Descent into farce
Yassamine Mather reports on crown prince Salman’s latest attempts to stoke up conflict
Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson
In the week when general Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, declared Islamic State had been defeated, 40 gunmen associated with IS attacked the al-Rawda mosque in Sinai, Egypt, killing 309 worshippers and injuring many more. It was also the week when Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman claimed that the Islamic Republic of Iran was now the main threat in the region and that supreme leader Ali Khamenei was “the new Hitler of the Middle East”.
The attackers in Sinai were from a group that has been associated with IS since 2014, but both the number of victims and the fact that they were worshippers in a mosque marks out this particular attack. Unlike many other IS operations, this one was carried out by local volunteers. In Sinai only 10% of IS fighters are believed to be foreign jihadists. The vast majority are locals, reacting to the repression imposed by the military government of general Abdel Fattah el-Sissi - Egypt, of course, being one of the main regional allies of Saudi Arabia. And let us not forget that Saudi clerics were amongst the original and the most persistent backers of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. One could say that without Saudi funding, the jihadists would not have lasted as long as they have.
Prince Salman has claimed that three events in 1979 fermented Islamic extremism: the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi puritanical extremists; the Islamic revolution in Iran; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. According to Salman, it all changed after Khomeini came to power. Clearly the Saudi prince’s understanding of history is as flawed as that of his friends in Washington. First of all Iran’s revolution did not start as an Islamic one: workers, intellectuals, soldiers and peasants of both sexes had been demonstrating and protesting for more than a year against a corrupt dynasty. Recent declassified papers show the extent of the US relationship with Ruhollah Khomeini, The Islamic regime’s first supreme leader, after 1979. He was not the US administration’s ideal choice to replace the shah, but, given the revolutionary situation in Iran, he clearly was the lesser of many evils, as far as they were concerned.
Furthermore, anyone with a bit more sense of regional politics would know that for all its efforts the Shia clergy has failed (and admits to have failed) in its attempts to change the cultural and social behaviour of the overwhelming majority of Iran’s population - irrespective of their religious beliefs and despite successive government attempts to curtail freedom, they hold very liberal views by the standards of the region, when it comes to women’s and gay rights, and even the consumption of alcohol. But the most serious mistake in Salman’s assertion is that he forgets - or, as with so many other issues, is ignorant of the fact - that Khomeini’s most reactionary ideas, despite the Shia gloss he gave them, were taken straight from Salafi scholars.
But that is not all. This week, just to remind us that we do live in a post-truth era, Saudi Arabia hosted an anti-terrorism conference. On November 26, the crown prince inaugurated what was labelled a “mega anti-terror meeting in Riyadh”.1 Given the recent history of the Middle East, one could say the title was a contradiction in terms - an oxymoron. Bin Salman, who some believe will be declared king very soon (presumably with the support of Donald Trump), claimed his country “will not allow such elements to tarnish the image of Islam”.
Ironically the conference was taking place not far from the Hyatt Regency where a number of Saudi princes and former ministers are held on corruption charges. In some cases these relate to ‘financial support’ for another enemy of Saudi Arabia, Qatar. Clearly some pro-Saudi figures in the region got a little carried away by the conference: for instance, Dubai’s former police chief, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, even called for the bombing of news broadcaster Al Jazeera: “The alliance must bomb the machine of terrorism ... the channel of Isil, al Qa’eda and the al-Nusra front - Al Jazeera, the terrorists.” Khalfan seems to forget that it is precisely indiscriminate bombings in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere that have allowed IS and other offshoots of al Qa’eda to recruit so readily. In March Khalfan urged Arabs to ally with Israel against “enemies of the Middle East” - another (veiled) attack on Iran and the region’s Shia Muslims.
Surely the first lesson for anyone seeking to lead a new alliance is not to alienate your likely supporters, yet Salman managed to do just that. The conference opening ceremony, attended by 41 countries, showed a video that included a scene of a Palestinian, clearly depicted as a terrorist, fighting Israeli occupation forces. Whether this was just incompetence or down to the new Saudi-Israeli alliance I do not know, but the reaction to the video was overwhelmingly hostile.
Altogether then, the recent period has not been a good one for Salman. By all accounts his attempt at creating chaos - some would say civil war - in Lebanon, through organising prime minister Saad Hariri’s ‘resignation’ yielded the exact opposite result. As one Arab paper put it, in one single move the crown prince has achieved what could only have been dreamed about previously - unity amongst all Lebanese factions!
All this has raised new questions about the US role in the current fiasco in the Middle East. Mark Penny, a foreign policy analyst and a regular contributor to The American Conservative, claimed that “the drama has left the secretary of state seething” - not least over the Hariri affair.2 Penny wonders if Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, had kept Rex Tillerson in the dark over the Saudi Lebanon move.
Secretary of state Tillerson was apparently “completely blind-sided”. While he would later be accused of being “totally disengaged” from the crisis, acting assistant secretary for near east affairs David Satterfield had been in discussions with Hariri’s aides in Beirut. Apparently he told Christopher Henzel, the US chargé d’affaires in Saudi Arabia, to meet with Hariri in Riyadh. “In Beirut, meanwhile, US ambassador Elizabeth Richard was gathering information on the crisis from Lebanese officials and passing it back to Washington.”3 Apparently Tillerson had also been fuming in June, when the Saudis broke off relations with Qatar and imposed economic sanctions - a move that led to a split in the Gulf Cooperation Council and shattered US efforts to build a united anti-Iran bloc.
As readers will know, the Hariri affair descended into pure farce when he retracted his resignation. But things do not seem to be getting much better. His latest policy statement declares that “Hezbollah must keep out of the politics of other countries” (I assume Syria). Given that there are dozens of political and military groups - associated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, not to mention direct military intervention in Syria from the United States and Russia - it is difficult to see why Hezbollah should be the only group singled out for ‘intervening’.
As Iran and Saudi Arabia compete for regional dominance, one should also mention one particular similarity. Take those anti-corruption arrests in Saudi Arabia - members of the Saudi royal family are amongst those being held in Riyadh (some have now been released, including the son of prince Matab Ben Abdollah). Meanwhile, in Iran, however, a number of close relatives and advisors of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s former president, have been on trial for corruption.
Ahmadinejad has reacted by threatening to reveal government secrets and by calling the judiciary corrupt, while senior clerics have retaliated by comparing the ex-president to a hooligan or common villain. Of course, the very same judiciary oversaw the arrest, imprisonment and torture of Iranian youth who dared to contest the results of the election that re-elected Ahmadinejad president in 2009.