In West Asia, Shia-Sunni Conflict Fuelled by the Politics of Oil

Political chaos in West Asia is driven by sectarian conflict as well as the politics of oil, writes Abheek Barman

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
 Iraqi Shia protesters chant slogans against the Saudi Arabian government during a demonstration in Najaf,  Iraq,  January 4, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

History haunts us. Around 1,335 years ago, in 680 AD, a battle took place in modern day Iraq. In a place called Karbala, around 100 supporters of Hussain Ibn Ali, including a six-month-old infant, were slaughtered by a force maybe 30 times its size, led by the Ummayad Caliph. This awful event – driven by an argument over who would be the righteous inheritor of Islam – led to what we know as the Shia-Sunni divide.

In this January 2, 2016 file photo, a Bahraini anti-government protester holds a banner in Arabic that reads, “damn you” during a demonstration against Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, in Daih, Bahrain. (Photo: Reuters)
In this January 2, 2016 file photo, a Bahraini anti-government protester holds a banner in Arabic that reads, “damn you” during a demonstration against Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, in Daih, Bahrain. (Photo: Reuters)

Those killings and beheadings continue to pursue us today, with possibly tectonic consequences for the global economy – and India. In the early 1920s, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, an ambitious desert warrior, allied with the British against the waning Ottoman Empire. This helped consolidate his grip on what is now Saudi Arabia. Till late Riyadh has been a client of Western interests.

Snapshot

Changing Geo-Political Equations

  • By 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran, the Iranian Revolution had dethroned a US client, the Shah of Iran which upset all calculations
  • From controlling all West Asian powers, the West could only control the Saudis but not Iran with its vast oil resources
  • Unrest in West Asia following execution of a Shia cleric by Saudi Arabia unlikely to impact global oil prices
  • This is a time of Iran’s sanctions to go and Saudi Arabia’s privileges to end

Fight Over Oil Resources

The Saudis were helped by the discovery of giant oil resources in their territory, in 1938, at a depth of 4,700 feet, by Socal – a dominant Western oil company of the time. Since then, as Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of ‘The Prize’ the authoritative book on oil geopolitics points out, the Saudis never had to depend on pilgrims’ handouts at Mecca to support them.

Iran and Iraq, states created after WW I by colonial powers, were also blessed with oil. But Iran was ruled by the Shia elite and Iraq by Sunnis. Which is why Saudi Arabia, helped with funds from the US, backed Saddam Hussein of Iraq in the dreadful war between neighbours for over a decade in the 1980s.

In this  January 3, 2016 file photo, smoke rises as Iranian protesters, upset over the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Iran. (Photo: AP)
In this January 3, 2016 file photo, smoke rises as Iranian protesters, upset over the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Iran. (Photo: AP)

Why? By 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran after years of exile in Paris, the Iranian Revolution had dethroned a US client, the Shah of Iran. This upset all calculations. From controlling all West Asian powers, the West could only control the Saudis, assorted Sunni powers in the region like Kuwait – but not Iran with its vast oil resources.

Reversal of Karbala

Sanctions from 1979 curbed Iran’s oil exports and crippled its economy. But compared to Saudi Arabia and many Arab nations, its cultural life remained vibrant. There are hundreds of Iranian movies that can make you laugh or cry; not one out of Riyadh.

Today, as the West lifts sanctions on Shia Iran, and America becomes self-sufficient in energy, without any need for Saudi oil, a new anxiety has gripped Riyadh. It is a reversal of Karbala: now Sunnis feel threatened by the rise of Shias. It does not help optically that private Saudi and UAE citizens are the biggest sponsors of the IS, which many Arab governments, Iran, Russia and the entire West is fighting against.

Last week, Saudis beheaded over 40 people, including an important Shia cleric for reasons best known to its autocrats. Its embassy in Tehran was besieged. In response it snapped diplomatic ties with Iran. The battle lines are now drawn firmly in the sand.

In this January 3, 2016 file photo, Iranian and Turkish demonstrators hold pictures of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr as they protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. (Photo: AP)
In this January 3, 2016 file photo, Iranian and Turkish demonstrators hold pictures of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr as they protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. (Photo: AP)

What Does It Mean For India?

What can this do to global oil prices and to India, a major importer? Not much, really. For decades, world crude markets were denied Iranian oil. This will soon come into the market. WTI crude now trades around $36 per barrel, less than a third its value one year ago.

The House of Saud, which now has 15,000 filthy rich people, none of who have done a day of honest work in their lives, will become significantly less prosperous if Iran oil comes into the market after 36 years.

This is a time – of Iran’s sanctions to go and Saudi Arabia’s privileges to end – which had to come. But Riyadh cannot tolerate the possibility. Hence the mass beheadings in Saudi Arabia, harking back to memories of Karbala. And the threat of unprecedented political chaos in west Asia.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)

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