Edition 29 Volume 6 - July 25, 2024

Shi'ite migration in the Gulf region

Circumventing the Sunni-Shi'ite divide -   Christopher Davidson

There is no real prospect of Sunni-Shi'ite tension in the UAE.

The impact of the Iranian-western struggle -   Riad Kahwaji

Groups within Shi'ite Arab communities should not be used as proxies by any party to a wider regional struggle.

Migration since the Iranian Islamic Revolution. -   Sadegh Zibakalam

Every time there are reports of a possible military strike against Iran, affluent Iranians transfer funds to the Gulf states.

Circumventing the Sunni-Shi'ite divide
 Christopher Davidson

With Sunni-Shi'ite divides in war-torn Iraq and pain-wracked Lebanon remaining on center stage, unease continues to spread across the entire Arab world. Nowhere is the fear of internecine Islamic conflict more heightened than in the resource-rich and Iran-proximate monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council. All are Sunni-dominated, and most have significantly large Shi'ite minorities. Reminiscent of the perilous few years after the formation of the Islamic Republic across from their shores, the Gulf states are again wary of their Shi'ite populations, worrying that they may some day soon emerge as giant fifth columns: disloyal to contemporary establishments and somehow serving the interests of Iran or some more amorphous pan-Shi'ite movement.

There is a clear but unusual exception to this fear mongering. The United Arab Emirates--courtesy of Dubai's massive free ports--is now Iran's primary and perhaps only remaining conduit to the global economy. Yet with a firm commitment to active neutrality and with its facilities frequently servicing US warships and reconnaissance aircraft, the UAE has emerged as a crucible for US-Iran-GCC relations.

Thus, with command of nearly ten percent of the world's proven oil reserves, with diverse populations and religious communities from almost every continent and, crucially, with a sizeable 17 percent Shi'ite minority, the UAE would appear particularly vulnerable. Certainly, this is proportionally a much smaller Shi'ite community than in nearby Bahrain, where the nascent democracy fears the impact of a 60 percent Shi'ite majority. It's smaller too than in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia and in Kuwait, where the allegiances of Shi'ite minorities of over 30 percent may eventually prove pivotal. Yet 17 percent is much higher than the Shi'ite populations of Qatar and Oman, and the UAE's precarious diplomatic position vis-a-vis Iran should have made it into a high-stakes Sunni-Shi'ite fault line.

Yet there is no real prospect of Sunni-Shi'ite tension in the UAE. Moreover, there has never been a history of such tension in the lower Gulf, and even should the much anticipated US-strike on Iran's suspect nuclear facilities take place, there will still be no Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in the UAE. The explanation for such tranquility in an otherwise troubled region is a complex but impressive mixture of history, demography, economy and politics.

Since the late nineteenth century, Dubai's laissez-faire strategy has attracted wave after wave of merchants from the Persian coastline, most of who were disgruntled by high taxation or political instability. Although the first wave of such immigrants--most of whom were swiftly naturalized and are today bona fide UAE nationals--were predominantly Sunni and ethnically Arab, they nevertheless connected Dubai with the economy of mainland Persia at a relatively early stage and brought its population into frequent and highly lucrative contact with Shi'ite Muslims.

More recent twentieth century waves of Iranian immigrants have also lived and prospered in Dubai, with most having chosen to abandon the uncertainty of the Shah's regime and the severity of the Islamic Republic. Crucially, almost all of these later Iranian immigrants were Shi'ite and with an estimated 300,000 now residing in the UAE, these account for the bulk of the country's Shi'ite population. Similarly, the UAE's relative stability and prosperity have attracted many Iraqis and Lebanese, especially since their countries' respective civil wars. Many of these Arab immigrants are also Shi'ite and comprise most of the remainder of the UAE's Shi'ite population.

Although these later immigrant communities have not been naturalized in the same way as the original settlers, they have nevertheless always been made to feel welcome and an integral part of the merchant community and the UAE's economic development success story. The authorities, and most especially the Dubai government, have consistently provided land and subsidies for the construction of Shi'ite mosques. And Shi'ite courts and schools are permitted for matters relating to Shi'ite jurisprudence. During the 1980s, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War, Dubai's radio stations made certain to broadcast both versions of the news, despite Iran's commitment to export Shi'ite fundamentalism. And today the UAE regularly sends its clergymen on fact-finding missions to Qom, provides full diplomatic support and financial aid to the increasingly Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government and has provided enormous assistance to Shi'ite communities in shattered southern Lebanon.

