Sunni and Shia; Saudi and Iran

One of the lead news stories in the past days is one that may be introduced along the lines:Saudi Arabia says it has broken off diplomatic ties with Iran, amid a row over the Saudi execution of a prominent Shia Muslim cleric”, with all sorts of aftermath thrown in. For some this comes as a surprise, for such is the ignorance of the majority of the watching public, but for those who have been following a lot closer, we are seeing an inevitable development.

I should begin by repeating that while I know more than most about Middle Eastern affairs, I still don’t know anywhere enough to be able to come to a fully rounded view, and one reason I blog on such matters is to start to remedy this. It got me thinking about the two heavyweight protagonists in this conflict, the real story behind recent developments, how western governments (specifically the UK) deal with Saudi and Iran, the relevance of the Sunni and Shia variants of Islam and my own history (which I will begin with).

Many will know that while I have held careers as a teacher and community worker, the one I spent most time with and certainly the most lucrative was that as a software engineer. I recall working for Marconi’s in that capacity 1983-1988, where many of our biggest and most prestigious clients were from the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. One of our projects was to do with setting up a digital radio system for Iraq. It was before the wars with Iraq where the UK were part of the opposition but at that time Iraq and Iran were at war (and that too had a Shia Sunni angle). Clearly, the Western powers were siding with Iraq then and it is only recently there has been some thawing in relations with Iran. What seemed especially pertinent though was at that time my company was developing a major communications system for the Saudis. It happened that we were behind schedule giving our customer what had been agreed and there things might have stood but … The story went that Lord Wienstock (head of GEC (which owned Marconi)) and the King of Saudi, who shared an interest in race horses, got talking one day and the King dropped he was concerned that our project hadn’t delivered the goods as expected. What followed was a dictate from on high to get our finger out and make this particular project our number one priority, which we did. When recently we had images of the British government doing all it could to butter up the Saudis, despite their atrocious human rights record, I couldn’t help but think how little has changed and how the British government responds to events in the Middle East is influenced by the need to keep people like the Saudi royal family happy, and this has implications, not least last month’s vote to bomb Syria (as it is all related).

I hope readers will excuse my skepticism, but I find unless the right questions are asked and a proper understanding is arrived at, we are not going to make the right decision and will have to face the consequences, and since we live in a democracy that while it is flawed it at least brings our politicians to account via the ballot box, one is beholden to do so. So onto my next strand of these deliberations: the difference between Shias and Sunnis. I must admit that I struggle understanding these myself and even when I sort of get it I still need to dig as to how relevant all this is and what part these differences have played in the Sunni dominated Saudi executing a Shia cleric and thus further alienating Shia dominated Iran? Rather than making a mess at trying to explain the differences, might I suggest readers check out three articles I read today on the subject (click here, here and here)? Also, to be kept in mind are the words of local Muslim friends that as far as most Muslims living in my part of the world (Southend-on-sea) are concerned, this is not a big deal, doesn’t interest most of them, where Muslims differ on the matter they generally peacefully co-exist and the real issue behind the conflict between Saudi and Iran, as well as similar such between Muslim states/factions, is that of power and who has the ascendancy when it comes to holding power, with theology seen as secondary.

The history of Iran (and related – Persia, millennia ago head of the major world empire) and Saudi (and the bringing together of assorted Arab factions using divide and rule among other tactics) is fascinating and I would want to know more, if only to arrive at that necessary better understanding. The fact these are both major oil producers and therefore do have significant wealth (and therefore influence) is a significant factor too as is the various relationships each have with and their attitude toward all other States (including Israel), meaning that what is happening now in the current breakdown in relationship between Saudi and Iran can not be easily ignored. It is true this is part of a much bigger story involving what is taking place elsewhere in the Middle East e.g. Iraq and Syria, and of course Israel, and I am merely alerting those who care to read my blogs of these matters and declare that I will continue to pay a keen interest in that which is taking place.

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