It is a recognized reality that the Middle East is divided into two greater blocs, where Syria, Iraq & Hezbollah are spearheaded by Iran (often addressed as shia bloc) and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey & Qatar are spearheaded by Saudi Arabia (often addressed as sunni bloc). However, a new reality is trending.

The sunni bloc is increasingly experiencing fractures within itself because of the differences of views between two further sub-groupings within the bloc. One group, which is led by Saudi Arabia, includes United Arab Emirates, Bahrain & Egypt. This group opposes any kind of democracy. The other group, consisting of Turkey & Qatar, supports their own version of democracy.

On the otherside, while Pakistan is traditionally allied with Saudi Arabia, its need for national security and energy security has been pushing Pakistan into changing its foreign policy by moving away from ‘all-out influence’ of Saudi Arabia and taking a more lenient approach with regard to Iran. At the same time, Algeria seems to be moving away from the influence of Saudi Arabia in its attempt to establish regular relations with Iran. Furthermore, the rivalries within the region have been further fuelled by the interferences and interventions of the two military superpowers – the U.S. and Russia.

Traditional blocs

The traditional sunni bloc, which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Morocco and Turkey, are using the sunni brand in order to rally the sunnis around the world behind their back against their rival Iran. On the other side, Iran is playing the same game by using the card of shia-ism in pulling the shias around the world towards its cause of portraying Saudi Arabia an evil power.

Growing Iranian influence in the region

The Iranian influence in the region is growing and such an increasing trend is perceivable from a number of developments. First, Iran-backed Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been operating inside Syria and Iraq. Secondly, Iran was successful in establishing its influence substantially within the Lebanese social fabric and there is a strong presence of Hezbollah within Lebanon. Thirdly, the Iran-influenced government of Iraq consults with Iran about each and every matter, even on petty issues. Fourthly, a pro-Iranian regime, led by Bashar-al-Assad, is still holding onto power in war-torn Syria, Fifthly, Iran has been increasingly attaining a good control over the shia community within Bahrain which has a shia majority population under the sunni monarch. Sixth, Iran has backed the Houthis, an armed group in Yemen, to successfully capture Yemeni capital Sana, and also to hold onto it for a long while until now. Finally, the nuclear done deal among the six nuclear powers and Iran was a landmark political, diplomatic and economic achievement for Iran, creating the possibility for strengthening Iran’s regional influence against its major foe Saudi Arabia.

Saudi-led sub-grouping

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Morocco – all share many social, political and economic characteristics in common. The most notable common characteristic is, without any doubt, the fact that all of these countries are monarchies. Any other systems of governance that challenge the state’s ruling mechanisms are, at times, checked and balanced through cracking down on such voices that are raised against the monarchy and its governance system.

Egypt, under a dictatorship, has been maintaining good relationship and deep cooperation with Saudi Arabia, because there are many common interests between these two countries. Saudi Arabia prefers to keep the Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood largely ineffective by making sure that the government of Egypt is neutralizing the organization inside Egypt, from where the organization runs its regional campaigns.

Egypt’s current president, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, came to power by overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood backed president Mohammad Morsi. Besides keeping Muslim Brotherhood under check in the region, Saudi Arabia needs Egypt for overall balance of power in the region. Availing an ally like Egypt, which is a sunni populated regional military power, gives Saudi Arabia a boost against its regional foes, especially against Iran and Muslim Brotherhood.

Sub-grouping of Qatar & Turkey

The point of views regarding the practice of democracy collides between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Qatar, despite being a monarchy, supports a version of “so called” Islamic democracy in line with their own interpretation. Because of such a mindset, Qatar has been backing Muslim Brotherhood across the region. The Qatari policy makers, compared to those of Saudi Arabia, do have a lesser harsh approach towards Iran because of the same.

Turkey’s ruling Justice & Development Party, otherwise known as the AK Party, professes a “so called” Islamic democracy similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey, among all the regional sunni populated countries, has the least harsh approach towards Iran & the likes (developments centring Syria is an exception though).

There have been incidents of withdrawal of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain’s ambassadors from Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, including within Egypt. Saudi authority strongly opposes the Muslim Brotherhood and the organization is banned in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia & Egypt.

At the same time, it is true that while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain & Egypt have many differences with Qatar & Turkey regarding many aspects of foreign policy, their greater shared and common interests with regard to their rivalry with regional axis of Iran-Iraq-Assad-Hezbollah have been keeping them united.

