Saudi Arabia and the expansion of the Middle Eastern Civil War
The nature, but probably not yet the full extent, of the quagmire that is the Middle Eastern civil war into which New Zealand has chosen to leap, is fast becoming apparent. The public were told it was a simple matter of us helping the good guys, a coalition of valiant allies assembled by the USA, against the bad guys, a self-declared independent, psychotic Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS) composed of Sunni fanatics, who posed a threat to even the furthest corners of the world.
New Zealand was going to help train the good guys, in this instance, troops belonging to the Shia majority government of Iraq, to enable them to reclaim the territories that ISIS had wrested at gunpoint from their control. It was always going to be a bit more complicated than that. However, with the outbreak of war against the tribesmen of the Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, the whole battle-field has expanded, taken on a new degree of complexity and could well expand further. Here are some maps to help you understand this situation.
This map, though useful, may give a false impression, as it deals in distribution of sects by national boundaries – it fails to make any differentiation within countries. In fact, the concentrations of each sect within each country can be extremely significant. In Iraq for instance, the south of the country, which contains most of the oil, would be 75-100% Shia and the north only 10-25%. A thin strip of Saudi Arabia’s eastern seaboard (where the oil fields are) is overwhelmingly Shia, as too, are some of the provinces bordering on the Yemen, but on this map, these heavy and significant concentrations of Shia are diluted to show the whole country at less than 10%. Though the Yemen is marked as 25-50% Shia, that population is heavily concentrated in the populous western provinces. Note too that not all the areas marked as having less than 10% Shia have the balance made up by Sunni – for instance Oman is predominantly Ibadhi, a moderate Muslim sect, which is neither Sunni nor Shia.
This map makes no distinction between Islamic sects. In all the areas marked green, the overwhelming majority of the population adhere to one of the multiple different sects and schools of Islam. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_schools_and_branches Like the entry wound of a US bullet, fired at the Islamic heart, the red strip is Jewish Israel and occupied Palestine (even though approximately half its population is Muslim.) For some reason the boundary between the southern tip of Saudi Arabia (with its hugely dispersed, wealthy population of 29 million) and Yemen (with its more concentrated, impoverished, population of 24 million,) is not marked on this map.
The Muslim nations now becoming embroiled in the newly expanded Shia v. Sunni civil war are: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq (including the Kurdish north) Syria, the Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Northern Sudan, Somalia, the Yemen, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan. The only potentially significant player that has kept out of the conflict is the sensibly governed, Muscat & Oman. Its Ibadhi head of state, Sultan Qaboos,graduated from the two year course at RMA Sandhurst in 1962 (a year after the writer.) It is Oman that has the potential to act as a mediator between the two sides. The main, non-Muslim dramatis personae are Russia, Israel, the USA, Canada, the UK, France, a smattering of other NATO members, Australia and now, Johnny-come-lately, New Zealand.
As this is a blog and not a book, I will attempt to analyse the situation from one aspect only – that of Saudi Arabia. I will leave Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars and the creation of ISIS as well as its fast developing involvement in the Yemen, to a separate blog. What follows is just background that would be essential to the NZ Government’s analysis of the evolving situation.
Saudi Arabia, as the guardian of the twin cities of Mecca (to which all of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, of whatever sect, aspire to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives) and Medina, regards itself as the heartland of Islam. 10%-15% of its population is Shia and the remainder adhere to the puritan Sunni Salafi sect. The country is a theocracy (the sentence for converting from Islam to another religion is death.) On a traditional, medieval, basis, the country is owned, as well as ruled, by the authoritarian House of Saud, a vastly extended (thousands of ‘em) and extractive royal family of immense wealth. Their legitimacy is based on their willingness to appease the clerical establishment who are the devotees and propagators of an extreme puritanical Sunni version of Islam. Given the rather un-puritanical tastes and habits of the royal family, this appeasement involves a delicate balancing act. A fun indicator of the sort of regime that rules the Kingdom is contained in this article about a fairy princess. https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2015/04/saudi-princess-maha-paris-shopping-scandal
The Kingdom’s (aka Royal Family’s) wealth is drawn from its oil reserves. However, Allah did nothing for the House of Saud’s peace of mind when he arranged that the oil wells should be situated primarily in the small area of the Kingdom that is inhabited by the despised and detested Shia.
