Saudi Arabia and Sectarianism in Middle East International Relations

F. Gregory Gause, III, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University

Saudi Arabia is just about everyone’s favorite villain in explaining the new salience of sect-centric mobilization and violence in the international politics of the Middle East.[1]  Andrew Hammond avers that sectarianism “has long underpinned Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policy” and that it has “proved to be a particularly effective tool in the government’s management of the Arab Awakening.”[2]  Marc Lynch emphasized the “top-down push towards sectarian polarization” that he contends characterized the response of both Saudi Arabia and Iran toward the uprisings of 2010-11, going on to say that “Saudi Arabia found it particularly useful to exploit this rising sectarianism, for both domestic and regional reasons.”[3]  Madawi Al-Rasheed, one of the most astute and careful observers of the kingdom’s politics, asserts that sectarianism was the Saudi avenue of counter-revolution during the uprisings.[4]  Journalists and policy-makers tend to be even more explicit in blaming Riyadh for the current regional situation.[5]

There is certainly no argument about the fact that Saudi Arabia has for decades promoted its particular version of Islam, both at home and abroad, that denigrates Shi’ism.  But an effort to put the blame overwhelmingly on Saudi Arabia for sect-specific violence avoids the hard work of thinking carefully about the issue.  Parsing out just what role Saudi Arabia has played in the rise of inter-sect violence requires us to ask more specific questions:  1) Is sectarian violence in the current regional configuration a top-down or a bottom-up phenomenon? 2) How should we understand intra-sectarian divisions within the sectarian framework that seems to dominate many analyses of Middle Eastern regional politics? 3) Just what are the links between a profoundly sect-centric domestic political system and a foreign policy that privileges relations with fellow sectarians across borders?    I will look at all three in the context of Saudi Arabia’s role in regional politics.

We should remain clear about what we are trying to explain.  The salience of sect-specific identity politics in regional international relations requires different explanations than the importance of a particular sect’s role in the domestic politics of a particular state.  Saudi Arabia has been a salafi polity for over a century.  Explaining why that is, or why the Iranian revolution ended up producing a self-consciously Shi’i regime led by clergymen, are interesting questions but not the question before us.  The relationship between regime type and foreign policy is one to be examined, not assumed.

Top-Down or Bottom-Up

If one views the contemporary salience of sect-specific violence in the Middle East as the product of ideological export by important regional states, then the question of Saudi culpability is asked and answered.  It is just then a matter of apportioning the percentage of blame to Riyadh and to Tehran, with perhaps a small slice of the cake being cut for Turkey and Qatar with their support for the Muslim Brotherhood.  But the top-down version of events does not hold up to even a cursory examination.

Saudi Arabia has been promoting an Islamic frame for regional politics since at least the mid-1960’s.  King Faisal proposed the formation of what eventually became the Islamic Conference Organization to try to counter Pan-Arabism, seeking to bring other regional Muslim states like Iran, Turkey and Pakistan (also American allies) into the frame and dilute the ideological sway of Nasserism.  Sectarian identity was not a driving issue in regional politics then, although Saudi Arabia was as “Wahhabi” domestically then as it is now.  The Saudis saw the Shah’s Iran as a partner, not an enemy.  The Iranian Revolution introduced a challenge to the monopoly asserted by Riyadh to speak for “Islam” in regional politics, and sectarian differences undoubtedly played a role in the tensions between the two states.  But the level of that tension waxed and waned – high during the Iran-Iraq War, moderated during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies.[6]  Riyadh and Tehran found themselves with parallel interests on a number of occasions, most notably during the Gulf War of 1990-91.  Their rivalry, up to the 2010’s, was kept within bounds.

