Who's Who in the Middle East
Love it or loath it, it's a cradle of human civilization and the birth place of world’s largest religions; what happens here has consequences across the world.
Countries and alliances:
Iran: a Shi’a majority (95%) country straddling the Middle East and Central Asian regions, it has huge political influence over Lebanon and Yemen, controls Iraq politically, economically and militarily, Syria is a close ally, enjoys a ‘special relationship’ with Oman, and, thanks to Gulf monarchies’ attempts to blockade Qatar, it has moved closer to Iran now. Iran enjoys a special economic relationship with centuries old rival Turkey, a major customer for Iranian natural gas and steel exports. Under the current Islamist (Erdoğan) regime despite both sides backing opposing sides in Syria, both countries have managed to have a decent working relationship. Despite having the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East, Iran is Israel’s mortal enemy and has adversarial relationship with the Persian Gulf monarchies.
Iraq: a Shi’a majority country that is financially backed by the U.S but firmly under Iranian military and political dominance. Maintains a cordial relationship with all its Arab neighbors but has regular tiffs with former colonial power and northern neighbor Turkey which militarily intervenes on the ground in the Qandil area in Kurdistan Autonomous region to attack Kurdish separatists (PKK).
Kuwait: this tiny kingdom is a majority Sunni (60%) country with a large Shi’a population (40%) made up of ethnic Iranians. It’s the most liberal of all the Persian Gulf countries with women participating more in the work-force than men. Although it backed Saddam’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, it has a strong economic and cultural relationship with Iran with 40% of the country's population being Iranian origin.
Syria: a Sunni majority (70%) country, with the Shi’a (15%) and Christians (10%) forming a powerful militarized population. It’s ruled by the Alawite Shi’a military elite with the backing of the powerful Christian and Druze populations. A perennial ally of Russia which has major naval bases, it enjoys a special political and military relationship with Iran for decades which has stationed several thousand elite IRGC troops on the ground to guarantee protection for the Assad government.
Lebanon: the only Middle Eastern country with a powerful Christian majority (the single largest religious group) dominating central and western Lebanon - backed by the US (controls the army and presidency), the Sunni north - backed by Saudi Arabia (controls the Prime Minister’s office), and the powerful Shi’a south (controls the powerful Speaker of the Parliament) - militarily and economically backed by Iran.
Israel: officially a Jewish state, it has a large Arab population (Muslims and Christians) forming 21% of its population with 17 Arab MPs in the parliament (Knesset). The only parliamentary democracy in the Middle East, its occupation of Palestine has made it the only “occupying power” in the region and very unpopular. It enjoys a cordial strategic relationship with the Saudis and the UAE. Iran, once a friendly country (before 1990s), is its mortal enemy now.
Jordan: a Sunni majority country (95%) with Palestinians forming 30% of its population. Other than historic sites and tourism, there’s nothing to this country. Politically and militarily irrelevant in the Middle East, it is perennially in financial life support from the Persian Gulf monarchies and the U.S.
Saudi Arabia: an 88 year old kingdom founded by a desert chieftain in partnership with a fanatic puritanical Sunni religious order (al Wahhabiyah), this region in the Arabian peninsula was Ottoman colony for 344 years. It’s majority population is Sunni (75%) and the Shi’a form a minority (25%) and dominant in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Officially every citizen in this country is a Muslim - no other religion is permitted to its citizens. Albeit a highly literate and sophisticated society, it’s kept tightly under the control of the monarchy-mullah authoritarian ecosystem. Closest allies are Bahrain and UAE. Special allies Britain and U.S guarantee military protection without which this kingdom will be a toast. It has a very adversarial relationship with Iran and the former colonial power Turkey.
Bahrain: the only other Shi’a majority (75%) country in the Middle East, it’s ruled by a deeply hated Sunni monarchy backed by the Saudis. It officially gained independence from Iran in 1971 via a rigged referendum “conducted” by the UN and “brokered” by the UK with the Iranian Shah accepting a quid-pro-quo. The local population has strong cultural and trade relations with Iran.
UAE: a Sunni majority (75%) monarchy that's more tolerant of Christianity and Shi’a Islam than its closest ally and neighbor Saudi Arabia. It has a very adversarial relationship with Turkey and currently locked in a battle with it in Libya.
Yemen: a country in the middle of a brutal civil war and under constant attacks from Saudi military, it has equal Shi’a - Sunni population with the Shi’a south backed by Iran and the Sunni north backed by UAE, Saudi Arabia, UK and the USA. Neither side is capable of defeating the other conclusively. Bifurcation of the country (north-south) can only save it from total ruin.
Oman: the only Ibadi Islam (official state religion) country in the world, it’s neither Shi’a nor Sunni and maintains amiable relationship with both sects and all its neighbors. Oman was the main interlocutor between the Americans and Iran with which it has a special relationship. In the 1970s, Iranian military intervened to put down a rebellion and more than a thousand Iranian soldiers died defending the sultan of Oman.
Qatar: is the home base of Muslim Brotherhood, Al Jazeera tv and hosts Turkish (and American) military bases. Without Turkish military presence, Saudis and Emiratis would end this energy-industry rich tiny monarchy.
Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KRG, Iraq): the Kurds of Iraq have enjoyed full autonomy since the overthrow of Iraq’s brutal dictator Saddam and have further consolidated their position by successfully fighting off the ISIS terror movement. Their move to declare full independence and to annex Kirkuk and Sinjar provinces in KRG backfired terribly and consequently they have lost control of the oil rich area of Kirkuk. The Turkmen and Yazidi oppose their control; Turkmen of Kirkuk are Shi’a and allied with central government in Baghdad, the Yazidi Lalesh (militia) has taken control of Sinjar. Iran and Turkey will never allow an independent Kurdistan in the Middle East.