Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Debate: The Syrian conflict will contribute to sectarianism in the Gulf | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Damaged vehicles are seen among debris after what activists said was an air raid by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in Aleppo’s district of Al Sukari February 1, 2014. (REUTERS/Malek Al Shemali)

It is important that we clarify two things from the outset. First, the “sectarian problem” is assumed here to indicate the ideological conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis. This strife has plagued many societies, and perhaps it has now reached the Gulf. Second, the word “Gulf” is imprecise. It could be understood as denoting only those states that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). However, the term “Gulf” could also encompass Yemen, Iran, and Iraq, which would greatly complicate the subject. We will focus here on the sectarian crisis in only the six GCC countries.

We find that Oman has not historically suffered from a sectarian crisis and is therefore not concerned with what is happening in Syria, having distanced itself since the outbreak of the conflict. The UAE likewise does not feel the pain of sectarian divides within its borders, nor is it concerned with the regional sectarian balance. It has, however, benefited materially from the conflict in Syria with numerous Syrian companies relocating to the UAE, particularly Dubai. Many wealthy Syrian families have also moved to the UAE, especially those with ties to the Assad regime who could not find better refuge elsewhere with some Western countries denying them entry. As for Qatar, it is similarly unconcerned with the problem of sectarianism and worries little about maintaining the sectarian balance in the region. On the other hand, it has involved itself in the sectarian and ideological conflicts in Syria and has stood firm with one side. It also has financial interests in the country, and only time will tell whether Qatar regrets or benefits from its intervention. Bahrain suffers from sectarian strife that has crippled the country for years. This has severely impacted its stability and economic progress, in addition to increasing its dependence on Saudi Arabia. Its security apparatus has become so intertwined with the Kingdom’s that they are now almost inseparable. That said, it is unlikely the Syrian conflict will significantly affect Bahrain, regardless of whether the opposition triumphs or the Assad regime remains in power.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the two Gulf countries most materially affected by the Syrian conflict—as well being the two most active countries in terms of military participation. It is therefore inevitable that their interests will be most impacted by what is happening in Syria, and, in my opinion, the result will be unavoidably negative for their respective Shi’ite minorities. Victory by the Assad regime—which is backed by Iran both directly and indirectly (by way of its support for the Lebanese group Hezbollah)—will likely prompt Assad to seek revenge or retribution on those who stood against him. This means working to undermine the relative stability that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia currently enjoy—a task that would not be difficult for Syrian and Iranian intelligence services, which both have sectarian cells in the Gulf. Such a move by the Assad regime would, in turn, push Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to take precautions, heightening awareness and increasing the expulsion of foreign elements within their borders, as well as tightening restrictions on and intensifying surveillance of suspicious persons among their own populations.

If the Syrian regime loses the conflict to internal opposition forces—backed mainly at the regional level by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—we can expect an outcome no less grim. These forces will, by virtue of their hardliner sectarian composition, harass and persecute Shi’ite minority groups. Such a scenario carries significant regional implications.

Thus, regardless of whether the sectarian conflict in Syria continues or one side triumphs over the other, the outcome will be unavoidably negative for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; the consequences will be less severe for Bahrain and Qatar, despite the latter’s role in fueling conflict; and the conflict will have a negligible effect on Oman and the UAE—with the notable exception of Dubai, which stands to benefit.

In summary, it is nearly impossible for the Gulf States, or any parties involved in the Syrian crisis, to avoid future repercussions. Therefore, it is each country’s responsibility to mitigate these consequences by spreading awareness throughout its population, responding firmly to extremists and challenging those who sow discord in their communities, and promoting justice throughout all segments of society.

Likewise, it is essential, from a long-term strategic perspective, that we modify our educational curricula to conform more closely to the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its provisions hold the key to ridding ourselves of the moral and intellectual diseases that currently plague our societies, bloated as they are with religious intolerance and doctrinal infighting. There is no individual or group better than another. The only thing that differentiates people is what they do to better society, absent any religious agenda.

The counterpoint to this argument can be read here.