By Syed Haider Raza Mehdi
King Salman, by elevating his son, the 31 year Mohammed Bin Salman, or MBS, as Crown Prince, may actually have signed MBS’s death warrant, leading to the downfall of the Al Saud regime!
Whether this will remain undisputed or challenged overtly or covertly, by others, royal, non-royal and the highly militant jihadists, is a question mark. There are unconfirmed reports of serious infighting amongst the Royal family. It’s MBS’s ascent into Chaos!
My view it will be challenged and increasingly so from within the Saudi establishment. Despite all the power that MBS has, the politics of patronage by previous kings and decades of loyalties from their cliques, will eventually result in an inevitable showdown.
But hugely worrying, is the potential for greater instability and heightened conflict in the Region. And the two main antagonists, Iran and Saudi Arabia, getting ready for a series of destabilizing events, triggered by this fresh prince and the total chaos that will inevitably follow MBS’s departure and the end of the Al Saud ruling regime! One shudder’s to think of the post Al Saud anarchy and violence! But this, to me, clearly is the beginning of the end!
Then there is the second Prince. Mohammed Bin Zayed, (MBZ) Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of UAE. His elder brother, the current President, Khalifa Bin Zayed, who suffered a stroke in January 2014 has not been seen in public, since.
MBZ, is a major supporter of the Al Saud in their battle against Iran, and the prime interlocutor in bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia, closer. UAE already has strong, warm and friendly relations with Israel, just short of formal diplomatic ties. It’s their insurance policy against their common enemy, Iran and the perceived existential threat from them. Were the Saudi regime to fall, the next likely domino after Bahrain would be the Al Nahyans of UAE. Kuwait may survive because of its fairly robust democratic framework and Qatar and Oman, likely much later. Qatar because of US troops presence, but were the USA to change policy, Qatar would fall in months. Oman, much longer, because it’s likely moving towards a Constitutional monarchy.
In the next 5 years the landscape of Monarchist Middle East will change dramatically!
Another common national interest binding the Saudis and the Emiratis is their deep animosity for the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood (MB). This despite the safe haven, Saudi Arabia provided to them in the mid 60’s, when they were fleeing Gamal Nasser’s crackdown and their leader, Syed Qutb was hanged. But the MB members, such as Mohammed Qutb, brother of Syed Qutb, who relocated to Saudi Arabia, alongwith many others laid the seeds of Al Qaeda, which called for the overthrow of the Saudi regime. Ayman Al Zawahiri, Osama bin laden and others, were the product of this indoctrination!
UAE got a big scare in January 2013, when they uncovered and arrested 11 Egyptians, many long term residents of the UAE and 94 Emirati citizens, all member of a UAE based Al Islah party, with ties to the MB in Egypt. They were charged with conspiring to overthrow the ruling Al Nahyan monarchy and replace it with an Islamist government. This sent shock waves within the ruling Nahyans, fearing an Iranian or Egyptian type upheaval to overthrow them. They subsequently heavily funded and supported the anti Morsi uprising, which lead to the Sisi coup.
The third Prince to make up the threesome is the ruler of Qatar, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Though technically not a Prince, he behaves like the other two, trying to punch well above his weight and all three attempting to stave of the inevitable demise of their monarchies. He deposed his father, Sheikh Hamad, in a palace coup, politely described as an “abdication” in his favor.
Qatar has always been one of the two GCC outliers, the other being Oman. And despite being a staunch Hanbali / Wahabi/Salafi society, the country has, or at least till now, enjoyed good relations with Iran, with whom they share a common gas field and simultaneously have relations with Israel, Hamas and even Hezbollah! This amazing set of bedfellows is a mystery that only their massive wealth can explain which also explains why they decided to venture into the minefield of Middle Eastern geo politics and increase their influence.
Qatar has actively supported Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and was the main source of funding of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak and subsequent aid to ex-President Morsi’s government.
The dissent between Qatar, who supported Morsi and the MB and the Saudi Arabia/ UAE combine, who opposed them and MB, erupted in full force in 2012 when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown and Morsi came to power.
