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May 5, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

Why Sunni Unity Is a Myth

(FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Yemen is the newest battleground in the growing struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional and sectarian rivals. With the Saudis leading a military intervention in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthi movement, there has been much talk of a Sunni camp mobilizing to counter the threat posed by ascendant Shiite forces. However, competing interests will hobble the fledgling Sunni alliance.

Forecast

  • Competing interests will keep a Sunni camp from coalescing.
  • Saudi Arabia and Turkey are at odds with each other over the future of the Arab world.
  • Pakistan is far removed from the Middle East and does not feel close sectarian ties to Saudi Arabia.
  • The Saudi-led coalition acting in Yemen is more an Arab grouping than a Sunni bloc, and differences exist even among the Arabs.

The Houthi surge in Yemen triggered a response from several Sunni states. Saudi Arabia mobilized a 10-nation coalition of predominantly Arab countries for an air campaign and naval blockade against the Houthis. Turkey responded with a strong and unprecedented criticism of Iran for Tehran's support for the Houthis. Even Pakistan, which is outside the Middle East, got dragged into the conflict, though its role is still undefined. All of this activity from a diverse group of states whose populations are mostly Sunni created clamor about the emergence of a Sunni bloc.

The conflict in Yemen certainly has increased the geopolitical sectarian polarization in the region that was triggered by the rise of a government dominated by Shiites in Iraq in the mid-2000s and exacerbated by Syria's civil war. But the idea that Iran's attempt to expand its influence in the Arabian Peninsula has led the region's Sunnis to close ranks against Tehran and its allies is incorrect. The outcome of the Saudi-led effort to mobilize Sunni nations reveals great divisions between those countries.

Turkey

In Turkey, the most powerful Sunni nation in the region, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan harshly criticized Iran's support for the Houthis in late March. Erdogan said Iran is attempting to dominate the region, and in doing so is "annoying us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries." He called the situation intolerable and asked Iran to withdraw whatever forces it has in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

However, Turkey has not committed any forces to the war in Yemen. It does not make sense for the Turks to be part of a Saudi-led coalition when Ankara desires regional leadership. The Saudis would like to see the Turks join the Saudi initiative, but they are wary of Turkish ambitions. After all, the Saudi polity emerged in the mid-18th century in opposition to Turkish domination over the Arab lands. Even if Turkey had not declined to participate, the Saudis and other Arab actors are not comfortable with the idea of aligning with Turkey; doing so would give Ankara the opportunity to dominate the region. The Arabs want Turkish help to counter Iran but do not want to facilitate Turkey's aspirations. 

Moreover, there is great dissonance between the Turkish and Saudi visions of the future of the region. Turkey wants to recreate the Arab world in its own image, which is why it supports Muslim Brotherhood-type groups. For Saudi Arabia, political Islam and democratization are a lethal mix. That said, when it comes to Iran — specifically, conflicts such as those in Syria and Iraq, where the interests of Riyadh and Ankara align to an extent — the two can benefit from tactical-level cooperation. 

The Iran-backed government in Syria is preventing Turkey from expanding its influence in the Arab world. Consequently, Ankara, which has been cooperating with Doha in Syria, is now coordinating with Riyadh, explaining, in part, the rebels' recent gains against Damascus. Likewise, the Saudis need to work with Turkey to topple the Syrian government and eliminate a major element enabling Iranian penetration of the Arab world. Yet their varying goals will make future competition between the Turks and the Saudis inevitable. 

Pakistan

Unlike Turkey, Pakistan's conventional power is relatively weak. It is geographically removed from the Middle East and has no ambitions to lead the region. However, Saudi Arabia's relations with Pakistan are also problematic, even though the Pakistanis and Saudis historically have been close allies. Riyadh has been a great source of financial and energy assistance for Islamabad during Pakistan's long-standing dire economic conditions. The Pakistanis have provided military support for the Saudis, both in terms of the kingdom's security and its interests in the region. Moreover, their intelligence services have cooperated closely — first in the efforts to support Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s and then in the fight against jihadists over the past decade.

Despite this close relationship, Pakistan openly declined to send forces to Yemen. From the Pakistanis' perspective, their military is already stretched thin as it combats an ideology that originated in Saudi Arabia and has inflicted a great deal of pain in Pakistan. After Iraq, Pakistan has been the deadliest sectarian battleground where Sunni militants have wreaked havoc against Shiites. Islamabad is already struggling to deal with these twin scourges, and the last thing it wants is to join Riyadh's competition with Tehran, particularly in Yemen. 

Joining the fight in Yemen would reverse the gains Pakistan has made against religious extremists in the past six years. Moreover, Shiites make up 20 percent of Pakistan's population, and the state is expected to protect the minority against attacks by Sunni militants. Plenty of groups in Pakistan vociferously support a close alignment with Saudi Arabia and are shaping Islamabad's position that Pakistan will not tolerate any threat to the Saudi kingdom's territorial integrity. However, the general mood is that the Houthis pose no threat to the kingdom, because the Saudis are the ones on the offensive. Instead, the threat to the Saudi kingdom and the wider Muslim world comes from the kingdom's Salafist ideology and its renegades, such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda.

