Muslim world is split

The recent deals between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signify a historic and monumental split in the Muslim world, with significant consequences for international politics and for India.

While Israel has committed to stalling its annexation of Palestinian territories under the deal, it’s fair to read this as a paradigm shift in the Arab world’s priorities: the friction with Israel over Palestine is now officially secondary to the Gulf states’ cold war with Iran.

The Arab world’s reconfiguration of its own priorities has not won consensus in the rest of the Muslim world. While the Gulf focuses on countering Iran, countries like Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia are looking to rally around more pan-Islamic causes, such as Kashmir and Palestine. Sure enough, in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli deals, Turkey joined Iran in condemnation of those agreements. The result: a split between the Arab and non-Arab worlds, with the Arabs looking for allies against Iran and the non- Arab Muslim world rallying alongside Iran.

The Arab outreach to Israel would not have been possible or thinkable without the hostilities with Iran. But how did Iran become the greater enemy than Israel for the Arab Gulf states?

The Shia-Sunni rivalry in the Middle East dates back centuries, but the story of these more contemporary tensions between the Gulf states and Iran starts with the Arab Spring.

In Syria, Yemen and even Lebanon, political instability and challenges to the ruling dispensations have kindled a fierce competition between Shia and Sunni militias. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, a Shia Alawite with close ties to Iran, has managed to contain Sunni militias, despite a bloody civil war.

In Yemen, the Houthi rebels, another Shia entity with close ties to Iran, have long been at war with Saudi Arabia, after having chased out the Saudi-backed President Mansour Hadi from the capital, Sana’a. Hadi had come to power in 2012 after the Arab Spring, but the Houthi rebellion has forced him to spend considerable time on exile in Saudi Arabia.

In Lebanon, similarly, Saudi-backed politicians have long competed for space with the Hezbollah, a dominant Shia force that is close to Iran. In 2017, things came to a head when the then-prime minister and Sunni leader Saad Hariri briefly resigned from office, citing fears of being a target of assassination attempts and forcing Saudi Arabia to declare war against Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia now sees these Shia leaders and militias as the most significant threat to its own power and influence in the Middle East. And since many of these entities have strong ties to Iran, Tehran is able to threaten Saudi interests in a way that Israel never has and likely never will.

The Arab Spring has also altered domestic politics in the Gulf considerably, further stoking tensions between Iran and the Arab world. In 1979, as the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran and erected a republic, monarchs in the Gulf states became fearful of similar challenges to their own rule. The Arab Spring rekindled those fears, and in recent years, many Gulf monarchies have come down heavily on dissenters – especially Shias, whom they see as being loyal to Iran.

In 2011, as the Arab Spring was at its peak, Bahrain’s ruling Sunni royal family faced weeks of protests, led by the Shia majority in that country. Five years later, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 other people, on charges of terrorism. Last year, the UAE followed suit, sending six Shia Lebanese men to jail on charges of working for the Hezbollah.

All this is bad news for India. In recent years, India has tried to cultivate Iran as an ally against China and Pakistan in the region. The Chabahar projects were meant to give India connectivity to Afghanistan and the energy-rich countries in Central Asia while bypassing Pakistani and Chinese presence.

But as Iran gets isolated in the Middle East, Tehran has begun moving closer to precisely those two countries: In July this year, Iran entered into a whopping $400 billion strategic partnership deal with China, including massive investments in infrastructure and closer cooperation on defence and intelligence sharing. Days before that deal, China voiced political support for Tehran, criticising the US for its “illegal, unilateral sanctions.”

Meanwhile, Pakistan has been falling out quite visibly with Saudi Arabia, while quietly stepping up cooperation with Iran. In August this year, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi launched an unprecedented broadside at Saudi Arabia for its lack of support on Kashmir at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Following that statement, Saudi Arabia ended a $1 billion concessional loan and froze a $3 billion oil credit facility to Pakistan.

Days later, Prime Minister Imran Khan told a television channel that he would like stronger ties with Iran. Khan had also previously called on the US to lift its sanctions on Iran.

India is therefore faced with the difficult task of resurrecting a moribund strategic partnership with Iran, while competing in that country against money and political support from China and Pakistan.

There are, however, opportunities on the other side of the divide: with the Gulf states moving closer to Israel – a country with whom India now has increasingly stronger strategic cooperation – New Delhi may be able to court support from the Arab world, particularly on geopolitical issues against China and Pakistan.

Already, Saudi Arabia has reached out to New Delhi by stalling Pakistan within the OIC – a forum which Islamabad had for long successfully employed against Indian geopolitical interests.

But if India is to build stronger alliances with the Arab world, New Delhi will have to respond with political support for Arab priorities. That would likely include support against Iran and an end to India’s non-alignment doctrine in the Middle East.

(c) 2020, Deccan Herald