Sectarian violence became much more salient in regional international politics only in the wake of the internal political upheavals that began with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then spread to numerous Arab countries during of the Arab Uprisings.[7]  It was the cracking open of these political systems that led sectarian identities, which had always existed in these societies, to emerge as the organizing principle of much of the political mobilization that followed.  Regimes doubled-down on their sect-specific  social bases; oppositions mobilized in sectarian ways in reaction.  Both Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others) used sectarian connections to build proxy relations and to extend influence into the civil wars that broke out in many of these states.  But the regional powers did not have to fight their way into these conflicts.  They were invited in by the local parties, who desperately needed the money, guns and political support that a regional patron could provide.  Sunnis naturally looked to important Sunni states, not just Saudi Arabia but also Turkey, for support; Shia just as naturally looked to Iran.  But it was the breaking of the state, first in Iraq and then in other parts of the Arab East, that raised sectarian alliances between local groups and outside powers to the important role they hold in regional politics today.[8]

A similar dynamic occurred in Libya, although not on a sectarian basis.  Much as the case in Iraq, an American-led military intervention brought down an unpopular but fierce regime that had been in power for decades.  In Libya the societal divisions that emerged from the fall of the Qaddafi regime were tribal, regional and ideological.  These divisions facilitated the intervention of a number of regional actors, including Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as extra-regional powers like Russia and France.  It is not a sectarian fight, but it looks very much like the struggles occurring in the Arab East.  The breaking of the state and the civil conflict that follows create the structural conditions for the kind of regional politics we see in the Middle East now.  Sectarian cleavage is just one kind of domestic social division and trans-national linkage that can facilitate the regional involvements and rivalries that characterize those conditions.

Bottom-up political struggle where the contestants mobilize along sect-centric lines is not the creation of Iran or Saudi Arabia.  It is part of the history and institutional development of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – each in different ways.[9]  When Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad and Ali Abdallah Salih had firm grips on their states, sectarian identity was a minor note in regional international relations, though extremely important in understanding the politics of these states.  After the upheavals of 2003 and 2010-11, it emerged as a central element, because of the collapse of state authority.

Are Intra-Sunni Divisions “Sectarian”?

I have argued elsewhere that the ideological divisions among Sunni actors themselves are as important for understanding regional international politics as are Sunni-Shia conflicts.[10]  Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia cannot find reliable allies in the civil conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen because many if not most salafi movements there have inclined toward the salafi jihadism of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which is as threatening to the Saudi regime (perhaps more threatening) than Iranian-supported Shi’i movements.   Saudi Arabia’s top-down, regime-supporting version of Salafism also is inconsistent with the more bottom-up, populist, quasi-democratic version of political Islam embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood and supported by Turkey and Qatar in the post-2011 regional struggle for power.  The contest between these two poles in the Sunni world for influence in Egypt after the fall of the Mubarak regime was intense and expensive, and had nothing to do with Iran or fear of Shi’ism.  The Saudis and their Emirati partners backed the coup of then-General and Defense Minister Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, who in regional politics would have to be seen as an “anti-Islamist” (secularist might be an exaggeration), against the Muslim Brotherhood President, Muhammad Morsi.[11]

These three tendencies in the Sunni world – official Salafism, salafi jihadism and Muslim Brotherhood populism for short-hand – are all located within the same sect of Islam.  Is this important element of regional conflict and division properly labeled “sectarian?”  I think not.  The salafi jihadists and the Saudi ‘ulama probably do not differ all that much on theological questions.  They differ profoundly on the political implications of their beliefs.  The Saudi objections to the Muslim Brotherhood have nothing to do with issues of religious identity and praxis.  Saudi Arabia was home to exiled Muslim Brothers from throughout the Arab world for decades.  Brothers helped to build the Saudi educational system.  These are not things that could be said about Shia exiles.  The regime’s current problems with the Brotherhood have everything to do with the Brothers’ turn toward more democratic politics and toward close relations with Turkey and Qatar.  The differences here are more ideological than they are sectarian.  They are closer to the differences that Riyadh had with the Arab nationalists of the 1950’s and 1960’s, differences over the proper organization of domestic politics and the appropriate set of foreign policies and foreign allies.

Regime Type and Regional International Politics:  Is “Wahhabi” Saudi Arabia Inevitably Sectarian in Foreign Policy?

