The First and the Second World War were the culmination of rivalries that go as far back as over a thousand years, when Charlemagne subjugated the Saxon tribes inhabiting modern Germany, and creating the Carolingian Empire. The political successors of Franks, France, and Saxons, the latter morphing into the Holy Roman Empire, then Prussia, then Germany, would continue to fight border wars until the bloodiest of them all, World War 2, inflicted enough destruction to both to force them to give up military means for the reciprocal arrangements.
The First World War was triggered by a regional episode, the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, by Serb nationalists that put in motion the alliance of the German world, Austria and Prussia against the British, French and Russian one.
Just like the two world wars in Europe were triggered by a single event, so can long standing, unresolved rivalries for power and influence over the Middle East result in the mother of all wars.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have collaborated in the recent years to overthrow the Assad presidency in Syria and replace it with a Sunni Muslim leader that would allow the creation of a pipeline from Qatar to Europe, for the benefit of the Gulf countries.
The failure of the American-Saudi-Qatari coalition however re-opened old wounds. In the recent weeks, the Saudi-led bloc, including Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain has broken all ties with Qatar, accusing it of working with terrorist groups and having too close ties with Iran. Since then, having cashed in on the support of US President Trump, Saudis have given a list of 13 demands to Qatar, which the latter has no intention to comply with.
In the meanwhile, very much like WW1 preparations, the game of alliances has started: Qatar, having lost the protection of the Arab world, sought it elsewhere, and found in Turkey.
As for now the Iranian bloc, Iran itself, Iraq and Syria, is standing on the sidelines, and watching the developments.
Iranians, Turks and Arabs are the three peoples who have been contesting each other’s dominance over the Middle East for the past 1400 years, and are now moving towards the next chapter of their confrontations.
The historical background
The first Iranian-Arab conflict is as old as the history of Islam itself. By 632 AD, then Zoroastrian Persia (the Western name of Iran) had undergone a 30 year-long nonstop conflict with the other regional mammoth, the Eastern Roman Empire. When the Muslim forces under Mohammad and then the Caliphs launched their attacks, Persia, weakened additionally with an ongoing civil war for the Sassanid throne, could barely mount any resistance.
Iranians converted to Islam, but it soon became evident that their culture was significantly more sophisticated than that of their rulers. By 850 AD, Iranian dynasties broke free from the leadership of the Arab Caliph in Baghdad and went on to restore the Iranian language, costume and political institutions in what is known by historians as “Iranian intermezzo’’ They eventually ousted the Caliph from his capital.
Arab dominance over Iran lasted only two centuries, but a new player would soon arrive on the scene. From the steppes of Central Asia, broadly known as Turkestan, in the 11th century, nomad Turkish tribes under Seljuk and his successors broke into Persia and quickly subjugated it, creating the Great Seljuk Empire, which would quickly expand to include the Arabic peninsula, Mesopotamia, Syria, and would then wrestle from the Eastern Roman Empire Armenia and Anatolia, while converting to Sunni Islam.
Even the Arab Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, who returned to Baghdad, would become a vassal of the Turks. While the ruling dynasty among Turks would switch from Seljuks to Ottomans after the Mongol invasions, the Arab world would essentially remain under Turkish rule until the end of the First World War, save for the brief period of the Ayyubids of Kurdish descent, followed by Mamelukes. Ottoman dominance can be even further exemplified by the abolition of the institution of the caliphate by Ottoman rulers.
Even after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab world has failed to unite again, divided by the Sunni-Shia schism and local dynasties.
The Persian world on the other side, just like it managed to break free from Arab rulers, would break free from the Turkish Seljuks as well, becoming once again its own master under the Khwarezmian dynasty. Very much like in the previous time, it would be short lived, due to the invasion of another nomadic people of the steppe, the Mongols; and just like in the previous times, Iranians would manage to oust foreign rulers and reorganize themselves under the Safavids. To signify their independence, Safavids adopted the Shia version of Islam, a choice that still lasts today, as a breakaway from the Sunni Arabs and Turks.
Safavids and the successive dynasties ruling Iran would remain the main opponent of the Ottoman Empire’s rule of the Middle East until the first half of the 20th century.
Back to the present
Since then, Iranians have switched from a monarchy to a theocratic republic, Turks have switched from a monarchy to a secular republic, while Arabs are still struggling to find a uniting leader: the Arab nationalist movement (Baath) under Saddam Hussein that waged war against Iran, echoing the Muslim invasion of Persia, ultimately failed. Saudis, who have quickly amassed enormous wealth thanks to oil revenues, are now ambitiously and aggressively trying to assert their dominance over their neighours. Battle lines are being drawn: Turkey and Qatar on one side, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain on another and the Shia bloc of Iran, Iraq and Syria for a three-way dance that might have been ignited by the Qatari-Saudi rift.
Over a thousand of years ethnic and religious rivalries are readying to culminate in what, thanks to technological development, could easily be the bloodiest chapter of them all.