The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

WSJ on Iran vs. Saudi

The WSJ has a long piece on the rivalry between Iran and Saudi that it is selling as a new Cold War. The piece covers an important topic, and makes some good points, notably on Bahrain, but has many other problems. To wit:

For decades, the two sides have carried out a complicated game of moves and countermoves. With few exceptions, both prefer to work through proxy politicians and covertly funded militias, as they famously did during the long Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Iran helped to hatch Hezbollah among the Shiites while the Saudis backed Sunni militias.

But the maneuvering extends far beyond the well-worn battleground of Lebanon. Two years ago, the Saudis discovered Iranian efforts to spread Shiite doctrine in Morocco and to use some mosques in the country as a base for similar efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. After Saudi emissaries delivered this information to King Hassan II, Morocco angrily severed diplomatic relations with Iran, according to Saudi officials and cables obtained by the organization WikiLeaks.

As far away as Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the Saudis have watched warily as Iranian clerics have expanded their activities—and they have responded with large-scale religious programs of their own there.

A couple of things here. First — and I'm astonished how often this happens — Hassan II died in 1999. His son Muhammad VI is the king now, and was the one who decided to break relations with Iran. Secondly, while it is true that the Moroccan security services were worried about Iran (although the sudden interruption of relations, which was probably a quid-pro-quo in exchange for Saudi financial support, was widely criticised in Morocco as astoundingly petty diplomacy), they should be much more worried about Saudi Arabia's religious propaganda. Take for instance the Salafist sheikh from Marrakech who, a few years ago, advocated sex with nine-year-old girls and joked "they were better at it", and who had to flee the country to escape prosecution. Where did he go to? Saudi Arabia, which funded his activities. Where do Saudi princes come to give money to religious fanatics during the day and have sex with young girls in the evening? Morocco. A few summers ago in Rabat a story was going around that one particular Saudi prince liked to recruit teenage girls and give them 5,000DH simply to break they hymen with his finger. The Saudi royals are vile, the product of decades of excesses and unlimited wealth, a bunch of latter-day Neros but without the culture or military prowess. 

Long before the Iranians started spreading their religious views (and not to nitpick here, but the Iranian involvement in Lebanon did not start in the late 1970s, since the Islamic revolution only happened in 1979) the Saudis were doing the exact same thing. It is probably the most damaging thing that has happened to the Arab world in the last half century. The example of Indonesia is also misleading, the Saudis did not start a religious program there in reaction to the Iranians, they had one operating long before. Saudi institutions, and probably individual princes, supported the Taliban and al-Qaeda until quite late in the game. They support and finance Pakistani radicals today. That's why I can't believe that this piece includes the line:

The Saudis believe that solving the issue of Palestinian statehood will deny Iran a key pillar in its regional expansionist strategy—and thus bring a win for the forces of Sunni moderation that Riyadh wants to lead. 

There is no such thing as Saudi-led Sunni moderation. If things do come to a head between Saudi Arabia and Iran, I know which one I'll be rooting for: Iran, while its current regime is awful, is at least a sophiscated civilisation. Its current regime will hopefully one day fall. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, represents one corrupt family and its alliance with the most fanatical, retrograde interpretation of Islam in the world. Their downfall cannot come soon enough.