Martin Majd El-Khouri
Jan 30 · 11 min read


Unfolding the inner-Islamic contradictions in the conflict for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran

A commentary by Martin M. El-Khouri

For many observers in the Arab World and elsewhere, our globalized world does not differ from the Feudal Period. Religion is constantly misused. Capitalist global classes completely act in the utilitarian dynamics of neo-liberalism with the main goal to increase their profits. Not only in the Middle East but all over the world people started to feel that their governments do not act in the spirit of their nations anymore. A trend that is mirrored by the election of populist leaders and the increasing influence of extremist parties[1]. The entanglement of non-state actors with politicians and decision-makers in business raises discontent in many locations, fueling extremist and fascist parties, even in wealthy and peaceful European states. While immigration and ethnic differences are often communicated as the reason for the unhappiness of the people, studies and statistics indicate that there is a much stronger correlation of nationalist tendencies with economic and fiscal crises than with immigration[2]. This is not in any way an attack against capitalism per se. It is a critique on the unfortunate aspect, that the elites seem to be holding knowledge for themselves, instead of disseminating the polls of wisdom to the public. People are kept in a perpetual state of nihilism, and instead of laying the foundation for further growth, they remain borrowers. The same accounts for the religious conflict between Sunni and Shia.

As a reader, you may rightfully ask what this information have to do with the continuous ‘Arab malaise’ that the Middle East has been experiencing for decades? What does it have to do with the ‘Arabic Dead-End-Street’ that many observers describe, that even became part of many Arab’s self-perception?

Islamic separation

To understand the Middle East, and in that case the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, we need to understand the history and religion of Islam. Firstly, the religion of Islam is extremely politicized in many aspects. Both, Iranian and Saudi Arabian rulers have built their power on nationalist Islamist movements[3]. Both countries are based on presumptions to represent a country and a religious view at the same time. And both struggle for hegemony on a religious, intellectual level, that has emerged to become a struggle for regional, political and economic dominance in the Middle East.

Three historic events are named in the course of Islamic separation. 632 A.D., prophet Mohammed passed away on the Arabian Peninsula. His death raised a crucial question for the Islamic world. Who should inherit the leadership over the Islamic community and their conquered territory now, that the prophet himself is gone? While one group believed that a relative of Mohammed, his cousin and son in law Ali, should lead the Islamic community, the other group wanted to go back to the tribal tradition and decided that the prophet’s most loyal companion should be the prophet’s successor.

Abu Bakr was appointed as first Calif in 632 A. D[4]. (Faath 2010: 28). 24 years later, Ali was appointed fourth Calif. However, the governor of Damascus[5], a hero of war and a well-recognized personality — refused to accept Ali as the Calif and rightful successor to the prophet, leading to the division between those who believed that Ali should rightfully succeed as Imam and leader over the Muslim World, and those who committed themselves to the prophet’s tradition — the Sunna — who supported Muawyia. This event in the early Islamic history is regarded crucial for the increasing discontent within the Islamic belief.

After Ali’s assassination in 661 A.D. his sons Hasan and Husein were denied their succession to the caliphate. A war arose that went down in history as the Battle of Karbala. This battle is considered the natal hour of Shiism and hence, the second crucial event in the separation between Sunni and Shia[6]. Until today, Shiites commemorate Hasan’s and Hussein’s martyrdom with bloody self-mortifications, the so-called Ashura ceremony. For 800 years, Shiites were almost completely excluded from power, until in 1510, the Safavids[7]conquered the territory of the ancient Persian Empire and forcefully converted the region to Shiite Islam to differentiate themselves from the Sunni Ottoman Empire[8]. This division into the Shiite Persia and the Sunni Ottoman and Mameluke Empires is often referred to as the third, crucial event in the division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Saudi Arabia — A capitalist theocracy

Especially in Sunni-Islam, the routines and everyday life of the prophet are an essential part of the belief. Wahhabism[9]is a purist-traditional branch of Sunni Islam and demands to be the only Islamic school which nowadays represents Islamic teaching correctly, declaring those Islamic beliefs, which are not compatible with Wahhabism as un-Islamic. In contrast to other Islamic branches, Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahab[10]strictly rejected to adapt elements of Islamic law, the Quran and the Hadiths[11]according to the trends of time.

At the beginning of the 20thcentury, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud founded a new Saudi state, in which the project of a Wahhabi-Saudi alliance was revived[12]. To ensure the stability of his young state, he had to gain control over the most important Bedouin tribes. By settling them, he intended to channel their military energies into the service of the state. Those who followed these intentions, were called Ikhwan[13]. They became passionate believers in the prayers of the Wahhabi clergy and their support, together with some aid of the British Crown helped Ibn Saud to re-conquer many areas of the Arabian Peninsula.

The ideals of Wahhabism and Salafism closely refer to the historic situation during the Ottoman Empire[14](Habib 1978). While the conflict between different Islamic branches was muted for decades, the alliance of the Saudi Sword and the Wahhabis determinates policy and decision-making in the country until today. Saudi Arabia is still thought about as theocratic state, but it is a theocratic state alongside a global capitalist liberal architecture. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is totally plugged into the global casino capitalism world, even being an integral part of it. It’s incredible oil richness gave the country a position of tremendous power over the last decades, having the fuel for the world economy and an important asset for global currency stability. While Saudi Arabia is intensely attached to the global system, the country maintains its function as the custodian of the two holy mosques, an aspect that is providing the country and its king with legitimacy over all Sunni Muslims.

Everyone who has visited Saudi Arabia knows that the people have adjusted to capitalism in many ways. Saudis appreciate capitalism and its benefits, and at the same time, they like the special Saudi Arabian feel — in other words, the gift wrapped around it. It is a socially conservative state that is heavily patriarchal, heavily tribal, but at the same time, heavily Western. Global elites and enterprises, the United States and Israel are strongly interlinked with Saudi Arabia, and as a side-note, the idea that Saudi Arabia dislikes Israel might very well be a misnomer[15]. Despite all of that, the Wahabi Ulema are quite radical and socially conservative, and they do not like the “liberal” direction the new prince Mohammed Bin Salman speaks about[16]. However, for Saudi Arabia’s economic survival in the transition phase where oil is becoming less important and the country must heavily invest in its post-oil future, which is Bin Salman’s declared vision, they have no other choice than thinking beyond their tribal traditions. There are numerous examples that can be presented as a “Not-to-go-to” scenario. Iraq for instances strongly benefitted from its oil richness. However, the average Iraqi never really felt these benefits. Oil-income was distributed only within the higher parts of the Iraqi hierarchy, leaving average individuals behind.

The mother of invention is necessity, and necessity clearly dictates that if Saudi Arabia wants to continue existing in a position of strength, they must rely much more on their own work force and employ more Saudis except of cheap workers from abroad. They will have to develop a national workforce to satisfy their own demands, educate and de-radicalize their own people, and deal with the problematic conflict of future challenges in a globalized world and the outdated interpretation of Islam. This does not have to mean that they lose their theological edge. It is the other way around, they will maintain this edge by educating new scholars, and keep their Sunni legitimacy, while at the same time taking an active role in developing tourism, economic growth and other projects. Almost all recent developments are indicating that the country wants to move faster on a liberal path. I am not saying that this necessarily is an appreciable development, but the sheer extent of lived capitalism in Saudi-Arabia is undeniable.

The main question will be: How do the Wahhabi Ulama react to that? Will they promote a more liberal version of Islam publicly? Having stated that most Muslims are capitalist, and the fact that Muslims are some of the biggest supporters of capitalism, to some extent they also are major resources for the global capitalist, corporate system. The doctrine of the Wahhabi Ulema is very utilitarian. As noted earlier, the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims was almost dead for a very long time and basically, it was revived within the last 80 years. While it is highly unlikely that the Saudi Ulema will ever become anti-political, they might realize that it is not worth their while to resist against the processing of time. The fact that Saudi Arabia’s sheer survival is at stake, and the economic interdependencies are highly interlinked with the liberal Western economies, they do depend upon progressing on a liberal pathway. At the same time, like Saudi Arabia, Iran is not as theocratic as they appear to be. The radical way of defending their theological and political standpoint roots in their desire to maintain their validity for Muslims all over the world. Therefore, solving the problem in the region really is no one-way street. Progress for the entire region strongly depends on building up new communication between the respective countries and their clergies.

Saudi Arabia and Iran — Eternal enemies?

It is likely that regardless of the extent of a hypothetical “westernization” of the Saudi Ulema, they will become more anti-Shia, more anti-Iran. The hostility might become part of a compromise, because the prince Bin Salman does have an incentive in an anti-Shia Sunni Islamic clergy simply because it supports his plans to be the representative of the regionally dominating country in the Middle East. Approximately 80 years ago, the conflict was revived for this exact reason. But when a religion is cannibalized, the problems occur. Today’s Mujahidin movement for instance is much more restrictive than it was during the Ottoman Empire. There was a Hanafi orthodoxy and a variety of Legal Schools of Islam back in the days[17]. Ideology-wise, these Hanafi Muslims were very close to the clergy of Saudi Arabia. But with the increasing radicalization of the Saudi Arabian Ulema, this orthodoxy was more and more regarded ‘Haram’[18]. Today, the Saudi Arabian clergy represents a type of Islam that can be referred to as hardcore Wahhabi. Having a strict Shiite clergy opposing this world view in a similar, radical way, there is no ground for collaboration between Saudi Arabia and Iran whatsoever. Iran’s situation is very similar to Saudi Arabia’s. The liberalization movement clashes with the very powerful and influential Shiite Ulema. Even though they are not equally extremely anti-Sunni, the clash of Islamic leadership is utilized by the current power constellation in the region at both sides. The ideology implemented in many Shiites is utilized by geopolitical realities to create a legitimating, galvanizing tool to rally the masses on both sides.

