (the United States and Great Britain)
3. Secularists
4. The Shi'ite heretic threat

The Sunni extremists call Shi'ites refusers — they refuse to accept the successors to the prophet. The word "refusers" is a slur, akin to a racial epithet.

Salafist is a broad term to describe Sunni extremists, who are especially centered in Saudi Arabia. The word Salafist roughly means fighters willing to take up arms for the faith. The Salafist movement wants to create Sunni fundamentalist states. That does not necessarily mean that the Salafists agree on the means to that end — they are not all necessarily terrorists.

Salafists believe in successors to the prophet Muhammed. Salafists hate the Shi'ites above all others. One Al Qaeda website called Shi'ites, "the most evil people on the face of the earth." Their hatred takes on a form similar to the early 20th century European hatred of Jews. They hate Shi'a because they are neighbors — the enemy your see every day, the enemy who secretly seeks your destruction.

Salafist hatred of Shi'ite centers on the Mongol sack of Baghdad in the 13th century. Salafists believe a Shi'ite minister for the Caliph tricked the Caliph into dividing the cities defenses, letting in the Mongols, who raped and pillaged, sending Islam into its darkest period. This episode encapsulates the idea that the Shi'tes have a method of achieving their ends: betrayal from within. Last spring, Arabic websites said that this method had been repeated in the fall of Baghdad to the Americans.

The Salafists borrow old European anti-semitic motifs, including the protocols of the Elders of Zion, and apply bastardized versions to Shi'ites. Salafists believe Shi'ism is an offshoot of Judaism. This idea has historical roots — they believe Shi'ism was in fact created by a Jew.

Today Salafists argue about whether Saddam was an apostate or a true son of Islam. His war against Iran, a Shi'ite state, was popular with Salafists. The prevailing attitude seems to be that he was bastard, but our (Sunni) bastard, who kept down the Shi'ites and kept a buffer between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Salafists have a unified world view, like Marxists, but one centered on religion. Religion, to them, is like the tectonic plates that move beneath the complicated surface of world political events, driving them. They see Iran/ Israel tension as a charade. The four threats — secularists, Jews, crusaders, and Shi'ites — are seen as parts of the same whole: idolaters. Muhammed fought idolatry, and so do the Salafists today.

While this Salafist worldview is infused with conspiracy theories and craziness, it serves real interests. Shi'ites make up 60% of Iraq, 20% of Kuwait, 75% of Bahrain and 90% of Iran. In Saudi, they are only 10-20% of the population but concentrated in strategic regions. They are 80 million Shi'ites in the Gulf, who have power only in Iran and now Iraq. And Salafists know Iran could be the major power in the Middle East, and thus fear any rapprochement with the United States.

Salafists fear the rise of Shi'ism and the overthrow of Sunni Islam by stealth. Salafists worry that the Shi'ites will succeed in dividing the Ulama from the rulers to get to power in various Gulf states. Neocons in Washington have spoken of breaking up Saudi Arabia and creating a Shi'ite state — the Salafists hear this. Fundamentalist Sunnis are outnumbered by Shi'ites in the Gulf, and they are determined to hold onto their power — the Saudi state, religious, and educational institutions.

Saudi politics is infused with this struggle. Salafists see the Saud regime as their bastards. This is one reason Al Qaeda has done little to act against it.

Little noted in the media is the fact that on April 28, three weeks after the fall of Baghdad, a Shi'ite petition for rights was accepted by the Saudi government. But progress on that front stopped after the Riyadh bombing. Indeed, since the bombing, the reform program has stopped altogether.

Prince Nayef, the interior minister, who runs the secret police, has played the radical card. Nayef's job entailed rounding up the 9-11 suspects. He is on record saying Mossad was behind 9-11 and that no Saudi was involved. But now he says Saudis need to look that the root causes of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, which he defines as the hold of the Jihad ideology on the young. Nayef has allied with the most radical Salafist elements, short of those who seek the destruction of the house of Saud. Thus the radicals keep down the secularists who threaten their grip on power. And the Saudis can use the radical card to lessen American pressure for reform —"push us too hard we'll be attacked on our radical flank." So the Saudi leadership has largely allied with the Salafist extremists but drawn a line at the terrorist fringe of that movement. Today only the Wahabi extremists can converse on the web. Nayef could shut these sites down, but he allows them to run. These people are useful to him.

In Iraq, Saudi Arabian support for the Sunni extremists is the elephant in the living room. The Sunni / Shi'ite battle for Islam begins, Salafists think, in Iraq, where the Shi'ite majority is seeking political power. Thus the United States faces a Catch-22 in Iraq. If the United States succeeds in bringing about a stable government in Iraq, it will have a strong Shi'ite component, and that will unsettle Saudi Arabia. If stability eludes us in Iraq, Saudi Arabia will continue to export radical Islam and violence to Iraq.


Michael Doran is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Doran is the author of Pan-Arabism Before Nasser (1999), and is currently working on a book entitled The Trump Card: Israel in the Arab Civil War.

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