In order to understand the Middle East and North Africa/the Arab World/The Near Muslim East one must begin with its centre of gravity and most populous nation, Egypt. Following the general tumult that ensued from the Arab Spring/Arab Uprisings, Egypt is now ruled by the military strongman and former army leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi, a bald Sunni Muslim secular leader came to power after overthrowing democratically-elected moderate Islamist Sunni (not-bald) Mohammed Morsi .
Sisi’s secular takeover was supported by hardcore Wahhabi Sunni Saudi Arabia and other moderate conservative Sunni Arab States. However it was opposed by the only other Wahhabi state, Qatar, a moderate conservative small country that employs conservative Islamist journalists in Arabic and left-wing, socially-aware journalists in English. This is not a surprise because the charm of the Middle East stems from its contradictions.
Now both Qatar and Saudi Arabia oppose the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a secular Alawi leader from the minority offshoot Shia sect, but they disagree on which of the moderate Sunni Muslim rebels against him they should support in public and which of the extreme Sunni factions they should support in secret. Assad is in turn supported by conservative Shia Iran and the Lebanese Shia (not offshoot) militant group Hezbollah.
Conservative Shia Iran and uber-Conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia are locked in a fierce geopolitical struggle that some argue is the continuation of ancient sectarian divisions while others believe is more of a struggle over influence embellished with sectarian rivalries. Despite their many disagreements, Saudi Arabia and Iran agree on conducting their rivalry through proxy regional wars instead of an all-out war, probably because it’s more fun this way.
Besides Syria, there are several other mutually-acceptable venues in which Saudi Arabia and Iran conduct their proxy wars, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Recently in Yemen the Houthis, who are members of yet another Shia offshoot group, took over the country, once again as a consequence of the general tumult that ensued from the Arab Spring. Some say Iran was behind the Houthis’ move, partially to punish Saudi Arabia for allowing oil prices to drop. In traditional Persian culture it’s considered an insult to allow the prices of commodities to drop below production cost, which explains Iran’s anger.
But it’s in Iraq where the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia gets really complicated. The sudden rise of the Islamic State under the leadership of self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has taken everyone who wasn’t paying attention by surprise. Baghdadi, a very Sunni Muslim extremist, although I wouldn’t say it to his face, has led his forces to occupy large parts of Iraq including the second-largest city, Mosul.
The rise of the Islamic State threatened Iran’s influence in Iraq, which should have pleased Saudi Arabia save for the fact that the new Caliphate is ideologically indisposed towards Saudi Arabia, which it sees as the epitomisation of liberal values. Everything is relative, as they say. So Saudi Arabia is in the tricky position of having to balance its competing aims of weakening Iran but containing the existential threat posed by the Islamic State. There are no non-existential threats in the Middle East.
For its part, Iran has thrown its weight behind the Shia forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, although this has aligned it momentarily with its old foe, the United States. Awkward. But Iran is also full of contradictions as, despite being a theologically-governed Islamic State, it seems to be capable of taking pragmatic decisions in its regional policies. Recent photographic evidence obtained by Western media outlets even suggests that Iranian women, who must wear Islamic clothes in public, actually wear bras under their clothes. They also watch television and laugh with their friends, much like people in the West sometimes do. Western media clearly thought this was important to point out, so it must be so.
Another major Sunni player is Turkey, which is allied with Qatar against the Saudi-Egyptian axis. Turkey is led by relatively moderate Sunni Muslim Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a suited non-bearded Islamist with latent Ottoman impulses. Turkey opposed the removal of president Morsi in Egypt, not least because he was also a suited Islamist. Turkey’s position has been close to that of Qatar in Syria and Libya, where everyone has been competing for influence since Gaddafi’s fall. (Regional Middle Eastern powers are like the nightclub circle, they all want to be seen in the new place.)
The situation in Libya was complicated by the fact that there are no sectarian divisions in the country, which made things difficult for a while until Libyans decided to create random divisions. (You can get a sense of this by reading any article on Libya and trying to understand who is against whom and why). This greatly facilitated the involvement of external powers and made proxy wars much easier to wage. Although it is a bit unfair to Iran, which being Shia can’t find any allies in an exclusively Sunni Muslim country.
Oh look, this is almost one thousand words already and we don’t have time to wrap up all the loose strands neatly, so it’s best to end on a timeless-sounding platitude about the Middle East and how it will always be the same. Perhaps even a quote from Khalil Gibran or Omar Khayyam, hinting at our sorrow about lost potential and showing how learned we are.