Apparently, many Arabs carry some-kind-of-toxic baggage. Not only the regular people, also powerful leaders are subject to a deeply rooted, anti-Shia thinking which is strongly threatening to stop the progression of mankind in this particular region. Saudi Arabia need to realize and embrace the fact that they are capitalists, which is good because it provides them with the means to continue living their lifestyles. They should also embrace the fact that they might have a slightly more social approach in certain political fields, but would it not be very beneficial for their personnel lives if they ultimately distance themselves from the radical Wahhabi way of thought to rather implement a religious realm of Islam that is not carved my contradictions? As stated earlier, a liberation process even within the Saudi Arabian Ulema is possible. They might give up on many things, knowing that an adaption of their position is a necessary requirement to secure the well-being of the country’s future and especially their power.

But seeing the powerful leaders on both sides of the Gulf giving up on the hostility towards each other remains wishful-thinking, because it is this hostility that is utilized as a tool to manifest, and to argue for the leadership among the Muslim world, and ultimately, the Middle East.

[1]e.g AfD in Germany, Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil, Donald Trump in the US.

[2]e.g Algan, Guriev, Papaioannou, Passari — The European Trust Crisis and the Rise of Populism (2017).

[3]Sir John Jenkins at London School of Economics Middle East Center (2017).

[4]Abu Bakr As-Siddiq Abdallah bin Abi Quhafah was a companion and a father in law of the prophet Mohammed-

[5]Muawiya I was the founder and first caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate and governor of Damascus.

[6]Faath, Sigrid (2010): Rivalitäten und Konflikt zwischen Sunniten und Schiiten in Nahost. Forschungsinstitut der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V. Berlin.

[7]The Safavid dynasty was one of the most significant ruling dynasties of the Persian Empire often considered the beginning of modern Iranian history.

[8]Faath, Sigrid (2010): Rivalitäten und Konflikt zwischen Sunniten und Schiiten in Nahost. Forschungsinstitut der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V. Berlin.

[9]The movement refers to the teaching of Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahab, and follows the Hanbali legal school of Islam. It strictly opposes Sufism, the Kalamand all types of Shiite Islamic beliefs. The term ‘Wahhabi’ is usually used by opponents of this Islamic branch, while they call themselves Salafists.

[10]Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab was a religious leader and theologian from the Najd region in todays Saudi Arabia and founder of Wahhabism.

[11]Ḥadīth in Islam are the record of the words, actions, and the silent approval, of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

[12]The first allaince occured from 1744 to 1818 during the first Saudi state.

[13]The first Saudi army made up of traditionally nomadic tribesmen.

[14]Habib, John S. (1978): Ibn Sa’ud’s Warriors of Islam. The Ikhwan of Najd and their Role in the Creation of the Saudi Kingdom, 1910–1930. E.J. Brill, Leiden.

[15]In November 2017, Gadi Eizenkot, chief of staff of the Israeli forces, gave an interview on the Saudi Arabian news-website of Elaph, elaborating his view on his country’s relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia. The website is owned by Othman Al-Omeir. He possesses very close relations to one of the most popular Arab newspapers in the Middle East, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, which is owned by the king of Saudi-Arabia himself. Reading between the lines, Eizenkot has approached the heart of the Saudi media with the permission of the Saudi Arabian King. Considering that the countries do not have any diplomatic relations with each other officially, this is a noteable event. Eizenkot precisely explained that Israel is open to the idea of sharing information, including material of the secret service, with moderate Arab states to oppose Iran. Even though he avoided a precise answer to the question whether an exchange of secret service information had already occurred, he stated: “We are ready to exchange information, if necessary. There is a lot of common ground between us.” Moreover, he said that “Iran is the biggest threat for the region”, probably knowing that Saudi Arabia does agree with him in that respect.

[16]Weinstein 2018: Mohammed bin Salman Isn’t Saudi Arabia’s First Fake Reformer: In: Foreign Policy Journal

[17]The Hanafi legal school is one of the four religious Sunni Islamic schools of jurisprudence.

[18]Haram is an Arabic word that translates to sin.

Global Youth Agenda

A youth perspective on official themes and publications of the Global Diplomatic Forum's Global Agenda.

Martin Majd El-Khouri

Written by

Managing Partner IPS-Germany

Global Youth Agenda

A youth perspective on official themes and publications of the Global Diplomatic Forum's Global Agenda.

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