By Jonathan Power
The year’s first major atrocity: Saudi Arabia’s beheading of 47 people, including an important Shiite ayatollah who led Shiite protests against discrimination by the Sunni majority, but who never committed an act of violence.
Even the Islamic State doesn’t behead 47 in a day. Although beheading is swift, it strikes most of us as grotesque as well as medieval. The Saudis are aware of their image in the outside world but nevertheless persist, as if they want to tell the rest of the world: “Back off. Our Wahhabi morality is our morality. We are a belief system unto ourselves.”
The Saudis exported the political convictions that have evolved out of Wahhabism to Afghanistan, with money for guns along with theology, first to fight the Russians, then to arm the Taliban, and later to allow themselves to “ignore” that the Taliban was giving refuge to al-Qaida.
Over the last three years rich Saudis have been allowed, through lack of policing, to effectively fund the Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia not only has a political and judicial system capable of repulsive acts, but it also has a foreign policy that the West should have no part of. Along with Israel it hounded the U.S., Russia, and the EU, unsuccessfully, to not make a deal with Shiite Iran to curb the latter’s nuclear program. Today, it opposes Iran on a wide range of issues, not least in its support of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Now, with the beheading of a respected Shiite imam, it has made a bid to be the unchallenged tough guy of all Sunni-majority countries in what looks seems to be becoming a clash of civilizations between the major strands of Islam, in defiant disregard for the admonishment of Mohammed himself not to kill fellow Muslims.
The West should remove itself from this imbroglio as quickly as it can. Imagine if some outside power—India? China?—had tried in the 16th and 17th centuries to directly intervene in the murderous religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that devastated Europe. They could have done nothing useful, and would have only stirred things up further.
Of course talking, cajoling, and negotiating make for useful input from outsiders. But providing guns to this or that side, bombing, and especially “putting boots on the ground” as in Iraq or “special forces” in Syria certainly do not.
The U.S. and Europe don’t need Saudi Arabia like they used to. The surge in fracking technology has diminished the strategic value of Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states.
Foreign policy is no longer aligned. Ten years ago, a combination of U.S. pressure and the shock of large-scale al-Qaida attacks inside Saudi Arabia itself convinced the Saudis and their neighbors to clamp down on jihadist activities within their borders. Yet today, such is their desire to overthrow Assad that they have, as Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson write in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “subordinated the suppression of jihadism to the goal of overthrowing Assad and hobbling his patrons in Iran. They are doing this by backing Sunni extremist rebels in Syria despite Washington’s exhortations to stop.”
Moreover, the West no longer finds Middle Eastern countries as attractive an investment opportunity as it once did. Much of the region is becoming dysfunctional; even the more prosperous parts run large fiscal and external deficits, maintain huge and inefficient civil services, and spend heavily on subsidies. On nearly every indicator—infant and maternal mortality, education, and health services—they do less well than countries elsewhere with the same income levels.
The hopes since the 1950s for the ascendancy of a secular, technocratic, and Western-orientated elite that would bring their societies along with them have been eroded. Egypt is regressing. Saudi Arabia is hoisting itself on its own petard of extreme fundamentalism. The latest manifestation of the historic Shiite-Sunni quarrel—tragically triggered by the U.S./U.K. decision to overthrow Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—is coming to a boil.
Even if the West did believe politically that it should do something, it couldn’t militarily. The U.S. and its allies are capable of defeating a coherent nationalist state in warfare, but it cannot deal with “a transnational clash of ethnicities, turbo-charged by religious narratives.”
As in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, it is in the chaotic aftermath of the conflict that outsiders run out of solutions as to how to stabilize the political and religious turbulence unleashed by war.
Europe and North America are not seriously threatened at home by these Middle Eastern conflicts. Since 9/11 there have been fewer terrorist attacks on American soil than there were in the 1970s. If the West does get more involved it will inevitably provoke more attacks. Saudi Arabia and its local allies and enemies should be left to work themselves out of their quagmire—without outside interference.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums Of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions Of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]