Hugh Fitzgerald: Saudi Arabia and Iran, Or, What’s to Come is Still Unsure


When the State Department issued its annual report on religious freedom around the world last August, Saudi Arabia, to judge by the language of the report, vied with North Korea as the worst offender. The Saudis, Rex Tillerson said, ought to “embrace greater degrees of religious freedom for all of its citizens.” He cited criminal penalties — but did not explain that for some of those “crimes” the penalty is death — for apostasy, atheism, blasphemy, and insulting the Saudi state’s interpretation of Islam.

Nor did he mention the ferocious if intermittent domestic warfare now being conducted against pockets of Shi’a resistance to the Saudi Wahhabis, that receives so little attention, though he might have easily seen online videos of the complete flattening of the Musawara district, with its 400-year old buildings, in the Shi’a town of Awamiya, which can be seen here. The town has always been seen as a center of Shi’a opposition to the Sunni Saudis, and when the Saudis began in May to seek out the ringleaders, the Shi’a as a whole resisted. The Saudi military in response simply destroyed the entire town. The government continues to treat its Shi’a minority — some 2-3 million people — as if all are potential terrorists, denies them any freedom of expression or freedom of assembly, and subjects them to sustained persecution. Wahhabis do not regard the Shi’a as true Muslims, and they are treated accordingly.

While limits on the religious freedom of foreigners was mentioned in the annual report, the State Department did not go into the details of how, in Saudi Arabia, the public observation of Christian worship is strictly forbidden and severely punished. Some foreign workers have been allowed to worship privately, but even that exception is not always observed. A few years ago, four Korean women were singing Christmas carols softly in their rooms, far from any Muslims. The matawain, or religious police, who are always on the prowl, overheard them, hauled them away, and they were promptly deported for their caroling sins. They may have been lucky; the usual punishment for singing carols is 1000 lashes, which can prove fatal for some. And before there were the Korean women, there were British nurses, also caught celebrating Christmas behind doors. And that 1000 lashes is also the punishment prescribed for anyone, Saudi or foreigner, wishing anyone in public Merry Christmas in the thoroughly  Islamic state of Saudi Arabia.

Nor did the State Department report take up the perennial problem of Saudi textbooks which preach hatred of Christians and Jews, about which discussion has been going on for more than a decade, with the Saudis constantly reassuring the Americans that they are making all the necessary changes. In fact, those textbooks continue to include lessons describing the Jews “as the sons of apes and pigs,” and of Infidels as the “most vile” of creatures (which is just a quote from Qur’an 98:6, though the State Department may not realize it). It has always been State Department policy to work quietly with the Saudis on this textbook matter. But more than a decade of unhappy experience with suave Saudi assurances of changes that are always just about to be made, but somehow never are, or where the changes made are so slight as to be only cosmetic, make clear that only a public discussion of these textbooks, holding their contents up to widespread public view, and shaming the Saudis in Western (though not of course Muslim) eyes, might have some effect.

Meanwhile, in official Washington Saudi Arabia is still considered a “friend and ally.” Even though it persecutes millions of Christians among its foreign workforce, severely limiting them in the observance of their faith, seizing Bibles and crucifixes (though a single Bible for personal use, not proselytizing, may be allowed), teaches hatred of Jews and Christians in its schools, and continues to spread Salafi Islam, with gigantic sums being spent by Saudi petrocrats on Salafi-leaning mosques, madrasas, and imams all over the Muslim world. It is in fact by far the largest propaganda campaign in the history of the world. During the reign of King Fadh (1982 to 2005) alone, over $75 billion was spent in efforts to spread Wahhabi Islam. The money was used to established 200 Islamic colleges, 210 Islamic centers, 1500 mosques, and 2000 schools for Muslim children in Muslim and non-Muslim majority countries. The schools were “fundamentalist” in outlook and formed a network “from Sudan to northern Pakistan.” The late king also launched a publishing center in Medina that by 2000 had distributed 138 million copies of the Quran. If we include the periods both before (from 1973 to 1982) and after King Fahd’s reign (2005-2017), about $125 billion has been spent by the Saudis to spread Salafism.

