Well known, the narrow strictness of the Saudi order. On the one side the flogging of dissent, on the other the bombing of audacity. The penal arsenal of the Saudis mirrors that of the Islamic State – both resort to beheading and beating, to harsh treatment for their citizenry as the price of stability. What differentiates them is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a pillar of Western hegemony in West Asia and across what is inaccurately known as the “Muslim World.” ISIS is nothing of the sort; despite its territorial gains, it is seen merely as a terrorist cult.
Currently, Saudi Arabia’s main adventure is its bombing campaign against Yemen – the poorest Arab country. This war, known as Operation Decisive Storm (‘Asifat al-Hazm), began on March 25. It was immediately backed by the United States, which has also resupplied Saudi Arabia with weaponry during the bombing. Attempts to investigate the war in the UN have been stymied by US pressure. It is behaving toward Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen in the same way as it behaves when Israel bombs Gaza – sending arms, and blocking investigations. Yemen is not its only theatre. There is Syria and Egypt – in the one, Saudi Arabia backs a ruthless militia (Jaish al-Islam) and in the other, it funds the former military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Saudi Arabia is the pivot of everything that the Tahrir Square dynamic stands for – it is the essence of counter-revolution.
Defender of Islam
Confusion about the role of Saudi Arabia in the Western ledger of allies is mollified by the thought that it must be because of its role as oil supplier. But this is not enough. Saudi Arabia plays a central political role, greater than its role as petrol pump. In 1962, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Pakistan created the World Muslim League, Rabita al-Alam al-Islami (WML) and in 1969, they spearheaded the creation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The purpose of the WML and the OIC was to undermine the growth of secular Third World nationalism. In West Asia, Third World nationalism wore the clothes of Nasserism. It was a significant threat not only to the West, but also to monarchical authority.
In 1956, Gamel Abdel Nasser, hero of the Arabs, visited Saudi Arabia, where large crowds greeted him. His mantra was “Arab oil for the Arab people.” He came the year after Saudi troops at the Taif Air Base in the western mountains of the kingdom mutinied in the name of Nasser. The Saudis did what they always do – they beheaded the leaders. But this did not stop the wave of unrest. Before Nasser’s trip, officers at the Dhahran Air Base in the eastern part of the kingdom rose up – again to fail. But, simultaneously, fifteen thousand oil workers went on strike, buoyed by pro-Nasser slogans. The Saudis cracked head, beat people to death, and disappeared others. The man who had poked a finger at the West’s eye by taking control of the Suez Canal had become a serious threat to political order. He had also become a pillar of the new Third Worldism that was forged at a meeting in Bandung and which received institutional standing in 1961 with the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Third World nationalism had to be stopped. The WML and the OIC formed the elements of the counter-revolution.
The WML and the OIC dismissed all ideologies other than Islam for both Muslims and Arabs. Nationalism and Communism were considered to be shu-ubi – anti-Arab. Saudi money and US skullduggery combined to attack the growth of Third World nationalism along the “Islamic crescent” – from North Africa to Indonesia. In eastern Saudi Arabia – the oil-lands where Nasserism had resonated – the CIA and the Saudis coordinated the creation of “an extensive program” to fund small religious cells (these are the direct ancestors of Osama Bin Laden’s Advice and Reformation Committee or Hayat Annaseyha Wa’ahisla). The Saudi regime inculcated a restricted social order that prevented mobility for women, taught xenophobia and religious bigotry in the state schools and created a religious police (mutawwa’a) to detain anyone whom they suspected of anti-social behavior. While these organizations are over a century old, it was only in 1976 that the head of the religious police gained a seat on the ministerial cabinet. This religious obligation of the Saudis is not enshrined in its Wahabbism; it is an outgrowth of its paranoia about threats to its political authority. Across Soviet Central Asia and in the Caucasus region, the WML worked – on behalf of the West – to create bases of support against Communism. These platforms had a great impact across the world, including in pockets that would later manifest themselves as the heartlands of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Libya and Sudan.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques
On the first day of Id al-Adha in 2015, two columns of Hajj pilgrims ran into each other in Mina, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royal family, known as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is responsible for the well-being of pilgrims who come on what has become the largest annual migration in the world. These columns ran into each other because the police blocked off key roads. These roads are intended to manage congestion. At least a thousand pilgrims died in the ensuing stampede.
