By James M. Dorsey
The short answer to the question framing this session is: where does one start? If things in the Middle East and North Africa were not complicated enough, answering the question has been made even more difficult by the rise of Donald Trump.
In fact no one, may be not even he, has an idea about what his policy towards the various crises in the Middle East and North Africa will be, or what his attitude might be towards individual countries in the region.
So, rather than speculate or get bogged down in the excruciating detail of individual conflicts like those in Syria, Iraq, Libya or Yemen, what I would like to do is look at fundamental issues that weave themselves like a red thread through whatever conflict or crisis one looks at. These include the ones named in the title of this session – Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen – as well as the phenomenon of militant political Islam, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional dominance and global hegemony in the Muslim world.
Many blame the disintegration of post-colonial nation states like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, on the drawing of artificial borders by colonial powers as symbolized by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. If that were true, we would see a similar development across Africa. For much of the second half of the 20th century, many feared that any secession would have a domino effect across the continent. That was the concern with Biafra in the 1960s. Yet, the Organization of African Unity’s recognition of the Frente Polisario, the Algerian-backed liberation movement of the Western Sahara in the 1980s, and the independence of Eritrea in 1991 after a 27-year long guerrilla war remain isolated events.
Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are falling apart not because they are artificial constructs created by colonial powers but because they were ruled by autocratic governments who were exclusive rather than inclusive. That is to say, significant segments of the population often defined in religious or ethnic terms had no real stake in society and the state. In fact, that is the state of affairs across much of the Middle East and North Africa. Think of Palestinians, Kurds, Shiites, Christians – just to name a few. Radicalization moreover is being fueled by misguided foreign policies as well as repressive, exclusionary domestic strategies that produce social marginalization, huge gaps in income distribution, and dislocation of resources in corrupt autocracies with youth bulges that populate a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Indian Ocean.
If this sounds familiar, widespread discontent in the Middle East and North Africa is indeed part of a global trend, albeit perhaps its most brutal and violent expression.
One reason for this is that the Middle East and North Africa are populated by regimes that have a demonstrated willingness to defend the essence of the status quo at whatever price. That price can be the destruction of whole countries as in Syria and Yemen. These regimes see their survival in the shaping of the region in their own mold and do not shy away from stoking conflict and aiming for regime change when and where it suits their interest. External powers like the Soviet Union in the past and Russia today as well as the United States were actively or passively supporting the policies of their regional allies.
As a result, no Middle Eastern nor North African state nor external power emerges from this smelling like a rose. In the days of the cold war it was Soviet-backed revolutionary regimes like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Algeria versus primarily monarchical conservatives. Post-Soviet Union, ideology has made place for pure power plays. The one exception to this rule is the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, one of the 20th centuries few truly popular revolutions.
The Iranian revolution challenged the region’s existing order before and after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It represents an existential threat to the conservatives, and particularly to Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family. The challenge is multi-fold: a republic rather than a monarchy established as the result of a truly popular revolt that toppled a monarch and an icon of US power in the region. Adding fuel to the fire, Iran’s republican version of an Islamic government is legitimized by an institutionalized, albeit flawed, electoral process and a degree of popular sovereignty, that pays lip service to revolutionary goals.
Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis were quick to recognize the existential challenge posed by Iran’s Islamic revolution. They decided early on that they had no choice but to confront it aggressively both regionally and globally. If any one conflict has shaped the Middle East and North Africa, its various conflicts and multiple crises as well as the fate of Muslim majority countries beyond the region and Muslim minority communities elsewhere, it is the epic struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony as well as dominance in the Muslim world.
This is not to deny the fact that national governments and non-state actors were and are important actors in the Saudi soft power ploy. The result of this confluence of interests has been devastating. It includes wars like the one between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s that left up to a million people dead; the devastation of countries like Iraq, Syria and Pakistan that are wracked by violence in which sectarian conflict was fueled by both parties; and the spread of religious, inward-looking, intolerant and supremacist ultra-conservatism that offers the discontent and disenfranchised a refuge and creates an environment that in given circumstances serves as a breeding ground for religiously-packaged militancy.
