Is the Middle East Becoming Less Arab and Less Sunni?

  • Wednesday, November 19, 2014

By Robert Olson
Professor Emeritus, University of Kentucky.

This was the gist of the headline of an article written by Hisham Melhem, an internationally respected journalist and commentator on Middle Eastern history and politics.

The short answer to Melhem's query is, “Yes, it is.” One just has to look at a map of the Middle East in order to see the changing geopolitical configurations, although new state boundaries themselves will take longer to be recognized. Countries and international organizations are resistant to recognizing challenging non-state entities.

As far as Arab states and Arab societies are concerned, there have been considerable weaknesses with both, especially since the US attack on Iraq in 2003. The war against Iraq terminated the sovereignty of the Iraqi state, and civil war in Syria began as a result of the war in Iraq, leading to the unraveling of Syria. The demise of these two states effectively means the death of Arab nationalism, which was the fulcrum of the Arab states created after World War I. Syria and Iraq, especially the former, were referred to as the “beating heart of Arabism.” It also means a serious challenge to Sunnis and the role they have played throughout the Middle East since that war. There is no question that a new order, albeit fragmented and contentious, is being established.

Let us look at the status of Arab countries themselves. As mentioned above, neither Iraq nor Syria will regain state sovereignty. Lebanon, although a state which has a pluralistic government, is challenged by profound sectarian differences among Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. It has also been destabilized by the civil war in Syria, absorbing over 1 million refugees that account for 25 percent of its population. Jordan is a solidly Sunni state with a population of 6.5 million, of which 3.3 million are of Palestinian origin. In addition, it is under the regional security of Israel and the US. If Israel were to expel additional Palestinians from the West Bank, it too could collapse.

This leaves the important states of the Persian Gulf. None of the Arab Gulf states, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, have any possibility of assuming geopolitical importance, let alone dominance, in other Arab countries. Saudi Arabia does have great economic clout, but its system of governing and society holds little appeal to most Sunni Arabs.

Looking at Yemen

Yemen is a country of 26 million people of whom an estimated 50-55 percent are Sunni and 40-45 percent Shiite. But Yemen has been torn apart by civil war almost at the level of Syria and Iraq. The Shiites (Zaidis), who were removed from power in 1962, have mounted a fierce assault over the past six months against the ruling, largely Sunni government. There is even speculation that Yemen may again be split into two different countries, reassuming the status it held in 1992.

Egypt, with a population of 82 million, is the largest Arab country. It has a negligible Shiite population, but an estimated Christian Arab population of 8 million or more. However, Egypt has not recovered from the throes of civil war and is challenged by seemingly insurmountable climate, water, demographic and ecological problems which limit any significant role it can play in the central Arab countries.

The most important development in the new Middle East is that the 5.5 million Kurds in Iraq have now assumed quasi-independence. Second, they have an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil to sustain their economy, if they were to decide on independence. Third, 23 million Shiites now dominate Arab Iraq, which the current war against Sunni Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces demonstrates. The Shiite Iraqis also have an estimated 140 billion barrels or more of oil to rebuild their economy. The Sunnis of Iraq, who had dominated the politics of the area that is today known as Iraq for 1,400 years, must accept a subordinate status whatever that status or entity comes to be called.

Much the same can be said for the changing geopolitics of Syria. Syria's remaining borders may not change much, but the non-state entities within the remainder will be regions of largely Shiite Alevi and Christian dominance.

The estimated remaining 65-67 percent of Syria's Sunni population would of necessity have to have intimate relations with the 6 million Sunnis of central Iraq, Kurdistan Iraq and with Turkey. Whether this Sunni Arab state would remain politically, economically, demographically and ecologically viable is doubtful.

Given the above, is it any wonder why US President Barack Obama in a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, as reported in The Wall Street Journal on Nov. 6, suggested that the US and Iran shared many common interests in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Southwest Asia? And that both the US and Iran should take these changing geostrategic interests into consideration as they negotiate an agreement regarding Iran's nuclear programs with a deadline approaching on Nov. 24?

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