The accession of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to the leadership of the Middle East monarchy has plunged the region deeper into conflict and intensified a divisive sectarian narrative, says Hafsa Kara-Mustapha
When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died in January 2015 there was a sense of relief across much of the Arab world. The Saudi monarch who had engaged in so many failed enterprises finally met his maker and the oil rich kingdom now had the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and take the country in a new direction.
Much of politics and diplomacy relies on ego and it is very difficult for leaders to recognise their errors and make amends, but nature can provide that respite and offer a rare ‘face saving’ way out. Abdullah’s brother Salman, who by all accounts was already too frail to rule adequately, was expected to usher in a new era in which previous mistakes would be laid to rest along with their now deceased sponsor.
Sadly, that precious opportunity was wasted and instead of taking Saudi Arabia down the route of peace, stability and increased prosperity, Abdullah’s successor King Salman and his son Mohammed Bin Salman led the country to ever increasing depths of conflict instability and economic crisis.
By 2015 it had become clear that Bashar Al Assad was not losing the war in Syria but very much winning it. Better still, many of those who had opposed his rule and took to the streets in 2011 were now backing him and his government. Within a few years of a well-oiled media campaign, led mainly by Saudi funded outlets, Syrians were now realising the nature of the project whose main objective was the evisceration of the Syrian nation-state.
Like Iraq and Libya before it, Saudi Arabia, was once again backing the destruction of a fellow Arab and Muslim majority nation, serving both Israel and the US’ interest in an increasingly weakened Middle East.
Sold for much of the early years as a sectarian conflict in which an Alawite leadership was supposedly targeting its Sunni population, it soon became clear that the only party promoting a sectarian agenda in Syria was the Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
From its countless satellite TV channels to its mosques across the Muslim world, Saudi rulers promoted the idea that Syrian Sunnis were being exterminated by the Alawite president and his Shia allies in Iran and Lebanon.
However, as the conflict entered its third year and Syrians, whose voices were muted for much of this time started speaking up, it soon became clear that much of the propaganda didn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Syrian population, made up of 80% Sunnis, would not have supported a sectarian leader who up until 2011 had not displayed any animosity towards any Muslim or ethnic or religious groups. In fact, minorities had always praised the Syrian leadership for its ability to protect the nation’s inspiring diversity despite the upheavals suffered by their region in the past century.
Syria proved therefore to be an own goal for Saudi Arabia after it emerged that regime change in Libya, in great part funded and supported by the Gulf monarchies, had transformed the once most prosperous nation in Africa into a safe haven for terrorists and slave traders.
This major failure in the country’s foreign policy should have forced its leadership into retreat and much soul-searching. Instead the new ‘custodian’ of Mecca and Medina, King Salman embarked on a new conflict, this time against neighbouring Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world.
Initially presented as a rapid conflict, in which victory for the Saudi-sponsored President Hadi would be a matter of weeks, the war has now been going on for four years. Humiliated on an almost daily basis despite its vastly superior military might and the support it has gathered from a coalition of Arab countries as well as covert alliances with Western superpowers, Saudi Arabia is yet to see victory.
Embittered by the resilience of Houthi fighters, Saudi troops have resorted to attacking civilian targets and infrastructure and inflicting maximum pain on the population in a bid to force it to turn against the Ansarullah.
Mirroring Israeli tactics in Gaza, the Saudi army has been relentlessly attacking hospitals, schools, and neighbourhoods causing untold loss of life and destruction.
Although civilian casualties are without a doubt the more pressing issue in this disastrous war, there is a pernicious aspect to the targeted attacks that reveals a worrying trend in Saudi’s foreign and domestic agenda.
History and the Arabs
As leaders of the country of the two holy cities of Islam Mecca and Medina, Saudi rulers have endeavoured over the past two decades to destroy many of the cities’ ancient historical sites known to have housed both the Prophet (pbuh) and his family and companions and many of the early Muslim believers.
These homes not only represent an important historical heritage for Muslims but are testament to the era in which the Prophet lived.
