During the course of 2011, it became increasingly apparent that the regional strategic order in the Middle East was being reshaped along sectarian lines. This generally pitted Arab Sunni Muslims against confessional minorities. However, a series of recent developments has started to undermine this dominant narrative and push back against a regional system too starkly defined by sectarianism.
The sectarian narrative was, more than anything else, an extension of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and their respective allies. It was no longer possible for an organization like Hamas, for instance, to remain comfortably a part of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood network and, simultaneously, a key ally of Tehran and its non-Sunni clients. The popularity and regional influence of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah nosedived, while those of Turkey, led by a Sunni Islamist party, soared. Across the Arab world, governments and organizations took sides based on religious affiliation, most notably in the conflicts in Syria and Bahrain.
Many Western observers framed the rise of sectarianism simply as “counterrevolution,” and accused the Saudis of being behind it. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states promoted a sectarian narrative, but so did Iran and many of its allies, including the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, while Saudi Arabia was appalled by the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, it also supported the uprisings against Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi and Assad. Therefore, its policies have been selectively counterrevolutionary, but not necessarily so.
Throughout 2011, both the Saudis and Iranians, and most other players in the Middle East, either tried to exploit sectarianism or wittingly or unwittingly fell into its trap. Few if any emerged with clean hands. However, there were always other considerations lurking under the surface of what appeared to be a sectarian binary. New developments have brought some of those issues to the forefront and are allowing us to look beyond the interpretation of a regional order divided along strict sectarian lines.
One challenge to the sectarian paradigm is Iraq’s role in the Arab world. By adhering to a purely sectarian narrative, the Sunni Arab world could have virtually ceded Shia-dominated Iraq to Iran’s sphere of influence. However, the successful holding of the Arab League summit in Baghdad, which was attended by the emir of Kuwait no less, as well as the appointment of a Saudi ambassador to Iraq, clearly reflected an interest among Sunni Arab states to reintegrate Iraq into the Arab mainstream. Iraq’s leaders, too, have shown a significant interest in reintegrating with the Arab world and pursuing policies that keep Iran’s influence at arm’s length.
The uprising in Syria has also frayed what had been a united Sunni Arab front categorically in favor of regime change. There has been discernible uneasiness with the potential consequences of civil conflict inside the country and its potential to destabilize the region. This hesitation, which is shared by some Sunni Arab states, has been fueled by a lack of confidence in the Syrian opposition, and a growing sense that the costs of regime change may outweigh its benefits.
Such concerns have been expressed more forthrightly in private than in public. However, the divisions within the Arab League over how vigorously to pursue regime-change policies in Syria are no longer, as they once were, simply defined by sectarianism.
A further example of an anti-sectarian push back comes from the other side. Iran has strived to keep parts of Hamas, especially some of its Gaza-based leadership, within its orbit. Hamas leaders not in exile have appeared receptive. For example, Mahmoud Zahhar and Ismail Haniyeh have both made well-publicized, very friendly visits to Tehran in recent months.
Zahhar and Haniyeh have seemed willing to scupper the efforts of Hamas leaders in exile, notably the head of the Political Bureau, Khaled Meshaal, to integrate Hamas into a purely Sunni Arab camp by cultivating states such as Qatar, Jordan and Egypt. There are others, too, who, for their own reasons, hope to revive the comatose “axis of resistance” narrative that allowed for an extremist trans-sectarian Middle Eastern alliance, or at least keep it on life support.
National interests, ideology, concerns about regional stability, personal and political rivalries, and a growing understanding of the costs of a regional order strictly divided along sectarian lines are increasingly disrupting the new sectarian narrative. Regional sectarian divisions are still the biggest single factor in the new Middle East, but other considerations are finally starting to make a significant comeback.