State Competition, Not Sectarianism, Key Driver of Middle East Politics


Aug 3, 2017

A checkers game depicting Saudi Arabia vs. Iran

Photo by M-SUR/Adobe Stock

For all the talk of sectarianism, state competition drives Middle East dynamics far more than Sunni-Shia division.

Sectarianism is real and dangerous, but the region is more complicated. Multiple fissures exist among Sunnis, whether Arabs, Turks or Kurds. We see Persian-Arab tensions between Iran and Iraq despite Shia bonds.

Saudi and Iranian leaders, among others, exploit sectarian passions to exert influence, but consider developments that could diminish its relevance:

  • Saudi-Iranian détente. Sectarianism will matter less if political relations thaw, returning the rivalry to normal competition rather than active military conflict.
  • Changes in regional wars. Iran finds sectarianism useful for galvanizing militia forces to prop up Assad in Syria and fight ISIS in Iraq. But once these threats recede, Iran's leaders may find its people more focused on poor governance at home.
  • U.S. policy change. An American focus on building a “Sunni bloc” fuels sectarianism. Fostering cross-sectarian cooperation could help to avoid marginalizing minorities and counter extremism.

The bottom line: An intensified Sunni-Shia divide is not inevitable. New leaders, under pressure from youthful populations and worsening economic challenges, may no longer see value in a costly sectarian agenda for advancing their interests and ultimately their survival.

Dalia Dassa Kaye is the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared as part of an Axios expert voices conversation about “What comes next in Iran vs. Saudi Arabia” on August 2, 2017.

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