Toby Matthiesen became interested in the issue of sectarianism in the Gulf and the Middle East after he spent several months studying Arabic in Syria and Lebanon. Today, he is a well-respected Research Fellow at Cambridge University, the author of two books about sectarianism and is considered to be an expert on Shia’ in the Gulf and the wider region. His first book, “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and The Arab Spring That Wasn’t,” tells the story of the early Arab Spring protests, and illuminates how regimes quickly suppressed these movements by pitting Sunni against Shia citizens. His second book, “The Other Saudis,” was recently published and outlines the difficult experiences of being Shia in Saudi Arabia and how exclusionary state practices have strengthened Shia communal identities.

Mr Matthiesen spoke to IranWire about his latest book, sectarianism in the Middle East, regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and largely Shia Iran and how the Saudi cables Wikileaks recently released will affect that relationship and the region at large.


You recently published a new book "The Other Saudis." What was the inspiration behind the book? 

I started to read about the Shi‘a in the Gulf and their position in GCC-Iran relations during my MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies. There was hardly any literature at the time on the Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia. Also, the case of the Shi‘a of Saudi Arabia seemed to have a particular importance because of Saudi Arabia's position in the Islamic world and because of the Saudi sponsorship of anti-Shi‘i movements.  

I then started my PhD at SOAS in 2007 on "The Shia of Saudi Arabia: Identity Politics, Sectarianism, and the Saudi State." I carried out fieldwork in Saudi Arabia in 2008 and 2011, and did interviews with officials, as well as Shi‘i activists from all different political strands. I also visited the Eastern province [in Saudi Arabia], where the Shi‘a are largely based. However, the difficulty of carrying out long-term fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, and the transnational nature of the Shi‘a's political networks, made it imperative to broaden the scope of my fieldwork. I've explained this at the start of the book:

"This book is the product of countless conversations, extensive fieldwork, and a close reading of textual sources. During my main period of fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, in 2008, discussing the histories and contemporary manifestations of being Shi‘i in Saudi Arabia was possible in a way that it would not be for much longer. The mid-2000s were characterized by national dialogues and a public recognition on the part of King Abdullah that the Shi‘a are an integral part of Saudi Arabia. Unlike in previous decades, particularly the most confrontational phase between 1979 and 1993, the history of Shi‘i dissent, and of discrimination against them, was a topic that some Saudis were willing to discuss. When I finished the doctorate on which this book is based in 2011, what is often simplistically called “the Shi‘a question” in Saudi Arabia was framed very differently, however. Shi‘a in the Eastern Province had staged mass protests for more rights, which undermined the notion that Saudi Arabia was somehow exempt from the fallout of the Arab uprisings. Research on Saudi Arabia, and particularly on a sensitive issue such as Shi‘i politics, is extremely difficult and sources are hard to come by. While I had the opportunity to carry out fieldwork across Saudi Arabia, including in various cities and villages of the Eastern Province, I broadened the geographical scope of my fieldwork considerably. I interviewed Saudi Shi‘a, opposition activists but also clerics, intellectuals, journalists and less politically active people in Europe, the United States, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, and Lebanon. Across these countries I also searched for opposition publications and local historiographical books on Saudi Shi‘i history. I found some on the outdoor book market in the Eastern Province city of Qatif, where one can buy books that are banned in Saudi Arabia for discussing Shi‘i religious beliefs or promoting historical narratives that contradict those of the rulers. I found them in Bahraini village bookshops; the owner of one of these bookshops has since been tortured to death as part of the crackdown on the 2011 uprising. I found them in the bustling alleys that lead up to the Shi‘i shrine of Sayyida Zeinab outside of Damascus, then still a preferred holiday location for Gulf Shi‘a and now a site of fierce fighting. I found some of the books in the Shi‘i libraries in Kuwait, in the vast second-hand bookshops off of Beirut’s cosmopolitan Hamra Street and in the Shi‘i publishing houses of Beirut’s southern suburbs, where most Saudi Shi‘i historical books are published. I found them on London’s Edgware Road, and in libraries and private archives in Britain and the United States."


Saudi Arabia and Iran are well-established regional rivals. Why is this?

Looking at it from a geostrategic perspective, they dominate one of the most important regions in the world, the Persian Gulf. So regardless of ideology and religion, they are bound to be natural rivals for regional hegemony. The vast oil resources at the disposal of both countries have also allowed them to export their rivalry throughout the wider MENA region and beyond in a way that resource-poor countries could never have done. Having said that, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is complicated by a religious and ideological rivalry that overlaps with the strategic and geopolitical rivalry. Both countries have used their particular interpretation of Islam in their foreign policies.

Saudi Arabia "invented" Islamic foreign policy under King Faisal so as to better withstand Arab Nationalist denouncements led by Egyptian President Nasser. It established a whole range of international Islamic organisations and wanted to be seen as the unrivalled leader of the Islamic World. The Islamic Revolution in Iran undermined this notion, because the revolution sought (and in the beginning sometimes did) appeal to all Muslims, regardless of whether they were Sunni or Shia. So the sectarian card was very much a way in which Saudi Arabia (and other Sunni-led states that felt vulnerable to the appeal of the Islamic revolution) could undermine the umma [Muslim]-wide appeal of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Having said that, Iran immediately tried to export its revolution, and found this task easiest amongst Shia groups around the world. Arab Shia were a particular focus of Iran's efforts to export the revolution, as symbolised by the establishing of Hizbullah in Lebanon. But Iran also supported Shia in the Gulf monarchies Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. So both sides have in a way led a sectarian foreign policy that has inflamed sectarian relations across the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Nevertheless, the Sunni-Shia rivalry is not the root cause of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. In many ways, the Sunni-Shia rivalry that we see today is an outcome of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry for regional hegemony.  


You suggest in your first book "Sectarian Gulf" that monarchies in the Gulf, particularly the Saudi and Bahraini ones, are deliberately fermenting sectarianism to maintain power and repress calls for democracy. How do they do this in practice? Who are the main perpetrators? Who falls victim as a result? How does increasing sectarianism in the Gulf and the Middle East affect Iran's standing in the region?

Bahrain has experienced the largest protest movement of the GCC states. In any other country, the mobilisation of such a huge part of the population would have led to the overthrow of the government or to a change in government. But Bahrain has powerful allies and international backing, and was able to scare the Sunnis into believing that an empowerment of the Shia majority would lead to an Iraq-style system of government, whereby the Shia Islamist parties would come to power and seek revenge for previous injustices. And this strategy largely worked! So, sectarianism in many ways did ensure the survival of the Bahraini monarchy for the time being. Saudi Arabia's Shia population only makes up 10 to 15% of its citizen population, so Saudi Arabia does not have the same kind of problem. But the notion that all problems in the Middle East somehow stem from the Shia, Iranian interference (and the Muslim Brotherhood) has been used widely used to denounce activists at home and political movements in the wider region.

To stave off the threat of an Arab uprising in Saudi Arabia, the regime has fostered a new Saudi nationalism that is in large parts based on anti-Shiism and on the rivalry with Iran. Saudi Arabia's regional policies, in particular its recent military intervention in Yemen, are an outcome of this new Saudi nationalism.


Wikileaks recently published the first instalment of the Saudi cables series.  What effect do you think this will have on regional politics, particularly between Saudi and Iran? Does it risk affecting the outcome of nuclear talks?

The recent leaks from the Saudi MoFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) show that Saudi Arabia is tracking the activities of Shia Muslims in virtually every country in the world. It equates Shiism, or Shia proselytising, with Iranian influence. It sees an Iranian behind every corner. It is this kind of paranoia that has made matters worse, and has actually pushed many Shia into the embrace of Iran (such as in Iraq). It has also led to questionable strategic decisions (such as the intervention in Yemen).

It is still unclear who leaked the files to Wikileaks. The Yemen Cyber Army claimed to have hacked the Saudi MoFA, and the ministry confirmed a security breach. The group, however, is little known and the attacks seem very sophisticated. Indeed, it is the so far largest such attack in the Middle East. I think we cannot rule out that Iran or one of its proxies was involved in the hack. Surely, the way the information was spread in the Middle East follows the networks of pro-Iranian media networks. For example, initially the Lebanese pro-Hizbullah newspaper al-Akhbar was the only newspaper cooperating with Wikileaks in analysing the leaks. However, this is in part the result of precisely the kind of influence in Arab media that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have built up over decades, and which have been outlined in the leaks. In other words, there are not many media outlets left in the Middle East that are not pro-Saudi or pro-Iranian and would have touched this kind of material and reported on it. The polarisation and corruption of the Middle Eastern media sphere then ensured that reporting on the cables was largely done by pro-Iranian (and pro-Syrian and pro-Russian) news outlets.

Whatever the truth about the source of the leak, the way in which the information has been released and spread will convince many Saudis that Iran was behind the leak, and this will surely worsen Saudi-Iranian relations. But only time will tell what impact this will have on the nuclear negotiations. 


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