It is true that the Saudis, who for years supported the Muslim Brotherhood, now oppose both it and its main financial supporter Qatar, because of the disturbing closeness, as the Saudis see it, of both the Brotherhood and Qatar to Iran. The Saudis were also alarmed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s overthrow of Mubarak and recognized that they might similarly constitute a popular threat to the Saudi royals. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood is linked in many minds with pan-Arabism or even with a single pan-Islamic state. In either case, if the Muslim Brotherhood were to succeed, the Saudis worry that their country would be enfolded into a much larger political structure. The vast sums from oil the Saudis now receive, and that the royal family battens on, would then be shared by all the Muslims in this pan-Islamic state. And that notion horrifies the Saudis. They were shaken by how rapidly the Muslim Brotherhood took over Egypt and put Mohamed Morsi in power, and did the same in Tunisia during the “Arab Spring.” Though the MB was beaten back in both cases, its members remain a threat. And that is why the Saudis are so adamant in their demands that Qatar cease all support for the Brotherhood, and that it shut down Al Jazeera, which expresses the Muslim Brotherhood point of view.

Saudi Arabia is neither a friend nor ally of the United States, notwithstanding a long history of Americans being convinced that it has been both, from the moment when FDR met with Ibn Saud on the navy cruiser Quincy, to Saudi Arabia supposedly doing us economic favors — it never did — in OPEC pricing (we paid exactly the same as any other customer did for Saudi oil), and from that moment, all the way up to Obama and his awkward bow of seeming obeisance to the Saudi king, and Trump’s bouncing up and down as he participated in a “Sword Dance” with Saudi royals, many Americans still think of Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally. At the moment, there is one point of agreement: Saudi fear and hatred of Shi’a Iran accords nicely with our own hostility to the Islamic Republic of Iran. But that is merely a coincidence of interests, not a true friendship. Were the Iranian protesters to succeed, and to overthrow the ayatollahs and mullahs, and to replace them with a return to the secularism of Shah Reza Pahlavi, the Saudis might stop fearing Iran, and no longer feel that they needed American support.

We can do nothing to stop the Saudis from bombing civilians indiscriminately in Yemen, where the war has gone on for three years, nor keep them from helping to suppress the Shi’a subjects of the Sunni ruler in Bahrain, nor should we even try. The more aggressive the Saudi behavior against the Shi’a in Yemen or Bahrain, the more deeply angry Iran will become. And aside from sending aid to the Houthis in Yemen, as they have done, why wouldn’t the Iranians want to stir up trouble for the Saudis among their Shi’a coreligionists in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia? That’s the province where almost all of the Shi’a in Saudi Arabia — some 2-3 million — live; it is also the province where all the Saudi oil comes from. Because of that oil, the Saudis will do everything they can to hold onto that province. It’s entirely possible that the Iranians will provide the Shi’a in the Eastern Province with arms, and trainers, and even “volunteers.” But this is not a province the Saudis can afford to lose — it contains all of their wealth. If they deem it necessary, the Saudis could certainly transfer the local Shi’a population, moving it either deeper into Saudi Arabia, entirely away from the oil-bearing region in the east that the Iranians could reach by sea, or could even, if they acted quickly and forcefully, push the Shi’a out of Saudi Arabia altogether, transporting them over the border into Iraq on the grounds that they constitute a Shi’a “fifth column” that is being whipped up by Iran. Could Saudi Arabia behave that ruthlessly with its own citizen-subjects? Why, of course it could. This is the Middle East.

