Saudi-led coalition is not driven by sectarianism

Talk of a Saudi-led Sunni alliance against an Iranian Shia crescent is an oversimplification of reality.

Smoke billows from a Saudi-led air strike in Sanaa, Yemen [AP]
Smoke billows from a Saudi-led air strike in Sanaa, Yemen [AP]

Saudi Arabia’s decision to take action against the Houthi rebels on March 25 marked a turning point in the modern Arab order as it has existed since the Arab League’s foundation in 1945.

Operation Decisive Storm has delineated the Arabian Peninsula as the red line in the kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s rivalry. It has also demonstrated that the protection of the Arab-state order is, henceforth, a new foreign policy pillar of the kingdom and its coalition partners.

The increasing influence of a non-Arab power – Iran – actively uprooting the sociopolitical order in the Arab world for its own gain has not been experienced since the end of colonialism.

Yemeni families suffer from bombardment

Saudi Arabia, the sole Arab state spared the experience of European colonialism and imperialism, has taken time – perhaps too much time – in taking action against the existential threat posed by Iran’s paramilitary, anti-state proxies to the Arab world.

Iran’s proxy agenda

In realising a 65-year-old aspiration for a Joint Arab Force to defend the Arab world from chaos and foreign interference, the Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed rebels, as well as the Arab League summit’s denouncement of sectarian extremist movements, demonstrates the opposition of the kingdom and its allies to both sectarian extremism in the form of ISIL and Libya Dawn as well as their opposition to Iran’s proxy agenda.

As the Saudi-led coalition seeks to restore the legitimacy of Arab states, Iran appears to be imposing an order of indirect rule over the Arab world through proxies.

While Iran has politicised certain minorities and sects, their aim does not appear to be a Shia empire, rather, a weakened, pacified Arab world to serve as an outer periphery, and buffer, between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Since the creation of the Arab League, various ideologies such as Arab Nationalism, Nasserism, Marxism, Khomeinism, and Political Islamism a la Muslim Brotherhood have tried, and failed, to facilitate the prosperity and stability of the Arab world.

The decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union saw political Islamist opposition movements and secular establishment regimes alike pay lip-service to democratisation, although the Arab uprisings since 2011 have revealed that neither political Islamists nor the establishment regimes have an appetite for power-sharing.

As the Saudi-led coalition seeks to restore the legitimacy of Arab states, Iran appears to be imposing an order of indirect rule over the Arab world through proxies.


This mutual refusal of cooperation in many of the Arab states has led to the failure of the state in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and paved the way for extremist sectarian ideologues to take hold.

Houthi advance

The situation in the Arab world on the eve of Operation Decisive Storm was bleak. Increasingly volatile failed states hosted Iranian-supported rebels in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Palestine neared its 67th year of occupation, and Egypt, home of nearly a quarter of the Arab world’s population, was still attempting to restore domestic order.

The advance of the Iranian-supported Houthis on Aden appeared to finally give Iran the upper hand in the creation of a new, chaotic order in the Middle East.

Sectarianism is all too often overstated in explaining contemporary Saudi-Iranian rivalry. While sacred texts among both denominations are rife with mutual declarations of heresy, the historical reality has been much more nuanced, with colonialism, nationalism, globalisation, and mass communication having all played major roles in redefining the religion, how it is practised, politics, and identity in this region.

While extremist Sunni groups – be it al-Qaeda, ISIL, or Libya Dawn – pose existential threats to the Arab republics and monarchies alike, there is, on the contrary, no existential threat posed to the Islamic Republic by the Iranian-mobilised proxies, who demonstrate a fervent loyalty to Tehran.

Sectarian ideologies

The argument that sectarian ideologies drive the rivalry fails to explain Saudi support for the confessional system in Lebanon over Salafi streams present there; for the Syrian Baathist regime and its Alawite elites in Syria over the Sunni movements more ideologically aligned with the Sunni orthodoxy of the kingdom; as well as for Ali Abdullah Saleh (a Zaidi Shia) for nearly 40 years in Yemen, a neighbouring Arab-state with deep Salafi traditions. These leaders and regimes, clearly lacking sectarian ties to the Saudi kingdom, were all backed for the popular legitimacy they enjoyed.

Yemenis protest against Houthis in front of special forces quarters in Taiz, Yemen [Getty]

Indeed in Yemen, Salafism finds many of its roots in the writings of Zaidi scholars. Contrary to claims of Saudi-backed attempts to export Salafism to Yemen, this continuous Salafi tradition has existed well before the so-called Wahabiyya movement appeared on the scene in central Arabia in the mid-18th century.

To the dismay of those who would describe Saudi actions in Yemen as sectarian, the kingdom has consistently sided with the legitimate government over voices with Salafist tendencies: be it the Shia dynasty backed by the Saudis until the Nasserist overthrow in 1962, or Saudi support of Saleh.

Current Saudi actions under way in Operation Decisive Storm, likewise, follow this tradition of the Saudi kingdom favouring centralised, Arab states as partners and neighbours over local Salafist tendencies.

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is a geopolitical one between two regional powers competing to replace an increasingly absent and unwelcome US hegemon. Riyadh and Tehran are seeking to organise the Arab world along either Saudi or Iranian national security interests.

While the Saudis push for an order of cooperative Arab states, Iran, in arming revolutionary movements that weaken the Arab-state order, is seeking to preside over a grouping of skeleton-states, defenceless against Iranian-supported militias (eg, Hezbollah in Lebanon,) and subject to internal divisions. Such a situation would ensure no strong, centralised Arab state (like Iraq under Saddam Hussein) could ever again threaten Tehran. It would also provide Iran with a large, comfortable buffer from the West.

Geopolitics not ideology

While both the kingdom and the Islamic Republic are operating in their own best interests, Saudi Arabia’s plan foresees stability and prosperity for the nearly 360 million citizens of the 22 Arab states between the Sahara and the Gulf, while the Iranian plan foresees the creation of 22 Syrias, overseen via paramilitary proxies by Tehran.

It would be too easy to simply dismiss the Saudi-led coalition as a Sunni alliance against an Iranian-led Shia crescent. The question of the future existence of functional states in the Arab world is being challenged.

As Saudi Arabia and the Arab League shed their historical sheepish foreign policy in favour of a Joint Arab Force and fight to ensure the survival of the Arab states, the desire to exist as an independent and secure bloc of cooperating states, and not as a cemetery of skeleton-states on the periphery of Iran and Europe, will drive the Arabs to fight together for a prosperous and secure Arab world. 

Faisal Abualhassan is a researcher at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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