Many things happen which cannot be explained by conventional wisdom and the knowledge we have from the usual sources. One of these is what is happening between the US and Saudi Arabia. It is at times hard to understand who is benefiting from the ongoing chaos, as it is a mess that keeps getting messier, as with the latest demands by Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia threatens ‘fall’ of Qatar government, unless it pays for US troops in Syria
Previously, most things in the Muslim world could be simplified by discussing the Sunni-Shia standoff over the succession, a topic dating back to the death of Mohammad. Now, because diplomacy is by nature a closed world and in a state of flux, everything we were taught about the Middle East no longer makes sense. The only thing which is clear is that what I wrote in a previous article about Saudi Arabia is now starting to make more and more sense.
The “unpredictability” of politicians and statesmen alike, especially the heads of the free world, doesn’t help matters. As always, the elites are meeting and making decisions behind closed doors, but not enough information is being made public to enable us to draw meaningful conclusions. Anything is possible and subject to change, which may even be change for the better.
But at present we are witnessing another manifestation of a common phenomenon: yesterday’s sworn enemies becoming today’s best friends because they suddenly discover a common enemy who is more important. It is common for the political right and left to agree on certain matters from their widely differing perspectives: for example, both dislike pluralist democracy as it allows the wrong sorts of elements to share or take power.
But few thought that the new alliance which is emerging would ever come to pass. We should all be concerned that the great powers have failed so much that it has come to this.
“In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell
At the moment Syrian conflict is the focus of global attention. Everything which goes on there is presented as either the consequence of internal problems or a proxy fight between West and East, which might be a precursor to a global conflict just like the Spanish Civil War was.
But Syria cannot be discussed without taking all the other regional players into consideration. They are not sitting idly by while a massive conflagration takes place on their doorstep. Who is funding who, why, and who benefits?
Once it would have been obvious who was on which side in any conflict. In Cold War times it was rare for any state in either set of alliances to line up with its enemies, even in cases such as the Prague Spring. But one of the features of a unipolar world is that you never know who is allied with whom, and why.
For example, Turkey was once a reliable US ally, despite being called every name there was, but it has become increasingly independent, and got away with it, under Erdoğan. Turkey has its own interests in mind, and no longer sees the US as its most necessary friend. The same can be said of Iran and Israel, not to mention Lebanon and Pakistan, both tinderboxes trying to prevent outside forces setting them alight again.
But the regional kingpin is Saudi Arabia, a made-up State which is basically a front for oil companies and other special interests. In effect it has been the Military-Industrial Complex’s model state for the last 60 years.
If you follow the money, and identify the bankers of the state sponsorship of terrorism and the debacles in Syria and Yemen, all roads lead to Saudi Arabia. So do the roads which lead to the materials the terrorists are using. The lab in Shifounieh was full of material sent by Western countries to make chemical weapons. It is also a supply station for Jaish al Islam, which is basically the Foreign Legion of the Saudi army — terrorists for hire.
There has been increasing concern about the human rights record of the Saudi government. Journalists and members of the public have often asked Western leaders why they say they are opposing terrorism when they are also selling arms to the Saudis
The answer is always that the Saudis are an intelligence asset. If that is true, there is only one way it could have become such an asset – by being so well trained, and sponsored, by the West that it needs to be kept inside the proverbial tent because it would be more dangerous outside it.
Things have not really changed since Death of a Princess, apart from women now being allowed to drive. The value of human life is as low as ever in Saudi Arabia. But those who are supposed to have the opposite policy are allowing it to get away with murder, literally, because it has been given too much to become part of corrupt schemes, and given it by the same US which stayed in Yemen despite civil war, the bombing of its embassy and the kidnapping of its staff, but ran away as fast as it could when a few pieces of paper were stolen.
Two countries, one face
Donald Trump came into office promising to rid the world of political corruption. Instead he has merely extended the foreign policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations, which were based on the same calculations: we will use our friends to get what we want, then make it impossible for them to get away by using defence agreements, energy pipelines and aid to stop them questioning our actions.
The ongoing support for Saudi Arabia bears strong similarities to that provided to another long term US project – Israel. On paper, Israel and Saudi Arabia are the last countries which would be allied. After the way Israel has always treated its Palestinian Arab population, both Muslim and Christian, and the Muslim states on its borders there is no way the Saudis should be anything other than hostile to it.
But Israel was also a made-up state, put there to serve US interests in the Middle East when other places could have been selected for a Jewish homeland; not least one of the countries the Jews had been expelled from or exterminated in. It has been in constant conflict with its neighbours for that reason, not because it is Jewish and they are not. None of the states surrounding it have declared war on Israel for being Jewish, but because it has aggressively pursued another country’s foreign policy in the region, to the detriment of their own states and peoples.
When all we heard about was the Middle East, the West needed Israel. But now the Middle East conflict has become the War on Terrorism, which is thought to mean Muslim terrorism rather than one of the many other varieties currently on offer. So the Saudis are increasingly playing the Israelis’ old role of being the big threat to everyone around by wielding a US-made stick, in return for protection from states they wouldn’t need protecting from if they acted like most states do – as one of the family of nations – rather than US outposts do – thinking everyone has to be subservient to them.