And It’s important to understand why Qatar supports the MB.
This dates back to when MB members were fleeing Gamal Nasser’s crackdown and also found safe haven in Qatar. Unlike Saudi Arabia, in Qatar they established close ties with the royal family, and were recruited by the hundreds, as teachers to develop Qatar’s educational system. Youssef Al Qaradawi, a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, is Qatar’s most well-known religious figure.
In 2014, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE recalled their ambassadors from Qatar, one demand by them was for Qatar to expel him. Two others were the closing down of Al Jazeera and the Middle Eastern office of the Brookings Institute. The latter two highly critical of the Saudi regime in particular. And the big one was to break ties with Iran. Qatar refused all 4. The US stepped in to patch up!
But it was in the Syrian conflict, when Qatar supported those anti-Assad groups who while fighting Assad, also fought against groups backed and funded by Saudi Arabia and UAE. The GCC members were now involved in a proxy war against each other. The Syrian civil war is more complicated than a spaghetti bowl with sometimes a group fighting with itself!
An incident in 2015, caused Saudi Arabia great distress. Qatar paid $1 billion in ransom to groups in Iraq for the release of 26 members of the Qatari Royal family who had been kidnapped, while on a hunting expedition inside Iraq. These groups were closely allied to Iran, and Saudi Arabia and UAE believe this ransom money, eventually reached Iran.
So Qatar was clearly in their cross hairs now and had to be sorted out. The inevitable had to happen in June 2017, when these two and others broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar.
So there we have it.
Saudi Arabia and UAE and tiny Bahrain, in a Sikkim and Bhutan like relationship with Saudi Arabia, have now broken ties with Qatar. Many reasons. But the real big one was their refusal to support Trump’s and Saudi Arabia’s call to target Iran. The Gulf Cooperation Council, or the GCC has split right down the middle. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain on one side. And Kuwait and Oman refusing to break ties with Qatar.
And in all this melee, The Trumpeter signs a $300 Billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and a few weeks later, a $12 Billion fighter aircraft deal with Qatar. What a guy!
So how did the Region get into this “Royal” mess?
A likely answer lies somewhere in the key events of the last 4 decades, starting in the mid 70’s and leading to the recent ones, with religion, sectarianism and ethnicity being used by all to achieve their geo political objectives. Here then is a brief gallop across the decades, which helps us understand the major reasons behind the Iran – Saudi conflict and the current imbroglio!
In 1973, OPEC imposed an Oil embargo on the West and Saudi oil revenues quadrupled. As a result, in 1975, a 4 decade long proselytising of the Saudi /Wahabi version of Islam, commenced across the Muslim world, especially Pakistan, as well as across Europe and North America. This was later to morph into terror groups like Al Qaeda, Daesh and their proxies in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan.
In Pakistan their biggest manifestations was the TTP, later joined by sectarian groups like the Sipah Sahaba, Lashkare Jhangvi and Ahle Sunnat Waal Jammat. But its biggest impact was the transformation of Pakistani from a predominat Sunni Barelvi Sufi version of Islam, who had no problems with the Shias, to the harsh, exclusivist and violent, Wahabi version, who considered and consider Shias infidels. This resulted in the subsequent large dcale targeted killing of Shias by these Wahabi sectarian groups. More than 5000 Shias have been killed in Pakistan as a result of Saudi influence. Most of them professionals, doctors, engineers, lawyers and corporate leaders. TTP caused the loss of over 60,000 Pakistanis. Mostly Sunnis. And more than 6000 officers and men of the Pakistan Army. Such was the gift from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan in addition to their petrodollars.
Estimates range from 100 billion US $ to 120 billion US$ spent by Saudi Arabia since 1975 on this effort to propagate Wahabiism, across the Muslim world and the globe.
This is more than twice what the world’s most renowned brand, Coca Cola has ever spent in its entire existence on building its brand! Al Qaeda and Daesh, being the most visible brands of this Saudi proselytizing!
In 1979 three events happened which super charged this Saudi effort.