Iran’s revolutionary zeal, despite the emergence of Hezbollah as a potent trans-national Shiite militia force, past Iranian support of Hamas in Gaza and the Islamic republic’s opportunistic alliance with the Houthis in Yemen petered out in all but word in the first year of the revolution. The Iraqi war against Iran funded largely by Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, by smaller Gulf States gave rise to Iranian nationalism. Iran fought its proxy battles with the Saudis primarily in the region itself. For Iran, it was a battle about power and a struggle against an inherently discriminatory ideology that targeted its interpretation of the faith.
For the Saudis, it was one that was ultimately existential and about survival. It was not simply regional for the Al Sauds. It was global given the kingdom’s claim to leadership of the Muslim world based on its custody of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the Al Saud’s power sharing arrangement with an ultra-conservative clergy ideologically committed to spreading its interpretation of the faith.
The Saudi determination to counter the Iranian revolutionary threat by defeating rather than containing it has ever since shaped Saudi policy towards the Islamic republic and towards Shiites. To be sure, Iran repeatedly took the bait with the creation of Hezbollah, political protests during the haj in Mecca, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to name just a few of the incidents.
Saudi Arabia’s response to Iran’s revolutionary appeal was to make an ultra-conservative worldview that emphasized denunciation of Muslim others like the Shiites, Ahmadis and Sufis as well as a supremacist worldview and arch-conservative family values an influential player in Muslim communities across the globe. The Saudi effort produced the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history.
Estimates of Saudi spending on the funding of Muslim cultural, religious and educational institutions across the globe range from $75 to $100 billion. This figure does not include the cost of forging close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim religious and political leaders, militaries and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations in a bid to ensure that they bought into the geopolitical elements of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism, first and foremost among which is anti-Shiism. It also does not include expenditure on armed groups in Syria, Iraq, Bosnia or Pakistan where Saudi Arabia has funded militant, violent and rabidly anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi groups responsible for the deaths of thousands. It also does not take into account the financial cost of Saudi-backing of the US-led anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s with its devastating consequences for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On one level, the Saudi campaign has been phenomenally successful. Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism in whatever form ranging from Wahhabism to various strands of Salafism to Deobandism has been embedded in Muslim communities across the world and is an influential political player in the Middle East and North Africa as well as countries as far flung as Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Mali and minority communities in Western Europe.
Let me illustrate this with an anecdote. The man who was until recently deputy head of Indonesian intelligence and deputy head of Nahdlatul Ulema, one of the world’s largest Islamic movements that professes to be anti-Wahhabi, is a fluent Arabic speaker. He spent 12 years in the Middle East representing the Indonesian intelligence service, eight of those in Saudi Arabia. This man professes in the same breath his dislike of the Wahhabis and at the same time warns that Shiites, who constitute 1.2 percent of the Indonesian population and that includes the estimated 2 million Sunni converts over the last 40 years, are one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security. This man is not instinctively anti-Shiite, but sees Shiites as an Iranian fifth wheel. The impact of Saudi funding is such that even Nahdlatul Ulema is forced to adopt ultra-conservative language and concepts when it comes to perceptions of the threat posed by Iran and Shiites.
Yet, 40 years since the Saudi soft power grab moved into full gear, its success has become as much a liability as it is an asset with the kingdom moving into the firing line against the backdrop of demands that it live up to its responsibility for creating potential breeding grounds for radicalism and devastating whole countries as with the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. The problem is compounded by the fact that the Al Sauds were not always in full control of the use of monies invested in the campaign. As a result, they have let a genie out of the bottle that now leads an independent life, has in part turned on the Saudis themselves, and that can’t be put back into the bottle.
The Saudi-Iranian battle is further accentuated by uncertainty over US policy. That is certainly true with the rise of Trump who from an Iranian perspective has made comments that spark concern in Tehran as well as remarks that could hearten the Iranians. Saudi uncertainty predates the rise of Trump. US officials for much of their country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia have insisted that the two countries do not share common values, that their relationship is based on common interests.
