Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings

Frederic Wehrey Book December 17, 2013 Columbia University Press
Although religious differences and regional influences play a role, the rise of sectarianism in the Gulf is ultimately rooted in longstanding problems of governance and elite manipulation of Sunni-Shia identities.
A Foreign Policy Best Book of the Year on the Middle East, 2013
Beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and concluding with the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Frederic M. Wehrey investigates the roots of the Shi’a-Sunni divide now dominating the Persian Gulf's political landscape. Focusing on three Gulf states affected most by sectarian tensions–Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait—Wehrey identifies the factors that have exacerbated or tempered sectarianism, including domestic political institutions, the media, clerical establishments, and the contagion effect of external regional events, such as the Iraq war, the 2006 Lebanon conflict, the Arab uprisings, and Syria's civil war.

In addition to his analysis, Wehrey builds a historical narrative of Shi’a activism in the Arab Gulf since 2003, linking regional events to the development of local Shi’a strategies and attitudes toward citizenship, political reform, and transnational identity. He finds that, while the Gulf Shi’a were inspired by their coreligionists in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, they ultimately pursued greater rights through a nonsectarian, nationalist approach. He also discovers that sectarianism in the region has largely been the product of the institutional weaknesses of Gulf states, leading to excessive alarm by entrenched Sunni elites and calculated attempts by regimes to discredit Shi’a political actors as proxies for Iran, Iraq, or Lebanese Hezbollah. Wehrey conducts interviews with nearly every major Shi’a leader, opinion shaper, and activist in the Gulf Arab states, as well as prominent Sunni voices, and consults diverse Arabic-language sources.

Reviews for this publication

This is an excellent book and an important piece of scholarship. Frederic M. Wehrey has written a compelling, thoughtful, and original analysis of the new politics of sectarianism in the Persian Gulf since 2003. He is well positioned to write such a book, having traveled extensively in the region and spent considerable time with the most important political figures in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. His tone is commanding, the research is impressive, and the result is timely and vital. Wehrey's book is the best study I have seen yet of these pressing matters.
—Toby Jones, Rutgers University

Sectarian Politics in the Gulf represents the most up-to-date and insightful study on the politics of sectarianism in three key Gulf countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. Far from being an intrinsic or innate feature of these societies, Prof. Wehrey shows in careful detail how sectarianism is invoked, produced and instrumentalized, and for very specific goals by governments, clerics as well as members of the Shii opposition. The book's argument situates sectarianism within local and regional political dynamics and contexts, and through this underscores that as a political phenomenon sectarianism cannot be apprehended by historically-rooted religious hatred. Based on a careful reading of primary sources and extensive fieldwork in the region, including in-depth interviews with many of the key activists, this book provides the most comprehensive and readable account of religious politics in the Gulf today.
—Bernard Haykel, Princeton University

Wehrey has written a finely grained, insightful, and carefully researched contemporary study of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf. He offers insights on the broader Arab world and reveals that sectarian identity is no artificial construct but a culturally embedded and historically honed aspect of self. Yet he also demonstrates that sectarianism has been wielded cynically by both powerful rulers (Saudi Arabia) and insecure, easily manipulated monarchs (as in Bahrain) to foment division and divert legitimate accusations of injustice, discrimination, and opprobrious violations of basic human rights. This is the best book on the topic and a must read for policy makers.
—Augustus Richard Norton, Boston University

Offering coherent and lucid analysis of what has become a main feature of Gulf politics since the Arab Spring, this book is a must read for anybody interested in Gulf political dynamics and sectarianism in the Middle East.
—Laurence Louër, author of Transnational Shia Politics in the Gulf and Shiism and Politics in the Middle East

Wehrey's new book offers a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich overview of the politics of Sunni-Shiite relations across the Gulf. His extensive research on the ground across the Gulf comes through powerfully, as does his balanced analytical sensibility. It should be required reading for anyone interested in Sunni-Shiite relations or in the regional politics of the Gulf.
—Marc Lynch, Foreign Policy Middle East Channel

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About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

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of Ukrainians

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million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


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is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


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political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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