The UAE's resident Shi'ite population has therefore never had reason to leave the fold. They are business-focused--the very reason for their original immigration--and their adopted home continues to allow them to enrich themselves. Moreover, with a history of profound respect on both sides--from both host and settler--the relationship seems well set to weather the region's current Sunni-Shi'ite storm. - Published 24/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Christopher Davidson is a fellow of the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at Durham University. He is the author of Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success and The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival.

The impact of the Iranian-western struggle
 Riad Kahwaji

The issue of Shi'ite Muslims in the Arab world, their links to the Islamic Republic of Iran and whether they could pose a threat to the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab states or the largely Sunni monarchies in the Arab Gulf states is increasingly being debated both publicly and privately, especially in countries like the United Arab Emirates that have strong economic ties with Tehran. Statements made over the past three years by Arab leaders like Egypt's President Husni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II about the loyalty of Shi'ite Arabs to Iran and the emergence of a Shi'ite crescent that extends from Iran to the Mediterranean have created anxiety among many in the Arab world. The internal political turmoil in Iraq and Lebanon, where the struggle has often taken on a Shi'ite-Sunni dimension, has also agitated sectarian feelings throughout the Arab world.

The close links between Iran and Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon have led most officials and experts to conclude that Tehran is now using Shi'ite communities in Arab and other countries to serve its political aspirations and defend its interests. Shi'ites who traditionally looked to the Iraqi city of Najaf for religious authority have over the past few years--especially since the US invasion of Iraq--witnessed the center of power shift to Qom in Iran, where the supreme leader enjoys religious as well as political powers. Many officials and analysts believe that Tehran is trying to assert its religious and political influence over Shi'ites worldwide. Besides, exporting the Islamic revolution has been one of Tehran's main objectives ever since the early days of the 1979 revolution.

One of the places of concern to many observers is the economically prosperous and booming city of Dubai in the UAE. Despite the longstanding dispute between Iran and the UAE over the three Iranian-occupied Gulf islands of Greater and Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa, both countries have maintained strong economic and trade relations. More than 35 daily flights move thousands of people between the UAE and Iran.
There are Shi'ites, some even of Iranian origin, among UAE nationals, and there are thousands of Shi'ites from Arab countries like Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain living and working in the UAE. There are no official statistics, but some informed sources put the number of Shi'ites residing in the UAE at about a quarter of a million. If true, this is a considerable number in a country whose population is just over two million, mostly expatriates.

Some officials also speak of Iranian investments in Dubai worth hundreds of millions and even tens of billions of dollars. However there are no official figures or proof of this sizable investment. Moreover, Iranian officials have stated that if their country was attacked by the US or Israel because of its controversial nuclear program, it would retaliate against western interests in the region, of which a few are based in the UAE. One former Iranian diplomat, Adel al-Asadi, who served for two years in Dubai before defecting in 2024, has spoken of the existence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards cells in Dubai that are ready to strike against targets in the country in case of a regional war. Of course, Iran has denied the allegations and the UAE government would not comment.

Although UAE officials have never voiced concern about the presence of Shi'ites or Iranians in the country, people who live in the UAE know that its leaders are very cautious and usually operate discreetly to ensure stability. While some people might view the strong Iranian financial and manpower presence in the UAE as a threat, others might see it as a normal phenomenon and an insurance policy against any possible Iranian military retaliation in case of a regional war. After all, were Tehran to target the UAE it would risk losing billions of dollars and risk the possible displacement of tens of thousands of Iranians who would join the already long unemployment lines back home. As one Iranian official put it, the leaders in Tehran should be "very wise" regarding ways to retaliate against aggression and even "wiser" concerning exploitation of Iranian emigrants or loyal Shi'ite Arab groups in neighboring countries.

Even though they have always been a minority, Shi'ites, like Sunnis, have for centuries constituted a primary force of Islam in the region and have coexisted with strong inter-tribal and trade ties across most of the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant. This peaceful coexistence is seriously endangered today as a result of the political power struggle between Iran and the United States, with many pro-western Arab countries caught in the middle.

By using Shi'ite groups in a proxy war in the region against the US and Israel, Tehran is indirectly provoking a sectarian feud. In its quest to mobilize the masses against "imperialist and Zionist designs" and pursue an asymmetrical war using primarily Shi'ite groups in a predominantly Sunni environment, Iran has unwillingly stepped into the danger zone of a sectarian war. So far, Iranian officials appear to be in a state of indifference or denial about the existence of a sectarian problem; some even regard it as "American and Israeli propaganda". Yet scars left behind in Iraq and Lebanon as a result of recent Sunni-Shi'ite clashes have yet to heal, and with the ongoing regional problem the sectarian divide is poised to expand.

