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Sunni vs Shia: How religious differences led to a global conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran


Sunni vs Shia: How religious differences led to a global conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran


The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has entrapped far more than just the two countries themselves. The two sides have waged proxy wars throughout the Middle-East and helped exacerbate some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, including Yemen and Syria. And yet, beyond the economic, political and strategic reasoning behind these moves, at the heart of the matter lies a fundamental difference in religious ideology – Sunni Islam versus Shiite Islam.

Saudi Arabia, of course, represents perhaps the most traditional and strict form of Islam practiced in the community – a form of ultraconservative Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. As the keepers or, as they’d like it known, the “guardians” of Makkah and Madinah, two extremely important cities in Islamic history and practice, Saudi Arabia has long considered itself the leader of the Muslim world – even if recent events have shown its reticence in supporting its Muslim brothers.

However, this undisputed leadership isn’t as undisputed as it has been in the past. Turkey is only recently rising to paint itself as the leader of the Muslim world, but for far longer this position has been disputed by Iran.

It’s hard not to see why. Among the many things Iran has that Turkey and countries wishing to lead Muslims is a firm commitment to Shia Islam, which immediately puts it at odds with the ultraconservative interpretation of Wahhabism followed by Saudi Arabia.

Naturally, there are strategic and economic reasons behind the conflict that would eventually ensue between the two countries – both countries wish to protect their interests both within and outside of their borders – but at the very core of the conflict between the two is a Saudi terror and Irani aspiration that Shia Islam propagated by the latter will end up dominating not just the Middle-East, but the entire Middle-East.

Political and economic differences can always be sorted out between countries eventually via compromise and skillful diplomacy, but it is difficult if not impossible to imagine this religious difference being reconciled anytime soon.

The most regrettable thing amid all this is that Saudi Arabia and Iran, had they resolved this religious difference and agreed to respect the territorial and religious integrity of not just each other but their neighbors as well, could not only have averted the massive human loss in Syria and Yemen, but could also have jointly pressurized Israel on the liberation of Palestine.

Rather, by remaining divided on the basis of religion, and leaning on support from global powers, they not only jointly caused conflicts affecting the global community, but also ensured that the Middle-East will remain splintered and broken for years to come.

Also read: Hajj: How a noble religious ritual became Saudi Arabia’s money-making business