While a Sunni nation, Pakistan has little in common with Saudi Arabia or the Arab world. In addition to the geographic and ethnic difference, Pakistan's Sunni Islam is different from the Salafist interpretation of Saudi Arabia. Pakistan also emphasizes the difference between their democratic political culture and the authoritarian character of Saudi Arabia.

After the Pakistani legislature publicly rejected Saudi Arabia's request for military forces, Riyadh now knows it cannot depend on Islamabad as it has before. Effectively, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen consists of Arab nations — hence the efforts to create an Arab military force.

The Arab World

Thus, the much talked about Sunni camp is really an Arab camp. But Saudi Arabia and certain Gulf Cooperation Council states are doing the heavy lifting in Yemen because the three major Arab states — Egypt, Syria and Iraq — have lost strategic relevance since the 1970s. Egypt's attempts at regional leadership foundered when wars, intra-Arab competition and a structurally weak economy led to the decline of the Nasserite government. In Syria, the minority Alawite sect in Syria's Baathist government under President Hafez al Assad consolidated power and, along with Damascus' rivalry with Baghdad, took the Levantine country out of both the Sunni and Arab categories. The 1991 Gulf War weakened Iraq as a Sunni Arab state. The country later fell into Iran's orbit after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Moreover, the Sunni-dominated Arab world was long divided between conservative monarchies and radical republican states, a divide that has, in the past three decades, been largely replaced by the ideological struggle between Islamists and secularists or traditionalists. While the more institutionalized Arab states were weakening, the petroleum-rich monarchies emerged as leaders of the Arab world, which is why the Gulf Cooperation Council has been more effective than the Arab League.

For the longest time, the Gulf countries' main tool in shaping the region was their financial heft. Egypt historically was strong politically and militarily but weak financially, and it has since become heavily dependent on Gulf largesse in the post-Hosni Mubarak era. Turmoil in the region increased exponentially after the Arab Spring, which left the Saudis and their Gulf allies to assume greater leadership, especially as the United States began scaling back its involvement in the region and engaging with Iran. In this context, the Saudi-led coalition's military intervention in Yemen emerged.

Saudi Arabia, with 100 aircraft, some naval units and 150,000 troops, is doing the bulk of the work. The United Arab Emirates is a distant second, with 30 jets, even though it has developed a sophisticated defense establishment and engaged in action in Libya and Syria. Kuwait and Bahrain have contributed 15 and 12 aircraft, respectively, while Qatar has committed 10 warplanes. Jordan and Morocco reportedly have provided six jets each while Sudan sent four warplanes, though it is unclear if they have conducted airstrikes and if so how many.

The Arab country with the biggest military, Egypt, has offered some air and naval assets, but again it is unclear how many. The Saudis hoped that Egypt would provide ground forces. But Cairo, despite its financial dependence on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, has resisted. From the Egyptian point of view, the Houthi surge in Yemen is not as much of a threat as it is to the Saudis, and Egypt has other matters of concern in its immediate area, such as Libya and Gaza. While the Arab states depend on Riyadh to lead a coalition, they are not comfortable subordinating their national sovereignty to a supra-national institution dominated by Saudi Arabia.

These states have different priorities and face different challenges. Disagreements are bound to occur. Even regarding Yemen, Egypt has tried to maintain a minimal role, while the United Arab Emirates has concerns about how the war has been prosecuted. The change of leadership in Riyadh is also creating anxieties. Not only are Arab countries concerned about the political transition underway in the kingdom, but they are also worried that the kingdom's Salafist ideology remains a destabilizing factor that jihadists can exploit.

Herein lies the strategic dilemma: The Arab world needs Saudi Arabia, but it fears the kingdom's hegemony. Moreover, the character of the Saudi state hinders Riyadh's ability to provide leadership. Its monarchical system depends on Salafism in a unique arrangement that does not apply to other states such as Egypt or even other monarchies such as the United Arab Emirates. While all the Arab countries seek to limit democratic reforms, there is no coherent vision for how Arab governments will evolve and develop.

Despite these many hurdles, there is no alternative to Saudi Arabia assuming leadership of the Sunni Arab world. The Saudis would have to lead any joint Arab military force, but a key part of this effort will be to get Egypt, which has the forces to spare, to play a bigger role. Several critical issues such as logistics, interoperability and political decision-making have to be worked out. Even the United Arab Emirates' de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nuhayyan, last week called for the creation of a political authority to oversee the envisioned Arab force.

While Saudi Arabia struggles to mobilize the Arab world, Turkey, whose political and economic progress offers a more attractive model for Arab youth, will challenge its decisions continuously. Turkey also has the advantage of being Sunni and better positioned to counter Iran, the sectarian "other."

For now, the Saudi-led Arab coalition is a relatively weak reactive force, which is why Riyadh and its Gulf allies are gearing up to secure U.S. assistance in the Camp David summit in mid-May. In many ways, the problems with forming a Sunni camp have arisen because majorities are typically internally fragmented, while minorities tend to have more cohesion. Similarly, Sunni leadership is contested while Iran faces no challenges from other Shiite states.

Lead Analyst: Kamran Bokhari

Production Editor: Robin Blackburn

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