GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
Bridging the Saudi-Iran Doctrinal and Strategic Cleavages: An Indian Role
Paper Proposal Text :
GRM 2016

Workshop: Collective Security in the Gulf: Prospects for Pan-Gulf Cooperation

Paper: \"Bridging the Saudi-Iran Doctrinal and Strategic Divide: An Indian Role\"

Author: Talmiz Ahmad

Abstract of the paper

Five years after the Arab Spring, West Asia is experiencing military conflicts in Syria and Yemen, several states are facing domestic challenges to the political status quo, and jihad, represented by Al Qaeda and the \"Islamic State\" (Daesh), is today rampant across the region, engaged in brutal assaults on local communities even as they compete with each other for doctrinal and territorial superiority. These conflicts have brought the world\'s major powers, the US and Russia, into the West Asian arena, pitting them against these extremist elements even as they are in contention with each other to re-shape the world order and define the role of new players in it.

At the heart of these competitions is the strategic rivalry between the two regional Islamic giants, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since 2003, the Kingdom has viewed with increasing disquiet the expanding influence of the Islamic Republic across West Asia. \"Shia empowerment\", espoused by the US occupation in Iraq provided Iran with a new opportunity to dominate the politics of a major Arab state with which Saudi Arabia shares an 800 km border. Sensing an \"existential\" threat from this Iranian aggrandizement, the Kingdom abandoned its traditional policies of moderation, accommodation and low-key, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and has opted to directly confront Iranian interests in different West Asian theatres.

Saudi Arabia is today seeking regime change in Syria to replace its pro-Iranian leader with one more amenable to its interests. It has also embarked on military action in Yemen to debilitate the Houthis as a military and political force.

However, while the Kingdom’s concerns have emerged from strategic considerations, it has shaped its competition with Iran in sectarian terms, imparting to primeval cleavages and animosities a contemporary resonance. Its sectarian mobilization, both domestic and regional, is based on the most important and influential doctrinal movement in modern-day Sunni Islam - Salafism. Salafism is now the central force defining sectarian conflicts in different parts of West Asia -- Iraq, Syria and Yemen. It is also the foundational ideology of the jihadi movement across the world.

So far, the military conflicts have not yielded the quick results its protagonists had hoped for: though thousands of people have been killed and cities and nations devastated, neither has regime change been achieved in Syria, nor have the Houthis been defeated.
Jihad remains a formidable force, while the scourge of sectarianism threatens the integrity of countries across West Asia and beyond. At the same time, the rhetoric between Iran and Saudi Arabia has become sharper and the animosities between their peoples have got deeper. There are therefore legitimate concerns that, as the regional scenario deteriorates, the two major Islamic neighbours could even find themselves in direct conflict.

This prospect is a matter of deep concern for India and a number of Asian countries that depend on a stable Gulf for their energy security, their lucrative trade and investment ties, and, in the case of India, for the welfare of its eight million-strong community resident in the region. With the US reluctant to play a lead military and political role in the regional quagmire, there is now an urgent need for the Asian nations to get off the fence and assume responsibility to promote regional stability by building confidence and trust between the estranged Islamic nations in a dangerous face-off across the Gulf.

The paper will suggest that India take the lead to put together an Asian effort to define, structure and pursue the setting up of a dialogue platform for the two nations in contention, and then work with Asian and other interested countries to shape a new regional cooperative security arrangement. The paper will explain how India is well-placed to take the lead in promoting this role. It will then analyse the challenges this initiative faces both in developing an Asian consensus and then getting the Gulf nations to shed their mutual concerns and animosities and come together on a shared platform for dialogue. The paper will assert that the initiative is both timely, feasible and an urgent necessity.