Why the Shia-Sunni Divide Doesn’t Matter As Much As You Think It Does

By Matthew Petti

The mainstream American view of politics in the Muslim world, and particularly the Middle East, is driven by sectarian identity politics. Persians are Shi’ite, the conventional wisdom goes, and most Arabs are Sunni, so the two factions have coalesced around Iran and Saudi Arabia in the continuation of an age-old struggle for the soul of Islam, etc. This is not only ahistorical nonsense, but is also a driving factor in some very self-destructive policy. As I have argued in the National Interest, US policymakers’ conspiratorial belief in a “Shia crescent” has led them to destabilize fragile local political situations and back foolhardy actions by US allies. The idea of a unified Sunni bloc is similarly unable to explain reality, as the recent split in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia on one hand and Qatar and Turkey on the other, has lead to an intense political clash between the “Sunni” powers. And it has lead to schemes to create a “Sunni bloc” that have failed and will continue to fail.

A more realist explanation — though one which acknowledges the role of perception and domestic power struggles — can explain recent political developments in the Middle East far better than a sectarian fairytale. Saudi Arabia, which benefits immensely from the current international order, is trying to minimize the shocks brought on by the Arab Spring while attacking the Iranian sphere of influence and managing potentially dangerous domestic divisions. Qatar and Turkey, meanwhile, are revisionist powers who see an opportunity to expand their influence in the Arab Spring. Both sides use Sunni identity politics, and frequently make errors based on delusion or miscalculation, but neither is devoted to fanaticism at the expense of their own power. Nor are the leaders of any Sunni-majority state willing to embrace the apocalyptic sectarian war endorsed by factions such as ISIS.


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the status quo power par excellence. The House of Saud has reaped the economic, political, and security benefits of US backing for decades, and fears any major upset in the regional order that threatens the kingdom’s internal stability or its place as the most important US ally in the Middle East. Whatever foreign policy shifts — such as rapprochement with Israel — or domestic social reforms the House of Saud makes are carried out with an eye towards maintaining the current distribution of power and managing the systemic shocks of the 21st century. This is not to say that the kingdom slavishly works in America’s best interests; the House of Saud has worked to make itself indispensable to US foreign policy, but not necessarily advance US interests. Nor is it to say that Saudi Arabia always weighs its options carefully or acts on the most objective information, as the Saudi tendency to see Iranian advances where there are none has lead the kingdom to carry out quixotical and self-defeating adventures in its near abroad.

But as its vacillating relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood shows, Saudi Arabia’s policy goals are based on maintaining a certain distribution of power rather than advancing the state’s ideology. At the start of the Cold War, the Brotherhood’s Egyptian founder Hassan al-Banna frequently visited Riyadh for generous financial gifts, as Saudi Arabia saw the Brotherhood as a counterweight against pan-Arabist and Communist movements, associated with Saudi Arabia’s expansionist rivals Egypt and the Soviet Union, respectively. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia were both key intermediaries in the US strategy of supporting the Afghan resistance with money and foreign fighters.

President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia attend the meeting of the Leaders of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf Countries, Sunday, May 21, 2017, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

However, this close working relationship deteriorated over time. The Brotherhood opposed Saudi participation in the Persian Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, while the Saudi regime saw the growing domestic “Islamic Awakening” movement as an example of the Brotherhood overstaying its welcome. When the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt in 2011, the Saudi regime became alarmed by the revolutionary fervor of the Arab Spring. A week after the Brotherhood was overthrown in a 2013 coup d’etat, Saudi Arabia and its allies pledged $12 billion in aid to the new Egyptian military regime, eventually designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. This change in outlook demonstrates the Saudi dedication to the status quo; the Sunni solidarity of the Muslim Brotherhood was useful to the kingdom when both sides were opposed to common expansionist foes, but dangerous when it began to undermine the victorious post-1991 order.

Qatar, on the other hand, seeks to use its economic and cultural soft power to influence the course of Arab Spring and maximize its previously lowly influence within the regional order. While the peninsular kingdom has the highest real GDP per capita in the world, it has historically been the junior partner to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, serving as an intermediary between “respectable” states and non-state actors. Qatar responded to this relative marginalization by investing its financial and political capital into various soft power projects While many of these projects have been benign—funding soccer teams or humanitarian agencies, for example—some have stepped on the toes of other Persian Gulf kingdoms, especially after the Arab Spring. Rather than fearing the revolutionary upheaval in 2011 onwards, the Qatari elite saw it as an opportunity to expand their influence. “Leverag[ing] its longstanding ties to Islamists,” the kingdom threw its financial and political weight behind various opposition movements, from armed rebels in Syria to electoral parties in Morocco.


While this increased Qatar’s prestige on the Arab street, it also aroused the suspicion of its neighbors. The muckraking Qatari-funded broadcaster Al-Jazeera, which often gave voice to Islamist parties and questioned Arab states’ official narratives, was seen as especially troublesome; Bahrain, for example, accused the broadcaster of “interfering in its internal affairs” and “hosting outlaws and branding them as the opposition,” paying “no heed to kinship relations” between Arab regimes. It is no surprise, then, that the preconditions to removing the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar include ending support for “extremist organizations” and shutting down Al Jazeera—as well as include cutting ties with Iran. Viewed through a sectarian lens, this list is incoherent. After all, Iran is a Shi’ite power and the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical Sunni organization. Saudi Arabia associates the two because they are both threats to the Saudi-centric regional order. Qatar is seen as aligned with both because of its willingness to gamble on a reshuffling of the balance of power. The struggle for the post-2011 order, along with tribal disputes in the Persian Gulf and New York, weigh far heavier on Saudi-Qatari relations than any Sunni-Shi’ite conflict.