Underlying the now cooler relations between Washington and Riyadh is the fact that those interests are diverging. The divergence became evident with the eruption of popular revolts in 2011 and particularly US criticism of the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to squash a rebellion as well as hesitant American support for the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It is also obvious in the nuclear agreement with Iran that is returning the Islamic republic to the international fold despite deep-felt Saudi objections.
The result of all of this has been with the rise of the Salmans, King Salman and his powerful son, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, a far more assertive foreign and military policy. However, make no mistake Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness is not a declaration of independence from the United States. On the contrary, Mohammed Bin Salman has made that clear in various interviews. It was designed, certainly in the era of Obama, to force the United States to reengage in the Middle East in the belief that it will constitute a return to the status ante quo: US support for the kingdom as the best guarantor for regional stability. The Salmans were operating on the basis of Marx’s Verelendungstheorie: things have to get worse to get better. It is a strategy that may or may not work with Trump.
The Saudi strategy with its pervasive impact on the Middle East and the Muslim world at large long made perfect sense. Saudi regional leadership amounted to exploitation of a window of opportunity rather than reliance on the assets and power needed to sustain it. Saudi Arabia’s interest is and was 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. Punitive international sanctions and international isolation long took care of Iran.
Ironically, Trump could extend that window if he adopts a hard line towards Iran. That is for the Saudis nonetheless a double-edged sword. Saudi policy makers have come to see restrictions on Iranian nuclear policy, even for a period of 15 years at most, as an asset. The problem for the Saudis is that Trump at times has also suggested a harder US approach towards the kingdom itself.
A concern for the Saudis that is more fundamental than uncertainty over US policy in the era of Trump is that Iran, despite not being an Arab nation and maintaining a sense of Persian superiority, has the assets Saud Arabia lacks to secure its position on a level playing field as a regional power rather than a second fiddle state. Those assets no matter how degraded include a large population base, an industrial base, resources, 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, and certainly not with religious ultra-conservatism playing a key influential role.
Saudi Arabia was shell shocked on September 11, 2001, when it became evident that most of the perpetrators were Saudi nationals. Saudi society was put under the kind of scrutiny the kingdom had never experienced before. The same is happening again today with the rise of jihadism, the war in Yemen and the kingdom’s role in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan.
Changing international attitudes towards Saudi sectarianism and its proxy wars against Iran are evident in a quiet conclusion in Western intelligence and policy circles that the crisis in Syria is in part a product of the international community’s indulgence of Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director John Brennan unsuccessfully tried in 2011, as peaceful anti-regime protests in Syria descended into violence, to persuade Saudi Arabia at a meeting in Washington of Middle Eastern intelligence chiefs to stop supporting militant Sunni Muslim Islamist fighters in Syria. An advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff recounted that the Saudis ignored Brennan’s request. They “went back home and increased their efforts with the extremists and asked us for more technical support. And we say OK, and so it turns out that we end up reinforcing the extremists,” the advisor said.
In sum, if inclusion rather than exclusion is the fundamental answer to the Middle East and North Africa’s multiple conflicts, countering Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism is one major key to breaking the vicious cycle. That is obviously easier said than done and only part of any successful effort. Islamic ultra-conservatism is often no longer dependent on Saudi funding and has made such deep inroads into societies as well as governments as for example in Pakistan that it would likely take a generation to turn around. Saudi Arabia’s soft power campaign has also sprouted radical groups that see the Saudis no longer as an inspiration but as corrupt deviants to a fundamentally common interpretation of the faith. As a result, Saudi Arabia is both part of the problem and part of the solution. All of this leaves me where I began my remarks: Where does one start in assessing what can be improved in the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi Arabia is not the only place, but it is certainly one that together with Iran has its fingers in the region’s key pies.
This article is adapted from a lecture originally delivered at Three Cultures Foundation.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.
International Policy Digest