Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings
by Frederic M. Wehrey
New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 352 pp. $45
Reviewed by Joshua Teitelbaum
Middle East Quarterly
The sectarian politics of this work's title refers to the often-tense relationship between Sunnis and Shiites in the Persian Gulf region. Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offers a comprehensive analysis of their conflict, which will be appreciated by policymakers and journalists, as well as scholars. The book is chock-full of insights and a deeply nuanced understanding of regional Shiite-Sunni tensions and is a fine addition to other recent treatments of the subject.
Wehrey takes the reader through Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait where the Shiite populations are significant. Here, the emphasis on Shiite identity is strongly influenced by politics; it seems to wax and wane with regional and internal developments. Thus Kuwait's Shiites have improved their lot and connection to the state by virtue of their resistance to the Iraqi occupation in 1990-91. The analysis of Saudi Arabia is quite good although it would have been useful to point out that anti-Shiism is a cornerstone of Wahhabi ideology, which views Shiite adherents as polytheists. This puts a great burden on Saudi Shiites trying to gain a piece of the Saudi pie or tolerance for their beliefs.
At times the book veers into unnecessary and distracting rhetorical devices as when Wehrey terms sectarianism an "enigma" that "has long perplexed scholars and observers of the Middle East, particularly since 2006." It is, in fact, the enduring default option in many Middle Eastern countries, and the author basically admits it, stressing the transnational dimension of Shiite sectarianism. Similarly, he maintains that sectarianism in the Persian Gulf region is neither an immutable feature nor a manufactured construct as claimed by some Western analysts. However, his analysis does suggest a certain immutability: Shiite-Sunni tensions are here to stay although their relevance seems to rise and fall with the vicissitudes of the region's politics.
Wehrey offers no recommendations for U.S. policy—nor should he. Sectarianism is something better left for local forces to handle. Washington is not good at managing enduring internal conflicts in faraway places.
Related Topics: Persian Gulf & Yemen | Joshua Teitelbaum | Fall 2014 MEQ
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