It is important from a religious but also historical perspective to be aware of what the people from among whom the Prophet (pbuh) emerged were like, how they lived and what they achieved and built.
By destroying these ancient sites, Saudi rulers have deleted much of Islamic but also Arab memory and contributed to the now widely held stereotype that Arabs are nothing but ‘backward Bedouins’ with no civilisation. Yet there are forts and houses mentioned in the Quran itself which provide invaluable context to Muslims as well as historians of the region.
Using the pretext of expanding Mecca and Medina to accommodate ever growing numbers of pilgrims, the houses of Khadija (as), Fatima(as) as well as many of the companions of the Prophet have been destroyed. Some commentators have argued that these measures were in large part aimed at Shia pilgrims who have taken to visiting these homes while performing Hajj or Umra. For others there is an equally sinister agenda to these ‘regeneration’ plans which have now turned the holiest sites of Islam into US style shopping and accommodation hubs.
Although the argument in favour of improving conditions for pilgrims has value, the level of destruction has reached unprecedented levels. There is a clear financial imperative behind these mammoth construction projects that have dwarfed the Haram al-Sharif amid gigantic high-rise buildings and shopping malls.
With oil prices in rapid decline, revenue from pilgrims is now Saudi Arabia’s greatest source of income and expansion plans which involve redeveloping the old city aim primarily at beefing up the Saudi economy, once solely reliant on hydrocarbons.
Aside from the economic benefit the kingdom reaps from Muslim visitors the case for destruction is one that surfaces very often when Saudi Arabian politics is put under the spotlight.
When ISIS first emerged in Syria, embarking on killing sprees across the country, one of their first targets were archaeological sites that are testament to the rich history of the region. Under the pretext Salafist Muslims reject the idea of preserving historical sites -which may include statues- the destruction of places like Palmyra hit the headlines. It is worth noting of course that if those arguments are taken to their logical conclusion even the Kaaba which once housed idols from the Jahilliya era would suffer a similar fate. The holy Quran often mentions Pharaoh and the grandeur of his constructions as a reminder of the limited powers of mortals in the face of God’s greatness. Should the early Muslims who took the message to Egypt have destroyed the Pyramids?
The answer of course is no, in particular as the Prophet (pbuh) gave clear instructions as to what should and shouldn’t be destroyed in times of war.
And yet despite all the arguments in favour of preserving the region’s heritage, Saudi rulers continue their destructive policies.
Whether ISIS in Iraq, Syria or now Saudi Arabia’s official army in Yemen, all is done to meticulously target places of historical importance in the region.
Bombing raids on Sanaa have resulted in the destruction of houses that are testament to the Yemeni people’s much celebrated archaeological prowess. Yemen is of course the birthplace of the Arab people and is now, like Mecca, Medina, Baghdad or Damascus gradually being emptied of its history.
Saudi Arabia is not just destroying the close bonds that should unite the entire Ummah, it is playing an instrumental role in deleting its history as well.
Sadly this is being done with the complicit silence of the entire Islamic ummah. While it is accepted the Al-Saud ruling family are currently administering the two holy cities it is difficult to accept the free rein they enjoy in deciding the future of places that are important to every single Muslim. Whether the inept OIC or Muslim majority nations, no one is speaking out in defence of the preservation of Mecca and Medina.
Some Muslims are now calling for a boycott of Hajj or Umra. This is a difficult decision, of course, considering the importance of Hajj for a believer. There is the undeniable risk that postponing a Hajj could result in a Muslim possibly never fulfilling the fifth pillar of the faith. However, in view of the arrogance of the Saudi ruling family that continues to ignore the concerns of Muslims such a sacrifice becomes worthy of consideration. Furthermore, given that the funds derived from a pilgrim’s monies will be spent on war in Yemen isn’t there a case for abstaining from Hajj in these circumstances? It may be a difficult decision to be taken as a collective but Muslims who are well informed should be aware of their responsibilities when they know how their money is to be spent.