The short answer to this question is:  no.  It is undoubtedly true that Saudi Arabia has used its vast oil wealth and the prestige that being home to Mecca and Medina brings to propagate its salafi version of Islam – puritanical, xenophobic and anti-Shia – throughout the Muslim world.  The consequences of that decades-long effort have been profound in many countries and quite different in many cases than the Saudi leadership would have liked.  The rise of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is strong evidence that Saudi Arabia has lost control over political Salafism, if it ever had such control outside its borders.  But that long-term ideational effort needs to be distinguished from the short-term influence of sectarianism in determining Saudi policy on questions of the regional balance of power in the Middle East.  A brief review of three cases highlight the fact that Saudi foreign policy is driven by many factors, sectarianism being just one, and in most cases not the major one.

Saudi Arabia made every effort to cultivate Hafez al-Assad in Syria, despite both the sociological fact of Alawi dominance of the regime and the burgeoning Syrian-Iranian relationship from the 1980’s.  Riyadh continued those efforts in the 2000’s after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father.  There is no evidence that the Saudis aided the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood against the regime in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, despite their common Sunni identity.  As the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Riyadh held back from involvement, its fear of popular revolution in the region restraining its desire to deal Iran a geopolitical setback.  Turkey and Qatar were more aggressive in supporting Sunni Islamist opponents of the regime at the outset.  When the Saudis did get involved, they first backed the most “secular” of the opposition forces, the Free Syrian Army.  When it became apparent that the FSA was not an effective force, Riyadh sought out its own salafi Islamists to back, but could never work cooperatively with Turkey and its clients to bring down the Assad regime.[12]  The divisions within the Sunni world, as salient for Saudi Arabia as its competition with Iran, complicated a purely sectarian framing of the Syrian crisis for Riyadh.

While one might argue that sectarian factors help explain Saudi Arabia’s support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s, whatever sectarian allegiances the Saudis felt for Saddam Hussein disappeared after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  Riyadh continued to isolate Saddam from then to his fall in 2003, despite the fact that his regime remained a block to Iranian regional ambitions.  After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Saudi government kept its distance from both the new Iraqi government that emerged (seen in Riyadh as too close to Iran) and from the salafi Sunni opposition – al-Qaeda in Iraq and then the Islamic State.  Any sign of Saudi support for such groups, in the wake of the tensions in Saudi-American relations after the September 11, 2001 attacks, would have enormously complicated the relationship with Washington.  Saudi Arabia was without allies in Iraq, and was much less involved in the country’s post-2003 domestic politics than either Iran or Turkey were.  It thought it had found a useful local ally in the Iraqiyya Party of Iyad Allawi, which it supported in the 2005 and 2010 elections.[13]  Allawi himself, a thoroughly secular man, is a Shi’i and his party was explicitly non-sectarian.  The Saudis could have supported any number of Sunni sectarian parties in these elections, but did not.  Since the advent of King Salman in 2015, Riyadh has begun to cautiously normalize relations with Baghdad, despite the continuing dominance of Shi’i parties in the government.

The failed Saudi intervention in Yemen is a tragedy on many levels, most directly in terms of the suffering of millions of Yemenis.  But it is arguable whether sectarianism was the primary driver of Saudi decision-making on Yemen.  Riyadh was the major regional supporter of the grandfathers of the Houthis in their civil war in the 1960’s against the Egyptian-supported republicans.  The Saudis maintained good relations with a number of important Yemeni tribal shaykhs, Zaydi Shi’i all of them, over the decades after the civil war.  Riyadh had an up and down relationship with Ali Abdallah Salih, another Zaydi, but from around 2000 to the Yemeni uprising of 2011, it seemed to have made its peace with Salih’s regime.  The Saudis can certainly be faulted for encouraging the growth of Salafism in Yemen, which itself can help explain the origins of the Houthi movement.  But Riyadh has had no problem dealing with Yemeni Zaydis in the past, and will not have any problems dealing with them in the future.  The strong desire of the Houthis to attach themselves to Iran is what distinguishes them, in Saudi eyes, from other Zaydi actors.  As in the case of Saudi policy toward Syria since 2011, the balance of power motivation of checking and rolling back Iranian power can explain Saudi behavior in Yemen just as effectively as a purely sectarian explanation.

