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Sunni-Shiite Tension in the Middle East

Sectarian hotspots in the Middle East


The Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East has been on the rise since the civil war in Iraq that followed the US-led invasion in 2003. Next came the clashes between Sunni and Shiite militias in Lebanon in 2008, while the Shiites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia stepped up their campaign for more political and cultural rights in the two Sunni-ruled monarchies.

To be sure, historical animosities do play a part, but contemporary sectarian tension in the Middle East is driven primarily by inequality. It typically thrives in environments where one religious group has – or is perceived to have – privileged access to government, wealth or place in a nation’s cultural life. The Shiites in Bahrain want equal access to senior government positions, while the Sunni minority in Iraq feels sidelined by the Shiite-dominated central government.

But this is only one side of the story. Growing level of sectarian tension is also closely linked to the regional cold war between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shiite power Iran: to mobilize regional support, Riyadh presents itself as the protector of Sunni communities, while Tehran seeks allies among the Shiites in Lebanon in Iraq.

The wave of anti-government protests that began in 2011, known as the Arab Spring, only exacerbated these fault-lines. Not because the Arab Spring protests were religious in nature, but because they threatened to shatter the existing political order in the Middle East. This alarms both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Arabs living in mixed Sunni-Shiite areas find themselves between a hammer and the anvil.

1. Bahrain

An Iraqi man looks at the bombed Shiite holy shrine of Askariya February 27, 2006 in the Sunni-predominant city of Samarra, Iraq.
Getty Images/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Demographics: Majority Shiite at 65-70%.

Political Power: Ruled by the Al Khalifa, a Sunni royal family. Most senior positions in government and the security apparatus are reserved for the Sunni minority.

Recent Developments: The Arab Spring has given new life to the mostly Shiite anti-government movement. Backed by Saudi Arabia, Bahraini government has crackdown on the uprising, accusing Iran of inciting the Shiite majority, but protests and civil disobedience continue.

2. Iraq

Demographics: Majority Shiite Arab (around 60%), Sunni Arab minority est. at 20%.

Political Power: Central government is dominated by Shiite parties, causing resentment among Sunni Arab groups which controlled the Iraqi state under ex-leader Saddam Hussein.

Recent Developments: Attacks on Iraqi security forces and indiscriminate targeting of Shiite civilians have mushroomed since the withdrawal of US troops in December 2011. Extremist Sunni groups affiliated to Al Qaeda are trying deliberately to reignite Sunni-Shiite violence to destabilize the state.

3. Kuwait

Demographics: Shiites account for around 30% of the population in a majority Sunni nation.

Political Power: Kuwait is ruled by a Sunni royal family.

Recent Developments: Sunni-Shiite relations are markedly better than elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, although Shiite politicians complain of anti-Shiite prejudice. Shiites form part of the merchant elite and have their representatives in Kuwait’s vocal parliament.

4. Lebanon

Demographics: Shiites est. at 40%, Sunnis at 20% (no official census since 1932). Small Alawite community in the northern city of Tripoli.

Political Power: Top positions in government are divided strictly along the confessional lines. Although the largest demographic group, Shiites are only entitled to the position of the parliament speaker, but they control by far the strongest armed militia (Hezbollah).

Recent Developments: The uprising in Syria has greatly exacerbated sectarian tension in Lebanon. Lebanon’s Sunnis sympathize with, and in some cases aid, the largely Syrian rebels, who are setting up a base in northern Lebanon. The Shiite Hezbollah is allied to the Syrian regime and is backed by Iran. Violence has flared in Tripoli between Sunnis and a local Alawite minority which sides with the Syrian regime.

5. Saudi Arabia

Demographics: The Shiite minority populates the oil-rich Eastern Province (around 10-15%).

Political Power: All power rests in the hands of Al Saud, a Sunni royal dynasty.

Recent Developments: The government is cracking down on largely peaceful Shiite protests for greater religious and cultural freedom and better access to government employment. State officials blame Iran for the unrest, although there is yet no evidence of Tehran’s involvement.

6. Syria

Demographics: Majority Sunni Arab (around 70%), Alawite minority (10-15%).

Political Power: Ruling Assad family belongs to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Alawites control top positions in the army and the intelligence apparatus.

Recent Developments: Uprising against President Bashar al-Assad is acquiring increasingly sectarian overtones, as the rebels backed by Sunni Arab states fight Alawite-dominated government forces backed by Iran. Sectarian violence and cases of ethnic cleansing have been reported in mixed Sunni-Alawite areas, with Al Qaeda-linked Sunni extremist groups trying to take advantage of the chaos in the country.

7. Yemen

Demographics: Zaydis, a Yemeni offshoot of the Shiite Islam, form around 45% of the population, the rest are Sunni.

Political Power: Political alliances are built primarily on regional/tribal loyalties and commonality of interests, rather than religious affiliation.

Recent Developments: Religious differences never played a central role in Yemeni politics. The long-serving president Ali Abdullah al-Saleh was himself of Zeydi extraction. However, a rebellion against the state by a Zeydi clan, the Houthis, and the menace of Al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni extremists, have the potential to exacerbate religious fault-lines.

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