But before the Saudis could complete this large-scale transfer of the Shi’a population, isn’t it likely that Iran would step in, as a Defender of the World’s Shia, and take on the Saudi military, who are greatly outnumbered by Iran’s battle-hardened forces, and likely to be bested unless, of course, Sunni volunteers from elsewhere — Egyptians, Jordanians, Pakistanis — handsomely paid by the Saudis, enter the fray. Should the West worry about any of this? Not at all. It would be like the eight-year Iran-Iraq War which, from the West’s point of view, ought to have gone on forever. That war not only used up men, materiel, and money of both Iran and Iraq, but fully preoccupied two aggressive Muslim states that otherwise might have turned their aggression against the West. It would be the same situation now. The more Sunnis and Shi’a go at it, the more each side expends in men, materiel, money, and morale, in fighting with each other in many different theaters — Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, possibly the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan (where Sunni terrorists of Sipah-e-Sahaba target for murder the Shia whom they regard as Infidels), Afghanistan (where the Taliban and ISIS have both carried out attacks on the Shia Hazara, also seen as Infidels) — the less trouble they can make for us, the Infidels. The “proxy war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is now going on will be even more useful to the West if it widens to include direct conflict between Saudi and Iranian forces. Given the balance of power in the area — the Saudis and Iran are evenly matched — such a conflict, both direct and through proxies, would likely go on for at least as long as did the Iran-Iraq war. Perhaps there is some downside for us, the world’s Infidels, in such an outcome, but I cannot imagine what it might be.

The Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and the Shi’a of Iran are commanded in the Qur’an (5:51) not to  “take Christians or Jews” as their friends, for “they are friends only with each other.” But that doesn’t mean they cannot make temporary alliances of convenience with Infidels, as long as they understand no real friendship is permitted. Right now Iran is the bigger immediate threat, because of its nuclear program, and its support for Hezbollah and other proxies, to American interests. This means that for now we should favor Saudi Arabia, even while we remain keenly aware that that country’s spending $125 billion on spreading Salafism makes it, in the long term, a much more dangerous ideological enemy than Shi’a Iran. Given that only 10-15% of the world’s Muslims are Shi’a, Iran’s ideological appeal will always be limited. By “favoring” Saudi Arabia, I mean sharing intelligence with the Saudis, encouraging the Israelis to do the same. and supplying the Saudi military with high-tech weaponry that they may request. A policy of favoring Saudi Arabia is not set in stone; it could change in the unlikely case that under pressure from domestic protesters, the ayatollahs were to modify their despotism, cease their support for Hezbollah, and cease their whipping-up of hatred toward the “Great Satan.” That’s most unlikely, but not impossible were there to be a change in rulers in Tehran, from the hard-liners to others, distinctly more liberal.

The sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi’a goes back to the first century of Islam. It has waxed and waned over 1400 years. Now, when an aggressive Islam, with tens of millions of its adherents having been negligently allowed into our Infidel midst, presents a greater threat to the West than at any time since Charles Martel threw back the Muslim invaders at Poitiers in 732, we need to identify the pre-existing fissures within Islam and, where possible, exploit them. The three most important divisions within the Camp of Islam are those of sect (Sunni and Shi’a), of ethnicity (Arab and non-Arab Muslims), and of wealth (the stark contrast between oil-rich Muslim states, and those without that oil-revenue bonanza) — and where possible, to discreetly promote or widen those fissures.

That Sunni-Shi’a fissure has recently been dramatically in evidence. The latest chapter in this long-running conflict began in 1980 with the Iran-Iraq War, in which the Sunni-run state, and Sunni-officered army, of Iraq, fought Shi’a Iran to a standstill, during eight years of war in which both sides lost men, money, and materiel, and expended their aggressive energies in fighting each other. That conflict continues within Muslim states: in Afghanistan, where the Uber-Sunni Taliban massacred the Shi’a Hazara; in Pakistan, where Sipah-e-Sahaba, a Sunni terrorist group, has attacked Shi’a mosques, madrasas, and professionals; in Lebanon, where the Shi’a terrorist group Hezbollah has managed to militarily dominate the Sunnis and Christians; in Syria, where the Alawite President Assad, seen by Sunnis as a Shi’ite, has received critical support from the Shi’a fighters of both Hezbollah and Iran. Finally, the most important Shi’a-Sunni conflict right now is the proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia, supporting local Sunnis, and Iran, which supports its fellow Shi’a in Yemen, the Houthi rebels. Ferocious bombing campaigns by the Saudis have not dislodged the Houthi fighters from San’a, and still worse from the Saudi point of view, the Houthis have managed to lob a series of Iranian-supplied missiles Riyadh-wards, though apparently none have caused damage.

