Saudi Arabia, now in alliance with Israel and with tacit U.S. approval, is dragging the Middle East into a nightmare of sectarian conflict, pitting its own warplanes and Sunni terrorists against Shiites, Christians and other minorities as part of a misguided competition with Iran, as Anthony F. Shaker describes.
Anthony F. Shaker
While denouncing Iran and its supposed Yemeni “Shi’a” allies in a recent speech, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Saud ibn Nayyef bin Abdel Aziz, put his country’s Shi’a community, fellow citizens, squarely in his sights.
“While our country is going through what it is going through and standing together as one bloc,” he ranted, “we find the descendants of the Safavid Abdullah ibn Saba who try to divide that bloc.”
“Abdullah ibn Saba” refers to a Seventh-Century Jewish convert to Islam whose existence is uncertain but who has become a useful myth. True to every other brand of Salafist takfiris, Wahhabi clerics and Saudi government officials alike insist that a Jew “founded” Shi’ism and that his purpose was to destroy Islam from within.
Happily for them this unsavory and, to historians, comically false claim connects “Iran” and “Shi’ism” to the “Jews.”
Yet, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the governor’s diatribe. The United States’ second most important ally in the Middle East fully intends to play its sectarian card to the hilt. The signs are everywhere.
Saudi Arabia has for decades been operating international youth organizations and “Islamic centers” dedicated to the spread of the Wahhabi ideology in Great Britain, North and South America, Asia, and Africa. These organizations have created the “religious” environment that is enticing so many young people to join jihadi causes in Syria, Iraq and other countries.
Thanks to their pervasive influence, the Saudi government has been able to take on the role of defending “Sunni” Islam. But there is a reason why it has taken decades for such patronizing revisionism of Islam to gain traction among Sunni Muslims.
The Saudis’ official religion, Wahhabism, was founded by an itinerant heretic named Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Before he died in 1792, he managed to make alliance with violent tribesmen of the al-Saud tribe in the remote Najd desert. At the behest of the Ottomans, though, Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali promptly crushed the movement in a military campaign that lasted seven years starting in 1811.
It was only thanks to the British-orchestrated insurrection against the Ottomans around World War I that the House of Saud re-entered history big time. It is hardly a coincidence that wartime marked also the precise point in time when terrorism became an element in the Middle East equation.
With the situation in Palestine approaching a point of no return, the British government wanted quickly to install al-Saud as the new custodians of the two sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, based on a view modeled explicitly on the Vatican State. It mattered little that such an institution would be utterly alien to Muslims.
The British ended up placing Saudi princelings in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, for good measure. This was how the House of Saud was able to extend its influence in many directions, laying the foundation for a new ethnicity in the form of “Arabism,” given the weakness of its Islamic credentials.
It is often forgotten that Wahhabism permeated even the secular debate in the Arabic-speaking world, especially in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s. Many movements around the world began to pattern themselves on Mussollini’s fascist phalanges. The Muslim Brotherhood is only the most prominent. They benefited from both the latter’s organizational strengths and the illusion of a homegrown, Wahhabi-inspired religiosity.
“Arabism” and “pan-Arabism” of course, are the other card that Saudi Arabia has recently been playing at the League of Arab States to keep other “Arabs” in line in times of crisis, specifically, against Iran. Never mind that before World War I the word “Arab” used to carry a distinctly pejorative meaning. The truth is that the Wahhabi Saudis have been playing both cards since World War II for purposes that have nothing to do with either religion or the welfare of the Arabic-speaking world.
While their brazen anti-Shi’sm has taken alarming proportions since war broke out in Syria, the politics of “religious purity” is looking more like a flimsy cover, designed less to accommodate their designs on the region than to hide a deep-seated panic.
With Saudi Arabia’s frontal assault on the sovereign state of Yemen, its armed forces and its fragile ethnic mosaic, Saudi King Salman thought he had executed a master stroke by extending the sectarian virus to yet another country, with no consequences except for Iran. Backed by his trillion-dollar paper economy, King Salman continues to point accusingly at Iran for supposedly arming the Houthi-led Ansarullah party and for wanting to “dominate” neighboring states.
