Saudia Arabia and Iran The Cold War of Islam

The archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia are battling for supremacy in the Middle East and are carrying out their struggle in proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Domestically, though, the two countries are facing remarkably similar problems.


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No previous US president had been made to suffer such an indignity when visiting America's supposedly closest ally in the Arab world: When Barack Obama touched down at the airport in Riyadh in mid-April, King Salman opted to remain in his palace. The most powerful man in the world was received by the governor of Riyadh instead. There was no pomp or ceremonial reception and state-controlled television declined to broadcast the arrival. Obama seemed slightly at a loss on the tarmac before trying to cover up the affront with a broad smile.

The message was clear: Saudi Arabia feels as though it has been left in the lurch by America and is not afraid to show that it isn't happy.

The story of the failed reception is more than just an anecdote from the international diplomatic stage. It serves to illustrate the massive geo-political shift and the growing conflict that has gripped the entire Middle East. It has become the Cold War of our era, pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran, the two rivals that are striving for supremacy in the region. And it is not entirely clear which side the US is on.

Uncertainty and Rapid Change

The Middle East as we have long known it is changing dramatically. And no matter where one looks, Tehran and Riyadh are standing behind at least one of the parties involved in the conflict. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, host and protector of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, sees itself as the home of Sunni Islam, to which the majority of the world's Muslims belong. The Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shiite theocracy, claims leadership of the Shiites, which make up roughly 13 percent of Muslims worldwide. For both regimes, religion is an important tool of power.

Today's bloodiest civil war, the conflict in Syria, is entering its sixth year and has thus far cost the lives of more than 250,000 people -- and the cease-fire that has been in place for the last two months doesn't look as though it will last much longer. In Syria, and also in the conflicts in Iraq and in Yemen, the fighting fronts run primarily along sectarian lines: Sunnis against Shiites. A fragile peace holds in Lebanon and Bahrain, but it is one that could be shattered at any time by sectarian unrest.

All of these proxy wars and sectarian conflicts have unleashed a wave of migration among those who have been displaced: more than 6 million people from Syria and Iraq along with almost 3 million from Yemen. And out of the rubble of the Middle East, hydra-headed monster has risen that seeks to terrorize Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and the rest of the world: Islamic State. In an irony of history, the Sunni terror militia sees both Iran and Saudi Arabia as its enemies.

At its essence, the escalation in the Middle East also has to do with America and its changing role in the world. After decades of enmity with Iran, US President Barack Obama wanted to restart a dialogue with the country and he negotiated a nuclear treaty with Tehran. The hope is that the deal will limit Iran's ability to pursue a nuclear weapon while making it possible for the country to do business with the West in return.

At the same time, though, the US would prefer to withdraw from this complicated, crisis-plagued region of the world. Current developments are also a product of this trend.

Map: Shiite and Sunni influence in the Middle East.

Map: Shiite and Sunni influence in the Middle East.

Iran, meanwhile, following decades of isolation, would like to revert to its former position of regional importance. The more Middle Eastern countries there are under the control of Shiites, the stronger Iran feels -- and the more hard-pressed Saudi Arabia feels, a country whose rulers once rose to power by way of a pact with Sunni fundamentalists, the Wahhabis.

This new Cold War affects the entire world, making it vital to search out its causes and to scrutinize what is pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran to continue on the path of escalation. A team of SPIEGEL reporters went to both countries to investigate and spoke with politicians, religious leaders, activists, intellectuals and normal people on the streets.

The Saudi Shiite-Paranoia

Awamia is a dusty town on the shores of a body of water one side calls the Arabian Gulf and the other the Persian Gulf. In Awamia, it looks as though Saudi Arabia itself were involved in a civil war. A checkpoint marked by high protective walls marks the entrance to the town and an armored vehicle is parked in front of it. At night, spotlights illuminate the checkpoint.

Thick concrete walls are also to be found on the main square of Awamia surrounding the police station, the electrical substation and the municipal office. The walls are covered with graffiti:

"They're killing us because we're Shiite!" "Go to hell you cheats!" "We'll never give up!" "We'll never forget you, Nimr!" "Our Nimr hasn't died!"

On the night of Jan. 1, Saudi Arabia had the cleric and preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who was based in Awamia, executed -- along with 46 other prisoners, most of whom had been convicted of terrorism. It was the largest wave of executions the country had seen in more than three decades.