The 1979, Islamic Revolution in Iran, which resulted in very aggressive and provocative Shia proselytizing, in response to the Saudi propagation. Iran targeted the Shia populations in the Shia majority Eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, Shia majorities in Bahrain and Iraq, then under Saddam and Shias in Lebanon and Pakistan. Thus commenced, in earnest this sectarian battle, enveloping not just the Region, but the Muslim world.
In November 1979, a group of hard core Wahhabi fundamentalists, taking a cue from the Islamists who had overthrown the Shah of Iran in Iran, took over the Holy Kaaba, proclaiming their leader as the promised Mehdi. They called for the overthrow of the Al Saud ruling family, labelling them “corrupt and degenerate”! The Saudis ruling regime was taken by complete surprise. Though the uprising was crushed, it left a fear in them, of an Iran type copycat revolution in Saudi Arabia by hard core Saudi extremists. Hence this visible symbol of an Iranian Shia Islamic State was seen as a constant threat to the Saudi regime, and therefore had to be eliminated.
In December 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, providing a golden opportunity for Saudi Arabia to extend its influence. They funded the war against the USSR, the USA provided the weapons and Pakistan trained the Mujahedeen as they were then called. Also providing the staging ground for them to fight against the Soviets. It also provided an opportunity for the Saudis to “export” (good riddance in their eyes) the hard core militants and extremists, to Afghanistan. More than 25,000 Saudi fighters eventually made their way to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.
In 1980, the Saudis spurred Saddam to launch an invasion against the Iranian fledgling revolutionary regime. The objective was to oust the regime of the Ayatollahs and replaced by a more benign regime, which would no longer pose a threat to the Saudi regime and or inspire Saudi extremists to oust the Al Saud.
The USA was more than happy to see the Iranian clerics dethroned, incensed at the attack on their embassy and their staff taken hostage.
Saddam was also worried at the restiveness of the Shia majority in Iraq, actively being provoked by Iran to overthrow him. He viewed this Saudi request as a golden opportunity to replace Iran as the policeman of the Gulf and also permanently annex some of the oil rich areas of Iran. It seemed like a slam dunk operation, expected to end in a few months with a triumphant Iraqi army entering Tehran, overthrowing the Ayatollahs and installing a liberal regime, or whatever was acceptable to him and the Saudis.
Funded by a 37 $ Billion war chest from Saudi Arabia, Saddam invaded Iran in September 1980.
The Iranians fought back with ferocity. After the initial setbacks, they regained lost ground. And the war continued for 8 futile years, finally ending in 1988. Iran lost nearly 800,000 dead. Iraq, 500,000. Over 1.3 million killed and an economic loss of nearly $1.3 trillion to both countries.
Iran, to this day has not forgiven, Saudi Arabia for instigating and inciting this massive bloodbath!
In 1993, after the Soviet sponsored regime in Afghanistan collapsed, both Saudi Arabia and Iran, backed opposing groups in the ensuing civil war and again faced each other in military conflict through their proxies in Afghanistan. This continued till the Taliban were ousted by the USA invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
In 2002, courtesy George Bush Jr, Iran became part of the “Axis of Evil”, along with North Korea and Saddam Hussain, now no longer a US ally.
Saudis had been successful in internationally isolating the Iranians who had been under US economic sanctions since the revolution in 1979. These were expanded in 1995 and further in 2006 when the UN passed a resolution expanding the sanctions to their oil, gas, and petrochemicals sectors and all exports of refined petroleum products, and any business dealings with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Also included were banking and insurance transactions, including the Central Bank of Iran, shipping, web-hosting services for commercial endeavors, and domain name registration services.
In other words Iran was choked.
Pakistan, once a good friend, but now firmly in the Saudi and USA camp, refused to buy Iranian goods, especially oil, offered at cheaper rates than the Saudis. It scuttled Iranian overtures to sell power, citing the US and UN sanctions. And in stepped India, sensing an opportunity of a lifetime to establish close ties with a country on Pakistan’s borders and woo them even further away from us.
