These are tough times for Saudi Arabia.
The drama enveloping the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the brutal way in which it was carried out have captured public attention. In reality, however, Saudi Arabia’s real problems began earlier as a result of its conduct of the Yemen war.
Saudi interference in Yemen that culminated in military intervention predates the four-year-old war. Yemen has long been perceived by Saudi Arabia as a threat. That threat went far beyond current Iranian support for the Houthis. In fact, it was Saudi divide-and-rule tactics in Yemen, changing Saudi attitudes towards the Houthis and Saudi Arabia’s global campaign to promote anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that helped pave the way for the current Yemen crisis.
It is only half a century ago that the Houthis were part of a Saudi effort to confront Arab nationalism. As an aside, Saudis and Israelis cooperated already then with Israeli military aircraft dropping weapons for the Saudi-backed rebels that included the Houthis. The deterioration in Saudi-Houthi relations accelerated just after the turn to this century when the Saudis funded the opening of a Salafi centre on the outskirts of the Houthi capital of Saada.
The centre constituted not only a challenge to the Houthis but also to the power of the Houthi leadership. It successfully appealed to the socially disadvantaged as well as youth who were attracted by Salafism’s egalitarianism, resented the power of the older generation and saw puritan Islam as a vehicle to challenge the traditional hierarchy. Fear of the Wahhabi/Salafi encroachment fuelled the Houthi’s armed fight against the government of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, his Saudi-backed successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and ultimately the Saudis themselves, which led to the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen in March 2015.
To initially counter the threat, the leadership of the Houthis, Zaidis who are Shiites with practices more akin to Sunni Muslim ritual, turned to Iran for support in religious education, a development that further angered the kingdom, and laid the groundwork for a war that has devastated a country that already ranked as one of the world’s poorest.
The Saudi intervention was, however, about more than just confronting an Iranian proxy on its doorstep. For one, if anything, it was the intervention that really drove the Houthis and Iranians closer to one another. Even so, the Houthis remain an opportunity in a far broader Saudi-Iranian rivalry rather than a strategic target for the Iranians.
The Salmans, the king and his son, have since coming to office and despite the emergence of Donald Trump, taken to new heights a far more assertive foreign and military policy that was initially crafted by their predecessors in response to the popular Arab revolts in 2011. Make however no mistake, Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness is not a declaration of independence from the United States even if the kingdom is expanding its international relations as is evident in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent tour of Asia.
On the contrary, Prince Mohammed made that very clear in multiple interviews. His goal was to force the United States to reengage in the Middle East as the best guarantor for regional stability. The Saudis appear to be operating on the basis of Karl Marx’s Verelendungs theory: things have to get worse to get better. That is the part of the backdrop of the stalled military intervention in Yemen. Dangling Iran as the real threat emanating from Yemen serves the Saudis’ purpose.
In doing so Saudi Arabia, has proven to be driven. It is a drive that is fuelled by a perception that Iran poses an existential threat to Saudi Arabia. In fact, that may not be incorrect, certainly from the perception of the monarchy and its ruling family.
Saudi Arabia dazzles with the billions of dollars gained from oil exports that it is able to invest overseas and the investment opportunities it creates in the kingdom itself. But the truth of the matter is that long-term Saudi Arabia’s future is not that of a regional hegemon.
Saudi regional leadership, even if it has been tarnished in Yemen in military and reputational terms, amounts to exploitation of a window of opportunity rather than reliance on the assets and power needed to sustain it. Saudi Arabia’s interest is to extend its window of opportunity for as long as possible. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. For now, punitive economic sanctions and international isolation take care of Iran.
And that is what bites. Iran may not be Arab and maintains a sense of Persian superiority, but it has like Turkey and Egypt assets Saudi Arabia lacks: a large population base, an industrial base, a huge domestic market, a battle-hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete.
Add to all of this two factors. The Islamic regime came to power in a revolution that preceded the 2011 Arab revolts by 32 years. Moreover, the Iranian revolution toppled a monarch not a president and an icon of US power in the Middle East.
Perhaps, more importantly, if one disregards the sanctioning of Iran, it is Iran rather than Saudi Arabia that is likely to shape the future energy architecture of Eurasia. Oil, in terms of demand is a diminishing commodity. If the long-term future is renewables, the medium term will be shaped by gas. Iran has gas, Saudi Arabia does not, at least not the kind of gas it can export. In fact, Iran, has the world’s second largest gas reserves. Again, disregarding the sanctions, Iran would have in the next five years 24.6 billion cubic metres available for annual piped exports beyond its current supply commitments.
If, indeed, Iran poses an existential threat to the rule of the Al Saud family that it cannot eliminate and at best contain with the support of the United States, the question is what Saudi Arabia’s goal in Yemen is as well as in its broader rivalry with Iran. There are those who coherently argue that Saudi Arabia’s goal in Yemen may have initially been the roll-back of Houthi advances with their occupation of the Yemeni capital Sana’s and large parts of Yemen, destruction of Houthi power and forcing them into a situation in which they would have had to accept a Saudi-dictated end to the war.
Four years into the war, that is not a realistic goal. Short of that, the question is how sincere Saudi and for that matter UAE interest is in finding a way out of the war. It is conceivable that short of outright victory, Saudi Arabia would want to keep Yemen weak and the Houthis militarily on the defensive. That is at best only sustainable in the short term. Fact of the matter is that the reputational damage Saudi Arabia has suffered is starting to hurt witness measures taken by the US Congress and Germany’s decision to halt arms sales to the kingdom. Conflicts are only ended, if not resolved if the pain of continuing the conflict is greater than the pain of ending it. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia could well be nearing the inflection point.
The problem is that even if the United Nations mediated peace talks ultimately produce an end to the war, Yemen, if anything, will pose in the post-war era an even greater and more real threat. Yemen for much of post-World War Two history has been an after thought in the international community if it sparked a thought at all. Yet, what a post-war Yemen will represent is a devastated country that largely needs to be rebuilt from scratch, a country whose traumatized population has suffered one the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and will need all the after-care that goes with that.
Beyond the taking care of the most immediate humanitarian issues, there is little reason to believe that investors and governments with massive aid packages and offers of reconstruction will be knocking on Yemen’s doors. Like in Syria and Libya, the risk is of the emergence of a generation that has nothing to look forward to and nothing to lose. In Yemen, that generation is likely to deeply resent what it perceives Saudi Arabia has done to their country. If Saudi Arabia, long saw Yemen as the Gulf’s most populous nation with a battle-hardened military that needed to be managed, that new generation is likely to put flesh on the skeleton.
Its not a pretty picture to look forward to. And it is one in which the damage has already been done. Having said that, its never too late to try to limit the damage, if not reverse affairs. That however would take the kind of courage and vision that Prince Mohammed and others in power elsewhere in the Middle East have yet to demonstrate.
Edited remarks at Stand with Yemen Symposium and Exhibition 23 February 2019
Saudi crown prince shifts into high gear on multiple fronts
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is simultaneously speed dating and playing on multiple diplomatic, religious, and economic chessboards.
The latest feather in his crown, his appointment as prime minister, aims to ensure that he can continue to do so with as little collateral damage as possible.
The appointment shields him from legal proceedings in the United States, France, and potentially elsewhere, including the International Criminal Court in the Hague, in which plaintiffs assert that Mr. Bin Salman was responsible for the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
As a head of government, Mr. Bin Salman enjoys sovereign immunity, a status he could not claim as heir-apparent.
While the legal manoeuvre is certain to succeed, it is unlikely to significantly improve his image tarnished by the killing and his domestic crackdown on dissent that in recent weeks produced outlandish sentences to decades in prison for little more than a tweet.
Reputational issues have not stopped Mr. Bin Salman from shifting into high gear as he pushes ahead with efforts to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy; replace regional competitors like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the center of gravity at the intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe; demonstrate his diplomatic clout and relevance beyond oil to the international community; and position himself and the kingdom as the beacon of a moderate, albeit an autocratic, form of Islam.
Mr. Bin Salman’s multi-pronged dash has produced mixed results.
In his latest foray onto the international stage, Mr. Bin Salman sought to display his diplomatic skills and relevance to the international community by securing the release by Russia of ten foreign nationals captured while fighting for Ukraine. The foreigners’ release was part of a Ukrainian-Russian prisoner swap negotiated by Turkey.
Although Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al Saud rejected as “very cynical” assertions that Mr. Bin Salman was seeking to shore up his image by associating himself with the swap, it seems likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin was happy to give him a helping hand.
In a similar vein, people close to Mr. Bin Salman see mileage in asserting that the crown prince’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving and enhancement of women’s rights and professional opportunities is what inspired women-led protests in Iran that have entered their third week as well as Iran’s recent relaxing of its prohibition on women attending men’s soccer matches.
Ali Shihabi, an analyst who often echoes official Saudi thinking, claimed in a tweet that “Saudi reforms for women have had a big impact on the world of Islam. As the previous upholder of ultra orthodoxy #MBS’s dramatic changes have sent a powerful signal that has undermined Uber conservatives across the region like the Mullahs in Iran.” Mr. Shihabi was referring to Mr. Bin Salman by his initials.
The nationwide protests were sparked by the death of a young woman while in the custody of Iran’s morality police. The police had arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for what authorities described as sporting an “improper” hijab.
By contrast, Mr. Bin Salman’s economic diversification efforts appear to be producing more unambiguous results. For example, the Saudi industry and mineral resources ministry issued over 500 industrial licenses in the first six months of this year, primarily in the food, steel, and chemicals sectors.
The ministry reported that the number of factories that commenced operations doubled, from 303 to 721. Buoyed by massive oil export revenues, Mr. Bin Salman hopes to brand a ‘Made in Saudi’ label as part of his non-oil export drive.
Even so, foreign investment in manufacturing has been slow to take off, particularly in Mr. Bin Salman’s, at times, futuristic mega projects like his US$500 billion city of Neom on the Red Sea. New Jersey-based Lucid Group broke the mold when it announced in February that it would build its first overseas electrical vehicle production facility in the kingdom.
More controversial are plans for a beach in Neom scheduled to open next year that envision a wine bar, a separate cocktail bar, and a bar for “champagne and desserts” in a country that bans alcohol.
The plans seem out of sync with religious sentiment among a significant segment of Gulf youth if a recent opinion poll is to be believed,
Forty-one per cent of young Gulf Arabs, including Saudis, said religion was the most important element of their identity, with nationality, family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagging far behind.
More than half of those surveyed, 56 per cent, said their country’s legal system should be based on the Shariah or Islamic law. Seventy per cent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture.
In contrast to economics, the going in turning the kingdom into a sports and esports hub has been rougher.
In his latest move, Mr. Bin Salman launched a US$38 billion “National Gaming and Esports Strategy” to make Saudi Arabia an esports leader by 2030. The budget includes US$13 billion for the acquisition of “a leading game publisher.” The kingdom has already invested in Capcom, Nexon, Nintendo, ESL Gaming, SNK, and Embracer Group.
In addition, Saudi music entertainment company MDLBEAST saw a business opportunity in the 2022 Qatar World Cup that would also help project the once secretive kingdom as a forward-looking modern state. MDLBEAST has invited 56 top international and regional performers to entertain soccer fans on a custom-built stage in Doha during the 28 days of the tournament.
On an even grander scale, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the world’s more notorious human rights violators, together with Greece, are considering bidding to host the 2030 World Cup –a move that sounds like an invitation to a perfect public relations fiasco, if Qatar’s experience is an indicator.
The potential bid did not stop soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo from dashing initial Saudi hopes to attract a superstar to the kingdom’s top football league when he turned down a US$258 million offer to play for Al Hilal, one of Saudi Arabia’s top clubs.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s endeavour to bankroll Liv Golf, a challenger to PGA Tour, the organizer of North America’s main professional men’s golf tournaments, has turned into a public relations fiasco amid allegations that the kingdom was seeking to launder its reputation.
A refusal by major broadcasters to secure the rights to air the League’s tours exemplifies its problems.
Religion has proven to be the arena in which Saudi Arabia may have scored its most prominent public relations fete.
The Muslim World League, Mr. Bin Salman’s primary vehicle to garner religious soft power and propagate an autocratic version of Islam that is socially liberal but demands absolute obedience to the ruler, achieved a public relations coup when it forged an unlikely alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama. Nahdlatul Ulama.
Nahdlatul Ulama is arguably the world’s only mass movement propagating a genuinely moderate and pluralistic form of Islam.
Moreover, as the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and democracy, Nahdlatul Ulama’s words and actions have an impact.
As a result, the League counted its blessings when Nahdlatul Ulama’ recognised it as a non-governmental organization rather than a de facto extension of Mr. Bin Salman’s rule.
The recognition opens doors for the League, which has so far traded on Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities; lofty statements and conferences that produced little, if any, real change; and funding of emergency and development aid in various parts of the world.
It allowed Nahdlatul Ulama to invite the League, a major promoter of Saudi ultra-conservatism before Mr. Bin Salman’s rise, to co-organize the newly established Religion 20 (R20), a summit of religious leaders under the auspices of the Group of 20 that brings together the world’s largest economies.
The first R20 summit, scheduled for early November in Bali, is part of the run-up to the meeting of G20 leaders later that month hosted by Indonesia, the group’s chairman for the year. The R20, the G20’s latest official engagement group, aims to “position religion as a source of solutions rather than problems across the globe.”
The limits of Saudi tolerance were evident last month when authorities arrested a pilgrim to Mecca for dedicating his pilgrimage to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, a non-Muslim who had just died.
Nahdlatul’s outreach to the League is part of a bold and risky strategy. However, Nahdlatul Ulama believes that engagement creates an opportunity to persuade the League to embrace a more genuine and holistic vision of moderate Islam rather than one that is self-serving.
That may be a long shot, but it also may be a way of launching Saudi Arabia on a path that would help it repair its badly tarnished image. That is if Mr. Bin Salman pairs genuine religious moderation and pluralism with a rollback of domestic repression and greater political pluralism. So far, that appears to be one thing the crown prince is unwilling to consider.
Iraq and the ‘Blind Gordian Knot’
After its occupation by the United States in 2003, Iraq fell into the double trap of the United States and Iran and became an insoluble problem. Similar to the legendary ‘Gordian’ knot, which Gordias, the king of Phrygia, tied so tightly that it was said that no one could untie it; Until ‘Alexander the Great’ came and cut it in half with one stroke of the sword and the knot was opened.
The trap that America set for Iraq was the constitution that it drafted for this country after the occupation. In this constitution, America removed Iraq’s Arab identity and imposed a two-thirds majority to elect the president, paving the way for the use of a ‘suspended one-third’.
At the same time, he set the conditions for amending this article and all the articles of the first chapter of the constitution so difficult that it was practically impossible to amend it. This constitution divided the power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, as a result of which, the Iraqi society was subject to chaos and fragmentation, and the army that was created based on it collapsed in front of ISIS in Mosul. Now let’s skip the destructive role that Nouri al-Maliki had as the prime minister in this story.
But the trap that the Islamic Republic of Iran set for Iraq was that it formed armed groups affiliated with the Quds Force and gave them legitimacy under the umbrella of ‘The Popular Mobilization Forces, which resulted in the monopoly of power in the hands of the Shiites.
