GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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The Hobgoblin of Little Minds: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sectarianism in the Gulf
Paper Proposal Text :
In January 2013, two Saudis with seemingly little in common met for breakfast in Kuwait. The first, a Shi’a Muslim from the Eastern Province, had firm ties with Western academics and diplomats, especially Americans. He had won a King Abdullah Scholarship to study at Columbia University thanks to the direct assistance of a U.S. Senator. His criticisms of (and seemingly hip perspective on) the Kingdom had made his website and Twitter account well known in the West. By contrast, the second was a Sunni who had been raised in Asir and had been groomed to be a pillar of the Saudi establishment. He freely moved among religious and secular elites in Riyadh, approved of his government’s policies to contain Iran’s nuclear program and defeat Tehran’s allies in Syria, and remained bitter that his applications to study at U.S. universities had been rejected in 2001.

Yet there was a force that transcended their differences: football. Both men were passionate fans of Riyadh’s al-Hilal football (soccer) club, the most successful club in Saudi history and one that is associated with supporters of the Royal Family. The team has won over fifty championships since it was founded in 1957. Its supporters, called Hilalis, refer to the team as za’aim, or the boss, a reference to its success and proximity to power. The loyalties ran deep: the Shi’a Saudi remained loyal to al-Hilal, as his hometown team, al-Fateh, won the Saudi premier league championship in 2013. Following the breakfast meeting, the Sunni Saudi noted to a Western scholar of Saudi Arabia, “He was a Hilali, so it was it all right.”

The meeting of the two men brings into stark relief the sectarian bigotry that many in the West believe guides the Kingdom’s policies towards Iran. While there is no question that sectarianism is a tangible factor in daily life from the pronouncements of senior officials in Riyadh warning of Iran’s threat to regional stability to fights among students in school playgrounds in Najran, this paper will argue that the focus on sectarianism overlooks a) non-religious factors that shape foreign policy towards Iran and b) the collective approach and flexibility inherent in Saudi politics at home and abroad. Indeed, few peoples better reflect the wisdom of the American author Ralph Waldo Emerson, (1803-1882), who in his essay “Self-Reliance” observed that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

To illustrate the nuanced nature of Saudi policy, this paper will utilize the author’s extensive research in Saudi Arabia from April 2013 until January 2014 for his forthcoming book, "What’s Past is Prologue: How Dialogue, Obligations and Reciprocity Frame Saudi Arabia’s Success in the Contemporary World."

During interviews with individuals who shape the foreign policy of the Kingdom, two traits emerged: a) Saudis rarely conceive of their nation or its foreign policy in unitary or singularly national terms; b) they use “we” in the broadest sense of kinship, of you and me together as friends or longtime colleagues addressing a challenge or issues of common concern. Such language reflects the long-standing Saudi commitment to collective action in foreign relations. Two multilateral institutions critical to Riyadh’s foreign policy are based in the Kingdom—the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Similarly, managing Mecca, Medina, and the annual Hajj pilgrimage requires a worldview and openness to diversity at odds with narrow sectarian views now attributed to Saudi leaders and their policies towards Iran. Despite Riyadh’s stark differences with Tehran on a host of issues, nearly 100,000 Iranians annually go on Hajj and there have not been any violent incidents between pilgrims and Saudi officials akin to those that took place in the late 1980s.

The Saudi use of the word “we” also reflects the need for flexibility and partners because of the Kingdom’s porous borders, the millions of expatriate visitors and workers in the Kingdom, and the dependence of the Saudi economy on continuous access to the global economic system. Most discussions of Saudi policy in Syria (and Iran’s involvement in the conflict) overlook the fact that there are a million Syrians now living in the Kingdom, the largest population of Syrians outside of Syria. They and millions of others from Africa, the Middle East, and the wider Islamic world have ties to millions of Saudis, including King Abdullah. His mother is a member of the Shammar Tribe, and these links have influenced foreign policy in substantial ways. As Riyadh vacillated towards the rebellion in Syria in summer 2011 and Tehran poured resources into the country to aid the government, a poem using passionate language and searing images from Syria appeared on YouTube in Saudi Arabia. It reminded King Abdullah of his familial ties to Syria and implored him as a just ruler to take action to protect them. Shortly thereafter the Saudi government threw its weight behind the rebellion. One can see the synthesis of similar domestic and international factors in Saudi policy towards Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, and other states where Iran has directly (or indirectly) challenged the Kingdom’s allies. Notably, Saudi concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are nearly identical to those of many Western states, none of whose foreign policies could be labeled “sectarian.”

Finally, the Shi‘a in al-Ahsa, the rest of the Eastern Province, and Najran provide perhaps the strongest evidence that Saudi policies at home and abroad are not driven only by sectarianism. Any visitor to Qatif and al-Ahsa can see that they are wealthier than their Sunni neighbors, while the Shi‘a in Al-Ahsa and Najran hold positions of authority in Aramco and the National Guard. A number of prominent businesses are run by Shi‘a Saudis, who are indistinguishable socially from Sunnis of similar economic background: they eat chicken Kabsa, live in walled homes, wear the thob and shemagh, socialize on Thursday nights in family diwans, and take vacations to Europe and North America. They also see themselves as Saudis and are loyal. This fact was vividly illustrated to me when an Ismaili in Najran asked me in January 2014, “Why are you Americans supporting our enemy Iran and forcing us return to the era when we used to kiss the ass of the Shah?” Such questions reflect the history of Najran, which freely chose to join Saudi Arabia in 1934, preferring to live under King Abdul Aziz, a Sunni, than under the Yemeni monarch, Imam Yahya, who was, like them, Shi’a.