They disdainfully flouted all sanctions, both USA and UN, given their economic clout, buying and bought Iranian oil and goods, pouring hard foreign currency investments into a starving, desperate Iran, at the brink of economic meltdown. A grateful Iran, on its knees and close to economic and political collapse, accepted India’s request to sign a defence pact with them. India’s geo- political slap on Pakistan’s face! Pakistan was taken aback and thus Pakistan lost its third neighbour.
In 2011, after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, Iran established diplomatic ties with Egypt, severed in 1980 because of Egypt’s recognition of Israel and for giving safe haven to the deposed Shah of Iran. This brought them closer to Qatar and against the Saudi / UAE axis. Then President Morsi also visited Iran.
While President Sisi has not been actively anti-Iran, but on the Qatar issue, he fully threw his weight behind Saudi Arabia, thankful of the massive financial support from Saudi Arabia and UAE.
In 2011, the so called Arab Spring, now more the Arab winter, ousted four dictatorships.That of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. It seemed the Gulf Monarchies would be next.
Saudi Arabia, now under serious pressure from both its Sunni majority and Shia minority decided to launch a campaign to reduce Iran’s influence in the Region.
Iran, for years surrounded by hostile neighbours, now had a friendly Iraq, a friendly Assad in Syria, strong support in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen, Saudis soft southern underbelly. Iran, in the eyes of the Al Saud regime, had encircled them. The Shia crescent was now a full moon! And the Saudis were panicking!
So, Syria became the target of Saudi and UAE efforts to overthrow Assad, from the minority Alawite sect and to be replaced by a friendlier Sunni regime. This brought the Saudi – Iran conflict center stage.
Along with Jordan and Turkey, the latter who had their own axe to grind with the Kurds, they funded, armed, trained and unleashed the anti-Assad forces agains the Syrian Army. These groups were predominantly off shoots of Al Qaeda. And one such off shoot became Daesh.
Iran responded with equal ferocity sending its elite troops to fight alongside Assad’s troops, realising the consequences of Assad’s defeat and ouster. The Russians who had been watching from the sidelines, fearing the threat from a Daesh dominated Syria, stepped in and salvaged Assad from certain defeat.
Over half a million have died in this senseless conflict. Mostly victims of the carnage and genocide inflicted by Daesh and Al Qaeda and their proxies.
In the south, the Saudis with UAE support, attacked Yemen, their abjectly poor Arab neighbour, with full force and anger, to defeat the Houthis, causing widespread devastation. More than 10,000 people have died, mostly civilians in aerial bombardments by Saudi and UAE jets.
And MBS was the prime architect of this terrible campaign.
In 2015, Iran signed its nuclear deal with the 5 permanent security Council members, USA, UK, Russia, France, and China, plus Germany, and the European Union, comprising 29 European countries. This deal, at that time, signalled the end of Iran’s international isolation and economic sanctions. But as was expected, it caused major consternation in Saudi circles of a stronger, resurgent Iran, possibly now an even bigger threat to the rule of the Al Saud and the other Gulf Monarchies.
The Saudi regime, once the USA’s blue eyed boy, now found themselves cold shouldered by the USA and watched with seething anger the ever warming relationship between Iran and the USA, personified in the close personal relationship between John Kerry, the then US Secretary of State and Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif.
But in 2017, fate bowled a “Doosra” and Trump was elected President, and brought with it a major shift in US policy. Trump, threw his weight behind the Saudis, threatening to undo the nuclear deal, and targeting Iran as the source of all terrorism much to Saudi delight.
In his now infamous tongue lashing of 53 heads of the so called Muslim Ummah, at the “Big Bash Muslim Ummah Summit” in Riyadh in May 2017, Trump laid out his war on terror poicy. Iran!
53 Muslim heads of state listened meekly to the dressing down by Trump, lecturing them on terrorism, including the head of the best Army in the Muslim world, and the only nuclear power, Pakistan.
Only tiny Qatar, had the brass to object at Iran being targeted!
What, said the enraged Al Saud and the Nahyans of UAE? How dare they!
And the rest is history! So now you know why Qatar got it!
Given all this background, one thing is clear.
