The view in Riyadh is that Iranians are principal beneficiaries of the US intervention in Iraq
Book: The Islamist Challenge in West Asia : Doctrinal and Political Competitions After the Arab Spring
AUTHOR: Talmiz Ahmad
PUBLISHER: Pentagon Press
In his distinguished career as a diplomat, Talmiz Ahmad has served as India’s envoy to Saudi Arabia, Oman and UAE, countries which have great economic, strategic and political significance in the Middle East. Ahmad, who calls himself a student of politics of the Gulf and the Muslim world, including South Asia, lends a fresh perspective to the turbulence that the region is seeing. Hardnews caught up with Ahmad in Delhi, on the sidelines of the release of his new book. Excerpts...
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
Why are the Saudis, who are opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, supporting similar, perhaps more fundamentalist, elements in Syria? Why this contradiction?
There is no contradiction. The Saudi approach to regional developments has been clear and extremely consistent. When the Arab Spring hit Bahrain, the Saudis believed that these disturbances were externally sponsored. There is a larger concern that the kingdom has had even before Bahrain happened — the sense of strategic vulnerability vis-a-vis Iran. Since the Saddam Hussein government was overthrown in Iraq and a new regime came in the name of Shia empowerment, the Saudis have been concerned. The view in Riyadh is that Iranians are the principal beneficiaries of the US intervention in Iraq. As a result, they have nursed a grievance.
When the Arab Spring occurred so close to home, in Bahrain, there was a feeling that the time had come to confront the Iranian challenge. This is the first challenge that the Saudis perceive. Secondly, the Arab Spring gave encouragement to Islamic groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudis are deeply concerned, both with Iran and the success of the Muslim Brotherhood — a Sunni Salafi group whose approach to politics is that of a rival to Saudi Arabia. It is a rival which is very close to home for it comes from within your establishment. If I were to put it starkly, the Iranian is the enemy abroad, while the Brotherhood is the enemy at home. Thus, in the case of Egypt, Saudis were very clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is not something they were comfortable with. And the Muslim Brotherhood government of Morsi, to provoke the Saudis further, reached out to Iran and was building a very substantial relationship with Iran.
In the Syrian situation, the Saudis saw that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, with the support of Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt as well, was flourishing. The Saudis intervened in Syria to ensure that the regime that emerges out of the ashes of Bashar al-Assad’s regime is not a Brotherhood regime and not a radical force. And that it is a non-religious, authoritarian regime led by the armed forces. In that sense there is clarity and consistency.
How is the situation in Saudi Arabia with respect to the Arab Spring? Did it also face the heat
Saudis are very self-confident. They believe that they have enough capacity at home to keep turbulence at bay. They are following the carrot and stick policy. The carrot-related policies are, to be sensitive to the demands of the young people, to provide jobs and training, make it compulsory for the private sector to employ Saudis, give them loans on easy terms, expand the welfare services, especially health and education, and take up a series of nation-building projects which will enhance the status of the country and increase employment opportunities.
Simultaneously, the Saudis are clear that they will not allow any anti-regime agitations. The agitations taking place were majorly in the eastern Shia province. Shias are a disadvantaged community in Saudi Arabia and they suffer discrimination — social, economic and political. What the kingdom has done is to expand the economic opportunities in the eastern province, encourage Shias to participate in business, and they have developed the region reasonably well. They are not like the disadvantaged communities that you find elsewhere.
Saudi Arabia is a Wahabi State, against the precepts of the practices of Shias. So, demonstrations take place. There has been no large-scale violence; so far it has been controlled. The Internet is an interesting area where dissent is expressed. It can’t be controlled. There is no imminent threat to the Saudi regime. Dissent remains marginal; the positives in the scenario are much greater. The kingdom has been successful in addressing the need for change. It is not a 19th century hidebound kingdom. They want to change at their own pace. Their concern is that if you open the doors to change too swiftly without the political order being amply ready for it, it will lead to chaos and anarchy.
From Africa to the Middle East and even in Pakistan, the sectarian divide within the Muslim world is widening. What are the reasons?
Your observation is accurate. This sectarian divide is a reality of very recent times. Western scholars erroneously call it a centuries-old divide. It is not true. Even when the revolution occurred in Iran, the Ayatollah did not call it a Shia revolution. It was never projected in those terms. Even the concerns that Muslim countries harbour, they do not pertain to the sectarian differences at all. They are strategic concerns. But they are articulated in sectarian terms. Even after the Islamic revolution, ties between Saudis and Iran were cordial. Recall the terms of Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: the relationship was reasonably warm. With Mahmoud Ahmedenijad, there was slight cooling, but even then he was welcomed in the Arab world, the Gulf Coöperation Council (GCC) summit in 2007, and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in 2010. There is this famous photo where King Abdullah reached out and held his hand when he was a pariah in Western eyes. Thus, there was no sectarian divide.
The consciousness of this divide first emerged in Riyadh with the fall of the Saddam regime; it has sharpened much during the regime of Noori al-Maliki. And the reasons are purely regional rather than domestic. The coalition that Maliki put together against the Saudi-backed rival was more radical. It had support from Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Hakim. But they were all Iraqis. A concern emerged in Riyadh that there is a Shia regime in Baghdad which is avowedly sectarian and possibly supported by Iran. And, indeed, gives more space to Iran. This is the origin of the strategic vulnerability felt in Riyadh.
Their view of the region was that there is this colossus which is Iran — economic, political, energy and military colossus — and a major Arab country, Iraq is its ally; next to it, another major Arab country, Syria, is its ally; and it has outreach right up to the Hezbollah: therefore, it has also reached Lebanon. It is also cohabiting with the Hamas, though it is Sunni.
When you sit in Riyadh, you see this whole swathe of territory which is under Iranian influence. Therefore, Riyadh became insecure. When the Bahraini episode occurred, they said that not only is the region making them vulnerable, the threat is coming home. Bahrain is the first domino in the GCC to fall. The Saudis decided to confront Iran for its interference in regional affairs on two grounds. One was hegemonic intention and interests and the other was to promote their sectarian interests. That is how sectarianism is poisoning the region. This sectarianism has got sharpened and is now manifesting robustly in Syria.
However, the Pakistani scenario is very different from this. There, the origins date back to Zia-ul Haq and his affiliation with radical Islam, for purely domestic reasons, to justify his military dictatorship. Pakistan got affiliated with the radical strand of Islam. It is absolutely a truism that radical Islam has serious differences with the Shia community. Therefore, this affiliation with radical Islam, which continued after Zia-ul Haq, saw Pakistan becoming a major role player in the jehad in Afghanistan, while actively supporting the most extreme elements. It then sponsored the Taliban and became the guardian of Al Qaeda. After that, home-grown entities emerged: Tehreek-e-Taliban; Sipah-e-Saheba. They started this war on the Shia community and on other minorities. The Pakistani experience of sectarianism is primarily domestic. It goes back to Zia-ul Haq, Afghanistan, comes home and is completely consolidated at home.