Algeria moving away from Saudi Arabia towards Iran

Algeria seems to be moving away from the influence of Saudi Arabia in its attempt to establish regular relations with Iran. Algeria, whose influence is increasing across Africa, has been half-hearted regarding its relations with the Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. There is a clear difference between Algeria and Saudi Arabia regarding their positions, both political and economic, on the Syrian issue. Algeria continues to recognize Bashar-al-Assad’s regime, while Saudi Arabia recently hosted the Syrian opposition conference. The crisis in Yemen further complicates matters, as Saudi Arabia, alongwith its Arab allies, is fighting the Houthis and forces loyal to deposed President Abdullah Saleh, while Algeria has proposed a diplomatic initiative and announced its willingness to host the Houthis and Abdullah Saleh loyalists.

Algeria not only refused to participate in the Saudi-led coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen and establish a joint Arab force, it also refused to participate in the new Islamic Alliance to combat terrorism, led by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s alleged support towards Morocco in its dispute with the Algerian-allied Polisario Front in the dispute over the Western Sahara only makes the relationship between Algeria and Saudi Arabia worse.

Pakistan’s balancing act

Pakistan’s relation too with Saudi Arabia is deteriorating amid Pakistan’s attempt to draw a balance between its relations with Saudi Arabia and its relations with Iran. While Pakistan is traditionally allied with Saudi Arabia, its need for national security and energy security has been pushing Pakistan into changing its foreign policy by moving away from ‘all-out influence’ of Saudi Arabia and taking a more lenient approach with regard to Iran.

Both Iran and Pakistan know well that China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of China’s initiative to revive the ancient Silk Route, has the potential to transform the economies of Pakistan and, if accommodated of, Iran, India and Afghanistan. CPEC is most likely to bring peace and prosperity not only in Pakistan’s conflict-torn Baluchistan, but also in the Pakistan’s neighbourhood – South Asia and Central Asia.

Pakistan is now concentrating on neutralizing all the insurgencies inside its territory and on shaping up a business friendly Pakistan. Pakistan’s economy is likely to become huge because of the Silk Route Economic Belt initiative led by China. Pakistan will soon, therefore, need huge supply of fuel-energy in order to fuel its economy; and Iran, after withdrawal of economic sanctions, is now able to supply the energy that Pakistan requires. From Pakistan’s recent moves, it seems Pakistan is too keen to import oil and gas from Iran in order to enjoy easily accessible energy-supply-destination as Iran is Pakistan’s next door neighbour.

Pakistan is already facing an unpleasant situation regarding Saudi-Iran rivalry, particularly in respect to Saudi led coalition’s war on Yemen’s Houthi militants. Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan for supporting the coalitions’ war through sending ground-troops to fight the Houthis in Yemen. Pakistan responded by asking Saudi Arabia to excuse it for not involving in any war that is, in reality, not a direct attack on Saudi’s sovereignty. But Pakistan assured Saudi Arabia that it would do anything and everything possible to counter any direct threat to Saudi sovereignty. In short, Pakistan denied Saudi’s request to send its own troops to fight a war side by side with Saudi Arabia. Through not involving in Saudi-Iran rivalry within Yemen, Pakistan is making sure that it avoids every possibility of antagonizing Iran.

The aforementioned changes in Pakistan’s relation with Middle Eastern countries show that Pakistan is seemingly moving away from the traditional ‘all-out influence’ of its decades old ally Saudi Arabia, and has been attempting to draw a balance between its relations with Saudi Arabia and its relations with Iran.

Observations

•Today, Middle East, especially the Western Asia, is the most conflict plagued region in the world. With the passing of time, the polarization within the region is only getting worse.

•The Middle East is of strategic importance to the world, particularly because of its supply of oil. Many analysts believe that the U.S.’s plan is to engineer a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to make accessibility of the region risky for Russia and China, both of which are trying to reshape the current global order that is led and dominated by the U.S. On the otherhand, many other analysts say that it is Russia, not the U.S., which wants to engineer such a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and then get the U.S. embroiled into it and drive up the cost of oil, benefitting Russia that is suffering from lower global oil price.

•While Pakistan previously had good relations with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and China, it had awful relations with Russia, India, former Soviet Union and Iran. However, shifts in its balance of foreign relations have been taking place. Pakistan seems to be moving away from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in its attempt to coming closer to China and Iran.

Bahauddin Foizee

Analyst and Columnist on international affairs, specializes on Middle Eastern, greater Asia-Pacific & European geopolitics. Primarily associated with law practice, formerly taught law at Dhaka Centre for Law & Economics and was Researcher at Bangladesh Institute of Legal Development. Holds law degree from University of London.

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