It is a dangerous neighbourhood that the Saudi royal family live in. Militarily weak and possessed of vast wealth that attracts multiple green eyes, they can be excused for feeling vulnerable. Until very recently (2013?) the bedrock of their security has been their understanding with the USA, by way of the Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation and the Technical Cooperation Agreement (TCA.) This agreement was negotiated by Kissinger and Nixon in 1974 at the end of the Arab oil embargo on the western world, which had been imposed in protest of its support of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. For a detailed and witty, explanation of the event https://28sherman.blogspot.co.nz/2013/10/kissinger-saudis-and-birthing.html
In return for the Saudis, as the world’s major oil producer, agreeing that they would accept no currency other than dollars for their oil, the Americans guaranteed the Saudi royal family’s protection and their continued occupation of the throne. The key component of the agreement was that the vast proportion of the ’petrodollars’ earned from heightened oil revenues would be invested or spent in the USA. (Sundry authors would allege that the subsequent enormous arms purchases by the Saudis, allowed sufficient slush at the margins to fund much of the CIA’s budget for ‘black’ operations away from Congressional oversight.) https://whowhatwhy.org/2014/12/12/cia-funding-never-constrained-congressional-budget/ The security offered by this agreement was an essential contributor to Nixon’s being able to take the US dollar off the gold standard: oil and guaranteed access to Saudi oil revenues, having every bit as much credibility in the market-place as had gold.
Since the 1974 TCA, the situation has changed. For Saudi Arabia the most significant change has been the 1979 overthrow of the USA’s puppet Shah of Iran and his replacement by an anti-American Shia theocracy. By definition, the new regime would be opposed to a Sunni theocracy and American puppet/protectorate on the opposite side of the Arabian Gulf. With a Shia population of over 75 million, whose co-religionists also formed majorities in the island of Bahrain and in the main Saudi oil-fields, Iran posed a paranoia-inducing threat.
The one consolation for the Saudis was that the USA was as eager as they were to overturn the revolutionary government in Tehran. Defence cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the USA was heightened. The relationship between the CIA and the Saudi intelligence service (GIP – General Intelligence Presidency) already a close ally (Kamal Adham, at that time, head of the GIP, having played a leading role in persuading Anwar Sadat to expel his Russian advisors from Egypt in 1971) became even closer.
When, in 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran at US instigation, it was Saudi Arabia that provided the lion’s share of the funding. To Saudi and American dismay, when the prolonged and bloody war finally drew to a close in 1988, (again to Saudi and American dismay) it was the Iranians who emerged victorious – and now in possession of the most formidable and battle-hardened army in the Middle East.
The Russian occupation of Afghanistan, running in parallel with the Iraq-Iran war, lasted from 1979 to 1988. To help it in its attempt to bring about a ‘Russian Vietnam,’ the USA drew heavily on Saudi financial and theological support, which was to lead to the formation of al Qaeda. The Saudis took full advantage of their entrée into the Afghan campaign to further their campaign against Iran by heavily funding the promotion of Sunni fundamentalism in both Afghanistan and Pakistan on Iran’s eastern frontier. (In the past week, alone, one of the Saudi-funded fundamentalist groups in Pakistan, murdered 11 Iranian border guards.)
In 1990, feeling assured by the American Ambassador’s Delphic utterances, that the USA, his ally in the war against Iran, would turn a blind eye to an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saddam invaded and annexed his neighbour. Whether or not Saddam was deliberately set up is a matter of some debate. Whatever the truth, the USA came to the rescue of the Saudis, who were terrified that they were to be the next nation to fall to Saddam’s army. Western armed forces rushed to Saudi Arabia’s side and in Desert Storm, resoundingly defeated Saddam’s army and drove it back to its own boundaries.
