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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2553

Saudi Arabia vs Iran: has Sunni-Shia rivalry taken a turn for the worse?

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London...

The dramatic – and unprecedented – resignation of Saad Harriri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, rather than his home country, coincided with two major events in the Middle East in the last few days, in the ascending order of anxiety for the wider world.

In Saudi Arabia, it is reported that around 200 people, including princes and bureaucrats were detained at a luxury hotel, being accused of corruption and embezzlement. Then, Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are at war with Saudi Arabia, launched a ballistic missile towards the main international airport in Riyadh, before being shot down by the US supplied missiles.

Even before the missile being blown apart in the skies over Riyadh, political fireworks seem to have started at the heart of House of Saud: among those detained were two favourite sons of late King Abdullah, who used to hold the positions of the Head of the National Guard and Governor of Riyadh respectively and the richest businessman in the Kingdom, Prince Alawaleed bin Talal; in addition, the members of the Royal Family, meanwhile, have been asked not to leave the country.

It goes without saying who was behind the thespian moves; Prince Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud, the Crown Prince, has been consolidating his power for the past three years, while wooing young Saudis, who are fed up with endemic corruption and nepotism.

The prince, known as MBS, has already started radical reforms, ranging from allowing women to drive from next year to making plans for a post-oil era. He is acutely aware of the impact on the Saudi economy due to falling oil prices and seems to be determined to stick to the reform agenda despite the opposition from ultra-conservative Wahabbi clerics .

The missile that Houthi rebels fired at Riyadh International Airport, according to a senior US Air Force official, originated from Iran, something Iran vehemently denies. Even Emmanuel Macron, the French President, who rushed to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Saad Harriri’s sudden resignation, admitted that the missile was of Iranian origin.
As the crisis escalated, Saudi Arabia declared the missile attack as an act of war and accused Iran of its involvement. Saudi Arabia then asked its citizens in Lebanon to return home, implying that a military conflict with Iran is unavoidable, given the current circumstances.

Although, Iran did not take a confrontational approach in return, it wants Saudis to get their house in order before preaching the countries in the region to do so. The question about the source of the missile, however, remains unsolved. If a second missile was fired at Saudi Arabia from Yemen, it would be impossible for Saudis to restrain themselves again – for obvious reasons.

In the event of such a move by Houthi rebels, who had been bearing the brunt of Saudi-led air strikes, things in the Middle East would change fast with plenty of twists and turns.

Against this backdrop, the mysterious resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister, a Sunni Muslim, in Saudi capital, did very little to stop the speculation. Cynics say that he has been forced to resign by Saudis and is under house arrest in Lebanon.

The decisions taken by the Saudis in recent months have not been very impressive, to say the least: its war in Yemen has been a total disaster; the exercise in isolating Qatar has not been a success either. On the contrary, Qatar has developed stronger ties with Iran and Turkey in order to compensate for the losses it suffered due to land, sea and air embargo by the Saudis.

Although, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, may have lost the support of influential Saudi clerics and some Royals, much needed foreign support seems to be just a phone call away. Not only did President Trump offer his blessings for radical reforms, but also accused those who were detained of ‘milking the system for so long.’

Even on this issue, President Trump does not seem to see eye –to-eye with the State Department; because, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, wants a peaceful solution to the existing crisis, being aware of the consequences. President Trump, however, is determined to ‘cut Iran down to size’.

The rising tension in the Middle East, having been polarized by Sunni and Shia factions, shows the presence of perpetual undercurrents, orchestrated by the two sides. They want their sphere of influence to grow with more nations joining them along religious lines.

In this context, if they ever come closer to a full-scale war, every nianation in the region may be sucked into a war – with no clear winners.

- Asian Tribune -

Saudi Arabia vs Iran: has Sunni-Shia rivalry taken a turn for the worse?
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