IN WEST Asia, the tide has turned against Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and president Trump is doing nothing about it. So long as Trump’s ‘B’ team kicked and ranted the smell of war lurked. John Bolton, Bibi Netanyahu, bin Sultan and bin Zayed reinforced each other’s war lust until enlightenment dawned: Trump was using them to beat the drums of war to a deafening crescendo in order to exert maximum pressure on those whom he was out to strike a deal with. The ‘B’ team despaired because Trump wouldn’t pull the trigger.
The disabling of units at Aramco and occupation of Najran are body blows. Mohammad bin Salman, in the bleakness of his circumstance, is having to eat crow. Bibi is meanwhile hobbling with corruption cases and the elusiveness of durable power. I am not convinced that Trump is a wounded stag quite yet. In fact, by initiating impeachment proceedings against the president, the 79 year old House leader Nancy Pelosi may have overexposed a 76 year Joe Biden, leaving the way open for America’s first woman president, Elizabeth Warren, 70, now that the 78 year old Bernie Sanders must slow down with a serious heart condition. But that’s a digression although it has a bearing on the radically changing situation in West Asia. It may still be premature to fall back on the Marxist appraisal that the immense power of the Jewish lobby and petro dollars will turn to dross once imperialism loses interest in the House of Saud and Israel. That stage may not have been reached but a trend has been noticeable.
Why did Riyadh and Tel Aviv panic at the prospect of Iran being brought into the tent by the US regularising its nuclear intentions? The fact that Barack Obama-John Kerry team were creating a self-regulating balance of power in West Asia meant that they were shedding their hands-on-interest in the region. ‘Pivot to Asia’ was beckoning.
Mohammad bin Salman’s meteoric rise was accompanying by such high wire acts as the detention of the kingdom’s billionaires in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel or the macabre dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. For seasoned observers of Saudi Arabia, the abandoning of the old style of diplomacy, furtive movements behind silken curtains, in favour of the recklessness of the crown prince, did foretell dangers ahead. A fall was feared, but not a nosedive.
Mohammad bin Salman may have been able to cover up reversals in Syria particularly after Russians entered the proceedings. But it was universally acknowledged that the pointless war in Yemen was going disastrously, draining the kingdom’s coffers, building a humanitarian catastrophe and helping create a battle tested Houthi ‘Vietcong’ enlarging their dependence on Iran. When future historians record the rise and fall of Mohammad bin Salman, they will put down his hubris to endless supply of petrodollars attracting an endless and wasteful supply of US and British arms incapable of coping with simply configured drones. Carelessness induced in this fashion helped further consolidate the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq and Houthis in Yemen. This is the Shia arc Saudis should be worried about not the Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Hamas, which is Israel’s brainchild for its own reasons. And Hamas is true blue Sunni.
It is ironical that one should be tossing a Persian saying at Mohammad bin Salman: Der ayad, durust ayad. Arrival of wisdom, however late is to be welcomed: the realisation that the five-year long war with Yemen has been a ridiculous waste in which American arm dealers and mercenary armies made unspeakable sums of money.
The artificial Shia-Sunni fault-line was created for two reason: to scare the oil rich GCC with Iran’s rise and sell them arms and, secondly, to break the morale of Iran, the only country in West Asia which stands up for Palestinian rights, much to Israel’s annoyance.
On current showing, the trick has not worked. That which was never intended appears to be the outcome. Low key pilgrimages, confined largely to Shias, have, in the Shia-Sunni competition, demonstrably burgeoned. Arba’een, the 40th day of Hussain’s martyrdom, has become an annual walk from Najaf to Karbala, a distance of 80 miles, in which last year 20 million pilgrims from all over the world participated, far in excess of the annual Haj of Mecca. This cannot please the Saudis.
This year, the congregation is expected to be much bigger. Further, traffic from the shrine of Imam Raza in Mashad to Karbala and Najaf and onto Bibi Zainab’s shrine in Damascus is likely to be frenetic. This, because the Iraq-Syria border is now open, exactly what Riyadh and Tel Aviv were fiercely opposed to. By mid-October, this part of West Asia will have pilgrims in all directions, like a maze of flyovers.
One aspect of the recent disturbances in southern Iraq is to deter attendance at Arba’een. These uncertainties will wax and wane so long as relations with Iran are not firmed up. Supreme leader Ayatullah Khamenei is firm: revert to the nuclear deal as it was on May 8, 2018 and lift sanctions before any dialogue is possible. The French have offered a compromise formula: that some of the countries who have had to impose sanctions against Iran lift restrictions to initiate an official level conversation which then prepares for a higher level engagement.
President Macron of France had taken the audacious initiative to invite foreign minister Zarif unannounced during the August G7 summit in France. But at the UNGA in September, president Hassan Rouhani made a strong pitch for ‘regional issues to be settled by regional powers’. This would tend to obviate a French role for the time being.
Recently UAE’s bin Zayed did send a delegation to Tehran. Is Mohammad bin Salman chastened enough to tread the path towards regional peace without holding America’s hand? When that happens, West Asia will have changed.
Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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