Saudi Arabia's Sectarian Strategy at Home and Abroad: Rallying the Bases

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 4:30pm


David Commins

Professor of History, Dickinson University

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Sectarian enmity toward Shiism is a constant in Saudi history.  It goes back to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s attack on all forms of idolatry. Today’s anti-Shiite discourse blends classic Wahhabi doctrine with contemporary political concepts in ways that cast Shiism as a threat to national unity. The new discourse developed in the 1980s in response to the Iranian revolution and Shiite activism at home. Since then, Al Saud have alternately mobilized and curtailed anti-Shiite narratives according to political calculations.

Presently, Saudi Arabia’s sectarian strategy draws on latent Sunni prejudice against Shiism to achieve two goals: To defeat Iran’s ambitions in the Gulf and the Levant, and to suppress internal dissent. There is nothing remarkable about a state seeking to maximize its international security and domestic stability. Riyadh’s mobilization of xenophobic theology, however, creates strains with the United States, carries the risk of blowback from wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria that is reminiscent of the 1980s Afghan jihad, and may jeopardize plans for internal structural reform.

David Commins is Professor of History.  He earned his B.A. at the University of California, Berkeley, and his PhD from the University of Michigan.  He has received Fulbright grants to fund Arabic study at Damascus University (1981-82), to research Islamic modernism in Ottoman Syria (1982-1983), and to study Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia (2001-2002).  He regularly offers courses on Islamic Civilization, modern Middle East history, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Islam, India, and Historical Method.  A specialist in modern Islamic thought, Commins's publications include journal and encyclopaedia articles on the subject as well as Islamic Reform: Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria and Historical Dictionary of Syria. His latest book is The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia.

Co-Sponsored with the Bustani Middle East Seminar.

Read this policy brief from the Norweigan Peacebuilding Resource Centre for background on the topic of Saudi Arabia and sectarianism.