Groups within Shi'ite Arab communities must not be used as proxies by any party to a wider regional struggle. The likely adverse consequences for these communities would spark a devastating sectarian war and impact the entire region, including Israel, as extremist elements in both sects compete to show who is a better Muslim by carrying out stronger attacks on Israel.- Published 24/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Riad Kahwaji is CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis - INEGMA, in Dubai.

Migration since the Iranian Islamic Revolution.
 Sadegh Zibakalam

There are no official records of the number of Iranians who have immigrated, settled permanently, work or simply are living on and off in the Gulf Cooperation Council states since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. We do know however that there are about 40 weekly flights to Dubai alone from Tehran and other major Iranian cities such as Mashad, Tabriz, Kerman, Isfahan and Shiraz. There are in addition daily flights to Bahrain and Doha. The figure of 40 flights places Dubai above the holy city of Mashad, which is the destination with the highest demand for domestic Iranian flights. In other words, more Iranians fly to Dubai than to the holy city of Mashad.

Who are the nearly 5,000 Iranians who fly weekly to the Gulf states, and perhaps more importantly, what do they do there? They go there for shopping, to get visas to travel to the United States, to study at American-sponsored universities and colleges, to visit nightclubs, to attend musical concerts organized by Iranian pop singers living in Los Angeles and simply to spend their holidays. But most important of all, they go to Dubai for business purposes.

The United States' trade embargo against Iran, recently compounded by United Nations sanctions, has gradually turned this United Arab Emirates city into the main trade center for Iran. Every commodity whose import to Iran falls under the sanctions gets an official destination of Dubai, from where it is shipped directly to an Iranian port or airport. The recent bank embargo imposed by the European Union due to the nuclear dispute with Iran simply means that Iranian companies and individuals maintain their financial transactions through a third party that operates in Dubai.

It is estimated that the UAE economy is earning $2 to $5 billion annually through the trade sanctions imposed by the West on Iran. Most of that is actually earned by Iranians themselves who have made the UAE their second home during the past two decades. Unlike the US or the EU, the UAE imposes no restrictions on Iranians wishing to travel, reside and work there. Iranians who travel to the GCC states get their visas through a travel agent or airline without any difficulty or enquiries.

Nor are there any difficulties in establishing a company or financial establishment in Dubai or any other part of the GCC. It is estimated that there are no fewer than 5000 companies registered in Dubai alone that are either partly or exclusively owned by Iranians. In fact, some of the large Iranian companies operating in the Gulf States belong to Iranian government departments.

It is also estimated that the Iranian private sector alone has transferred more than $10 billion of its assets to the Gulf states, particularly Dubai. The inclination on the part of wealthy Iranians to transfer part of their capital to Dubai has intensified since Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad became president three years ago. Every time there are reports of a possible US or Israeli military strike against Iran, additional affluent Iranians decide to transfer funds to the Gulf states.

The Gulf leaders for their part have implicitly welcomed the flow of Iranian capital to their flourishing economies. They have also encouraged the employment of thousands of Iranian professionals in their countries. Hundreds of Iranian pilots, nurses, computer experts, engineers, technicians, medical doctors, accountants and teachers are employed by companies working in the Gulf states or even by those states' governments.

What are the likely consequences of this major social and economic migration of Iranian Shi'ites into the Persian Gulf states? Given the fact that the native population of these states, with the exception of Bahrain, is Sunni, won't such a huge influx of Iranian Shi'ites create ethnic as well as religious tensions in the region? There has already been tension between the Shi'ites in Bahrain, who constitute the majority in that island-state, and their largely Sunni-dominated government. More important is the long-running sovereignty dispute between Iran and the UAE over the three Gulf islands of Greater and Lesser Tumb and Abu Musa. Another bone of contention between Iranians and Arabs concerns the very name of the Gulf: "Persian" or "Arabian".

During recent months, there have been violent anti-UAE demonstrations in front of the UAE embassy in Tehran by thousands of nationalist Iranians. Every time the Arabs raise the issue of the three islands or refer to the Gulf as Arabian, huge anti-Arab emotions are unleashed by Iranians. But does this dispute create political tension between the expatriate Shi'ite Iranians living in the Gulf states and their host population? The short answer is no; or to be more cautious, it hasn't so far. Iranians who have migrated, live or work in Gulf states have by and large demonstrated that they are neither terribly enthusiastic about religious issues, including the Shi'ite-Sunni quarrel, nor for that matter do they share the anti-Arab sentiments of many Iranians who live in Iran and the West.

Whether or not these trends continue, only the future will show. But there are no plausible reasons why they should change.- Published 24/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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