Saudi Arabia may need to send ground forces  into Yemen to root out the Houthis, as the extensive bombing campaign has not worked. Ideally, other Sunni states — Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan — could send “volunteers” paid handsomely by the Saudis, to help fight the Houthis in Yemen, while Hezbollah might fly in, on Iranian planes,  its own brigades of Shi’a bezonians to help the Houthis. Such a conflict, ever widening, offers the best hope at present for dividing the Camp of Islam, but the West should neither take sides nor do anything that might tamp down the conflict. We can watch contentedly while the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and the Shi’a of Iran wear each other down in Yemen — they are well-matched militarily, which means the conflict will likely last a long time, and ideally might even spread to the Shi’a-populated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where protestors’ demands for an end to discrimination against them could develop into an uprising against the Saudi state. Possibly Iran would see this as a chance to  supply their coreligionists in eastern Saudi Arabia with weapons, as it does the Houthis in Yemen.

Such scenarios are perfectly plausible. But even if the war fought with proxies does not widen, but remains as it is today, that is already enough to keep both Iran and Saudi Arabia busy. That  conflict buys the Western world time to educate itself about Islam, to better understand the meaning, and menace, of Islam, and to grasp why and how the internal divisions within the Camp of Islam need to be identified and encouraged. Early on in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran we were confronted with the sheer malevolence of that country’s clerical rulers toward non-Muslims. There were killings of leaders of the Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i communities, prologue to the continuing persecution of the Jews, Christians, and Baha’is remaining in Iran. The American embassy was seized and dozens of American diplomats held agonizingly for 444 days. There were, and still are, mass demonstrations organized by the government against America as the Great Satan.

Saudi Arabia is less obviously hostile to us than Iran. No threats have been made by the Saudis, not even over Trump’s embassy move. In fact, the Saudi government not only banned all demonstrations against the United States in the Kingdom but warned its citizens in Jordan not to join in any anti-U.S. demonstrations there. No mass demonstrations against us of any kind have  been held in the Kingdom. Israel’s army chief of staff, General Gadi Eisenkot, last November declared his country’s willingness to share intelligence about Iran with Saudi Arabia, which was taken as a sign of Saudi moderation, suggesting it may be willing to cooperate with Israel against a common enemy. It is obliquely suggested that Saudi Arabia is willing to enter into an informal alliance with the country the Iranians denounce as “the little Satan” and threaten to wipe out. Even if, at this point, it is more important to deal with an aggressive Iran, and its proxies such as Hezbollah and the Houthis, we should not forget that after more than 15 years of complaints by the American government and NGOs, and constant promises by the Saudis to get rid of the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish passages in their textbooks, there are still many left in place. In an 8th grade textbook in use today in Saudi schools, for example, we find pupils being  indoctrinated with this: “The Apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews; and the Swine are the infidels of the communion of Jesus, the Christians.” There are many more passages of similar hideousness. Why have they not been excised? Why do the Saudis keep promising to change their textbooks, but most of the offending passages still remain, year after year? And even if the Saudis, unlike the Iranians, do not denounce the Great Satan, they continue to promote Salafist preachers, to pay for the building and maintenance of Salafist mosques and madrasas around the world, to spread Salafist propaganda through every possible medium, in print, on radio and television, and online. And that, in the end, is more dangerous to us, the world’s Infidels, than anything the Islamic Republic of Iran has done so far.

Nonetheless, and while not forgetting those disturbing Saudi textbooks, we should for now favor Saudi Arabia over Iran. That means sharing intelligence with the Saudis about Iran, and allowing Riyadh access to advanced American weapons. But it would be a mistake to regard the Kingdom as a permanent ally, despite the smiles and wiles of its rulers, and especially  the charm offensive of the young, mediagenic Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Salman, with his much-ballyhooed plans for economic development ($650 billion for three new cities) and social liberalization (including movies and women drivers). Right now the Saudis need us in their epic struggle with Iran. But that struggle won’t last forever. And in the end we remain Kuffar, Unbelievers, Infidels, in the view of both the Saudi rulers whom we used to regard, wrongly, as our “friends and allies,” and the unappealing ayatollahs perched unsteadily on their eyries in Tehran.

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