Back in 2012, before the Middle East got extremely dangerous, I tallied up some numbers on Sunnis and Shiites that are even more relevant today. They go a long way to explain the growth of ISIL and likely future scenarios. The bottom line is that the Shiites have no chance against the Sunnis.
I am often warned by scholars that it is an oversimplification to look at the balance of power in the Middle East as being determined strictly by whether the dominant sect is Shiite (Shia) or Sunni. Nevertheless, this distinction has relevance. It is also an oversimplification to think military power can be expressed by a country’s military manpower. But again, such data are interesting. In Table 1, Middle East countries are categorized by sect along with their military manpower. Look at the subtotals. Even though the Sunni population is almost twice the Shiite’s, the Shiite’s military manpower is greater than the Sunni’s. The differential is explained by the fact that a larger percentage of the population are in the military in Shiite countries (4.6%) than in Sunni countries (1.8%).
Look at the Iraq numbers. One million soldiers. These data illustrate just how destabilizing it was for the US to have removed Saddam Hussein as the Iraq ruler. Saddam was Sunni and he was a continuing threat to Iran. That was lost inasmuch as the majority of Iraqis are Shiite.
One hopes that most issues in the Middle East will not be resolved by military power. In Table 2, GDP and per capita incomes of its countries are presented. Here, we see the opposite of military power: far greater economic power among the Sunni countries. Start with the GDP totals: $2.6 trillion for Sunni countries and only $683 billion for Shiite nations. The Shiite per capita income total (weighted by GDP) is $12,777 while the Sunnis have a $30,620 average. The only Sunni countries with low per capita incomes are Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
Table 2. – GDP and GDP per Capita
Source: IMF WEO Database
The source of the Sunni wealth is no mystery. It is oil. Table 3 provides data on oil reserves. Overall, the Middle East share of all proven reserves are is almost 50%: Shiite (17.8%) and Sunni (30.1%). The R/P Ratio is reserves divided by current annual production, in other words, the number of years reserves will last at current production levels. The oil wealth of Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Kuwait, and the U.A.E. will probably last far beyond the time we have developed a cost-effective fossil fuel substitute.
Table 3. – Oil Reserves, Middle East Countries, 2011
Iran and Iraq have a lot of oil. But in the long run….
There should be no question where ISIL’s weapons and money come from. They come from the West’s Sunni friends with deep pockets. And how hard can the West lean on the Sunnis? Not very hard. We need Sunni oil.