Saudi Arabia too has a Shiite minority, making up more than 10 percent of the country's population, and Nimr was one of the minority's most prominent representatives. He was a fierce opponent of the royal House of Saud, accusing the country's rulers of systematically oppressing the Shiites. The government rejected the accusations and accused Nimr of being a terrorist controlled by Iran. They said he had been responsible for the deaths of Saudi Arabian security personnel.

Following Nimr's execution, a furious -- yet seemingly organized -- mob stormed the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran, resulting in Riyadh breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran. Tehran withdrew its diplomats as well and since then, an icy silence has reigned between the two regional powers.

The brother of the dead Shiite cleric is sitting in his office in a courtyard on the outskirts of Awamia. Mohammed al-Nimr, 52, is a tall, elegant man with a gray moustache and beard. He is wearing traditional white robes with a red-and-white keffiyeh. "The execution of the other 46 prisoners was merely a pretext to kill my brother," he says. Mohammed al-Nimr doesn't sound angry or distraught, but rather restrained. "The other prisoners had been sentenced to death long before," he continues. "Sheikh Nimr was an inspiration to us, particularly to the younger people. He was revered here."

The cleric had been arrested often during his life, most recently in the summer of 2012. Just prior to that arrest, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz had died, an event Nimr had commented on by saying: "The worms will eat him and he will suffer hellish agony in his grave. The man who forced us to live in fear and suffering -- should we not be happy about his death?"

The words his brother uttered "are one thing," says Mohammed al-Nimr. "But terrorism is something different." He speaks with a raised index finger in slow, clearly articulated Arabic. Indeed, he too could have made for an effective preacher. But he is a businessman and he weighs every word carefully. He condemns the attack on the embassy and says: "I am a person who loves his country."

Five months before his brother was arrested, Mohammad al-Nimr's then-17-year-old son had likewise been taken into custody. During the Arab Spring, his son had taken part in protests and was sentenced to death as a consequence. Ali al-Nimr is to be beheaded and crucified. "What should I say about that?," the father asks. "My son was a child when he was arrested." Ali, he says, is clever and ambitious and had enrolled in university. "Now, he has been sitting in prison for the last five years."

The execution of the Shiite cleric and the barbaric sentence handed down to the cleric's nephew triggered dismay across the globe. But the episode serves to show that Saudi Arabia is feeling pressured by Iran -- and is provoking a sectarian conflict in response, even in its own country. The royal house has chosen a dangerous rejoinder.

Recently, the country has also embarked on foreign policy adventures: In Saudi Arabia's southern neighbor of Yemen, Riyadh launched a military initiative against the Shiite Houthi rebels. Yet despite months of bombing, the operation has been a failure, with the images of destroyed cities and dead civilians primarily helping Iran.


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broremann 05/09/2016
1. Middle East
We are witnessing a titanic struggle in the middle east our military intervention is but delaying the competition 60% more women go to university this not only in Saudi Arabis but the case is the same in Europe where more women attend University while young men have no goal other than hanging about or joining a war. What we can do is to do business with both sides and not interfere militarily. When the dust finally settles the losers will foremost be smaller states, Israel
broremann 05/09/2016
2. Der Spiegel
I forgot to thank you for an informative article a pleasure to read. I didn`t know the Shiites represented 13% of the Moslem population
svkuanyin2 05/10/2016
" "We have Mecca and Medina. We have oil. The world envies us." Really? You need to get out of your bubble occasionally Talal al-Maiman.
aryadeep 05/10/2016
4. Compliments
Very informative, in-depth, well-researched and readable paper. Explains the situation comprehensively. Compliments to the writers. "During city council meetings, the women sit in a separate room and are connected to their male colleagues through a loudspeaker system. Al-Jeraisy claims this doesn't bother them. "You need time for change." The things that are possible today, she says -- female city councilors, women in the shura, women who work as businesspeople, surgeons or lawyers -- "all that," she says, "would have led to civil war 20 years ago." "You need time for change" - this is the crux of the situation. Everything, including Islam (and the world) needs time to change, to evolve. Thank you!
sally_snyder 05/10/2016
As shown in this article, the Saudi regime spends tens of billions of dollars annually, supporting the American defense industry: It is this same defense industry that spends millions of dollars supporting U.S. politicians.
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