The West Asia Trump Leaves Behind
the new team being announced by the Biden administration any innovation can
only follow repair work of the considerable wreckage that is being left behind
by the outgoing team.
At this moment of transition, what construct does one place on the outgoing
Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo’s participation in the cloak-and-dagger meeting
with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister,
Benjamin Netanyahu in the mega city of Neom being built on the Red Sea?
The drama of this meeting was heightened by Netanyahu’s office denying the
meeting in tones which seemed to suggest that the Israelis were not busting
their guts to keep the meeting secret. A pretense of secrecy was essential
because otherwise “MBS” would be in “trouble”.
Netanyahu’s Education Minister, Yoav Galant, could not contain his joy at the
“amazing achievement” because the “Sunni world” was joining the Israel-US
alliance to counter “Iranian Shiite extremism”.
This Shia-Sunni confrontation, real or simulated, has been the game ever since
the Shah was toppled in Iran. Why then this secrecy now? Why is MBS so scared
being seen in an embrace with Netanyahu on Saudi soil? Because his people will
find out? Do his people matter? But it turns out that Human rights is an
article of faith with the incoming Secretary of state, Antony Blinken. This may
well be a source of anxiety not just for Saudi Arabia but all monarchies and
authoritarian systems. Are there any in our vicinity?
A hint about MBS’s source of anxiety was available in the other crucial meeting
the Saudi king had with President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. The Turkish
strongman is part of a quadrangle which both, Washington (the incoming
administration) and MBS, Netanyahu too, should by analyzing.
After the Soviet collapse in 1991, it was elementary that creating a distance
between Moscow and Beijing would remain a US strategic goal. But George W Bush
and his deluded neo-cons asked for the moon – full spectrum global dominance
into the American century. The financial crisis of 2008 rapped them hard on the
knuckles. American decline was well underway when Trump greased the downward
slide even more effectively.
The evolving Biden team will contemplate at the menacing quadrangle I mentioned
at the outset. To begin with, Moscow and Beijing have never been closer. The
duet spotted the potential of Iran too, and included it in the club. After all,
Washington is just about to dust up the Iranian nuclear file for a resumption
of a conversation with Tehran.
No sooner had Trump lost the election, when Imran Khan was on his maiden trip
to Kabul. This, when the US troop withdrawal from the Afghan capital had run
into the sort of snags which US representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay
Khalilzad was trying to sort out.
Was the Pakistan Prime Minister now effectively being positioned to handle the
Afghan file? This became a very real anxiety in both Tehran and New Delhi. But
Iran being re invited on the nuclear file, mollifies it somewhat.
How happy New Delhi should be with its exertions in the Quad (US, Australia,
Japan, India) only time can tell. The Japanese Foreign Minister has already
clarified: our membership of the Quad is not directed against any country.
So, while the US was on the Trump rollercoaster and coping with the social
mayhem and galloping Covid, other countries were moving increasingly in
concert. There has been so much continuous chanting of the Shia-Sunni conflict
that real and abiding antipathies have been lost sight of.
A convenient point of departure to explain this narrative are the two events in
December, 1979, which rattled the Saudis, indeed the world – Ayatollah
Khomeini’s return, signaling the Iranian revolution. Around the same date, an
anti-monarchy, Sunni, an extreme version of the Muslim Brotherhood, Juhayman
al-Otaybi, defied the Saudi state by occupying the holiest Muslim Mosque of
Unable to flush out Otaybi and his armed supporters, Saudis sought Western
help. A situation emerged which to a non Muslim would read like a situation
comedy. Since non Muslims are not allowed in Mecca, US and French soldiers had
to be converted to Islam to enter the mosque and accomplish the holy task of
killing Otaybi and his men. This “rebellion within” gives Saudis nightmares.
But they feel more secure externalizing the threat. They have persistently
targeted Iran and Shiaism as threats to themselves, Israel, indeed, the West.
When did you last hear of the 15 days siege of the Mecca Mosque?
To point fingers at the Muslim Brotherhood (Akhwan ul Muslimeen) as the enemy
would isolate most of the GCC Sheikhdoms from the larger Muslim “Umma”. They
would then be perceived as only the “Wahabi” sect of the Sunni world.
Incalculable Saudi wealth, particularly after the quadrupling of oil prices
following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, had the Western Military Industrial Complex
salivating on Arab petro dollars. The oil rich Sheikhs are, by formal
agreements, dependent on Western arms. Their wealth plus their links to Israel
give them considerable control on Western media which has quite shockingly
harped only on the Shia-Sunni conflict.
When the Arab Spring dethroned Hosni Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood’s, Mohamed
Morsi became Egypt’s Prime Minister. Coming to power of a Brother in Egypt
caused the Saudis to load their camels with their billions and turn up in Cairo
to stabilize Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s coup in Cairo. Brothers in power in Egypt
was anathema to the Israelis too because the Hamas in Gaza would now have help
from all sides. Brother in Turkey, Qatar and Egypt. They were ideologically
coherent with Hamas.
At the Shia end, the Hezbullah in Lebanon, Iran, the Alawi elements in the
Syrian Army, the Shia majority in Iraq, war tried Houthis of Yemen are all
supporting the Palestinian cause to the hilt.
No, it is not the Shia Sunni divide which is bothering MBS and Netanyahu. What
worries them deeply is the Shia-Sunni combine zeroing in on the Israelis and
the Wahabis in unlikely comradeship.