Middle Easterners are flooding out of their countries into neighboring states, Europe, Australia, and the United States. Asylum applications are chronically backlogged in America’s broken immigration system. The various observers and students of the Middle East each have their favorite explanation for why the Middle East is in such turmoil. In the George W. Bush years, everything was Saddam Hussein’s fault. Get rid of Saddam and all would be peaceful. Anti-colonialists and pan-Arabists blamed it all on Israel. Get that corrosive, pride crushing imperialist settler state out of the region and all would be peaceful. Others blame Iran – fomenting Shiite dissent to splinter the Arab Nation. Israelis blame radical Islam, as if Iranian, Shiite, and Sunni radicals to include Hamas, Al-Qaeda, ISIL, the Ayatollahs, Hizballah, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba … are all secretly united in Doctor Evil’s lair despite their ideological and theological animosities. America’s Tea Party and fellow-traveler Nativists blame our President for this and everything else as if all was rosy before 2009 and will be again in 2017.
If I were to choose a primary cause, it would be Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was the fulcrum of Sunni Arabism because of its financial and political clout. So successful were they in cultivating their view of the Middle East as a homogenous Sunni zone from Morocco to Iraq that it was not until recently that people learned just how heterogenous the Middle East is. Kurds, ten percent of Syrians, suffered under a pan-Arabist vision of a United Arab Republic and then a Syrian Arab Republic that denied their existence. Christians make up ten percent of the population. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States suppressed their Shiite populations. Of course, Sunnis are not alone in promoting an illusory homogeneity. Iranian Azeris make up twenty percent of Iran. Turkey has long denied that Kurds there are anything but a unique brand of Turk. Israel, in fact, is half-filled by Jewish Arabs who could not survive in the Sunni Pan-Arab myth perpetrated by the Saudis, the Sunni benefactors in the region.
But this myth could not hold. First, in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East populations have been greatly expanding. Shiites in Iraq and the Gulf have mushroomed in population, making a previously small oppressed minority into a large oppressed minority. In Yemen they just took over. In Bahrain they are extremely restive, testing the American resolve to let the Arab Spring blossom out of fear of our losing its fleet port in that kingdom.
Second, Saudi Arabia stood for little but its own existence and trying to maintain an unsustainable status quo. The monarchy ruled while amassing great wealth to itself and doing too little for the commoners. It allied itself with a conservative religious establishment whose view of Islam is not so much different from the Sunni radicals that now threaten it. Stoning, whipping, amputation, ans veiling women are their common manifestations of faith. Money is said to be flowing from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms to extremist Sunnis, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL, without much hindrance. While providing lip-service to its hostility to the Zionist Entity, it has done nearly nothing to help the Palestinians achieve either statehood in a portion of Palestine or assisting them in liberating it entirely. Its close relationship to the United States belied any commitment to the Palestinian cause and it turns a blind eye to Arab atrocities against the Palestinian diaspora. Walking the beaches of Israel in the 1980’s, one’s feet would get covered in oil that was mysteriously piped from Saudi Arabia through a country it would not even name. It is not a coincidence that Israel’s former President Shimon Perez gave a nice eulogy for King Abdallah who just died at, not surprisingly, 91 years of age.
This was not a sustainable model. The exploding young population sees the bankruptcy of a foreign policy appeasing the very enemy that the country says it stands against and ignoring a People the government says it supports. Religious minorities and the non-royals see their economic and political power stagnate while the Saudi family continues to hoard money and power to itself. The young, raised on the monopoly of strict Islam, actually take it to heart instead of seeing it as a cynical political-religious accommodation for the benefit of the monarchy. They embrace it and adopt it to a movement of political action, first led by the Saudi Usama bin Ladan and his cohort and later by ISIL in Syria and Iraq and now abutting the Kingdom itself.
Saudi Arabia had choices to make. Accommodate Israel in the region or work seriously to get rid of it. Instead it played lip service to getting rid of it while trading with it and accommodating it by its support of its supporters, such as the United States. Either embrace the politics of modern political Islamic Sunnism or struggle to free Saudi Arabia from its Wahhabist religious leaders and bring the country into the modern world – which would also require acknowledging the needs and rights of commoners, Shiites, non-Arabs, non-Muslims, and women in the country and the region. Instead, everything festered. The corrupt Sunni elitist structure eventually began collapsing around the region and is now struggling to reassert itself in Egypt and has splintered Libya. The oppressed in Alawite Syria took to the street and then to war, but their movement was hijacked by the Islamist radicals the Sunni religious establishment in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf clandestinely supported and may still support. They chose implacable hostility to Iran and Shiites instead of seeking an accommodation for mutual development and prosperity and even a joint accommodation with Israel or joint action against.
The 50’s were not a great time for Saudi Arabia, but it is the time period in which it is locked and thereby locked the Arab world in stagnation which resulted in the fermenting of dissatisfaction for the next generations. Well, that closed container of anachronism, corruption, hypocrisy and religious extremism had to blow sometime and that time seems to be now. The people who live in the region are suffering and they are coming here and everywhere for safety. Posted January 24, 2015.