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Saudi Arabia Vs. Iran: Why Their Feud Goes Beyond Sectarian Tensions


That dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been characterized as the latest riff in a centuries-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are the majority in Saudi Arabia, but there is a significant minority of Shiites as well. Toby Craig Jones is a professor of history at Rutgers University who has written about this.

Welcome to the show.

TOBY CRAIG JONES: Hi Kelly, thanks.

MCEVERS: So let's start first with that Shiite community in Saudi Arabia. You've spent a lot of time there, I've spent a lot of time there. It's largely concentrated in the eastern part of the country. What percentage of Saudi Arabia is Shiite?

JONES: My best estimates are 10 percent to 15 percent. That probably puts them at somewhere between 2 million and 2.5 million, as you said, concentrated in communities across the eastern province.

MCEVERS: And this area has a history of protest and uprising that's not necessarily related to the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Is that right?

JONES: It certainly has a history of confrontation - especially from the 1970s going forward. Beginning in the early part of the decade, lots of young men from Saudi Shia communities traveled to Iraq or Kuwait where they began to study, embrace revolutionary policies and began advocating for all kinds of things from community rights to regime change in Saudi Arabia.

MCEVERS: Would they characterize what they're doing as sectarian?

JONES: No, I don't think so. They use a language of democracy, human rights and inclusion. The most prominent Saudi Shiites over the last decade or so have been involved in a national political reform movement that's not sectarian at all.

MCEVERS: I mean, the story that's being played out now is this very sectarian one - Sunni Saudi Arabia versus Shiite Iran. Is that the way you see the conflict?

JONES: No, that's the way the Saudis, it's the way the Bahrainis, the way their allies in the Arab world have framed the conflict. They see threats from below and they see it across the region. I mean, let's remember, five years ago at the start of the Arab uprisings, the Saudis were alarmed by the rapid fall of Mubarak, rapid change in Tunisia, shocks in Syria and Yemen. And then when the Bahraini protestors took to the streets, it seemed as though it was coming home. The Saudis responded in much the same way the Bahrainis did, and that's that they chose Shiites as the scapegoat because most of the protestors came from within the Shia community, which was really just the reflection Bahrain's demography. They characterized it as a sectarian event.

MCEVERS: But the majority of people in the country of Bahrain are actually Shiite.

JONES: That's right.

MCEVERS: So explain then how does Saudi Arabia benefit from characterizing this is as a sectarian battle?

JONES: Well, it's complicated.


JONES: You know, right. The easiest way to explain it, but I think the most problematic one, is to say, well, Saudi Arabia is beholden and has embraced the kind of Sunni orthodoxy that - the convenient shorthand that we're accustomed to is to hear it called Wahhabism.


JONES: Which is widely purported to be intolerant and discriminatory. And there are elements of truth to that. The Saudis have sought to balance that over time but are capitalizing on the most extreme variants of it today. This is not - you know, intolerance and discriminatory sensibilities are not as widespread in Saudi Arabia as we might like to think, and they're certainly not widespread historically. But once they're fueled and once they're encouraged, they come to have a grip over the mosque in the public sphere that takes on a life of its own.

MCEVERS: Don't we see Iran doing the same thing basically though, with Shiites around the region and sort of casting itself as the keeper of the faith and using sectarianism to its benefit?

JONES: It has historically. That's absolutely right. Certainly, Iran has allied itself and aligned itself with Shiite networks in Iraq and Lebanon. They've sought to do so in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

MCEVERS: I guess I want to ask, I mean when you've got these two big powerhouse countries, you know, fanning these sectarian flames for lack of a better phrase, that's got implications. You've got people burning things and protesting. You've got people angry, buying into this sectarian narrative around the region.

JONES: Yeah, Well, look, I would insist that the Saudis are primarily driving the sectarian issue here. Iran has not done enough to back away from it, and Iran is a complicated place. But I agree that this is impossible to control. It will lead to escalating tensions. It may not lead to war between Iran and Saudi Arabia...


JONES: ...But it will certainly encourage like-minded sympathizers across the region, whether it's ISIS or whether it's al-Qaida in Yemen, to pursue and embrace a similar kind of line. It will fuel violence everywhere, and it will lend a veneer of credibility to those who say either the Sunnis our are enemies or the Shiites are our enemies and continue to see political conflict in those terms.

MCEVERS: That's Toby Craig Jones. He's a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of, "Desert Kingdom: How Oil And Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia."

Thanks so much.

JONES: Thanks Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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