Unfortunately for the aging Saudi monarch, it takes two to tango. Iran for obvious strategic reasons would never think of playing a similar card even if it wanted to. Why should it? It has lots of “Sunni” friends.
The most that the Saudis can boast, on the other hand, are surreptitious links with a cult-like organization of Iranian exiles called the Mujahidin-e Khalq, with its well-documented history of mass murder and a longstanding association with the Israeli Mossad. This underlying imbalance of forces aggravates the Saudi hysteria over Iran’s “overreach” in Yemen, even though the Zaydis there are doctrinally closer to the four branches of so-called Sunni Islam than to Twelver Shi’a.
In the real world, a Saudi miscalculation in Yemen, triggered by the Americans’ defensively reactive approval of the air strikes, would risk incalculable and largely self-inflicted damage to Western interests. Instead of toning down this Saudi sectarianism, though, King Salman is ratcheting it up on the home front too, as he tries to repress the Shi’a community in the oil-producing eastern province.
“If you look at any local media here as well as in the mosques, it is all full of sectarianism. Everybody is talking about Shiite and Sunni, saying the Shiites endanger the safety of the Sunnis,” Middle East Eye reported one eastern resident of Qatif as saying.
A Tight Corner
The Saudis have now maneuvered themselves into a tight corner. Not even Saudi-dependent Pakistan will come to their aid; and Egypt is “there but not there.” If the Saudi king fails to “destroy” the Houthi-led Ansarullah party, a goal he has repeatedly declared, together with the bulk of the Yemeni army, he could never regain his country’s pride of place under the American wing, alongside Israel. In his tunnel vision, that would only leave Iran unshackled and free to “reign” wherever it pleases.
So far, Saudi Arabia has been relying on secret international networks that the Saudis helped create but which are associated with al-Qaeda, foremost, but also the Syrian Ahrar al-Sham (of the Islamic Front), Nusra Front and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). The object is to destabilize or pile pressure on any wayward state.
These organizations may be the Saudis’ only remaining true allies in the region but they have almost unlimited manpower. Their members are drawn from more than a hundred nations, the largest European contingency of which has been consistently French. Every few months a new army is raised from the tens of thousands of rootless indoctrinated “Muslims” rushing to visit unspeakable violence upon fellow Muslims and minorities.
There is now solid evidence that Saudi Arabia, together with Turkey, is facilitating this flow of jihadist manpower.
Just before Saudi Arabia’s bombardment of Yemen, terrorist organizations received a second wind in Syria from the thousands of specially trained fighters that had slipped inside the country. They seized a key town near the Jordanian border in the south and the provincial capital of Idlib near Turkey in the north. Saudi officials have made no secret that they were involved and that a new management has taken over, a clear rebuff to American reticence.
Israel is very happy. It has been trying for months to provide cover and logistics to allow those same terrorists to hold on to the Golan permanently, where it has no intention of ceding annexed Syrian territory, peace treaty or no peace.
Foreign-sponsored Wahhabis have proved their mettle fomenting violent sectarian hatreds where none existed before in the history of Islamic civlization. But their real talent is state demolition, under the cover of religious ideology. Nothing more. They have the means to impose their ramshackled set of “Shari’a” laws, the legal origins of which no one can quite make out.
These are not your run-of-the-mill Che Guevera idealists, liberationist “Vietcong” or even the diabolical Khmer Rouges. Nor are they “traditionalists” by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, theirs is the same vicious ideology that is broadcast daily and prayer-like across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Western politicians and media are only now awakening to Saudi Arabia’s sickly obsession, since the 1980s, with cleansing Islam of its Shi’a Muslim populations. Although this is integral to Saudi foreign policy, there is an interesting element of skullduggery to the whole affair.
The Saudis have been playing the anti-Shi’a card in secret league with the “Jewish State,” as Middle East specialists today can vouch. It was in “secret” only because nearly every Middle Easterner regards Israel as little more than a foreign colony.
Anti-Shi’ism provides the Saudis with a temporary respite. After Iran’s revolution, the Saudis rose to the occasion and helped bankroll Iraq’s Saddam Hussein when his war against Iran began to falter. Besides trying to drown Iran in blood, and despite Iran’s untold military and civilian casualties and thousands of victims of chemical weapons from the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the Saudis figure that a nice Sunni-Shi’a conflict may now pay better dividends.
