OP-ED: The rise of Shi’a Petrolistan —Mai Yamani
After years of repression at the hands of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Shi’a are tasting freedom — and spurring their religious counterparts throughout the Gulf to become more assertive
The hideous bombings of the Shi’a shrines in Karbala will neither change nor obscure a powerful new fact of life in the Middle East. For now that the dust of the Iraq War has settled, it is clear that the Shi’a have emerged, blinking in the sunlight, as the unexpected winners. Governments that have oppressed the Shi’a for decades may still be in denial about this, but the terrorists who planted those bombs are not. They recognise, as the Shi’a themselves now do, that across the Gulf Shi’a Muslims are gaining massively in political power, and are awakened to their ability both to organise themselves and to the gift that lies literally under their feet: oil. After years of repression at the hands of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Shi’a are tasting freedom — and spurring their religious counterparts throughout the Gulf to become more assertive. They’ve also woken up to the accident of geography that has placed the world’s major oil supplies in areas where they form the majority — Iran, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and southern Iraq. Welcome to the new commonwealth of “Petrolistan.”
The newfound power of Shi’a Muslims in this volatile region represents a major challenge both to the old Sunni ruling establishments — outside Iran — and to the United States. The years of Shi’a subservience are over.
So what are the Shi’a planning? What is their inspiration? Will bearded men in turbans and veiled women rule them, or will we see suits and high heels? If they want democracy, will anyone recognise it as such?
It wasn’t until 1979 that the Shi’a first appeared on Western radar screens, emerging in Iran at the head of a violent revolution that murdered thousands and dispatched the Shah into history. In Western eyes, the Shi’a became the hostile and militant face of Islam, intent on exporting violence.
Their Sunni counterparts, even the most fundamentalist Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, appeared tame in comparison. But the terrorist attacks on America of September 11, 2001, rewrote that idea for good.
The hijackers were all Sunni. Their hosts and backers, the Taliban, were also Sunni, as are all the prisoners at America’s military base-turned-prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Sunni Muslims dominated Saddam’s Ba’athist regime — and the so-called Sunni Triangle in central Iraq is the site of the fiercest hostility to the US-led occupation and its local supporters. In the space of but a few months, Sunni Muslims have replaced the Shi’a as the biggest threat to the West and to international security. For their part, Shi’a minorities claim to welcome democracy. But then minorities — especially with a history of subjugation — always do (at least for a time), because it allows them to claim religious freedom and express their cultural identity. In Saudi Arabia, the Shi’a are at the forefront of those welcoming democratic change and participation. Although they constitute only 20 percent of the total Saudi population, they form 75 percent of the population in the oil-rich eastern region.
Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a have suffered discrimination in the professions: in the military, in high government positions, the diplomatic corps, and most significantly, in the oil industry, where they have been excluded since the 1980s. This systematic exclusion of the Shi’a is supported by the Wahhabi religious establishment and legitimised by numerous fatwas denouncing them as heretics. In Bahrain, the Shi’a form 75 percent of the population and have been keen on the reforms initiated by King Hamad Al-Khalifah. They have opted for political rule by the Sunni minority rather than associating with Iran’s form of government. But the new generation of Bahraini Shi’a are more militant, and their views are increasingly echoed by their Shi’a counterparts in Saudi Arabia. It was the threat of Shi’a militancy, exported from Iran, which led the region’s rulers to set up the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 and attempt to pool their strengths. That move was too little too late. There was a coup attempt in Bahrain that same year, which came hard on the heels of a Shi’a uprising in Saudi Arabia the year before.
Today, Iran no longer exports revolution. Its experiment with an Islamic form of democracy is now primarily an internal affair. In any case none of the Iraqi Ayatollahs who were once exiled in Iran seem to have any inclination to adopt the Iranian model. So far the Shi’a in Iraq have been relatively quiet, watching the de-Ba’athification process and biding their time. But since the capture of Saddam Hussein, they have become increasingly assertive. It is on the insistence of the Shi’a that the US has had to continually rewrite its blueprint for Iraq. After being the region’s losers for decades, the Shi’a now have the chance to redress the balance, settle old scores — and control the wealth of Petrolistan. But they won’t succeed without a struggle — as the odious bombings in Karbala demonstrate. —DT-PS
Mai Yamani is an author and Research Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs