West Asian turmoil, Shia-Sunni divide may impact India
by Ashok B Sharma on 21 Sep 2014 1 Comment

Following the Arab Spring that began in December 2011, the situation in West Asia and North Africa, particularly in Iraq and Syria is taking an ugly turn and has not only put Indian diplomacy to test but is likely to pose a challenge to India’s security concerns and economic interests. The region has brought both local and external powers in play. The sectarian divide between Sunnis and the Shias has aggravated the situation and questioned the Sykes-Picot boundaries between existing nation states. Further the formation of a Caliphate by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is an indication that the knotty problem may not be resolved in the immediate future. Adding to India’s security concerns is the Sunni terrorist organisation, Al Qaida forming its new arm for the Indian sub-continent.


Though the present crisis has not impacted on global oil and gas prices due to ample stocks, the turmoil in the region is likely to impact future investment climate and production in the long run.   


If the Sykes-Picot boundaries, arbitrarily fixed by the British and the French after World War I, are replaced and new boundaries drawn based on sectarian divide, the entire geopolitics and geo-economics of the region would change. The ISIS Caliphate has begun the process of earmarking its areas and capturing oil fields and a refinery at Mosul. It still holds 40 Indian construction workers in captivity. In this emerging situation, India needs to carefully play its diplomatic card keeping in view its security and economic interests.


The region, long known as a playground for external powers, is undergoing reconfiguration in its geopolitics which would impact the geo-economics also. Though the region has a love-hate relationship with external players, it cannot resolve most of its core problems without external influence, interference or intervention. Despite its declining influence, the US continues to be the power that has the political will and military capability to exert itself in the region. But its attitude towards the Arab Spring and its policy of ‘rebalancing towards Asia Pacific’ has drawn criticism from its regional allies.


Russia is seen coming back as a player in the region with its support for Iran and the Assad regime in Syria and ongoing efforts to cultivate a stronger relationship with Egypt. Russia’s handling of the Ukraine issue has demonstrated its growing assertiveness in world affairs. China, which sources about 50% of its imported oil from the region, is continuing to strengthen its economic leverage. Concerns are also high in Japan and South Korea that look to this region to meet their energy needs.


The sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shias has made Saudi Arabia and Iran active in mobilising their influence in the region. The six-member body, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that is supposed to anchor the region, is suffering from intra-GCC rivalry which is threatening the fragile balance within the group. The emergence of Qatar-Saudi rivalry is a major issue.


Iran is coming out of its isolation after the interim agreement with P5+1 resulting in partial lifting of sanctions. Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry has taken new dimensions with Iran harbouring the ambition to lead the Shias in the region. Way back in 2004, King Abdullah of Jordon apprehended the emergence of a Shia Crescent embracing Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This fear was echoed by the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal. However, with the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, rule of the minority Alawite Shias in Syria, the nascent Shia empowerment and leadership in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and US withdrawal and emergence of new Zaydi (Shia) fighting force in Yemen, the Shia Crescent seems to be a reality.


In the global Muslim population of 1.4 billion, Shias constitute 13%, but the maximum concentration of Shias is in Iran and the Arab world. If Iran is excluded, Arab Shia constitute one-third of the total native population. In Iraq, Shias constitute about 60% of the total population of 35 million. In Bahrain two-third of the native population of half million is Shia. In Kuwait, 30% of the native population of 1.2 million is Shia, while in Saudi Arabia out of the total native population of 20 million, 13 % is Shia. But Ismaili Shias in Saudi Arabia are concentrated in Eastern Province, Najran and Jizan Province. In Syria, Alawi Shias constitute just 12% of the total population of 23 million. Assad family of Alawi Shia sect has been ruling Syria since 1971.


All Shia sects in the region have the support of Iran which is determined to emerge as a major player in the region. Saudi Arabia is the natural leader of Sunnis in the region. But both Iran and Saudi Arabia were in the forefront of supporting the Palestine cause. However, in the recent Israeli operation in Gaza that took place in the backdrop of ISIS occupation of over 40,000 sq km of Iraq, the response from both Iran and Saudi Arabia was negligible.


The sharp sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shias in the region may have a spillover effect on the Muslim population in India and elsewhere in the world. India has the third largest Muslim population in the world. There are already reports of some Sunni Muslims from India joining the ISIS in Iraq and some Shias willing to go to Iraq to defend Najaf and Karbala. The sectarian divide between Shias and Sunnis in India may result in a new problem.


The challenge facing India is to balance its political equations and economic interests with major regional and external players in the region. India’s energy imports from the region are about 63% of total oil imports. West Asia and North Africa are also home to 47% of the world’s natural gas reserves.


The region is a leading trading partner for India with a total trade of about $200 billion. The region hosts about seven million Indian expatriates who send substantial remittances back home. The Gulf countries have huge Sovereign Funds that can be invested in several infrastructure projects in India. 

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