Domestic Wahhabism and Regional Sectarianism

Simon Mabon has made a powerful argument that the Saudi-Iranian tensions of today have deep roots in what he calls the “internal security dilemmas” of each regime.  Those challenges have led both Riyadh and Tehran to use religious narratives, symbols and institutions to buttress their claims to rule and delegitimize their domestic opponents – official Salafism in Saudi Arabia and velayet e-faqih in Iran.  These domestic regime security strategies lead each regime to project these identities and values into the foreign policy realm.[14]  Their regional rivalry is, to a great extent, fated by their domestic regime security strategies.

I have made a different argument, at least about Saudi Arabia, here.  The threat posed by Iran, as viewed from Riyadh, is less about Tehran’s ability to stir up opposition among Saudi Shia (although there is some of that) and more about Tehran’s geopolitical reach into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and, prospectively, the smaller Gulf monarchies (particularly Bahrain).  It is a balance of power threat more than a challenge to domestic regime security and identity.  If anything, it is the hostile Saudi position toward both salafi jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood that is more anchored in domestic regime security considerations.

But this does not mean that the profoundly anti-Shi’a position of state Salafism in Saudi Arabia is irrelevant to explaining the salience of sectarian violence in regional international politics.  It might better be understood in terms of constituencies rather than legitimacy principles.  The clerical establishment has been a partner of the Al Saud regime since the inception of the first Saudi state in the 18th century.  With the advent of great oil wealth, the regime has built international Islamic organizations (eg., Islamic Conference Organization) and transnational, state-supported non-governmental organizations (eg., Muslim World League, World Assembly of Muslim Youth) that have propagated the official Saudi version of Salafism, including its anti-Shia bias.  Direct Saudi support for mosques and schools abroad are another avenue through which the anti-Shia position of official Wahhabism has spread throughout the Muslim world.  Sect-specific propaganda has, arguably, a broader audience because of Saudi state support for both the domestic and international efforts of the Saudi clerical establishment.

That anti-Shia bias is apparent in the Saudi press and, with the increasing Saudi role in regional media, in the Saudi-supported regional media.  Sometimes that bias is subtle; sometimes it is blatant.  But it certainly encourages a sectarian framing that might be instrumental for the Saudi regime but seems deeply felt in some quarters of the Sunni world, both within Saudi Arabia and outside it.  Saudis have joined the fight against the “Shi’i” post-Saddam regime in Iraq and against the Assad regime in Syria in considerable numbers.[15]  Grass-roots, rather than state, financial contributions from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states helped to fund the salafi jihadist opposition in Syria from the outset of the conflict.[16]  These activities continue despite the public opposition of the Saudi state.  Riyadh made it a crime in 2014 for its citizens to fight in foreign wars.[17]  The Financial Action Task Force in 2018 commended Riyadh for its work to stem private financial transfers to terrorist organizations, while pointing to a number of areas that could be strengthened.[18]  Despite state discouragement of support for salafi jihadist groups that glorify their targeting of Shia, some elements of Saudi society continue to support them.

This tension between official Saudi policy and grass-roots Saudi behavior highlights the uncertainties surrounding Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s efforts to relegate the Saudi religious establishment to a more subordinate role in the country and to “return” Saudi Arabia to what he has characterized as the “moderate” version of Islam that obtained before the 1980’s.  If decades of official Saudi support for clerical institutions that propagated anti-Shia sentiments both at home and abroad helped to create a Sunni Muslim world open to sectarian appeals, can a reversal of Saudi policy toward those clerical institutions herald a long-term trend reducing the potency of sectarian rhetoric?

[1] Fanar Haddad makes an important argument that the word “sectarianism” has lost its analytic utility and should be replaced by more specific adjectives.  I use the word in the title because of its continuing general usage, but take Haddad’s point.  “’Sectarianism’ and Its Discontents in the Study of the Middle East,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Summer 2017), pp. 363-382.

