For 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 are 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 Pakistani 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 mosque of Mecca.
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 “Ummah.” 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 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.
The writer is a journalist based in India