Chapter 1: Religion
in the heart of a conflicted region

“One who says
that religion is separated from politics has denied god, denied the messenger
of god and denied the Imam’s guidance” Ayatollah Khomeini

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In the contemporary middle east, conflict is at first sight, overwhelmingly
the result of religious divides. Three faith led factions are at the heart of
this divide, Shia Islam, Sunni Islam and Judaism (In the form of the state of
Israel) and Islamic militant groups have caused devastation in the region,
launching military style campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Motivated by a
harsh interpretation of the Quran, the most infamous such group has become known
as Daesh or IS (formally ISIS or ISIL) who until 2014 were regarded by the
western world as one of the many groups fighting the Syrian President Bashar
Al-Assad’s Syrian army in the Syrian civil war. This changed on the fifth of June
2014 when the group launched an offensive into Northern Iraq, sweeping through
the desert with brutal speed and seizing the ancient city of Mosul. Committing
countless atrocities, Daesh disgusted international audiences and governments
alike by beheading international prisoners such as the American Journalists James
Foley and Sotloff. Declaring a caliphate (Islamic Empire) on the thirtieth of
June 2014 in Great Mosque of al-Nuri, Daesh completed their goal of reigniting
militant Jihadism where it began through a proclamation in the mosque of Nur
al-Din (the founder of violent jihad) thus demonstrating a commitment to extremist
Islamic fundamentalism.

The role of Islam within Daesh is often debated by
commentators and academics alike. Ayaan Hirsi Ali from Foreign Policy magazine
clearly belies that Islamic holy texts give ample support to those seeking to
find divine blessing upon the act of militant Dawah (Conversion to Islam).
Hirsi Ali contrasts Mohammed’s time in Mecca to his time in Medina. In Mecca,
the prophet preached the final word of god peacefully to his fellow tribesmen,
making a special emphasis on social circumstances. This however, is of little
interest to extremists wishing to force their world view upon the unwilling
masses. For groups such as Daesh, the Prophet’s Period in Medina provides the
final impetus to engage in violence to achieve Dawah. Ali lifts passages
directly from the Quran and Hadith to support this. She writes ‘For example,
Q8:60 advises Muslims “to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of
Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom
Allah doth know.” Finally, Q9:29 instructs Muslims: “Fight those who believe
not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been
forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth,
(even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya (a tax
levied upon non-Muslims within a caliphate) with willing submission, and feel
themselves subdued.”‘ Thus, scripture clearly authorizes the violent and
merciless pursuit of Dawah as a form of Jihad.

However, Daesh may pursue economic goals in combination with
religious extremism. As a group, Daesh had an extraordinary financial position,
controlling large Oil Fields in the West of Iraq and generating large funds
through black markets in artefacts from antiquity, slavery and oil. The first
area where the economy and religiosity of Daesh may conflict is in the trade
for antiquities which the group claims to destroy in response to Abraham’s
destruction of false (non-Islamic) shrines. However, such goods are frequently
smuggled out of insurgent territory to be sold to raise revenue. This
propagation of false ‘idols’ for finance must sit uncomfortably with the
fundamentalist view of sharia (Islamic law) that Daesh claims to follow. It
should be noted, that the Taliban, in their short and brutal rule of
Afghanistan did not profit from confiscated ‘idols’ and instead destroyed all
such goods. Thus, to a minor extent Daesh seeks to exploit economic objectives that
compromise its religious position.

The division between Sunni and Shia groups is a major cause
of violence in the middle east and to understand the violence between Sunnism
and Shiism, one must first understand the difference between the Sunni and
Shiite faiths. The division of Islam emerged following the death of the Prophet
Muhammad in 632AD over the appointment of the new leader of the rapidly growing
Islamic faith. Some followers believed that the successor to the prophet should
be chosen by consensus whilst others believed only members of the prophet’s
family should become Caliph. Eventually, the title was passed to Abu Bakr, a
trusted aide of the prophet. This was controversial, and some believed the
title of Caliph should go to the prophet’s cousin, Ali, who before his
assassination by poison laced sword, inherited the role from Abu Bakr. Ali’s
sons Hasan and then Hussein hence claimed the title of caliph. However, in
680AD, Hussein and many of his followers were massacred in a mosque in Karbala
(modern day Iraq).

