As tensions escalate between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East following the execution of Nimr al-Nimr and the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Iran, Qatar has joined the cavalcade of countries cutting diplomatic relations with Iran in solidarity with Riyadh. This is a notable development, because the Qataris are usually not considered close allies of the Saudis. Earlier this decade, the Qataris worked with Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood to build a separate power base that could rival Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Sunni world. In particular, the contest between the two blocs came to a head over the question of who should rule Egypt: Saudi- and U.A.E.-backed generals or the Muslim Brotherhood. Recently, though, Qatar has been moving, however fractiously, into the Saudi camp. As with the news that Sudan (once a major Iranian ally) is taking Riyadh’s side in this dispute, the Qatari announcement should be seen as a sign that the Sunni-Shi’a conflict is overtaking other regional dynamics, and sectarian battle lines are hardening.
Speaking of (non-metaphorical) battle lines, Tehran has also called out Saudi Arabia for intentionally targeting its embassy in Sana’a, amid some of the most intense bombing to hit the Yemeni capital to date. Though subsequent accounts from observers on the ground said that the embassy itself had not been harmed, and that rockets had merely fallen near it, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry said that several guards had been hurt. Saudi officials said that the rocket salvo was targeting militants who were using abandoned embassies in the city for cover, while Iran was clearly suspicious that the strike was meant as retaliation for the ransacking of Riyadh’s own embassy in Tehran over the weekend.
Finally, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister arrived in Pakistan today to try to get the Sunni-majority nuclear power to take sides in the conflict. Pakistan, which has a sizable and restive Shi’a minority of its own, has been trying to position itself as a mediator in the fight, citing deep links to both countries. The Pakistani ambivalence likely comes down to the fact that it has, de facto, two governments: the elected civilians who run things day-to-day, and the military- and intelligence-dominated deep state, which has strong ties to the Saudis. It is widely, and likely correctly, thought that if things ever really hit the fan between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Saudis will call on the Pakistani military for major military assistance and/or nuclear weapons. As we have noted before, this would be the worst of all outcomes, the last thing either Pakistan or the Middle East needs.
Those who expect these sectarian tensions to die down of their own accord don’t understand the nature of religiously fueled rivalries. Unless the Obama Administration or other powers act to change the regional dynamics, expect to see Sunni-Shi’a battle lines continue to harden, and the risk of major conflict continue to grow, as 2016 wears on.