Sectarianism in the Gulf: A Conversation with Toby Matthiesen (S. 6, Ep. 7)

On this week’s podcast, Marc Lynch speaks with Toby Matthiesen about sectarianism in the Gulf, particularly looking at Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“What I’m going to try to do in my new project is to look at the impact of the Iranian revolution on Shia movements— and on the regional more broadly— but also the reaction towards Iran,” said Matthiesen. “I think we are living in a new era. More spaces have opened up for confrontations, and there’s a stronger I ‘internationalization’ of particular, local conflicts— and a connection to each other, and a correction of that to the broader kind of Saudi-Iranian or Iranian-versus-a-lot-of-others rivalry, which was there to a certain extent before, but the Syrian war has just opened up.”

Matthiesen is a Senior Research Fellow in the International Relations of the Middle East at the Middle East Centre, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is the author of several recent books including The Other Saudis: Shi’ism, Dissent and Sectarianism recently published by Cambridge University Press and Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t.

“In the context of the Arab uprisings, and the crackdown on Shia protest movements, you have almost the whole clerical leadership of the Shia community in Saudi Arabia now backing the state line. Telling people not to protest, not to make any trouble, just stay quiet and basically work together with the ruling family.  One of the only people who didn’t do that was Nimr al-Nimr and he’s been executed. But people from all the different movements— whether they’re pro Iranian or anti-Iranian or old clerical families— more or less agree on the politics of no confrontation with the Saudi state.”

“What I’m trying to do is combine a kind of broad IR, and international history perspective that looks at archives around the world with interviews, and sources from the region, memoirs and publications.” said Matthiesen. “History is always written from where we are right now— that’s why we write history. So we can’t get around that fact. But we obviously shouldn’t impose narratives on the past just because we think they are relevant today.”

Music for this season’s podcast was created by Feras Arrabi. You can find more of his work on his Facebook and Instagram page.

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