The martyrdom of Hussein became a central tenet to those who
believed that Ali should have succeeded the prophet and is mourned every year
during the month of Muharram. His followers became known as Shiites. The
Sunnis, however, regard Ali as well as the three caliphs before him as rightly
guided and themselves as the true adherents to the prophet’s tradition. Sunni
rulers embarked on sweeping conquests that extended the caliphate into North
Africa and Europe. The last caliphate ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire
after World War I and thus, since the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam has been
bitterly divided.

Such historic and longstanding division causes modern day
conflict and nowhere is this clearer than Iraq. Here, after the deposition of
the secular (but Sunni) despot Saddam Hussein, the previously persecuted Shia
majority formed a coalition at the expense of the Iraqi Sunnis. Briefly put,
the political exclusion of the Sunnis led to groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh
most accurately representing the frustrations of a minority of the most
fundamentalist Sunni population. Geneive Abdo of the Pulitzer centre writes ‘Essentially,
longstanding notions of religious identity and sectarian affiliation have
supplanted the postcolonial project of Arab nationalism, thereby creating the
opportunity for violent extremist groups, such as ISIS and al Qaeda, to fill
the resulting vacuum.’ Thus, the ability of the Sunni and Shia religious divide
to create political situations whereby the ‘persecuted’ party turns to
extremist terror groups is a leading cause of violence within the middle east.
This is also clear in Egypt, a country with a Shia population of less than 1%.
Here, there is still present a perceived ‘Shia threat’ demonstrating that even
in outlier states sectarianism causes suspicion and anger. Such anger may have
a theological backing and this stems from the Shia interpretation of Aisha,
wife of the prophet who some Shias believe had extra-marital affairs. The Quran
states that Aisha did not have such affairs and thus, the Sunnis believe that
anyone who doubts the Quran, is an apostate. There is difference in
interpretations of the holy book between the Sunni and Shia denominations and
this only serves to increase animosity between the sects, accelerating violence
in the middle east.

In the middle east, religious disagreements are not only present
within Islam. With an emerging presence on the world stage, the Jewish state of
Israel has been a contentious issue among its Arab neighbours since foundation
in 1948. Since this date, the economically meaningless but spiritually
significant land Israel is built upon has caused numerous wars, notably, the
Six Day War of 1967 and Yom Kippur War of 1973. More recently however, Israel
has fought against insurgencies, backed often by Arab powers and Iran. The most
prominent groups in the Arab-Israeli conflict are Hezbollah (Shia) and Hamas
(Sunni). Such conflict arises over the religious significance of the sites
within Israel’s borders and the Israeli religious motivation to hold
historically Palestinian land (most notably in the West Bank).

Containing the most sacred site in Judaism (The Western Wall)
and the most sacred site outside of Saudi Arabia in Islam (Dome of the Rock) the
perfect example of Arab contempt at Israeli control of Palestine is Jerusalem.
This religiosity is reflected in conflict, the Hamas charter of 1988 stating ‘The
land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf Holy Possession consecrated for future
Moslem generations until Judgment Day. No one can renounce it or any part, or
abandon it or any part of it.’ (Article 11). Thus, the proclaimed motivation
for insurgency action against the state of Israel is religious. Further, the
national ideology of Israel Zionism states that Judaism is not only a religion
but a nation, and thus Zionists may trace their entitlement to the land of
their ancestors on a faith basis. Therefore, in Israel, culture, politics and
religion cannot be separated as causes of conflict since a religious ideology
runs through Israeli culture and politics. This sense of ‘entitlement’ can
clearly be seen in areas such as the West Bank where individual Israeli
settlers have created an extension of the Jewish state in Internationally
declared Palestinian territories. Such vigilante style provocation of violence
on the West Bank in flagrant violation of international agreements is unique in
the region.