The pro-Saudi bloc may call itself “Sunni,” or whatever else it likes, but its main concern is maintaining the House of Saud—whether against Iran, Sunni mass movements, or fellow Sunni states. The Qatari regime may gamble its own power on Sunni uprisings, but it does so at this expense of established Sunni powers.

Turkey is the most complicated case. While it has certainly benefited from its Cold War alliance with the US through NATO, Turkey now places a higher priority on expanding its influence into the growing power vacuum in the Levant. Turkish elites see US responses to the Arab Spring as an impediment to that goal at best, and a threat to their country’s territorial integrity and internal stability at worst. Like Qatar, Turkey seeks to revise the order from within, making the two countries natural allies; Turkey has provided aid to Qatar to mitigate the Saudi blockade, and Qatar has allowed Turkey to deploy troops in the Persian Gulf. (Indeed, one of the Saudi demands is to shut down the Turkish base in Qatar.) But unlike its newfound partner in the Persian Gulf, the Turkish Republic sees the current order as not only an unnatural distribution of power, but also a growing threat to its own survival.

The root of Turkey’s fear is “the Kurdish question.” The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I resulted in the creation of a new Turkish Republic based on ethnic rather than religious solidarity. However, as the largest ethnic minority in the country, Kurds resisted state assimilation policies, sometimes met with state violence. In the 1980s, the state’s worst fear came true: the left-wing Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) initiated a coordinated separatist uprising, striking at the Republic’s authority in Kurdish-majority areas (and occasionally in Istanbul and Ankara as well). Since the final decades of the Cold War, the US has backed Turkey’s bloody crackdown on the PKK, which both states see as a communist terrorist organization.

But the civil war in Syria has put the US and Turkey on opposite sides of the Kurdish question. After reluctantly supporting left-wing Kurdish guerrillas against ISIS, the US has begun promoting the Democratic Federation of North Syria—which Turkey sees as a PKK statelet—as an alternative to both the Syrian state and the Islamic opposition. As of March, 2018, Turkey is attacking the forces of that very same Democratic Federation, carrying out Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish-majority city of Efrîn despite US objections. An armed confrontation between two NATO allies, once an unthinkable possibility, seems increasingly likely. At the same time, Turkey has been pursuing a separate peace that excludes the US and abandons the traditional “Sunni alliance” against Syrian leader Bashar Assad in favor of rapprochement with Iran and Russia. While the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia initially shared the goal of ousting Assad’s government, Turkey has consistently (and understandably) prioritized the Kurdish question over the concerns of its erstwhile allies.

More so than in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, ideological shifts in Turkey have played an important role in shaping the country’s relationship with the international order. Turkish elites increasingly look to Turkey’s imperial past during the Ottoman dynasty as a model for the future, and their foreign policy, once isolationist and westwards-looking, has been replaced by the idea “that Turkey could be the regional Sunni leader.” However, this is not an internationalist form of Sunni pan-Islamism; “neo-Ottomanism” is focused on Turkey’s role in Turkey’s Sunni-majority near abroad.

Critics often point to an alleged Turkish-ISIS alliance as evidence that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an irredeemably sectarian Islamist, but the situation is actually more complex. Although Turkish security forces likely allowed ISIS to grow in order to counter Turkey’s rivals in Syria—a wildly irresponsible miscalculation that endangered religious minorities and contributed to tens of thousands of deaths—Turkey turned against ISIS in Operation Euphrates Shield once the group became a liability. And the unwillingness to peacefully resolve the Kurdish question is one place where neo-Ottomanism actually diverges from sectarian solidarity; after all, both Turks and Kurds are Sunni-majority peoples.

Fantasies of a pro-US “Sunni bloc” are ultimately self-contradictory—and the Beltway should be thankful that its schemes to that end have failed. A coalition of states dedicated to Sunni unity will only be friendly to the United States so long as it benefits Sunni ascendancy. Iran may rue the day that Ankara, Riyadh, Cairo, Islamabad and Doha act in concert—but so will the US. Meanwhile, a Sunni bloc that prioritizes preserving an American-led order over sectarianism is not much of a “Sunni” bloc indeed; in that case, there is no reason not to include Shi’ite or secular nations as well. America has far more to offer individual states interested in survival and material gain than to grand alliances built around maintaining the supremacy of a religious sect. Middle Easterners are not stupid or single-minded, and treating them as such will only ensure that America is perpetually surprised and outsmarted.

Matthew, a junior at Columbia University, has been published in Reason Magazine, the National Interest, and America Magazine. He has been awarded a Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship for the summer of 2018.






3 responses to “Why the Shia-Sunni Divide Doesn’t Matter As Much As You Think It Does”

  1. Steve Avatar

    In addition to your points, you may also have seen that in Paul Pillar’s recent National Interest piece on Iranian strategy, he notes that after a brief period of revolutionary fervor, Iran’s appeals to religion in its foreign policy have primarily been pan-Islamic rather than exclusively Shia. That said, it could just be the self-interest of a minority (and allegedly heretical) sect to attempt to link itself with a more popular religion in the same way that Mormons emphasize their commonality with Christianity even though they draw partly from a completely different source text. But the big takeaway is that Iran acts the way an offensive realist would predict – as a power-maximizer – rather than as Shia actor per se.

    As further evidence, Shia groups have cooperated with Sunni Palestinian groups in spite of their religious difference.

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