To see the difficulty our rolling-news, think-piecing era has with complexity, especially political and historical complexity, look no further than the response to the growing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
This geopolitical quake, this long-brewing stand-off between the two greatest powers in the Middle East, speaks profoundly to the hollowing-out of the old power structures in that part of the world, and more importantly to an exhaustion of politics as we once knew it. And yet how is it being discussed? As a straight-up religious war. As a hidden history of inter-Islamist conflict magically surfacing in the second decade of the 21st century. It is a failure of historical depth to view the conflict in this narrow way.
Barely had the bodies of the 47 people executed by Saudi Arabia on 2 January been wrapped and buried than people were fretting about the return of ‘an age-old schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims… dating back to the founding of Islam’. That’s because one of the 47 killed by the Sunni-run Saudi regime was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric who was popular among the 15 per cent of Saudis who are Shias and in other Shia-dominated countries, most notably Iran. There were furious protests in Iran and around the world. Saudi Arabia and Iran ended diplomatic relations. Iran accuses the Saudis of bombing its embassy in Yemen. This is serious. But it isn’t, as one account has it, ‘a fight that’s been brewing for centuries’.
One question that the ‘return of religious war’ lobby cannot answer is: why now? If this tension really does date back to the beginning of Islam – the 6th century – and really does represent the ‘reopening of old sectarian wounds’ around the question of ‘which form of Islam should dominate the Middle East: Shia or Sunni?’, then why has it exploded in 2016, rather than in, say, the 1800s? Or 1915? Or 1979? To focus only on the religious side to this conflict, which no doubt exists, is to overlook the global and political shifts that triggered the conflict now and which means it can assume a kind-of religious form. What we’re witnessing in the heat between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and across the Middle East more broadly, is less the primacy of religion than the exhaustion of politics – of pretty much every political project of the modern era.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran emerged in the colonial era as client states of Western powers. But there was always an element of tension between these Western forces and their vast clients, primarily America in relation to Saudi Arabia and Britain in relation to Iran. These were not like the old colonies that could easily be bossed about. In the Cold War era in particular, after Britain engineered the overthrow of the Iranian nationalist PM Mohammad Mossadeq and his replacement with the old Shah in 1953, and following America’s cultivation of Saudi Arabia as part of its Soviet containment strategy for the Middle East, these two client states began to gain more independence. The growth of the oil industry combined with various geopolitical shifts saw both Saudi Arabia and Iran become powers in their own right, expressed in the Saudi oil embargo of the 1970s and, most forcefully, in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which deposed the Shah and introduced Islamist rule.