The Israeli government has further endorsed such religious
behaviour by declaring its capital as Jerusalem. This is contentious as it
broke with the United Nations General Assembly resolution 181 (II), of November
29, 1947, which declared Jerusalem as an internationally controlled territory,
stating: ‘The City of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separate under
a special international regime and shall be administered by the United
Nations.’ This was directly contradicted in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu declaring that ‘Jerusalem has forever been the capital of only the
Jewish people and no other nation.’ Thus, the conflict in Israel and Palestine
stems from religious division, each side (Zionist and Islamic) believing in
their entitlement to the economically meaningless but religiously priceless
land upon which modern day Israel is built upon.

Chapter 2:
A new Cold War- Geopolitics as a motivator for regional violence.

“But among all
the uprisings, civil wars and insurgencies, two countries always seem to be
involved: Saudi Arabia and Iran.”                    Sam Ellis – Vox Media


A spectre is haunting the middle east – the spectre of Saudi
Arabia and Iran. These old powers have emerged as leaders of their respective
(Sunni and Shia) faiths and in pursuing regional power they fight proxy wars in
Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Without directly attacking each other, the struggle for
power along both religious and political boundaries between these two regional
super powers has caused and accentuated conflict in all corners of the middle

It is often believed that the division between these two
nations only derives from religious differences, Saudi Arabia following a harsh
form of Sunnism known as Wahhabism whilst 90% of Iranians follow Shiism. There
is certainly an element of truth to this and it undeniable that the Wahhabi
leadership of Saudi Arabia holds a clear level of distaste to their Shia
counterparts. This is reflected in the governance of Saudi Arabia whereby Shia
are disqualified from acting as witnesses in court, fighting in the armed
forces and achieving officialdom of any realistic power. However, in the past
such religious differences have not proved too disastrous. For example, in the
face of communist insurgencies and Egyptian president Nasser in the cold war
Saudi Arabia and Iran worked together. Thus, the animosity between the two
nations is more complex and recent. In an interview with Uri Friedman for ‘The
Atlantic’, Frederic Wehrey accurately explains the primary cause of animosity
between the two nations, stating: ‘When you have the regional order collapsing,
regional states are collapsing, these two oil-rich powers—each of which claims
to be a leader of the Islamic world and a leader of the Middle East—are drawn
into the vacuum, for a variety of reasons. A lot of it is rooted in the
domestic politics of each country. In Iran, you have a hard-line Revolutionary
Guard clique that is trying to assert itself vis-à-vis the pragmatists that
have just signed the nuclear deal with world powers, so they are trying to
assert themselves on the regional front by saying, “We still are a power to be
reckoned with.” They’re asserting themselves in these regional conflicts. In
Saudi Arabia, there is this new king … who is using these regional wars as a
way to bolster his bona fides and raise his nationalist profile and build
support. We cannot really separate the regional adventurism from the domestic
politics of each country.’  Thus, the
issue of Saudi-Iranian relations is to a large extent political and not

The destruction of the state of Yemen through a brutal civil
war is the perfect example of the political nature of the Saudi – Iranian cold
war currently plunging vast swathes of the middle east into darkness. In terms
of geopolitics, Yemen straddles the Southernmost Saudi border, close to the
most densely Shiite region in the Kingdom. Yemen also has a large Shia
population, which at 35% is the largest by percentage in the gulf. Thus, for
Iran, proxy control of Yemen provides great opportunity in terms of influence
into Saudi Arabia who fear the consequences of an unstable Yemen on their
mountainous and hard to defend Southern Border. Iran is thus playing an active
role in the civil war in Yemen, unnamed US intelligence officials claiming that
Iranian smugglers backed by the Quds Force, an elite international operations
unit within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, are using small boats to
ship AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other arms to replace older weapons
used by the rebels.

