The people of Saudi Arabia and Iran are predominantly Muslim. But Saudi Arabia is mostly Sunni Muslim and Iran is mostly Shia Muslim; that distinction matters greatly.
Recently, Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr. On Saturday, Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran because of the execution. On Sunday, the Saudis cut diplomatic ties with Iran and gave Iranian diplomats two days to leave the kingdom. Iran defended their response to the attack on the Embassy and accused Saudi Arabia of being “hasty and illogical” in breaking off ties. Saudi regional friends, such as Sudan and Bahrain, have also broken relations with Iran. The US, Russia and China have all called for calm.
At the dawn of 2016, forty-seven men were executed by the government of Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reports it to be the largest mass execution in that country since 1980, when 63 jihadists were put to death after they seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Of those executed in recent days, 43 are said to be al-Qaeda members who, a decade ago, carried out a series of attacks in Saudi Arabia that killed hundreds of people. Al-Qaeda membership is Sunni Muslim. Sheik Nimr was among the four Shiites put to death; they were all accused of violence against police during protests in 2012. According to The New York Times:
Sheikh Nimr, said to be in his mid-50s, was from Awamiyah, a poor town surrounded by palm groves in eastern Saudi Arabia and known for opposition to the monarchy. He studied in Iran and Syria, but rose to prominence for fiery sermons after his return in which he criticized the ruling family and called for Shiite empowerment, even suggesting that Shiites could secede from the kingdom. This gained him a following mostly among young Shiites who felt discriminated against by Persian Gulf governments. When these young people joined Arab Spring protests in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia in 2011, Sheikh Nimr became a leading figure. During a sermon in 2012, Sheikh Nimr mocked Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, who had been the Saudi interior minister and had recently died. “He will be eaten by worms and suffer the torments of hell in the grave,” Sheikh Nimr said. “The man who made us live in fear and terror; shouldn’t we rejoice at his death?” Prince Nayef’s son, Mohammed bin Nayef, is now the crown prince and runs the Interior Ministry, which carries out death sentences. The Saudi authorities arrested Sheikh Nimr in July 2012, while the kingdom was leading a regional push to end the pro-democratic activism of the Arab Spring. These efforts included sending tanks to prop up the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, which faced protests led by the country’s Shiite majority. Shiites also protested in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, where many Shiites live and complain of discrimination.Hundreds of people demonstrated in the province after video footage emerged of Sheikh Nimr’s arrest that showed him bleeding while in custody. The government said he had been wounded in a shootout. Sheikh Nimr faced charges including sedition and was sentenced to death in October 2014.
I claim no expertise on this specific situation; nor do I intend to offer an opinion, as it would surely not be a value added proposition. But clearly, Saudi Arabia and Iran are big deals in the oil rich Gulf region; their influence extends well beyond their borders and therefore it is important to try to understand how the historical context affects tomorrow’s headlines. There is more to the long standing enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran than religion, but I think it can also be said that religious differences infuse all aspects of the relationship between those two countries in particular and the region as a whole. For instance:The majority Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia is fighting a war with its neighbor Yemen, a predominantly Shiite Muslim country that is being supported by the Shia’s of Iran.
Iraq was run for years by the Sunni dominated Baathist Party. In the post-Saddam Hussein period, the Iraqi government has been run by Shiites, who have welcomed Iran into Baghdad and into battle with the Sunni-dominated ISIS.
Many of the former Baathists, out of luck and influence in Iraq, have found refuge in key roles with ISIS. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad practices the Alawite form of Islam, which follows the Shiite interpretation of the religion, and is the logic behind Iranian support of the despot. But Syria’s population is almost three quarters Sunni and some of the Sunni rebel groups battling al-Assad have reportedly received help from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries in the region.
Turkey’s population is almost entirely Muslim, and eighty percent of them are Sunni. That makes for a bit of betwixt and between for Turkey in regards to the war in Syria, where, especially early on, there was concern they were not doing enough to combat ISIS, who are Sunni.
Russia is generally a supporter of Iran and Syria’s Shia-leaning leadership. Additionally, Russia has had great trouble, at times the equivalent of war, over the years with its own Sunni Muslim population in the south of their country. Iran is a long time backer of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah; the Shia group has often attacked Israel from the north. The Palestinian group Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip, has often attacked Israel from the south; they are mainly Sunni.
Not all Sunni Muslims reject Shiites and vice-versa, yet the schism between the two beliefs has persisted for hundreds of years. But importantly, an ultraconservative type of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism has a significant influence in Saudi Arabia and this brand of the religion completely rejects the Shiite interpretation of Islam. The relationship between the House of Saud and Wahhabism goes back almost three hundred years, to a 1744 pact. So the line of demarcation between the Saudi’s and Iran, home to the world’s largest Shiite population, is clear to see, and it is to state the obvious to say that it is important to observe.
What of the Sunni/Shia Schism?
The BBC created a simple to understand article on the topic; “Sunnis and Shia: Islam’s Ancient Schism”. Here is a pertinent excerpt from the article:
The divide between Sunnis and Shia is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. Members of the two sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. But they differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organisation. Their leaders also often seem to be in competition. From Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Pakistan, many recent conflicts have emphasised the sectarian divide, tearing communities apart.
Who are the Sunnis?
The great majority of the world's more than 1.5 billion Muslims are Sunnis - estimates suggest the figure is somewhere between 85% and 90%. In the Middle East, Sunnis make up 90% or more of the populations of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.Sunnis regard themselves as the orthodox branch of Islam. The name "Sunni" is derived from the phrase "Ahl al-Sunnah", or "People of the Tradition". The tradition in this case refers to practices based on what the Prophet Muhammad said, did, agreed to or condemned.
All Muslims are guided by the Sunnah, but Sunnis stress its primacy. Shia are also guided by the wisdom of Muhammad's descendants through his son-in-law and cousin, Ali. Sunni life is guided by four schools of legal thought, each of which strives to develop practical applications of the Sunnah.
Who are the Shia?
Shia constitute about 10% of all Muslims, and globally their population is estimated at between 154 and 200 million.Shia Muslims are in the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and, according to some estimates, Yemen. There are also large Shia communities in Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.In early Islamic history, the Shia were a movement - literally "Shiat Ali" or the "Party ofAli". They claimed that Ali was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader (imam) of the Muslim community following his death in 632.Ali was assassinated in 661 after a five-year caliphate that was marred by civil war. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied what they thought was their legitimate right of accession to the caliphate.Hassan is believed to have been poisoned in 680 by Muawiyah, the first caliph of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, while Hussein was killed on the battlefield by the Umayyads in 681. These events gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving.
There are three main branches of Shia Islam today - the Zaidis, Ismailis and Ithna Asharis (Twelvers or Imamis). The Ithna Asharis are the largest group and believe that Muhammad's religious leadership, spiritual authority and divine guidance were passed on to 12 of his descendants, beginning with Ali, Hassan and Hussein.The 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is said to have disappeared from a cave below a mosque in 878. Ithna Asharis believe the so-called "awaited imam" did not die and will return at the end of time to restore justice on earth.
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