[2] Andrew Hammond, “Saudi Arabia:  cultivating sectarian spaces,” The Gulf and Sectarianism, European Council on Foreign Relations, November 2013.

[3] Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars:  Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East, (New York:  Public Affairs, 2016), p. 15.  See also Marc Lynch, “Why Saudi Arabia Escalated the Middle East’s Sectarian Conflict,” Washington Post (Monkey Cage blog), January 4, 2016,

[4] Madawi Al-Rasheed, “Sectarianism as Counter-Revolution:  Saudi Responses to the Arab Spring,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, Vol. 11, No. 3 (December 2011).

[5] For example, see John McHugo, “Spreading Sectarianism in the Muslim world,” OpenDemocracy, February 27, 2019,  “Many people associate today’s toxic sectarianism in the Middle East with the Iranian mullahs but the West’s ally, Saudi Arabia, carries greater blame.”

[6] Henner Furtig, Iran’s Rivalry with Saudi Arabia between the Gulf Wars, (Reading:  Ithaca Press, 2002); Banafsheh Keynoush, Saudi Arabia and Iran:  Friends or Foes? (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Fred Wehrey et al., Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam:  Rivalry, Cooperation and Implications for U.S. Policy, RAND Corporation, March 2009.

[7] I make this argument at greater length in “Beyond Sectarianism:  The New Middle East Cold War,” Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper No. 11, July 2014,

[8] Raymond Hinnebusch comes to a very similar conclusion.  “The Sectarian Revolution in the Middle East,” R/evolutions:  Global Trends and Regional Issues, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2016), pp. 120-152.  See particularly pp. 127-132.

[9] Morten Valbjorn has outlined an interesting way to get beyond the primordialism v. instrumentalism debate that has framed much of the thinking about the domestic causes and consequences of sectarianism, though characteristically with lots of parentheses.  “Beyond the beyond(s):  On the (many) third way(s) beyond primordialism and instrumentalism in the study of sectarianism,” Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 26 (2020):  pp. 91-107.

[10] F. Gregory Gause, III, “Ideologies, Alignments and Underbalancing in the New Middle East Cold War,” PS:  Political Science and Politics, Vol. 50, No. 3 (July 2017):  672-675.

[11] Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, “Qatar’s Brotherhood Ties Alienate Fellow Gulf States,” Al-Monitor, January 23, 2013,; Mohsin Khan and Richard LeBaron, “What Will the Gulf’s $12 Billion Buy Egypt?” Atlantic Council of the U.S., July 11, 2013,

[12] Christopher Phillips, The Battle for Syria:  International Rivalry in the New Middle East, (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2016); Lina Khatib, “Syria, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar:  the sectarianization of the Syrian conflict and undermining of democratization in the region,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 46, No. 3 (2019):  385-403.

[13] Toby Dodge, Iraq:  From War to a New Authoritarianism (London:  International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2012), p. 192.

[14] Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran:  Power and Rivalry in the Middle East, (London:  I.B. Tauris, 2016).

[15] As of 2016, it is estimated that 2,500 Saudis joined ISIS to fight in Iraq and Syria, second to Tunisia in terms of total numbers and ninth in terms of per-capita ranking.  Efraim Benmelech and Esteban F. Klor, “What Explains the Flow of Foreign Fighters to ISIS,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2018.1482214.  Saudis seem to have been the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Iraq in the 2000’s, though the total number of Saudi fighters in Iraq during that time seems to have been around 1,500.  Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “Foreign Fighters in Iraq Are Tied to Allies of U.S.,” New York Times, November 22, 2007,; Thomas Hegghammer, “Saudis in Iraq:  Patterns of Radicalization and Recruitment,” Cultures & Conflits (2008),

[16] Elizabeth Dickinson, “Playing with Fire:  Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Analysis Paper No. 16, December 2013,

[17] Angus McDowall and Yara Bayoumy, “Saudi Arabia to jail citizens who fight abroad,” Reuters, February 3, 2014,

[18] Financial Action Task Force, FATF-MENAFATF, “Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures in Saudi Arabia – Executive Summary,” 2018,