In 2017 Mohammed Bin Salman donated the eye-watering sum of $100m to arch Zionist Ivanka Trump’s organisation, a sum that could have been spent improving the lives of millions in Bangladesh, Chad or Mali. With that in mind, a boycott of Hajj and Umra, would be a wise decision and one which would force Saudis to confront their leaders and the political choices they have opted for. The visible decline in the number of pilgrims would dent the Saudi economy and force its rulers to realise that that source of income should no longer be taken for granted.
Much has been said and written about the rapid ascension of the Al-Saud tribe to the helm of the desert kingdom that now bears its name. Benefiting very early on from US and British support, for much of the 20th century the Al-Saud clan had nurtured close links with the rest of the Arab world. The bizarre murder of King Faisal, a known champion of the Palestinian cause, at the hands of a supposedly demented nephew would push the ruling family in an entirely new direction. The accession of King Fahd to the throne in 1982, who renamed himself the ‘Custodian of the two holy mosques’ would usher in the era of ever closer links with the US coupled with a lavish and often un-Islamic lifestyle that has characterised Saudi royals ever since.
There is no doubt that the immense wealth Saudi Arabia and its ruling class came into in the first half of the 20th century, thanks to the country’s immense oil reserves, plunged the desert tribesmen into a new lifestyle of unmatched luxury. Saudi royals became known throughout the 1960’s onwards as money spending ‘playboys’ with little if no regards for basic Islamic morals. King Faisal’s rule attempted to curb this trend. However his premature death in 1975 allowed the ever-increasing royal family to pursue its hedonistic lifestyle.
Their attitudes outside the country were all the more jarring with life in the kingdom still led according to the Wahhabi creed which calls for a very austere and puritanical –if not distorted- view of Islam. Saudi royals were known to gamble away millions in the casinos of the French Riviera while returning home to legislate ever stricter codes of conduct at home. While alcohol is forbidden in Saudi, parties across their embassies in Western capitals were known to serve-albeit discreetly- the finest champagnes and wines. Throughout this era where television and newspapers offered limited information on the goings on in the Kingdom, the Al-Sauds still benefited from an ‘aura’ of respectability. Part of the reason for this is that they had expediently instituted huge spending programs across many of the more impoverished regions of the Muslim world, building hospitals, schools and of course mosques in what appeared at the time to be charitable work for the benefit of the Ummah.
With the emergence of satellite TV stations followed by the internet it soon appeared that the conservative Kingdom and supposed flag bearer of Islam was anything but conservative or even Muslim. High ranking royals were routinely embroiled in sex scandals involving drugs and prostitutes. The image of a respectable family holding the keys to Mecca and Medina was now in decline.
As this shameless behaviour coupled with its hypocritical conservative domestic agenda became more widely known both in the Muslim world and beyond, the Al-Saud’s standing began to fall. When Fahd agreed to have American troops stationed across the peninsula in a bid to fight Iraq during the first Gulf War, opinions of Saudi Arabia rapidly turned.
After the Arab Spring in 2011, Saudi took it upon itself to routinely side against the best interests of the people in the region. It offered the much-hated Tunisian leader, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, asylum after he was ousted from power, yet armed and funded groups to ally with NATO in their war against Libya’s Gaddafi. It then moved on to support politically, financially and militarily, Syrian opposition groups in a bid to bring down Bachar Al-Assad’s government and then attacked Yemen. More recently it turned against one of its normally closest allies and fellow monarchies, Qatar, launching a campaign of isolation that is yet to yield any positive results for a Saudi Arabia whose foreign policy accomplishments read like a long list of failures.
If these catastrophic decisions weren’t enough, Riyadh has been covertly attempting to normalise relations with the terrorist state of Israel and is openly supportive of war against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
At a time when Israel is continuously violating international law and killing Palestinian civilians on an almost daily basis, the Saudi ‘brother’ is organising PR campaigns to sell the necessity of good relations with the ‘Jewish state.’
Local hacks are roped in to argue in favour of regional peace with those from ‘all faiths’ while promoting war with Muslim Iran.
