We spoke with Andrea Mennillo, expert economist with a broad knowledge of international political issues, at “Yemen: le mille e una guerra,” a conference in Milan organized by the Festival of Human Rights and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
Our discussion took place on March 22, a few months after Saudi Arabia’s execution of outspoken Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The country’s inclusion of the prominent cleric in the mass execution of 47 men designated as “terrorists” drew condemnation and sparked angry Shiite protests that ransacked the Saudi embassy in Iran, stoking fears that sectarian violence could further escalate in the Middle East.

1. Recent tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran seem to be adding more fuel to the fire in the Middle East. What is your opinion about this development?

This increase in tension does not surprise me — it further confirms the region’s chronic instability. We have already seen their rivalry both in the civil war in Syria and in the conflict in Yemen. This already difficult situation was worsened by Saudi Arabia’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats and its execution of Ayatollah Al-Nimr. The predictable consequences: violent protests and an obvious assault on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
The two countries have more or less directly been competing for some time for hegemony in the Middle East. The recent lifting of sanctions against Tehran after it fulfilled the obligations for its nuclear program is certainly reshaping the balance between them. With the removal of sanctions, Iran is fully back on the international diplomatic stage, and several countries, including Italy, are ready to restart economic relations. So Saudi Arabia sees its leadership in the Middle East threatened, especially on the oil front.
The real problem, in my opinion, is that both Iran and Saudi Arabia want hegemonic power in the region but they are historically and culturally incompatible. The majority of Iran’s population is Shiite while the majority of Saudi Arabia’s is Sunni. To date, the United States managed to maintain a certain balance, thanks to its influence on Saudi Arabia and the sanctions on Iran. Today, conditions have changed. Obama’s USA is between two fires: on one hand, it promoted the nuclear deal, on the other hand, it does not want to lose its ties with the Saudis. Finding a compromise will not be easy.

2. In your opinion, does the current conflict have far more ancient origins?

Yes, certainly. The Islamic world has been characterized by a major internal fracture. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are as old as the division between Sunnis and Shiites. After Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D., the choice of his successor divided the Islamic community. The cause of the fracture does not appear to be strictly religious, but political. After Muhammad’s first three successors, Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman, there was Ali, who claimed the right to succession as a blood relative of Muhammad, unlike the others. When Ali, the cousin and son of the Prophet, was not broadly recognized as leader, it created the rift that gave rise to the Shiite branch. Today in the Islamic world, Sunnis are the vast majority, at about 85 percent, while Shiites have a prominent presence in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon and are present, although in the minority, in Turkey, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia itself.

3. What are the main differences between Sunnis and Shiites?

The differences are apparent from their names, rooted in the controversy of Muhammad’s succession. The first three caliphs — Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman — followed literally the precepts of the Sunna (hence the name Sunni), which are the acts and the teachings of the Prophet. The different approach of Ali earned him the nickname of “dissident” (Shi’a in Arabic means faction), opposing Shi’ism to Sunnism.
To Sunnis, the direct descendants of Mohammed have no specific religious role, only a duty to ensure the perfect unity of the Islamic community. Shiites, however, see in their religious leaders a reflection of God on Earth. In fact, according to Shiites, God could not leave Muslims without a religious leader.
Finally, the ways they interpret the scriptures are completely different: Shiites believe that the Koran has two levels, one literal and one critical. Sunnis are basically more inclined to accept the dictates of the Koran literally.

4. And how does the jihadist group known be the names the Islamic State, ISIS, and Daesh and fit into all of this?

Daesh is a consequence of what is happening today in the Middle East, not the cause. It is the most extreme expression of fundamentalism, a phenomenon in various gradations to bring Islam back to its primitive purity. Wahhabism orbits around this Islamic orthodoxy. For Wahhabis, the current rulers of Saudi Arabia, the only rules for a just religious life are written in the Koran and in the Sunna. Any other interpretation is not valid.
The West was unprepared for the sudden rise of Daesh when it took place a little more than two years ago. The group grabbed headlines for its brutality and for its extraordinary ability to attract Sunni youth (as well as others). Daesh has become an increasingly real threat in the Western world, but also threatens the strongly ambiguous parts of Saudi society. While Saudi Arabia is full of modernity and remains a main Western ally in Middle East, it retains strong links with the Wahhabi vision of Islam’s origins. In the twentieth century, an unscrupulous Wahhabism emerged on the political and financial side along with an obscurantist view on the doctrinaire side, thanks to the support of the major Western powers for the Saudi monarchy.
So, at the time when Europe and the US marched towards democracy, Islam was going in the opposite direction. Today Wahhabism is spreading throughout the Muslim world, but it must also deal with its most extreme wings, from which the Al Qaeda network was born. I wonder if the West has really caught this decline in its depth.

5. What route do you think Saudi Arabia might take in the coming years? Will it head towards extremism or will it approach a more Western model?

It is difficult to predict this. The growth of Sunni radicalism could create contrasts within the country. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is fighting against other Muslims in Yemen and Syria alongside Christians, so-called “infidels,” which is considered “haram,” forbidden, by the Koran. On the other hand, it acts as a leader of the Islamic world, mainly as an authority on religious orthodoxy. Here we can see the difficult relationship between Islamic and Western countries that can block reconciliation. Many still think that we are facing a religious war between Christians and Muslims, but in fact we are witnessing a conflict between two radically different cultures within the Middle East. The fundamental thing is that Western countries, primarily the United States, must become scrupulous observers of reality and conscious actors in this delicate situation.