Such activity has been steadily increasing. In 2013 (a year
after the original claims were made) a shipment off the coast of Yemen was
discovered to contain Persian markings. This transport contained major
armaments including surface to air missiles, and C-4 plastic explosives.
Further, with limited government within Yemen groups such as AQAP (Al Qaeda in
the Arabian Peninsula) have been allowed to flourish. Whilst a Sunni entity,
AQAP is widely recognised as the most dangerous direct threat to Saudi Arabia.
With such little law enforcement AQAP can easily transverse the Yemen – KSA
(Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) border, launching attacks within the Kingdom. To
counter such threats the Saudi government has backed the Yemenis central
government both financially and militarily whilst continuing to lead a
coalition of Sunni nations. This military coalition consists of: 1. Saudi
Arabia. 2. United Arab Emirates. 3. Bahrain. 4. Kuwait. 5. Jordan. 6. Morocco.
7. Egypt. 8. Senegal. 9. Sudan. This coalition is acting aggressively against
AQAP and the Houthis (a Shia political movement waging insurgency against the
Sunni Yemeni government since 2004) through the use of air and ground strikes.
Thus, in Yemen it is clear that geopolitics motivate conflict, the Iranian
regime seeking to weaken Saudi power through providing the fuel (e.g.
ammunition, finance) for war to continue. The Saudi government clearly view the
threat on its Southern border as severe and the evidence of this is the huge
quantity of resources piled into this conflict, which increasingly looks to be
unwinnable for all apart from the Iranians.

Yemen is clearly important to Saudi Arabia and the events
occurring below their Southern Border matter deeply to the future prosperity of
the KSA. To allow Iran and AQAP to gain a foothold in Yemen would greatly
undermine the security that an allied Southern neighbour once provided. Thus,
the KSA is prepared to act to preserve its security in Yemen. Iran has such a
pressure point where the Saudi regime wages proxy war- Iraq and Syria. Martin
Reardon of Al Jazeera writes: ‘Both those countries serve as buffers between
Iran and the Sunni Middle East, so having stable and dependable Shia-led
governments in each serve as a strategic objective that is non-negotiable for
Iran.’ Saudi Arabia has acted in a similar manner to that of Iran in Yemen,
sending vast quantities of military aid to rebels opposing the Bashar al-Assad
regime. This was reported in 2013, when it was reported that Saudi intelligence
had financed a large quantity of infantry weapons from Croatia. This means that
for geopolitical aims, the Saudi regime seeks to accentuate violence in the
region. The Saudi regime clearly seeks the deposition of the regime of Bashar
al Assad to weaken Iranian power. Iran works through Proxy wars to counter the
influence of such Saudi intervention in Iraq and Syria.

Further, the influence of geopolitics on regional relations
can be seen in the 2017 Qatar Diplomatic Crisis. This (not yet armed) crisis
has been linked to the Qatar/Saudi proxy war whereby following the Arab spring
a power vacuum was left to be filled by the two states, Qatar supporting
further revolutionary change and Saudi Arabia opposing it. Such revolution was,
at the time, a direct threat to the Saudi monarchy with unprecedented protests
lining the streets in Saudi cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah. Qatar used the
broadcaster, ‘al Jazeera’ to achieve further revolution and this is perhaps the
most important factor in the animosity between the two gulf neighbours. This
Qatari TV network is the only free news network in the entire Islamic middle
east and during the Spring it broadcast footage of the events unfolding across
the region, contributing to the wave of revolutionary action. In comparison,
the Saudi media outlets heavily censored any indication of discontent,
shielding the people from their own power to disrupt and topple autocratic
regimes. Thus, in combination with social media, al Jazeera changed the status
quo, where the ruling state had a total monopoly on the information being fed
to the citizens. A small nation, Qatar, was able to change the balance of power
within the region through simply distributing the truth and this led to its
neighbours and fellow gulf nations cutting off all ties. Here, religion is
redundant, the Qatari’s and Saudi’s both being majority Conservative-Sunni and
therefore, non-religious matters such as geopolitical endeavours cause conflict
in the Middle East.



