It might even induce Israel to make a few minor concessions to the weak Palestinians and settle the whole “irritating” problem of Palestine. Miscalculating, the Saudis remain dogged in their “secret” alliance with Israel.
But the European Union too had been making its calculations, given the dimming prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace after several initiatives by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama turned into foreign-policy fiascos. With Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ongoing feud with Obama, the West seems to have no idea how to deal with Israel’s unending subjugation of the Palestinians.
But it is the United States that faces the starkest of choices. One is to support the Saudi-Israeli rampage across the Middle East and risk the region’s social and political collapse as well as a final military conflagration. Or, beat a hasty retreat and let the people of Iran find their natural, rightful place in a part of the world they have inhabited continuously for at least 5,000 years, before the Western colonialism and its aftermath blew everything apart.
Sadly, the Western plan on paper has been, yesterday as it is today, to carve the Middle East up into ethno-religious enclaves. The only conceivable reasoning for this is the forlorn hope that that it will somehow confer at least short-term “legitimacy” on the idea of a “Jewish State,” as Israel leaders stridently demand.
King Salman needs the Sunni-Shia conflict more than ever, too, just to perpetuate the waning rule of his dynasty and the aberrant social conditions of his subjects. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism has rotted away society to the core, just as it has everywhere else it has taken root.
Dr. In’am al-Rabu’i, the president of children’s studies at the Armed Forces Hospital in Jeddah, warns that the country suffers from widespread sexual ailments. This has been known for some time. But a recent study has shown that a whopping 23 percent of all Saudi children have been raped at least once, mostly within families.
This is a country whose vitality has been sapped, yet it sits atop an ocean of oil. That the world economy depends on this oil should not give terrorism carte blanche.
One is hard-pressed to see how the West could be allies at all with a government which couldn’t be bothered to hide its terrorist connections anymore. It is patently wrong to ascribe the Saudi present animosities toward Iran to “ancient religious disputes,” much less throw the blame equally on all parties and lay back to watch the fireworks.
Anthony F. Shaker, PhD is a Middle East specialist and a visiting scholar at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He has authored numerous articles on strategic affairs, as well as academic books and papers on the history of Islam.
I can’t think of any other country (at least in relatively modern times) named after a family–that is how arrogant this “Saudi royal” family is. Islamic, they are definitely not since their extravagance is most un-Islamic.
This is the best article on the Sunni-Shiite conflict in many months. It explains to a great length why the US/NATO policy for North Africa and the Middle East has been so erratic the past few years (bordering on the schizophrenic). At one point the US and the EU will be forced to definitely pick a side in this war; the tactics of supporting the Sunni in one country and the Shiites in its neighbour can’t possible hold for long.
“King Salman’s trillion-dollar paper economy” aptly describes more than just Saudi Arabia. I think the time will soon come that all the little papers and computer switches that represent wealth in the world will suffer burn-out. What would Saudi wealth be worth after bombs fell on a few palaces in Riyadh?
Gregory, you’re absolutely right. If only we could gather all those little papers and have a nice bonfire and save mankind!
Still, other economies do produce things (sometimes even things we need), besides the junk paper values. Saudi Kingdom still has no domestic economy, and its Wahhabi indoctrinated subjects are perfectly adapted to i-pod and playing on computers, but there is almost no detectable mental activity except in times of panic. Most of its wealth is invested by foreigners outside, in the world market.
By contrast, Iran, even more than Turkey, has built its own autonomous domestic market–one reason why the sanctions have not brought it to its knees. It has developed its nuclear industry mostly with homegrown know-how.
Saudis are too pocked by serious behavioral dysfunctions running through their atomized “society,” especially of the sexual kind, given their bizarre Wahhabi religion. Ask any Middle Eastern business person (usually the best informed about them) or anyone who has lived there for a while.
Come to think of it, I don’t think one we would need many bombs, if any, to bring the Saudi dynasty down. Like Israel, which survives mostly on handouts, someone else needs Saudi Arabia to keep going.
