Three recent major developments in the Muslim world have a Saudi connection. Apparently elections in Iraq and Malaysia cannot involve Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi courting of Iraq has involved helping the Al-Abadi government, while it has been claimed that the money defeated Malay PM Najib Razak allegedly embezzled was a gift from the previous Saudi King. The Saudi connection to US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal is more obvious, for one of the few countries pleased with this decision is Saudi Arabia, locked with Iran in a regional battle for influence, and which is backing the USA in the hope that it will back Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in his bid for power.

The Saudi animus against Iran goes back to ancient history, but in the modern day is centred about their being the respective champions for rival Islamic sects. The conquest of Persia’s Sassanian Empire by the nascent Islamic state under the Caliph Umar has never led the Iranians to accept Arab dominance. Alone among the peoples of the initial Arab conquests, they did not adopt the Arabic language, retaining their own Persian. (The Middle East had a Semitic undercurrent, manifested in Syriac and Aramaic, while Berber or rather Amazigh speakers are bilingual) It was Islamicised, and became another Islamic language, especially in the Subcontinent, where the Shias did their best to proselytise. Even in the Turkish lands, Central Asia and Turkey, Persian was a major second language to rival Arabic. This happened when the Turks seemed to have taken over the Islamic world, with the Osmanlis ruling in Europe and the Arab lands, the Qajars in Iran and the Mughals in India.

Though the Saudis are Salafis, they are the champions of Sunni-ism. Iran is Shia, but because of the Revolution against the Westernising Shah, was poised at one time to lead the Islamic world. However, it was attacked by Iraq before it could do anything of note. One point at which Iran has shown solidarity with the Arabs has been its firm support of the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel. Since the USA turned on its former protégé Saddam Hussain of Iraq, and removed him from office, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the Arab country cosying up to Israel.

It is also worth noting that Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran were all nuclearizing the Middle East, something the USA wanted to prevent. It overlooked Israel’s obtaining nuclear weapons, but cracked down on Iran, leading the sanctions regime which led to the nuclear deal.

President Trump came to office committed to ending it. On the one hand was Israel, which denounced it. On the other was the fact that there was no evidence that Iran had in any way infringed it. The Israeli case, presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the USA withdrew, did not show any violation.

Another problem Trump has created is that of US credibility. Even at the time the deal was struck, Iranian critics wondered if the USA could be trusted. They have an ‘I told you so’ moment now. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has a summit with Trump on June 12, will not trust any accord he makes beyond Trump’s tenure. It seems the main reason Trump is tearing up the accord is because it was reached under his predecessor.

Whatever the Israeli and US perceptions, Saudi Arabia, which was in conflict with Iran in different places, also supported this termination of the Iranian accord. One consequence, an increase in the world oil price, is in Saudi Arabia’s advantage.

This was all the more important as Saudi Arabia was not making progress in either Syria or Yemen, the two places it had intervened against Iran, in the first through its intelligence agencies, in the second through its military. This has made it all the more eager that the region’s balance not be changed. A significant factor is Iran’s having such large gas reserves, which makes it potentially a rival to Saudi Arabia in the future. Saudi Arabia is also at daggers drawn with Qatar, another possessor of huge gas reserves.

Saudi Arabia has been edging its way towards Israel in recent times, a process accelerated since the Trump Administration took office, a period which has coincided with the rise of Muhammad bin Salman to the position of Crown Prince, and since he struck up a friendship with Trump’s son-in-law and aide, Jared Kushner, who is a Jew and a firm Zionist. Kushner has been put in charge of finding a solution to the Palestinian problem, and one of his helpers in the Middle East is the Crown Prince. Kushner is obviously seeking a solution satisfactory to Israeli Zionists and furthering US interests. Muhammad bin Salman seeks the Saudi dynasty’s interests. It should not escape notice that when 55 Palestinians were killed on the first day when the USA inaugurated the embassy in Jerusalem, the fruit so far of Kushner’s and Muhammad bin Salman’s intervention, no Americans, Israelis or Saudis died.

One of Saudi Arabia’s interests has been in tempering Iranian influence in Iraq. That influence cannot be eliminated, because Shia coalitions have emerged from elections as the largest groups, with the result that both post-Saddam PMs have been Shia. This has allowed an Iranian influence never seen before in Iraq since its creation. Since the USA dominates Iraq, Saudi Arabia would like to be friendly towards it. That would mean Iraqi Sunnis supporting the Shia government, not off their own bat, but on Saudi say-so.

This has involved Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, a Shia, in a bid to attract Sunni votes on the basis of a common nationality, as part of his bid to obtain re-election. While he needed Iranian support to obtain Shia votes, he also needed Sunni votes to build himself up as a leader who had support of all Iraqis, not just one sect.

The Malaysian election provided high drama, and proved in so many ways that nothing is final in politics. Not only did Dr Mahathir Mohammad show that you are never too old to run, but he also showed that retirement, even at 77, need not be final. His alliance with Anwar Ibrahim, whom he had brought into UMNO back in 1982 after he had been a student leader from the right, made Deputy PM in 1993, and then removed in 1998 on sodomy charges which led to his being jailed, showed you can do nothing to another politician which cannot be forgiven.

However, the defeat at the hustings of the Barisan Nacional, of which UMNO is the centrepiece, showed that the power is not permanent. Its predecessor, the National Alliance, had led Malaysia to independence, and it had held office uninterruptedly since 1957. The losing PM, Najib Razak, was the son of Tun Abdur Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second PM, who had actually founded the Barisan Nacional in 1974. One reason why UMNO lost were the a

Allegations that he had siphoned $700 million from 1Malaysia Development Berhad. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir had to say that the money had been donated to Najib by the Saudi royal family.

Malaysia is numerically dwarfed by Indonesia, but its oil wealth has made it closer to Saudi Arabia. It is also significant that Malaysia is Shafei, like most Arab countries, and is a little closer to the Saudis than the Hanafis of the Subcontinent. It might also be noted that Najib was in the tradition of British-educated aristocrats who were normally PM, as opposed to the plebeian Malaysia-educated party apparatchik Mahathir, yet he was growing closer to China, something which Mahathir has specifically targeted, saying that all deals, including those connected to the One Belt One Road initiative, will be re-examined, and may be renegotiated. Is it significant that Najib is the second regional leader to tilt towards China and then be ousted, the first being Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, who lost office in 2015?

 

n          The writer is a veteran journalist and

founding member as well as executive

editor of The Nation.

Kushner has been put in charge of finding a solution to the Palestinian problem, and one of his helpers in the Middle East is the Crown Prince. Kushner is obviously seeking a solution satisfactory to Israeli Zionists and furthering US interests.