Emile Bustani Middle East Seminar: "Saudi Arabia's Sectarian Strategy at Home and Abroad"

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 at Dickinson College.