Over the last decades sectarianism has become one of the main aspects of politics and society in the Middle East and beyond. Sectarianism may be defined as the process through which forms of ethnic or religious identity are politicized. Sectarian identifications within the Gulf States have had an impact on modern politics in the region, with visible repercussions felt within both the domestic and international spheres.
In all the six Gulf Cooperation Council states (GCC), that is, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, and the States of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the Shia are a political minority. In Bahraini the Shia demographic majority is kept out of the most powerful institutional positions as well as sensitive sectors of the administration, which are held by members of the Sunni ruling dynasty. According to International Relations theory a zero sum game prevails between the Sunni and Shia in the Gulf States, and in this zero sum game the Shia are the overall losers. However, the Shia has a lot of influence in key strategic areas, including in the Gulf, Iraq, and the Levant.
According to the rentier state theory, the influence of oil rents on state-society relationships cannot dismissed. The First Law of Petropolitics by Thomas Friedman further posits that price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in oil-rich petrolist states. In connection to this, the ruling families in the Gulf states relations with imperial powers is seen to have led to the adoption and adaptation of modern capitalist state and marginalized sectarian tribal demands. Most rulers in the Gulf States seek to maximize their own share by rewarding a finite category of citizens whose support is sufficient to keep them in power, while the remaining population is disproportionately excluded from the private rentier benefits of citizenship.
Furthermore, the rise of sectarian politics in the Gulf is due to the longstanding problems of governance and elite manipulation of Sunni-Shia identities by the gulf monarchy. Sectarianism has led to a situation of entrenched Sunni elites and calculated attempts by regimes to discredit Shia political actors as proxies for Iran, Iraq, or Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen Houti rebels. The location of the Persian Gulf has also given the region a significant economic and strategic position giving rise to ethnic conflict or tension with its neighboring countries. The discovery of massive oil deposits in the 1930s has led to geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance of the Muslim world. Iranian support for Houthi expansion in Yemen threatens the borders of Saudi Arabia, Oman and the other GCC states especially that the geographically strategic Strait of Hormuz is close to Iran, and the Bab el-Mandeb strait that has all but fallen under Houthi control. Iran is accused of highlighting sectarian differences in and around the GCC states, relentlessly attempting to exacerbate tensions between different communities. To this end, Iran is said to have given refuge to some terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda’s and took groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Bahrain’s al-Wefaq and the Houthis in Yemen under its wing, effectively placing the GCC countries in between sectarian politics and affecting their security.
Furthermore, the repercussions of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in America (9/11), and the 2011 Arab Spring, have led to several strands of Salafism (returning to the true meanings and purposes of the faith as practiced by the Salaf (the early Muslim companions of the Prophet Muhammad) emerging, the most important of which are political Salafism and Salafist jihadism as well as the emergence of the Islamic State which is the result of the explosive mix between Salafist jihadism and sectarianism. This could therefore, potentially disrupt national security in the GCC. Salafism has been strong in Saudi Arabia, particularly among the ruling elite.
Moreover, despite the Gulf States success in containing and deterring domestic terrorism, fears remain that the ideas and actions of terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen might spill over into the GCC countries. This is of particular concern given the considerable number of GCC nationals who have reportedly joined these groups, including among the higher ranks of command and control. Furthermore, the Houthis’ claim that Mecca in Saudi Arabia is within their northern border worsens the situation. Additionally, the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain is one recent locus that has brought the dynamics of sectarian politics where it is reportedly stated that the uprisings were backed by Iranian movement of Shia aimed to disenfranchise Sunnis.
Lastly, the “sectarianization” of the Syrian conflict due to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s policies and the intervention of outside actors like the Gulf Arab states and Iran has rippled across the Gulf. The sectarian dimension of Salafi-jihadism’s appeal is well-established in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. It is evident in the flow of jihadists and funding to Syria from the Gulf countries and in the exhortations of anti-Shiite clerics urging support for Syria’s Salafi rebels. Gulf funding and volunteers in the Syria conflict are creating new strains of Al Qaeda-ism that could eventually threaten Gulf regimes and America’s interests.
In conclusion, sectarianism and terrorism might not seem to pose any immediate danger to the security of the GCC, however, the chances of sectarianism gaining ground depends on foreign support for sectarian movements in and around the Arabian Gulf. Building a nation-state is therefore important by making all citizens equal in terms of their rights and duties, rather than allowing certain sects or tribe to have more privileges than others .
Map of Gulf States: https://www.flickr.com/photos/11304375@N07/2327740463/in/photolist-