Chapter 3:
A region with current and emerging conflicts.

“The next war in the Middle East
will be fought over water, not politics”

Boutros Boutros-Ghali


The middle east is a region with significant value to the
world economy, particularly in the field of petrochemicals which form the basis
for a huge number of consumer and capital products such as plastics and
lubricants in addition to providing the fuel for non-renewable energy sources.
Demonstrating the importance of the MENA within global oil production, eight of
the fourteen OPEC member states are from the Middle East. Further, the region
faces economic problems more directly concentrated to the MENA. For example,
the exodus of Saudi citizens to fight for extremist groups has often been
linked to the soaring national rate of unemployment. Also, disturbing patterns
are emerging, issues such as climate change expected to cause mass water
shortages and make the sandy soil of the region even more unfertile. As has
been proven, economic issues constantly lead to discontent and violence and
thus, such complaints should not be taken lightly.

Figure 1-
Rising Temperatures in the region

In their paper: ‘Rising Temperatures, Rising Tensions: Climate change
and the risk of violent conflict in the Middle East’, Oli Brown and Alec Crawford emphasise the threat posed by
climate change to the already unstable situation in the Middle East. Whilst
Brown and Crawford identify numerous threats, one is particularly interesting.
The authors write ‘Climate change may increase competition for scarce water
resources, complicating peace agreements.’ In terms of dependence, water is at
least equitable to oil in the Middle East, it being a hugely scarce resource
with equally huge demand from much of the regional population who may often be
too poor to import vital products such as fruits and vegetables. Thus, because
of its huge value to the sustainment of life, water is a contentious issue in
the region which as global temperatures increases will only grow in prominence.
Minor conflict over water in the Middle East in not a new concept, Brown and
Crawford writing: ‘The Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations in 2000 broke down
over the issue of access to the waters of the Galilee. Meanwhile, the issue of
water rights between Israel and the Palestinian authority proved so contentious
that it has been set aside until the final negotiations on a Palestinian state.’
As can be seen in Figure 1, this problem of water scarcity and climate change
will only get worse with time. Hints to the future may be found in recent
history. Lina Yassin of The Ecologist writes: ‘Between 2006 and 2010, Syria
experienced extreme droughts that turned 60 percent of the country into dry
desert, making large regions to become economically impoverished…. In 2016,
Tunisia’s rainfall dropped by 30 percent causing agricultural losses of nearly
two billion dinars. ‘ The effect of incremental changes to the harshness of the
climate will only serve to further destabilise the region, with water wars and
further refugee crises appearing as likely scenarios. Therefore, whilst
currently the climate of the region plays a minor role in conflict, its
significance will increase in the future, where it is likely that Middle
Eastern nations will be forced to compete for incredibly scarce resources.

In addition, the ability of nations to respond to changing
circumstances depends on the robust nature of the said nation’s economy. Thus,
the nature of the economies of Middle Eastern countries is crucial in
understanding the response to and eradication the causes of conflict. The macro
economy of the region is clearly weak, war decimating that of Syria- once an
advanced Service led economy with high living standards for many. However,
perhaps the main issue is Primary Product Dependency (PPD) or Dutch disease,
whereby countries rely overwhelmingly upon one primary product for revenue. The
clear example here is Saudi Arabia which (as seen in figure 2) relies heavily
upon oil products. PPD in highly skilled fields such as Oil lead to a heavy
reliance on foreign labour which has contributed to the high unemployment rate,
which in turn leads to a greater susceptibility for extremist ideologies and
thus violence. An example of this is Osama bin Laden, son of a wealthy Saudi
construction magnate who never took up work in the KSA. Instead Bin Laden
adopted an extremist ideology and fled to Pakistan, aiding the Mujahedeen in
their efforts against the Soviet invasion. More recently however, discontent at
the economic system in Saudi has perhaps contributed to the mass exodus of
Saudi funds and fighters to militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Thus, to
an extent is possible that the fragile and dependent nature of Middle Eastern
economies has contributed to ongoing conflict in the region.