Why were these roads blocked? Indications suggest that the authorities had closed the roads to facilitate VIP pilgrims. So much of Mecca, like Saudi Arabia in general, is designed for the VIP and the VVIP. The Custodian favours the powerful. It is they who go ahead in the queue. Construction across Mecca, as Ziauddin Sardar shows in his powerful new book Mecca: The Sacred City, is geared toward the wealthy. An “eruption of architectural bling” has inflicted the “barren valley” of Mecca. Corruption is rife, so is neglect. In 1990, almost 1500 people were killed in a stampede near the very spot of this tragedy. The deaths came in a punctual fashion – 1994, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006. A few weeks before this tragedy, a crane fell into the Masjid al-Haram, killing over a hundred people. Are these deaths a natural facet of massive pilgrimages or are they indications of systematic disdain for the lives of ordinary people?
The Saudis are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their futile war on Yemen. There is no political endgame and no sign of any military breakthrough. The only thing that has occurred is the further impoverishment of the poorest country in the Arab world. The oil wealth is being squandered on ill-fated military and diplomatic adventures. Far better perhaps to use that oil wealth on making the Hajj as safe as possible not for the VIPs alone, but for the millions who save money over decades to make this holiest journey to the place toward which they pray.
Saudi Arabia began its bombing of Yemen at the end of March. The assault continues. Every UN agency has lit the red light of caution – Yemen is a humanitarian catastrophe. Firm numbers of dead and wounded are hard to come by. The UN estimates that over 2100 civilians have been killed. That every Yemeni is in danger of death is clear.
One of the most dangerous outcomes of the war has been the deepened sectarian tension in Yemen. In March, the International Crisis Group noted that the “previously absent Shite-Sunni narrative is creeping into how Yemenis describe their fight.” The earlier war in Yemen between the Houthis and the government pitted the former against a president who was himself – like the Houthis – a Zaydi (Shia). Sectarianism did not define that war. The new battlefield has become – in a short time – rapidly sectarian. Saudi claims that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy seek to make this conflict part of a wider geo-political tussle. In no time at all, the complex political problems of Yemen that have plagued the country since unification in 1990 have been reduced to the inexplicable language of sectarianism. So much more has been at stake, but now so little is considered on the table.
Sectarianism is precisely the language of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken advantage of Operation Decisive Storm to send its hardened fighters to fight the Houthis and Saleh alongside the Hirak movement and pro-Hadi forces (supplied and trained by the Saudis and the UAE). The general mood in Aden is that there is only one front in the battle – against the Houthis.
To attack both the Houthis and AQAP would be disorienting. This has allowed AQAP to make great gains amongst the population. In August, Ansar al-Sharia’s Jalal Baleidi called upon all Yemeni Sunnis to fight the Houthis – bringing the geo-political sectarianism right into Yemen’s political war. That Baleidi had been touted as a potential Islamic State leader is now moot. Neither AQAP nor Ansar al-Sharia seems interested in any internecine battles; they are focused on pushing their sectarian agenda and winning adherents amongst the general population. A sign of the times is the turn by Dammaj Salafis, as distant from AQAP in normal times as even the Houthis, have now made common cause with AQAP against the Houthis.
In the UN Human Rights Council, the Netherlands called for an official investigation of the bombing in Yemen. But Saudi Arabia, with US backing, has preempted the Dutch resolution. The Saudis want the UN to provide technical assistance to the Yemeni authorities that they back. This is a deft maneuver to block any investigation of Saudi atrocities in Yemen. The US has rearmed Saudi Arabia during the carnage. It is implicated in the civilian deaths. No wonder there will be no UN mission to Yemen.