An important consequence of this conflict with Iraq, was the rise of AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.) When Osama bin Laden and his Mujahideen fighters against the Russians returned to Saudi Arabia from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, their ideological enthusiasm placed them at odds with the Saudi royal family. Osama objected strongly to the presence of infidel troops being stationed in the Islamic homeland. Though a prominent member of the Saudi elite, he made himself so objectionable that in 1991, he had to be banished from the Kingdom.
Initially he sought refuge in Sudan, prior to moving back to Afghanistan to establish his notorious training camps in that country. From there, in the late 1990s, his organisation started to appear on the radar as a threat to Western security.
In the meantime the Saudi’s had neither forgotten nor forgiven the fifty or so Scud rockets Saddam had fired at Riyadh during his occupation for Kuwait. In their eyes he was a rogue Sunni, who represented a danger that had to be removed. Influential elements within the USA and in Israel held similar views. There is a vast amount of (admittedly contested) evidence that Saudi Arabia cooperated with players within both US and Israeli agencies in engineering the 9/11 attacks in 2001, thereby helping to justify the 2003 American invasion and regime change in Iraq. It could be that the censored mid-section of the 9/11 Commission’s report, relates to this Saudi involvement. https://www.infowars.com/declassify-campaign-to-reveal-the-28-censored-pages-of-the-911-commission-report/ For more on this read the New Yorker Sept 2014 article https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/twenty-eight-pages My personal preference veers towards the second explanation – that it is most likely that the censored pages protect George Bush and family from scandal, rather than reveal anything new about who organised 9/11. The commission report seems to have been a masterly evasion of the true facts and there is no reason to suppose that the missing 28 pages deviated from the plan and were the depository of key information.
Prince Bandar, Saudi ambassador to the USA at the time of 9/11 and later to become head of the GIP, with responsibility for regime change in Syria, was so close to Bush Junior that his common nickname was Bandar Bush. Most of the hijackers were Saudi citizens and there are reports of collaboration between State Department and Saudi officials in obtaining their visas. If the above claims are true, it can be assumed that all parties involved have so much dirt on the others that each can act on their own agendas with impunity in the knowledge that no one in the know, dare say anything, lest they say something too.
In 2003, the al Qaeda followers in Saudi Arabia started an assassination campaign aimed at expatriate infidels working in the Kingdom. This was effectively suppressed by the GIP and CIA, working in tandem. Those al Qaeda members, who were arrested, appear to have been put in relatively comfortable ‘rehabilitation centres,’ in which they could be kept on ice, prior to being reinserted into future Saudi/US campaigns such as those against Gadhafi in Libya and Al Assad in Syria. Those, who escaped arrest, fled south into the Yemen, where in 2009, they formed AQAP, (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) which has subsequently become the most active of the several al Qaeda franchises threatening terrorism against the West.
Though in recent centuries the Persians/Iranians have never invaded any of their neighbours, Saudi paranoia increased dramatically as a consequence of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. The USA entered the Iraqi war on the grounds that Saddam’s enemies were their friends. They therefore consciously allied themselves with the Shia majority against the Sunni minority, who had been the main beneficiaries (if there were any) of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime.
By 2006-7, and long after both the Israelis and Saudis had started to express their alarm, it finally had also dawned on the Americans that Iraq would end up, after any American withdrawal, with a predominantly Shia oriented regime. This would look to Iran, rather than to America, for its protection.
A heightened cause for Saudi and Israeli anxiety was yet another Shia power, Syria, on Iraq’s north western border. There, President Assad’s secular, but mainly Alawite (Shia sect) regime, was well-established in power and strongly bolstered by both Iranian and Russian military and economic support.
Saudi and Israeli unease was added to by Syria’s immediate neighbour to its west. Lebanon had been an integral part of Syria, until seized by France at the end of WWI (France was forced to withdraw at the end of WWII.) Lebanon has a substantial Shia population, which depends for its self-defence, against repeated Israeli incursions, on its Hezbollah militia. Hezbollah dominate the Lebanese political scene and is the only Arab force to have defeated the Israelis in battle and to stand between Israel and its much coveted access to the freshwater in the Litani River. Hezbollah’s Iranian sourced weapons and support enter Lebanon via Iran’s Syrian ally.
