Religionʹs waning role
When one thinks of conflict in the Middle East, religious factors are probably among the first that come to mind. But, nowadays, competing strategic interests and imperial ambitions play a much larger role than religious or sectarian cleavages in defining regional politics. This is potentially a positive development.
Consider the struggle for regional influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Despite having long been viewed as a result of the Sunni-Shia divide, the competition is really between two opposing political systems: Iranʹs revolutionary regime, bent on changing the regional balance of power, versus Saudi Arabiaʹs conservative monarchy, which seeks to uphold the old regional order.
In this context, Iranʹs support of the Arab Spring uprisings makes sense. In an Arab-dominated Middle East, non-Arab Iran is the natural enemy; but in a Muslim Middle East, the Islamic republic of Iran is a potential hegemon. So Iran was quick to back free elections, predicting that voters would bring Islamists to power.
The ultra-conservative House of Saud, by contrast, abhors such political upheaval and naturally views Arab democracy as a fundamental threat. So, while maintaining its close alliance with the United States, the Western imperial power that Iran fears most, Saudi Arabia opposed the uprisings, whether the protagonists were Shia (as in Bahrain), or Sunni (as in Egypt). In this sense, the Arab Spring was a story of the growth and suppression of political Islam.
The primacy of politics
Moreover, alliances no longer fit within Sunni-Shia borders, further underscoring the primacy of politics rather than religion in fuelling regional conflicts. For example, Hamas, the Sunni fundamentalist group that rules the Gaza Strip, has survived largely as a result of financing from Iran.
Similarly, Oman, dominated by Ibhadis and Sunnis, has a closer relationship with Iran, with which it shares control of the vital oil-shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, than it does with Saudi Arabia. In fact, Oman is now being accused of helping Iran to smuggle weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting a proxy war.
Likewise, Qatar maintains a relationship with Iran, with which it shares colossal gas fields – something that is too close for Saudi Arabiaʹs comfort. Last year, the Saudis led a coalition of Arab countries – including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain – in isolating Qatar diplomatically and imposing sanctions.
Yet Turkey, another Sunni power, maintains a military base in Qatar. And this is not the only source of tension between Saudi Arabia and Turkey; they also disagree about the Muslim Brotherhood. Whereas the Saudis view the Brotherhood as an existential threat, Turkey considers it a model of Islamist politics worth defending and a means of expanding Turkish influence in the Arab world.
Turkeyʹs support for the Muslim Brotherhood has also put it at odds with yet another Sunni power: Egypt. Indeed, the Brotherhood is Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisiʹs nemesis. Together with its regional ambitions and efforts to position itself as the main champion of the Palestinian cause, Turkey appears to be directly challenging Egyptʹs vital interests.
Strategic rather than sectarian concerns
Perhaps the best illustration of how security and strategic concerns have superseded religious conflict is the shift in relations between Arab Sunni states – including the Gulf monarchies and Egypt – and Israel. The economic and military achievements of Israel, once the Arab worldʹs ultimate enemy and infidel, were long viewed as a measure of Arab failure – a source of endemic hatred alloyed with grudging admiration.
Yet, today, as Iranʹs influence grows and Islamist terrorism continues to proliferate, Palestine is the last of Saudi Arabiaʹs worries. So fundamental are the changes to the Kingdomʹs strategic interests that, despite being the custodian of Islamʹs holiest sites, it said nothing when U.S. President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israelʹs "eternal capital". Other Sunni Gulf monarchies, as well as Egypt, have gone further, engaging in security co-operation with Israel.
Politics is also superseding religion within Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuʹs expansionist drive in the West Bank is about political power, not Judaism. After all, the creation of a majority-Palestinian bi-national state would mean severely diluting the countryʹs "Jewishness".
In fact, to maintain its grip on the occupied territories, Israelʹs religious-nationalist coalition has sold its soul to Christian anti-Semites: American evangelists. Netanyahu’s alliance with this group – ardent supporters of the colonisation of Judea and Samaria – is an affront to both the overwhelmingly liberal Jewish-American community and the powerful rabbinical establishment in Israel.
Choosing politics over religion
A final example of a Middle Eastern country choosing politics over religion is Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shia cleric who previously led deadly attacks against U.S. troops, is now emerging as Americaʹs best hope of containing Iranʹs expanding influence in Iraq.
The head of an unlikely alliance of reformist Islamists, secular civil-society groups and Iraqʹs communist party, Sadr won the recent parliamentary election by promising a nationalist drive to oust Iran from Iraq. Earlier this year, Sadr visited the fiercely anti-Iranian crown princes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and is now the key obstacle between Iran and the strategic depth it seeks in Iraq.
Todayʹs chaos in the Middle East is rooted largely in historical legacies – arbitrarily drawn borders being a major one – and a lack of visionary leadership. But religious and sectarian divisions havenʹt helped, either.
While the situation undoubtedly remains tense and unwieldy, religionʹs waning political role may create an opening for progress, much as, say, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salmanʹs willingness to discard fundamentalist imperatives favours modernisation. After all, strategic and security interests are always more amenable to reason and diplomacy than religious conviction.
© Project Syndicate 2018
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace.