‘Arabs have rarely lived in bleaker times’. The Economist.
An impoverished Arab would have been been flabbergasted at the consequences of his single, desperate protest five years ago. It precipitated the ousting of his country’s ruler and two other Arab leaders, the greatest upheaval and carnage of this century in one country, protests in others, a war in another and now acute anxiety in other Arab capitals that the same might happen to them. The Arab was Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable market trader in Tunisia who immolated himself in protest at harassment by local officialdom.
His case sparked local demonstrations – the Jasmine revolution – which led to the downfall of Tunisia’s long-time leader, President Ben Ali. Emboldened, neighbouring Libyans rallied against the dictatorial rule of Muammar Gaddafi. He did not last long, thanks in part to NATO intervention. Egyptians then brought down their long-time leader, Hosni Mubarak. It became the Arab Spring. Syrians tried in vain to do the same with their leader with its terrible consequences as we all know. The protest ripples spread to Bahrain and Algeria, but they were crushed. Now the seismic effect has hit Yemen where the bloodshed is what Time called ‘the worst crisis the world isn’t talking about’.
What the world is talking about is Saudi Arabia and Iran and the ancient Sunni/Wahabist and Shia divide. Saudi Arabia will face ‘divine intervention’, said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei earlier this month following the execution of a Shia cleric and 46 other people. The sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by Shiite protesters led to the rupturing of diplomatic relations. The two countries are flexing their authority in a proxy war in Yemen where Iran is actively supporting the Shia Houthi rebels who’ve captured the capital, Sanaa, and other parts of the country. Saudi Arabia has sent in troops and bombers, but to little avail 10 months on apart from causing more of the ungodly death and misery which today we associate with the Middle East more than anywhere else in the world.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have reached a critical stage in imposing their authority and influence. The long-established political order in the Middle East may never be the same again. Iran, fresh from new respectability following its US-sponsored nuclear deal, is now revelling in freedom from most of its sanctions. Billions of frozen dollars have been released and oil exports allowed to resume for what that’s worth in today’s depressed market caused mainly by its foe. Quoted in the Australian, Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, says Iran interests the U.S. both politically and economically. ‘There is a new relationship based on a new understanding of Iran’s pivotal role in the region – that Iran is here to stay’, he says.
As a result, Saudi Arabia no longer has the undivided attention of the Americans with the thawing of relations between the ayatollahs and the Great Satan. Its once powerful economy is depressed with austerity measures imposed. Youth unemployment is steadily increasing just as it was in prompting Tunisians to take to the streets five years ago. Riyadh was reported to be short of money and considering selling shares in Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company said to be the most valuable firm in the world. There were reports last year of dissension among the ruling royals.
‘Saudi Arabia feels with good reason more threatened than any time in its modern history’, John Jenkins, the former British ambassador there, wrote in the New Statesman. Apart from the declining oil revenue and the spread of jihadism, one reason was ‘the sustained ideological and material challenge of Iran’. Iran looms just across the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province where the majority of the country’s minority Shiites live. The Saudis fear Iran will foment unrest there as well as in the nearby emirates. They did not help their cause by the execution of the prominent Shiite cleric earlier this month.
Nor did the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, try to ease tensions. He had a blood-curdling column in the New York Times. He wrote: ‘Saudi Arabia seems to fear that the removal of the smoke screen of the nuclear issue will expose the real global threat: its active sponsorship of violent extremism. The barbarism is clear. At home, state executioners sever heads with swords as in the recent execution of 47 prisoners in one day…Abroad, masked men sever heads with knives’.
Meanwhile, there are unofficial reports that Saudi Arabia has told Israel that it is free to use its air space if it wants a short cut to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Whatever next?
It is very difficult to interpret the intentions of Iran and Saudi Arabia with their traditional intrigues and devious policies. Iran is under the sway of ayatollahs who have to combine religious beliefs with practical politics. It is the same with Saudi Arabia except it is ‘one of the least transparent regimes in the world’, according to Anthony Bubalo of the Lowy Institute. Their foreign ministers are due to come face to face this month if agreement can be found about whom to invite to the talks on Syria’s future. It is difficult to envision a settlement when Iran is helping prop up Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in return for transit rights for supplies to the Shiite Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon. For Saudi Arabia, al-Assad, from the Alewite sect, is a villain and has to be replaced by someone representing Syria’s Sunni majority.
If there is one matter Iran and Saudi Arabia agree on, it is routine executions. The New York Times says 700 people were put to death in Iran in the first half of last year. Figures for Saudi Arabia are hard to come by. But human rights groups claim that ‘at least 157 people were beheaded last year. Apostasy is a capital offence. The punishment for adultery can mean being stoned to death. Other misdeeds can lead to a public lashing.
The U.S. and Britain remain restrained in their observations about human rights. After all, Saudi Arabia is a prime market for their arms trade. It spends a bigger portion of its economy on defence than any other country – 11% of GDP as against 3.5% in the U.S and 1.5% in Australia. Last month, the Saudis signed a US$29 billion deal to buy 84 F-15 fighters from the U.S. and now intends to spend another US$11 billion to buy four littoral combat ships. Saudi Arabia also is home to five U.S. military bases. For Britain, it is the most lucrative customer of all for its arms companies. Iran is a potential major customer if the sanctions are eased altogether. It wasted no time in ordering 114 European airbuses to replace the state airline’s ageing fleet.
The Middle East must be the most thankless region in the world when it comes to making political deals. Its map is fractured more than ever by opposing groups jostling and fighting for power and mostly with an Islamic undertone as exemplified by Daesh (Islamic State). Then you have Israel and the Palestinians. They have been talking for decades without success except they maintain a relatively harmonious co-existence compared with elsewhere in the neighbourhood. Just as the ancient texts of the Koran are never far away in Arab disputes, so, too, have been the even older teachings of the Torah in the Israel/Palestinian imbroglio. They can be anything but helpful when it comes 21st century political negotiations.
If there is the faintest glimmer of optimism, it is the 2015 Nobel peace prize. It was won by a coalition of Tunisian unionists, employers, lawyers and human rights activists for helping to prevent the original local Jasmine revolution from descending into chaos like the uprisings in the other Arab countries.
FOOTNOTE. Spare a thought for the war in Yemen. Not only does it have what the New York Times in November called ‘a chaotic stew of government forces, armed tribes, terrorist groups and militias at war in the country’. It now has mercenaries from Colombia, Chile, El Salvador and Panama – presumably mostly Christians – fighting on behalf of the government, according to the same paper. They were sent by the United Arab Emirates as part of the campaign led by a jittery Saudi Arabia to curb further Arab revolutions.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.