Trade fairs have been showcasing the opportunities of business with Israel while low ranking officials have been travelling to Tel Aviv to meet Israeli politicians and business personalities.
Israel, which has welcomed the sectarian turn taken in the war in Syria, has been keen to present this ‘rapprochement’ as a willingness by Sunni Muslims to engage with the Jewish state as if Saudi Arabia was a spokesperson for Sunni Islam.
Primarily aimed at Western audiences regularly spoon-fed anti-Iran propaganda, the subliminal message is that today Sunni Muslims want peace while Shia Iran doesn’t.
Saudi Arabia of course does not speak for Sunni Muslims and Iran’s stance on Israel is the one greatly admired across much of the Muslim world. However, with Israel being reliant on propaganda, facts become almost irrelevant.
Furthermore, it’s fair to note that much of the sectarian discourse promoted by Saudi Arabia around the issue of Syria has worked in parts of the Sunni world. Oblivious to the betrayal of all Arab and Muslim causes by Saudi Arabia, it appears that some across the Muslim world still view Iran as the greatest threat to the Middle East despite the fact it has not started a war in over 150 years and even opposed the war on Iraq in 2003 when it had valid reasons to support the ousting of Saddam Hussein who had launched a war against Tehran in 1980.
Given this context the sectarian narrative that has dominated Middle Eastern news over the past decade makes sense. Imagine a united Muslim world that would speak with one voice in defence of Palestine or against unnecessary conflicts? Imagine an Arab-Iran alliance in which wealth and knowhow could be brought together for the greater good of the entire region? Whether in Palestine or in Kashmir, a united Muslim front would present a force to be reckoned with. Instead Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have erected a barrier to any attempts to unite the Ummah and shelter it from further aggression.
Benefits of sectarianism
It is obvious why the sectarianism that has blighted the region serves the sole purpose of maintaining the fractures in the region by which Israel and imperialist nations control and dominate it. Ironically however it is this very sectarian discourse that will inevitably lead to Saudi Arabia’s inevitable demise.
History has shown that Western powers don’t have friends but interests. This is all the more obvious for a region seen as ‘alien’, if not ‘enemy’, for over 1400 years. With this in mind it is hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia and its royal family, like many former allies in the past, will face the West’s wrath sooner or later. Already we see regular denigrating campaigns against the working conditions of migrant workers, women, homosexuals etc…which Saudi money promptly engages to rectify through costly PR campaigns. This gives Western powers the opportunity to ‘rock’ Saudi Arabia’s boat reminding it where it stands and how dependent it is on Western beneficence. It also allows Western governments to milk the Saudi cow whenever it sees fit. US President Trump famously said that getting Saudi to hand over money was like getting rent, thus humiliating the Saudi rulers all the while obtaining more funds from them which Washington in turn passes on to Israel in the form of a $4bn annual grant.
All this is has made Saudi hugely unpopular across many parts of the Muslim world. The Kingdom is now one of the most despised countries, not just among Westerners who still view it as backward and barbaric, but by millions across the Muslim world who consider it sold out and craven to US’ interests. Saudi has therefore to pay for its friends and can no longer rely on Islamic and Arab solidarity.
Ironically, in promoting a viciously anti-Shia discourse over the war in Syria, Saudi has rallied many Shia Muslims in support of Iran. Should Iran be attacked it would be easy to imagine Shia Muslims from Lebanon, Syria but also Pakistan or beyond to travel in support of their Shia Muslim brothers. When Saudi is finally earmarked for regime change, it’s fair to say that very few if any Sunnis would take it upon themselves to defend what is now seen as one of the most morally bankrupt and corrupt monarchies in the world.
Saudi sectarianism has at least served a purpose – the hardening of support for one Islamic Republic: Iran.
Hafsa Kara-Mustapha is a journalist, political analyst and commentator with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa. She has worked for the FT group and Reuters and her work has been published in the Middle East magazine, Jane’s Foreign report and a host of international publications. A regular pundit on TV and radio, Hafsa can regularly be seen on RT and Press TV.