So far, all efforts to free Iraq from this double trap have failed. The popular revolution of 2019 in Baghdad, Karbala, and other southern cities did not reach anywhere with its anti-Iranian slogans, nor did the government of Mustafa al-Kazemi solve the problem with its patriotic government project, nor did the recent efforts of the Sadr movement under the leadership of prominent cleric Moqtada Sadr bear fruit.
The Sadr movement, which won the majority in the elections, tried to form a national majority government in an agreement with the coalition of the Sunni ruling party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the coordination framework was dependent on Iran, using the one-third weapon, defeated the efforts of the Sadr movement.
In Iraq, there is no ‘Alexander the Great’ who will rise up and open the blind Gordian knot with one stroke of the sword and save Iraq from the crisis. No random event occurs. Now, the land between the two rivers is caught in deep-rooted and growing corruption and has lost its way among various Arab, Iranian, Eastern, and Western trends. Even Moqtada’s plan for the formation of a national government, which was put forward recently with the slogan ‘Neither East, nor West”, is also facing many difficulties and obstacles.
Of course, expecting the formation of a democratic system with the management of armed sectarian parties that advance politics based on religious fatwas and the force of destructive war missiles and drones is a futile thing, and talking about a national government in which power is in the hands of religious parties affiliated with the neighboring religious government is gossip and superstition.
Apart from that, according to the current laws of Iraq, the main power is in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, and the powers of the President are limited and few, as a result, Shiite parties and organizations, especially their larger organizations, get more privileges, and the main power is exclusive to the Shiite community.
In addition, the organization that will be called the largest and the majority based on the political Ijtihad of the Supreme Court of Iraq will actually be the same organization that the Islamic Republic of Iran creates within the Iraqi parliament, not the organization that will receive the most votes in the elections. As we saw in the last parliamentary elections, the Sadr movement won the majority of votes and tried to form a majority government in an agreement with the Sunni ruling coalition and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the groups affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran stood against it under the name of the coordination framework. And they made his efforts fruitless.
It is for this reason that it has been almost a year since the Iraqi parliamentary elections were held, but the parliament has so far been unable to form a government and elect a new president.
Of course, this is the nature of totalitarian systems. Although the Iraqi system is a democratic system according to the constitution, in reality, the ruling system in Iraq is a totalitarian system. Just like the ruling systems in the Soviet Union and China, where power rotates among the leaders of the Communist Party; Both the rulers were members of the Communist Party, and the political opponents were imprisoned or executed. Because in Iraq, all the pillars of political power are in the hands of the Shiites; Both the factions that are actually in power are the Shiites, and the factions that lead political struggles and protests as opponents are Shia parties. Even the revolution of 2019 was actually a revolution of the new generation of Shiites who had risen against the influence of Iran and America and their supporters.
The fact is that with this situation, Iraq will never be able to free itself from the American-Iranian double trap and untie the blind Gordian knot. Rather, it can only do so when all the Iraqi national and patriotic parties and groups come together under the umbrella of a democratic, national, independent, non-sectarian coalition that is not dependent on foreign countries, and form a strong national government that, while being independent, is in touch with the outside world and establish good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Arab countries, and Eastern and Western countries.
The bottom line is, when the minds that have produced destructive thoughts cannot produce liberating thoughts, Iraq needs those thinkers and new political figures who will establish a correct, solid, and independent political system in Iraq. The current situation is rooted in the incorrect political structure, the foundation of which was laid in 2003. But it is a pity that only a clear understanding of the crisis is not enough to solve it.
The end of political Islam in Iran
Nothing in Iran will be the same again. The uprising of the majority of big and small cities in Iran after the killing of Mahsa Amini by the “Morality Police” of the Islamic Republic of Iran has a new social structure. Because in the contemporary history of Iran, we have not witnessed such social forces that have been strongly influenced by the women’s movement.