The historic ignorance of the author is overwhelming, The article is replete with factual and historical errors.
This makes all his conclusions worthless.
Your comment is worthless.
The above article is a major contribution to our knowledge about the
Saudi-Israeli-US”coalitiion” together with others in Consortium.
Since a Jew created Shi’ism according to many Saudis, perhaps Shiites should all
be welcome in Israel under its (disgusting) “Law of Return”. There they could
join Israeli’s in their oppression of Palestinians. (And be more Israeli than the
Of course NOT. Like almost all belligerents, when going to war an enemy must be
created who is a threat to one’s society and who is inferior. This guarantees a
quick easy victory for the belligerent. When it wasn’t “the Russians are coming”—
somehow they never found the US on their maps , proof again of their obvious
inferiority—-it was someone else. I remember in an elementary school how small
children like myself were taught to go to the floor under our old wooden desks
in protection from an atomic attack.
Belligerents like the US and Israel are so confident of the superiority of their high-tech
machines of death that they repeat the same mistakes again and again and again.
Of course in one major respect they are superior: their death machines kill many
people. This is inexcuseable even if all the killed hate “us”. After all, virulent
disagreements between nations do not merit death and destruction without trial.
But then, the US-Israeli-West’s feelings of power is fed so much by the act of
killing. It’s so much “fun” for us. And like a video game, it is harmless. For us,the
superior ones (races?).
—-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA
I see this a real people’s revolution in Yemen, that the Saudis, if they send in soldiers, will find it to be their Vietnam. It is too bad Russia abstained from today’s UNSC resolution to bar arms shipments to, and sanction the Houthis. I suspect it is because they could not get China to oppose it, and also as part of a more complex geopolitical balancing calculation, with its relations in the Middle East with such countries as Egypt, and its negotiations to end the Syrian conflict as part of the equation. Still, with Hadi’s presidency less than legitimate – he was after all handpicked by the US, Saudis and GCC, and the only candidate to run, and his term ended last year- it would have been better to let the parties inside the country handle it and if the Saudi coalition was going to opt for military aggression, including what has become a devastating bombing campaign, then at least let the Houthis and their own coalition be able to defend themselves against foreign aggression.
This scenario is portrayed in the western media as an intervention by the Saudis to reassert Saudi friendly political control over a rebellious region by reinstating a Saudi friendly government which was originally propped up as a puppet regime by the United States. But lets look at the facts.
1. Targeting coordinates, refueling, intelligence, and naval support are being provided by the United States. The targets selected so far are almost all civilian infrastructure, food, electricity and water related assets. The only accomplishment has been creation of a humanitarian catastrophe.
2. The geographic portion of Saudi territory which contains the oil is populated by Shia.
3. Yemen can potentially close the strait through which Saudi oil must pass.
4. The Saudi military is a mercenary force with no intrinsic loyalty to the Royal Family. Many of them are – you guessed it – Yemeni hirelings.
5. The traditional role of the Saudi military is to protect the Saudi royal family from its own populationâ€¦ who despise them.
6. Saudi royals have been paying jihadis as a way to keep them occupied outside Saudi territory, as these extremists all regard the royals as a bunch of despicable apostates and perverts.
7. The relationship between Israel and the Saudis ignores the fact Israel is playing a double game; the ultimate enemy of the jihadis Israel supports is the Saudi royal family.
What this amounts to is a proxy war organized by the United States and approved by Israel. Remember, John Kerry said, “We can’t just stand by and let them destabilize the entire region”. The likely outcome is a war the Saudis may not lose, but cannot win. Speculation suggests many potential outcomes; none of them are consistent the doctrine of R2P or the establishment of a populist government. The Saudi royals could end up with their heads on poles paraded through the streets. The only tragedy would be that the new regime will likely be worse. I don’t think the Saudis realize they’ve been completely suckered. When they finally figure it out, I wonder if they’ll have had the foresight to invest in that staple remedy to which the only regime in history more brutal than theirs resorted: potassium cyanide capsules.
These Saudi princes are as goofy and paranoid as they come, and will do anything to preserve the monarchy and their special status.