This is another context in which to read Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite the harm he knows this will cause.
This will enable him to divide the Arab world into “reasonable” states which object to the decision but live with it, and “terrorist” states which are prepared to go further to oppose it. It is obvious which side Trump wants the Saudis to appear to be on, and he would not think that possible if Saudi Arabia had not already become the new Israel, with more in common with the Jewish state than its less well-sponsored Arab and Muslim neighbours.
Endgame in the middle
Jaish al-Islam is part of a broader alliance known as the Islamic Front. This includes its Saudi sponsors, Turkey and Qatar. The Islamic Front is involved in the Syrian conflict because it wants Syria to become a religious state, run by Sharia Law, rather than a secular one. This is what Russia, Iran and Egypt are trying to prevent, hence the division of forces in that conflict.
This raises the question: what is the US, the greatest advocate of liberal democracy, doing on the side of the Islamic Front? The answer is that it is terrified of democracy actually breaking out in the Middle East. The State of Israel may have elections, but it makes sure that only those it considers “genuine Israelis” take part in them, by passing exclusive citizenship laws. Other regional states could have adopted democratic norms long ago, but dictatorships have been supported so the US will know who it is dealing with, and can alternately buy off or demonise them as the diplomatic wind blows.
Syrians would never accept rule by Israel, or being citizens of an Israeli or US colony. But the Saudis might be a lesser evil, particularly if the world believes them to be one of the “reasonable”, non-terrorist Muslim states. As the US knows very well, you can get away with a great deal if all your deeds can be presented as necessary to support democracy. Look how long it took citizens of the Soviet bloc to realise that the fine houses and lavish lifestyles of their leaders were the obvious evidence that their deeds had nothing to do with the greater good of their people.
Sharia Law won’t really be Sharia Law if the reasonable Saudis and democratic US help install it. It will be a necessary measure to reconstruct a new Syria, in the same way the endless dictatorships of places like Azerbaijan and Tajikistan are necessary due to some defect in the people.
Elections will still be held, but blatantly rigged in any number of tried and tested ways. Then we will be told, as usual, that this is because the country is a “young democracy”. This is despite the fact that only a government, or foreign sponsors of one, could commit the abuses in question, and that no electorates anywhere now accept the arguments of former Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar, who asserted for 40 years that he was entirely against democracy because it was a bad and alien influence
The big loser in this process will be Israel itself. If Saudi Arabia takes its mantle, it will have to find another purpose. This will mean finding more commonality than division with its Arab neighbours, and its own Arab population.
But doing that will mean Israel declaring its own history a lie, and thereby taking away its reason to exist. This will force it even more into the arms of its US protector, and give it the new purpose of teaching the Saudis everything it knows, and sanitising everything the Saudis know and do by providing it with support from the opposite side.
Surely what the Saudis do must be right when even the Israelis support it? Much as we now condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as unprincipled, it appears to still be in the lexicon of the world’s decision makers, assuming Trump can spell either Molotov or Ribbentrop.
Cat with too many lives
So far, Donald Trump has proven to be like a cat. No matter what problems he encounters he always lands on his feet. As his supporters point out, those who don’t like him and his accomplishments are now using the whole state apparatus to try and force him out by any means possible, but haven’t been successful or proven anything, at least so far.
The process of turning Saudi Arabia into a second Israel, and getting Israel to go along with that to make it look good, began before his time. But he has done nothing to stop it, and appears to be using it to land on his feet again, despite the storm brewing at home.
When faced with the anti-war activist George McGovern as his opponent in the 1972 presidential election, Richard Nixon declared that he would continue the Vietnam War, but only until he could conclude “Peace With Honor”. This made him both pro- and anti-war at the same time, appealing to the centre ground which was growing increasingly tired of US involvement in that conflict.
Nixon knew all about honour of course. But this was one of many factors which helped him gain a landslide victory in that election over a candidate who has gone down in history as a “wild, dangerous leftie”, but would not look out of place in a respectable European centrist party such as Radikale Venstre
As long as the Saudis remain the top international buyers of US made military hardware, Trump must be hoping this is another of his dubious ways out. If something goes wrong, it is the fault of those damn foreigners and Muslim terrorists. If not, the Saudi-Israeli alliance will cover so many sins that it will become the template for other foreign policy adventures, which Trump might hope will make him a statesman, and thus immune from inevitable impending prosecution.
The late Christopher Soames, a very grand, aristocratic Conservative MP in the UK, once astonished reporters by loudly asking Dennis Skinner, the belligerent Labour MP known as “The Beast of Bolsover”, to have dinner with him. Skinner would be very unlikely to accept such an invitation from the sort of person he has despised all his life. But Soames expected it because “he lives near me”.
Skinner’s humble home in a very poor constituency was a world away in social terms from Soames’ priceless country house. But the two places were only a few miles apart geographically. According to Soames, that meant he could be “one of the lads” just like his working-class colleague, and anyone who didn’t agree was a snob or inverted snob, whose opinion could not be taken seriously.
The only difference between this situation and the Saudi-Israeli convergence is that both countries think they are Soames and neither think they are like Skinner. But does anyone seriously think that simple friendship would be the driver of such a relationship, when they have a patron such as Trump?
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.