The Myth of Sunni Power

The West's accepted wisdom says align with the Sunnis, especially the Al Sauds. But the real strength lies with the Shia.

Today, the growing division between Shia and Sunnis in the Persian Gulf has been in large part fomented by the Al-Sauds. In the past, the Shia could travel everywhere in the Persian Gulf, except in Saudi Arabia, without feeling that they were "different." The Al-Sauds have changed all that by sowing the seeds of discord within Islam throughout the Persian Gulf. They have drawn a line in the sand in Bahrain that could ignite a regional war. In Iraq and in Iran, Sunni and Shia have intermarried, but with increasing discrimination being practiced in Saudi Arabia and spreading to the rest of the GCC, new divisions have appeared where there were none before.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait have issued warnings bordering on threats to Iran not to interfere in the protests in Bahrain, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent soldiers and police to Bahrain to suppress the oppressed Shia, who make up 70% of the population there. Kuwait has dispatched its navy to Bahrain. Some countries may be scared by warnings, but what the Al-Sauds are doing is counterproductive. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and intelligence services have little respect for the GCC’s military and covert capabilities despite the GCC’s top-of-the-line hardware. With threats from the Saudis, Iran’s natural instinct is to show the Saudis a thing or two to put them in their place. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia shows little understanding, if any, of the Iranian and Iraqi mindset, nor does it understand the decision makers in the Persian Gulf, even sometimes countries that are members of the GCC. This will not serve the region in resolving regional differences.

Still, and no matter what GCC leaders say, Iran has not interfered in the internal affairs of Bahrain to anything approaching the extent claimed by Saudi Arabia. Recently, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said as much. The Saudis are using this line of rhetoric in an effort to further isolate Iran and hide their discrimination of Shia. While Tehran has not interfered in the past, things may be about to change. Iran has been given every incentive to interfere in the internal affairs of the GCC and especially in those of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. On what basis can the Al-Sauds intervene in Bahrain to crush peaceful demonstrators when Iran is not allowed to come to the defense of fellow Shia and support their basic human rights, both in Bahrain and across the region in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia?

Perhaps the Al-Sauds have become delusional. Maybe they have begun to believe the story they tell the US about Iranian treachery and the dangerous Shia. If they could wake up to reality, the Al-Sauds might still save themselves and their GCC brethren by reforming and adapting, not by digging their heals in deeper, fomenting hatred and dragging the rest of the GCC down with them. Creating divisions throughout the entire Persian Gulf, especially in Bahrain and Kuwait, will not help them squash their own Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis may have succeeded in misleading the US about the Shia, but the US will soon discover that its future lies as much, if not more, with the Shia in the region.

While the rest of the GCC may have limited influence on their big brother in Riyadh, it is up to the US to persuade the Al-Sauds to change now and embrace reform before it is too late. US national interests are not what the Al-Sauds, the GCC rulers or the Sunni minority perceive as their familial or national interests. While developments in the GCC are important for US national interests, developments in Iran, Iraq and in the majority Shia community in the region are equally important today and could be much more important in the future. The Shia are the majority in this crucial region east of Egypt and they are much more likely to be compatible allies. If the Shia in Sunni majority countries are persecuted and the US does not support their rights as it has for those protesting in Egypt and Libya, then the Shia majority could threaten US national interests throughout the region. The US must stop ignoring the persecution of Shia in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf.

It is simply dishonest to support human rights, freedom and the right of people to determine their future in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and to ignore them in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. US duplicity has begun to enrage Shia throughout the Middle East. Chants in Bahrain already confirm it: protesters shouting death to the Al-Khalifas and Al-Sauds are also asking whether their rights are less important than those of people marching in the streets in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. If the US does not adopt an evenhanded approach to upholding basic human rights in the region, the disenfranchised Shia will start including Washington on their list of oppressors. It is high time for the US to recognize how closely aligned its national interests are with those of the Shia communities in the area that is at the "heart" of the Middle East.