What You Need to Know about the Brewing Saudi-Iranian Conflict

Middle East news is about as confusing as it gets, and the Saudi-Iranian crisis is no different. The conflict has its roots in religious disagreements, and the current state of the oil industry may be complicating matters. Here’s what we know right now.

There’s been a long-standing religious conflict in the region

To understand the underpinnings of the conflict, we have to take into consideration the long-term and bitter sectarian divide in the Middle East. About 85 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, while the remaining 15 percent are Shia. Although the sects agree on many points of Islamic doctrine, Shiite Muslims consider Ali and leaders who followed him to be imams. An imam is a leader of worship in a mosque and a Muslim community.

Shiites known as “Twelvers” believe that there is a line of 12 imams, starting with Ali, who are the divinely appointed successors of Muhammed. The last was a boy who vanished in the ninth century when his father was killed. Shiite Muslims believe that one day the Twelfth Imam will return as the Mahdi, or Messiah.


Conversely, the majority of Muslims — Sunnis — place an emphasis on God’s power here in the physical world, sometimes in the political realm. Shiites, conversely, value sacrifice and martyrdom.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are on either side of a religious schism

Saudi Arabia is primarily Sunni, whereas Iran is primarily Shiite. According to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the two countries have competed for the leadership of Islam for a long time; the struggle has been brewing for 14 centuries. “How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen,” states the Council.

The Saudi royal family, who are Sunni and practice a conservative form of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, control holy sites, including the holiest sites of Islam: the cities of Mecca and Medina. The revered shrines of Karbala, Kufa and Najaf are located in Iraq, where a large cross section of the Muslim population is Shiite, like Iran. Iraq and Iran are allies.

Saudi Arabia recently executed a Shiite cleric

On Saturday, January 2, 2016, Saudi Arabia executed four Shiite Muslims on charges of terrorism, including Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. This sparked a violent reaction outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran, Iran’s capital and, according to NPR, the Saudi government “quickly severed ties with its longtime regional rival.” The cleric was a longtime outspoken critic of the Saudi government.

NPR’s Leila Fadel reported that Nimr spent about 15 years in exile. “After that, he was in and out of prison for calling for free elections and at one point he suggested that the Shia majority eastern province, Qatif, secede from Saudi Arabia if demands weren’t met.” Protests as far away as Canberra, Australia, have taken place in reaction to Nimr’s death.

The price of oil is important to most of the world

To complicate matters, Nimr’s Saudi Arabian home district of Qatif is almost entirely Shiite. It’s also located in the oil-producing Eastern Province. The Saudis hold about 18 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves, and the industry accounts for nearly 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. According to OPEC, about 85 percent of Saudi Arabia’s export earnings also come from the oil and gas industry. State-owned Saudi Aramco is located in the area, and many Qatif residents work for the company.

The price of oil is a big deal for most of the world. Oil prices have dropped to the lowest cost per barrel in 12 years. From just a year and a half ago, the current price of oil is down 65 percent. While we’re enjoying the benefits of lower oil prices here in the U.S., other countries aren’t so pleased. As CNN Money reports, by Thursday afternoon, U.S. crude futures finished at $33.50 per barrel as Saudi Arabia continues its price war with other producers — Venezuela, Russia, Iraq, Nigeria and China. Shale oil is a huge and growing industry in the U.S., so large the United States is turning into an energy exporter. The Saudis can afford to lower prices without causing too much harm to their economy. The same can’t be said for other parts of the world.

The boil-down

Location Saudi Arabia. Blue pin on the map.The U.S. is likely to stay out of the religious conflict in the Middle East, but oil prices are always in the forefront of economists’ minds. If the conflict in the Eastern Province begins to affect the price of oil, then we can expect some action from the West.

China, the newcomer to the crude industry, just saw its stock market halted for the second time this week alone, amidst dropping oil prices. As we recently reported, China is invested in Iran’s oil industry. When Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran, the Chinese market felt the effects of lowered profitability expectations. When the price of oil begins cooling the markets around the world — especially the second-largest global market, in China — people may resort to extreme measures.

An unstable economy and anger over hard financial times could become more common in these parts of the world if prices remain too low for too long. The result? Anything from protests and riots to outright conflict between countries. We’ll keep you posted.

Are you concerned about the current conflict in the Middle East?

—Megan Winkler

Megan Winkler is an author, historian, Neurosculpting® meditation coach, certified nutritional consultant and DIY diva. When she’s not writing or teaching a class, Megan can be found in the water, on a yoga mat, learning a new instrument or singing karaoke. Her passion for a healthy mind-body-spirit relationship motivates her to explore all the natural world has to offer.


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