With this “Shia crescent” stretching from the Straits of Hormuz to their East, and to the Mediterranean coast in the North, the Saudis were beginning to feel hemmed in.
While still battling predominantly Sunni terrorism in Iraq, America nevertheless decided on a ‘redirection’ of its Middle East policy: from now on, it would do what it could to limit the growth in Shia influence. The decision to ‘redirection’ its Middle East policy, started to be implemented in 2006, during which year the USA suddenly tightened the economic sanctions against Iran, which it had imposed in 1979, after the Shah’s overthrow.
In my eyes Seymour Hersh https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/seymour-m-hersh is the investigative journalist with the best sources inside the American foreign policy apparatus. Here is his lengthy summary of America’s ‘redirection. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/03/05/the-redirection (As an aside: Hersh can no longer get his articles published in the New Yorker. He has had to resort to posting his articles in the far less influential London Review of Books. His writings can contain dynamite as far as the US establishment is concerned.)
2007 was significant for another major dawning of awareness – this time by the Americans in regard to the Russians. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlY5aZfOgPA
The foreign policy wonks in Washington had been debating for some time whether Putin would succumb to the logic of the USA’s triumph in the Cold War. Would the Russians accept their new status as part of the American empire, or would they insist on maintaining the Russian Federation’s independence of action? This speech gave the answer. Russia would remain an independent and a potentially rival pole of global authority. (The speech is worth watching in that it makes one question which of the world’s leaders has the greater interest in the rule of international law on which small nations, like New Zealand, depend for their security.)
Hersh’s article on the ‘redirection’ was published in March 2007, just a month after Putin’s speech. Putin’s coming out would have added urgency to the decision by agencies of the US government (and its UK ally) that steps should be initiated to eliminate the Russians from their base in Syria and that there should be regime change in Damascus. Saudi Arabia and Israel would be only too happy to go along with the project.
There are thus four main phases of Saudi Foreign policy, all of which are heavily tied into American foreign policy. There is the pre-1974 period, during which the USA became increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern oil supplies. This was followed by the 1974 TCB establishing Saudi Arabia as a US protectorate and the petrodollar regime under which US global economic power has been able to develop to its present position. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, Saudi became ever more dependent on the USA for it security. For a period, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Saudi Arabia started to worry about the USA’s commitment to keeping Iran in its box, but those worries decreased as soon the USA embarked on its ‘redirection’ in 2006.
The period since the ‘redirection’, which has seen immense turmoil in the Middle East, will be the subject of the next blog. Over this period, Libya, Syria and Somalia have been destroyed and Iraq dismembered. The verdict is still out on Afghanistan. Pakistan is struggling to hold itself together. After a brief interlude, Egypt has returned to military rule (but now has a Saudi master) the Yemen has failed and looks as though it is on the point of destruction. This is at the hands of the new pan-Sunni alliance against the Al-Houthis (who are not international terrorists) and to the huge advantage of their enemies, AQAP, al-Qaeda’s local franchise, who most certainly are.
This new Sunni alliance has sprung up in the wake of yet another US change of policy direction. Just as the whole region was witnessing a burgeoning of fundamentalist terrorist groups, sometime during 2013, the Obama administration decided to bring Iran back into the fold and to disengage militarily from the Middle East. In so doing, it appears to have injected steroids into the fundamentalist groups.
At our allies’ request, New Zealand is now preparing to help them combat the Frankensteins of their own creation. In the immortal words of Mr Key, New Zealand does not “… shy away from taking our share of the burden when the international rules-based system is threatened.” Put another way, New Zealand looks as though it is about to add its own contribution to the further destruction of civilised life in the Middle East.
If you need to burrow deeper into who believes what where – this is the map for you. Saudi Arabia’s main oil fields are in the middle of the patch of Shia green on its East Coast.