Sunnis, 85% of Islam, believe in the literal interpretation of the Qu’ran and that each Muslim should read the Holy Book, preferably in classical Arabic, to develop their own one-on-one relationship with God. Shiites, most of the other 15%, believe that the Qu’ran is a mystical revelation from God, and that only the most senior religious leaders are capable of understanding and interpreting its true meaning. The heart of the concentration of Shiite believers is Iran (and neighboring Iraq ), and the heart (and funding source) for conservative Sunnis believers is Saudi Arabia .
While the Saudis are obligated to keep the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina open for all Muslims on their mandatory at least once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage (the Hajj), allowing Shiites from Iran into these cities has always been uncomfortable for the Saudi Royal Family. Put another way, Saudis and Iranians don’t trust each other… Okay, they hate each other’s guts. Sunnis have been hunting down Shiites since the battle of Ashura, October 10, 680 – the date of the martyrdom (slaughter) of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and a band of his followers at the Battle of Karbala, just a few decades after the death of the Prophet Mohammad.
But despite their proximity across the Persian Gulf, the Saudis and the Iranians seldom engage in direct confrontation, preferring to fight their battles through their proxies – very much like the military support the Saudis gave Iraq ’s Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Today, that Saudi/Sunni versus Iran/Shiite conflict rages in another regional conflict: the long-standing civil war in Yemen, an impoverished nation that sits very strategically on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern tip. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government (mostly Sunnis) has been fending off Hawthi rebels (who just happen to be Shiites) for the past five years. Suspicions – coupled with some pretty damning evidence – that Iran is backing the Hawthi has escalated tensions in this oil-rich region.