Research Initiatives

Research Initiatives

Summary Report

sectarian politics in the gulf

This Summary Report contains synopses of chapters written for the “Sectarian Politics in the Gulf” research initiative that took place over two working group meetings in Doha. Click the links below to read the full report in English or Arabic:

The following is an excerpt from Lawrence G. Potter's Introduction. Click here to read the entire report. 

This book seeks to explore the relationship between politics and sectarian identity in the Persian Gulf. The theme of sectarianism is considered broadly and may include ethnic and tribal as well as religious groups. It might alternatively be thought of as the politics of identity, which in recent years has gained increasing prominence in the Middle East in general and the Persian Gulf in particular. Contributing factors to current sectarian tensions include the Iran-Iraq War, the fall of Saddam Hussein and most recently the Arab Spring.

Despite the importance of the subject, there is an obvious lack of analysis and a number of issues need clarification. For example, is sectarianism a modern phenomenon or one that has persisted throughout history? At present, years of warfare have politicized identity groups, especially those based on ethnicity. How does identity move from a passive to an assertive state? What are the triggering mechanisms that set off conflict? Do outside powers play a role, and how does their response color the outcome? How much have major movements such as the Islamic revival or the Arab Spring served to obscure the continued salience of religious and ethnic cleavages?

One characteristic of sectarianism in the Persian Gulf is that many groups are transnational, and often located in border areas where in the past they enjoyed considerable autonomy. Before the modern era, peoples in the Persian Gulf shared a common maritime culture and religious and linguistic groups were intermingled, with many Arabic speakers and Sunni Muslims located on the Persian side of the Gulf, and a Shi‘i, Persian-speaking community on the Arab side. This causes difficulty when speaking of identity, for in this region people have multiple identities that may be activated at different times.

The project of governments to invent national identities and traditions is a significant factor affecting sectarian relations. In the Gulf monarchies, for example, the Shia have been written out of official accounts. Also, they are not permitted to serve in the police and army, which has opened a role for neighboring Sunnis, especially the Baluch, in Gulf militaries. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Shia communities cherish the memory of a “golden age” before their conquest by Sunni outsiders in the 18th century. The excluded groups, needless to say, such as the Swahili and Baluch in Oman, the Africans and Persians in the UAE, and the native Baharna in Bahrain, are alienated by this.

The fall of the Saddam government in Iraq in 2003 led to a major change in the religious balance in the region and enhanced the power of Iran. For the first time Iraq had a Shia-led government, which frightened Sunni governments who were apprehensive about the loyalty of their own Shia minorities. But does the Shia revival pose a threat? The Shia do not constitute a united bloc, and those living in the Arab Gulf states are divided over their allegiance to Iran.

The Arab awakening that began in early 2011 and rapidly spread throughout the Middle East again called attention to sectarian issues. Interestingly, the calls for change in the leadership of Arab states were largely of secular, not religious inspiration. Whereas demands by the opposition in the past were fueled by slogans like “Islam is the solution” and advocated the creation of Islamic states, this time a religious agenda was conspicuously absent. But the fall of dictators has also reignited sectarian tensions as people seek to settle scores and reach for power, notably in Egypt.

The factors that trigger sectarian conflict are important to explore. There appears to be a pattern of challenge and response in which increased activity on the part of one group stimulates activity by another, often counter group. Thus in Iraq the rise of the Shia since 2003 and the recent troubles in Bahrain have stimulated interest on the part of Sunnis in their own identity, and have led to a search for cultural symbols that they can identity with. Likewise, relentless government-promoted Shiism in Iran and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia has led to greater popularity for Sufism.

It is clear that ethnicity is never fixed; it is always adaptable and redefining itself. An important point made in this book is that sectarian differences and competition are encouraged by governments which benefit from them politically. In the absence of alternative options to form civil society groups and political parties which could threaten the government on ideological grounds, people are driven back into primordial identities such as tribe and religion.

The upsurge of sectarian and ethnic conflict in the Persian Gulf states is likely to continue since the factors that foster it persist: heated rhetoric as reflected in the media, conflict or potential conflict, questionable political legitimacy for rulers, and a longing for security and participation that is not being met. Such tensions are being exploited by governments which seek to divide in order to rule, and in the misguided attempts by outside powers, most recently the US, to redress minority discrimination. It is important to note the US role in reinforcing sectarian identity after the wars to “liberate” Iraq and Afghanistan.

To strike a more positive note, multiethnic states are the historical norm in the region and it seems unlikely that they will break up à la Yugoslavia. For example, although outsiders have speculated on whether Iraq will remain a unified state, this has not been a question for Iraqis who are secure in a national identity. Nationalism is indeed compatible with sectarian identity, as shown by the Arab Shia, and conflict is not inevitable.

Because of its history and location, the Persian Gulf will always remain a region characterized by transnational religious, ethnic and political groups. Sadly, an inability to acknowledge the Other is the root of many problems. In a region with great disparity in the size and wealth of states, all will feel vulnerable in some ways and at some times. The roots of ethnic and sectarian conflict, however, are not obscure, and a range of confidence-building measures can easily be taken to reduce conflict. The papers in this volume shed considerable light on this little-explored problem and why solutions cannot wait. It deserves to be read by all students and policymakers of the region.