By Abdulrahman al-Rashed
18 October 2015
A video showing a Saudi young man verbally abusing a taxi driver because he hanged a picture of a religious symbol in his car has recently gone viral, with many voicing support for the taxi driver and demanding his rights be defended.
Although the incident was an individual act, it's a clear sign that sectarian strife has been successfully spread between Sunnis and Shiites. A day after this incident occurred, the Saudi police shot dead a 20-year-old young man who gunned down five Shiite citizens. A video he made before carrying out his terrorist operation showed that he was affiliated to ISIS.
Despite a troubled history, the people of the Gulf have mostly lived together in peace, so why has this become one of the biggest challenges confronting Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman today? Of course, this is a product of recent revolutions in the region and, prior to that, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as well as the spread of Iranian sectarian influence.
Before the terms "Sunni" and "Shiite" became popular among the public here, and before they made it to news headlines or political science researchers began analyzing them in the West, the Syrian regime had been well-known for its competence in managing the ethnic mosaic that makes up Lebanese society – one of the most diverse in the region, in terms of religion, sects and race.
Late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s policies were based on running a puppet show in Lebanon that was based on an accurate ethnic arrangement that only he decided he could control.
Assad used this to govern the Lebanese people and also applied the policy in disputes with Israel, the West and Arab countries that belonged to the other camp.
In Syria itself, and although the country is historically well-known for rivalry between Kurds, Turkmens, Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shiites, Assad prohibited inciting religious and ethnic tensions and imposed strict punishment on whoever stirred such problems.
He knew for a fact that such tensions would threaten the state and he therefore marketed Baathist and Arab nationalist principles in order to unite the Syrians and maintain the stability of his power.
Serving Iran and Syria
Iran learnt a lot from Hafez al-Assad. His son, Bashar, tried to follow in his father's footsteps, however, he quickly slipped into Lebanese political struggles as he adopted Hezbollah’s Shiite party, against Rafiq Hariri’s Sunni, in turn, opening up the gates of hell for himself.
Bashar al-Assad and the Iranians have repeatedly threatened to export sectarian strife to the Gulf in response to what they considered to be support of the sectarian war against their allies in Syria and Lebanon.
Iran was, in fact, active on that front in Bahrain, as it encouraged Shiite groups to demand change. It did the same in Kuwait, where Shiite groups even enjoy a higher rate of media and political freedom. There's much evidence pointing at Iran’s funding of Shiite religious opposition activities in Saudi Arabia. Iran is also behind the emergence of the sectarian Houthi group in Yemen.
Destabilizing the Gulf
Iran and Syria are not the only regimes guilty of inciting sectarian divisions in the region, however. There's also the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf and other regional countries.
The Brotherhood did not resort to inciting sectarianism to besiege Iran and Syria, but instead to destabilize Gulf regimes by pushing Sunni extremists to clash with Shiite extremists. This may seem contradictory to the group's political stance which has typically supported Iran for more than 30 years; however this activity is in fact part of the internal game the Brotherhood plays and it aims to weaken Gulf Arab regimes and is therefore not hostile to Iran as a political regime. For example, the Brotherhood in Egypt is not involved in the enmity against Shiites because there's only a small percentage of Shiites in Egypt. However the Brotherhood incites against Christian Copts in order to trouble its rival, the regime of Abdelfattah al-Sisi.
Since the aim of inciting sectarianism in the Gulf is either to serve Iran and Syria – as seen with the Shiite situation – or to weaken Gulf governments – as seen with the Muslim Brotherhood and rebellious Salafism – the question is: Why are these Gulf countries silent over what is happening in their lands?
Another question to ask is: Why are they not issuing clear-cut laws against incitement, like the Saudi Shura Council had previously tried to do - when it sought to enact a law that criminalizes tribal and sectarian strife - but failed? Without such a legal stance, sectarian strife will surge and achieve what the Iranians and their allies want, in terms of destabilizing Gulf countries and the wider region.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.