The Saudis and Iran are not coming together soon. Both consider each other’s regimes, existential threats. For the Al Saud ruling regime the threat to their rule is far greater than it is to the rule of the Clerics in Iran.
MBS will do anything and everything to hold onto power. Including starting a regional conflict. The UAE knows that if the Al Saud domino falls, their turn is just round the corner. So does Egypt, now bolstered by money by these two. So does Bahrain
What should Pakistan do?
Iran and Pakistan have progressively viewed each other with increasing suspicion for about a decade now. Iranians have accused Pakistan of attacks on its border guards and terrorist attacks inside Iran, by hard core Wahhabi sectarian terrorist outfits, allegedly, Saudi funded, according to the Iranians, and operating from inside Pakistani, Baluchistan.
Some of these outfits, are allegedly, operating in a grey murky zone of “quasi establishment” support, to fight the Baloch insurgents and in return being “allowed” the space to attack Shia Hazaras and operate across the border, with the establishment, in many cases, looking the other way.
However this seems to be changing since Gen. Bajwa’s took over, himself a victim of the ultra-right wing extremists and labelled an Ahmadi, just before he took over, by Prof. Sajid Mir, a coalition partner of PM Nawaz Sharif.
For Pakistan, Iran’s close economic ties with India and the Kulbashan Yadav spy case has raised serious concerns. Especially at the deep ingress of Indian intelligence, inside Iran. This presents a strategic opportunity to the USA, Saudi Arabia, India and Israel, to widen this split between Pakistan and Iran. And, if I were one of them or all four, I would actively work towards this objective.
Pakistan and Iran have to be very careful that they don’t fall into this trap of being goaded against each other. These are very sensitive times. Take the recent Threat by Iranian, Maj Gen Mohammed Baqeri
to Pakistan to rein in these attacks. Then the recent shooting down of an Iranian drone by Pakistan. All these show a visible escalation of the rhetoric and actions from both sides. And before we know it, could easily escalate to a much higher level of belligerence and conflict. An ideal outcome for the USA, Saudi Arabia, India and Israel.
Therefore we cannot fall into this trap of getting into a conflict with Iran or take sides in this nearly 40 year conflict between the two. It will destroy us!
In my opinion, the Al Saud regime will not last long. What replaces them will be the start of another hellish nightmare, unless they move towards a constitutional monarchy and allow political freedom.
But the Iranian regime is here to stay. President Rouhani, by Iranian standards is a left wing revolutionary. Given another 5 years, Iran will be much more open and liberal.
And then geography. Iran is our conjoined neighbour. Like it or not, we cannot have three countries on our borders as our enemies. We need to re-establish ties with them, and break them away from India’s embrace. We need to ensure that they do not allow their land to be used against us or we allow ours to be used against them.
Saudi funded sectarian outfits operating in Baluchistan are out to destabilise the Iranian regime and create major enmity between us. India is using Iranian soil to destabilize Pakistan, unleashing the Kulbashan Yadav’s and creating friction between us. Israel and the USA want to neuter both Iran and Pakistan. What better than to have them have a go at each other.
This game is so obvious, one would have to be as blind as a bat or as senile as Sartaj Aziz to not see through this!
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as the Ummah. The Riyadh Summit proved it.
There is no such thing as a Shia- Sunni Sectarian war. The Iran – Iraq war, the Afghanistan tragedy, the heartbreaking Syrian Civil war and the devastation of Syria and Yemen and most importantly the Qatar crisis, proves it.
It is only power and dominance, and the desperate need to hold on to it and destroy anybody, anything and any country that threatens it, which drives all these countries towards Armageddon!
Our future lies in aligning with China, Iran, Russia and Turkey! Not the USA, Israel, India and Saudi nexus.
For Pakistan, only and only our own National interest must reign supreme. Not Iran’s. Not Saudi Arabia’s. Not the US’s. Not China’s. But ours and ours, alone.
And certainly not the personal vested interests of a tainted and compromised Prime Minister, held hostage by his corruption and his personal relationships with foreign rulers!
And finally, we should send Zarrar Company to free Raheel from the Saudis!