Hugh Fitzgerald: Saudi Arabia and the Kurdish Referendum


Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia sounded as if it supported the Kurdish referendum on an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. But a week before the referendum was held, on September  25, the Saudis publicly offered a new view, declaring their opposition.

A Saudi government official said Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Iraqi Kurds, should drop plans to hold the referendum “in light of the situation in the region and the dangers it is facing, and in order to avoid new crises.” Holding the referendum as planned on September 25 could have “negative consequences on the political, security and humanitarian fronts.”

It could also “affect efforts to establish security and stability in the region, as well as efforts to fight against terrorist organizations and their activities,” the Saudi official added.

The referendum was held, though no country, with the lone exception of Israel, supported it publicly. And the result was predictable, and heartening: 93% voted for an independent Kurdistan.

But one wonders if the Saudis really did experience a change of heart, or was it simply that they did not want to stand out from the other members of the Arab League or, for that matter, to be seen not just supporting n the Kurds, but as in cahoots with the Iraqi Kurds’ sole state supporter, Israel.

Do the Saudis really want to prevent an independent Kurdistan?

What might be their reasons for doing, or not doing, so?

In the first place, they may want to express solidarity with Iraq, as a fellow Arab state. But the Arabs in Iraq are not quite as wonderful as the Wahhabis would wish them to be. The Iraqi Arabs turn out, by a ratio of three to one, to be Shi’a, rather than Sunnis. In the Wahhabi world-view, the Shi’a are practically Infidels. In the new, somewhat improved Iraq, real purple-thumbed elections have been held, and that means that in Baghdad, the Shi’a prevail, as in Saddam’s time it was the Sunni Arabs, especially those from his hometown of Tikrit, who did so. Support for the Iraqi government and against the Kurds (who are overwhelmingly Sunni) could end up helping the Shi’a rulers of Iraq and their ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Under Saddam’s rule, things were simpler. The Saudis feared and hated Saddam, hated him not for massacring the Kurds — they were indifferent, like all the Arabs, to that mistreatment of non-Arabs — nor for being a despot (what are the Al-Saud but an extended family of despots?), but for attempting to seize and incorporate Kuwait into Iraq in 1991. This scared the Saudis, who wondered if they would be next. Fortunately for them, the Americans intervened and sent the Iraqis packing, in that hundred-day Gulf War. But in those days, at least the Saudis could count on the Sunnis ruling Iraq and keeping the Shi’a down. Democratically, of course. In 1995, as some may recall, Saddam Hussein won reelection with  99.96% of the vote. Seven years later, he had apparently performed so well as president hat he won over the few remaining doubting thomases for, in an election without parallel in history, not only did 100% of the eligible voters take part, but 100% of those voters voted for Saddam Hussein. That was something the Saudis, who don’t bother with elections themselves, did not mind, because Saddam, instead of any more foreign adventurism, was now dedicated to the worthy cause of keeping the Shi’a in their place, and he had tens of thousands of victims to prove it.

Is it possible that the Saudis really did wish, despite their public opposition,  the Kurdish referendum to take place?

Here are some of the reasons why they might have done so. In Iraq, an attempt by Kurds to carve out an independent state would make it harder for the Iraqi government, and its dominant Shi’a, to make trouble, in collaboration with their coreligionists in Iran, for the Saudis. Such trouble might include fomenting unrest among the Shia in the oil-producing Eastern Province of the Kingdom. Such unrest is not a theoretical threat; widespread anti-government demonstrations have happened before, in 2011. Fourteen Shi’a are still awaiting execution for their part in those mass demonstrations.

The Saudis already see themselves as besieged by Iranian plotters, who are propping up Assad in Syria, helping Hezbollah become masters of Lebanon, and aiding the Houthis in Yemen. Seeing themselves surrounded by the forces of aggressive Shi’ism, they might welcome the potential domestic threat posed by the Kurds in four countries Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Syria, Iraq, Iran  are now effectively run by Shi’a; Kurdish revolts could clip their wings. As for the fourth, Turkey is largely Sunni, but the Saudis have been infuriated by Erdogan’s taking Qatar’s side in its quarrel with the other Gulf states, and by his refusal to shut down the Turkish military base in Qatar. Furthermore, the Saudis, and other Arabs too, are not pleased with the neo-Ottoman posturings of Erdogan. The Wahhabis had direct experience of Ottoman imperialism (there was even, from 1811-1818, an Ottoman-Wahhabi war), and while relations with Turkey have generally been good, the Saudis don’t want any attempts by Turkey to re-impose its military presence, much less to attempt to dominate, in the Gulf. The Kurds in Anatolia, if inspired anew by the example of the Iraqi Kurds, could keep the Turks otherwise engaged, with no end in sight.

But the most important  reason for Saudi Arabia to wish not just for that Kurdish referendum, but for an independent Kurdish state carved out of northern Iraq, is the effect it would inevitably have in Iran, both directly on Iranian Kurds, and through them, on the three other main minority peoples, the Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs, all of whom have a history of insurrection against their Iranian overlords, and who might be similarly inspired by the Kurdish example in Iraq to renew their previous attempts at greater autonomy, or even for secession, from Tehran. Thus, the Azeris could hope to become part of an enlarged Azerbaijan (there are more Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan), the 1.8 million Baluchis in Iran could attempt to join the  more than 8 million of the world’s Baluchis who are just across the Iranian border in Pakistan and would welcome them as part of the Province of Baluchistan (Iran’s attempt to prevent this could possibly pit Pakistan against Iran), and the Arabs of Khuzestan, who have been in a state of unrest for nearly a century, might now, with Iran’s military spread thin overseas, possibly hope to secede in order to avoid what they describe as the “anti-Arab racism” and ceaseless repression of the Persians. Having a population of five million — Tehran hasn’t released any figures since 2002, when it dubiously claimed there were only 1.8 million ethnic Arabs — the Khuzestanian Arabs could aim for secession and independence, possibly joining, and being militarily supported by, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, that is, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman. Iran, of course, cannot possibly permit Khuzestan to secede, because it desperately needs those oilfields, and will do whatever it takes to hang onto them. Forcing Iran to keep a lid simultaneously on its unhappy Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs, who constitute 35-50% of Iran’s population, while it finds itself also having to continue its support to Assad, Hezbollah, and the Houthis, would be the most effective way to weaken Iran. So important is that goal to the Saudis, that it has even led, especially in intelligence matters, to a tacit understanding, and cooperation, with Israel.

The Saudis do not seek an open quarrel with Iraq or Turkey on the question of Kurdistan. They would gain nothing, and could only make enemies, by publicly coming out on the side of the Kurds. But they may take quiet satisfaction in the results of that referendum, and even more in the expressions of delight by Iranian Kurds that have been reported. And so should the American government, for when it comes to Iran, our mortal enemy, the Kurdish matter, question, problem, call it what you will, can be a gift that keeps on giving.

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