An often overlooked dimension to the enduring rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the religious minorities each country bears, sometimes with difficulty, within its own borders.

The diplomatic spat that followed the execution of a Shi’ite cleric in Saudi Arabia at the start of January briefly brought to public attention these marginalized groups, both of which are treated as outsiders in their own countries.

The enmity between the two Middle Eastern powers, coupled with the rampage of Islamic State in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, has made the Middle East an undesirable region for many minorities to live in.



Of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, 85 percent are Sunni. Many of these people look to Saudi Arabia, the custodians of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, as the center of Islam.

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, sees itself as the representative of the 10% to 13% of Muslims who subscribe to Shi’ism.

Islam’s two branches formed in the decades after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, when disagreement arose over who would take up the position of caliph of the Muslim empire.


The two sects have lived alongside each other for centuries, but relations have frequently descended into violence.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are embroiled in a regional “cold war” which involves both states using groups that share their own sectarian identity as proxies against the other’s interests.

For the minorities living in Iran and Saudi Arabia, this can make life very complicated.

“Saudi Arabia is a very puritanical and Wahabist, a very strict form of Islam, and as such it is extremely anti-Shi’ite,” Joshua Teitelbaum, professor of modern Middle Eastern history with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line. There are no churches or synagogues in the country at all, with most non-Muslims coming in the form of expatriate foreign workers from Europe and the US.

Shi’ites make up around 12% of Saudi Arabia’s population, and most live in the oil-rich eastern province of the country, Teitelbaum said. The group has frequently been persecuted by the Saudi government for real and perceived links to the Iranian regime, he explained.

“There are two trends among the Shi’ites. There are those that want just recognition of their rights and want to be integrated into the Saudi state, and there are others who are more militant and support armed rebellion,” Teitelbaum said.

Iran has become infamous for its use of proxy organizations, influencing and at times arming or funding religious minority groups in neighboring states to expand its reach.

However, it has a sizable minority within its own borders.

Once called Persia, Iran has a long history of being an empire with many linguistic groups, Eldad Pardo, an expert on Iran at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line.

“What’s so interesting about Iran is that it has around 50% Persian-speakers, with the rest made up of various ethnic groups,” Pardo said.

Despite that, the country does not enjoy a great amount of religious diversity. “We have 90% who are Shi’ite, and 10% who are not,” the Hebrew University lecturer explained.

Hugely outnumbered by Sunnis globally, Shi’ites are often the victims of violence, which has increased in ferocity since the US-led invasion of Iraq removed Saddam Hussein from power. As one of the fault lines between the Sunni and Shi’ite divide, Iraq is particularly affected by the sectarian conflict.

But Shi’ites are not always the victims.

“If you look at the history of Shi’ism, if you look at certain rules of purity and impurity, usually Shi’ites, in places where they were the majority, were less tolerant towards religious minorities, particularly towards Jews,” Pardo noted.

After the surge of pro-democracy uprisings in 2011 faltered and became bogged down in civil wars, violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites escalated to the point where it is now being described as a sectarian conflict. In addition to the thousands of Muslims killed and expelled in the violence, other religious and ethnic minorities have also suffered – Christians, Yazidis and Druse. Alongside the religious conflict is the geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The latest stage in this conflict was the decision by a number of Sunni states – the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Bahrain – to join Riyadh in severing diplomatic ties with Iran in response to a crowd attacking the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. This followed the Saudi execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a cleric from the state’s Shi’ite minority, for agitation against the government.

Nimr’s death, and the reactions to it, should not, however, be taken as solid evidence that the Sunni/Shi’ite and the Saudi/Iran dynamic are intertwined, Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow with Chatham House, told The Media Line.

“It’s a very cosmetic and obvious division between Iran and Saudi Arabia, so it’s easy to couch the rivalry in these terms,” Vakil said, noting that of the two, Saudi Arabia prefers to use the “sectarian card” as there are more Sunnis in the world for it to play to.

In fact, Sunni and Shi’ite minorities in both countries suffer under their governments, Vakil stated, describing both as “flagrant human rights abusers.”

“Sectarianism is just a convenient tool to mask their domestic, economic and political weaknesses,” Vakil concluded.

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