The social structure of the uprising
During the era of Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were allowed to study in law and medical schools, or during the era of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were organized to implement the White Revolution ideology as soldiers. This means that at that time, women were “allowed” and “organized”, but all these freedoms were given to women based on men’s power, state power, and non-democratic methods, and the women’s movement did not play an active role in these actions. For this reason, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi said in one of his interviews: Women are schemes and evil, women have not even had first-class scientists throughout history, women may be equal to men before the law but they have not had the same abilities as men. They are not, women have not even produced a Michelangelo, Johann Sebastian Bach, or a good cook. It was not only Mohammad Reza Shah who had a misogynist view, but Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, was against giving women the right to vote and considered the entry of women into the National Assembly, municipality, and administrations as a cause of paralysis in the affairs of the country and government. In a letter to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he requested the abolition of women’s right to vote.
It can be said that the Iranian revolution (1979) was one of the biggest revolutionary movements that was completely “made“ by a mass social movement in the history of the 20th century, and women played a very active and prominent role in it. But the women in that revolutionary movement not only for themselves and the issues of women’s rights but under the framework of Islamic and communist parties and groups such as the Tudeh Party of Iran, Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and Muslim People’s Republic Party tried to solve the problems of Iranian women. That is, in that mass revolutionary movement, various communist, Islamic and guerilla ideologies were higher, more important, and more preferable than the women themselves, and women tried to find their answers with the help of these revolutionary ideologies to solve the general problems of the country and women’s issues.
But in recent developments, women have not been “allowed” through the reforms of the Pahlavi government, nor have they been “organized” through the ideologies of the revolutionary parties before and after the victory of the Iranian revolution. Rather, in the strict sense of the word, they have become the locomotive of the revolutionary upsurge of contemporary Iran and have given “allowed” and “organization” to other social and ethnic forces in the geography of Iran. From now on, women in Iran are the creators of social and revolutionary changes based on the women’s movement.
Discourse analysis of the uprising
After the June 2009 presidential election and the protest against election fraud, large protests started in other cities, especially in Tehran. In that rebellion, we witnessed the loss of the unity of the elites, the crisis of legitimacy, and the crisis of the efficiency of the Islamic Republic regime. After those protests, the Shiite Islamist ideology of the Islamic Republic faced illegitimacy and the unity of the elites of the ruling class was lost. On the other hand, the government faced a crisis of inefficiency after those incidents and could not meet the crisis economic, cultural, political, and civil liberties, and women’s demands. Therefore, in the demonstrations of 2018, tens of thousands of people rose up against economic policies, high prices, and unemployment, and with the spread of these protests, the ideological foundations and legitimacy of the regime were protested by the demonstrators. With a 50% increase in the price of gasoline in 2019 and a 35% inflation, unemployment and an increase in the price of basic goods and food, a new wave of protests in many cities of Iran faced the government of Hassan Rouhani with a major social and economic crisis. In those protests, women played an active role and chanted against the mandatory hijab.
Contrary to all these widespread protests and social riots in Iran’s contemporary history, in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cause of the uprising is the murder of Mahsa Amini, the defense of women’s rights, and opposition to the mandatory hijab. The overwhelming majority of Iranian women have declared their separation with the slogan of “women, life, freedom” from the movement of reformers, monarchists of the Pahlavi regime, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, fundamentalists of the Islamic Republic, utopias and communist, Islamist, totalitarian, anti-woman, and false ideologies.
It is very important in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cooperation of Turks men and women in the cities of Iran with the protests. Because the Turk social-political movement did not declare solidarity with the protesters of other cities of Iran due to the neglect of the right to education in the mother tongue, the right to self-determination, and the realization of economic, political, cultural, and environmental rights in the uprisings of 2009, 2018 and 2019. The slogan of “freedom, justice, and national government” of the Turks of different cities of Iran, also shows the existence of different and yet common demands of the majority of ethnic groups living in Iran.
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