They say that great myths die hard

They say that great myths die hard …

February 28, 2021

By The Ister for the Saker Blog

They say that great myths die hard, but as it fades into obscurity will anyone really miss the Saudi state?

Because the Kingdom’s cosmopolitan elite longed to be like the West, they imported European sports cars and erected enormous skyrises using slave labor. Riyadh and Jeddah transformed into shopping centers and hubs of oligarchic largesse while the oil-rich sheiks appeased the conservative populace by sanctioning Wahhabist doctrine, public beatings and beheadings, and other backwards symbolic gestures.

Saudi Arabia is essentially based on this great contradiction: posturing itself as the hardline leader of the Islamic world while aligning with America and carrying out a foreign policy that has killed countless Muslims, a contradiction that exists because it is an artificial construct of imperialism.

In the early 1900s, British spies in the Middle East sought to partition off Ottoman claims in the Arab Peninsula with the help of Arab rebels such as Emir Faisal. These spies who included Edmund Allenby and the famous T E Lawrence led the Arab Revolt of 1916 and successfully revoked Ottoman control of the region.

A little-known fact is that Israel and Saudi Arabia share this same point of origin. In December of 1918 after the success of the Arab Revolt, Lord Walter Rothschild held a banquet for Emir Faisal culminating in the signing of the Faisal-Weizmann agreement, used to demonstrate Arab support for the Balfour Declaration: the document that laid the foundation for the state of Israel. The rebels who had been promised a unified Arab state stretching from Aden to Aleppo had been lied to however, as the leaked Sykes Picot agreement revealed a plot by imperial powers to divide and conquer the Middle East along sectarian lines.

Today the pan-Arab doctrine of the government of Bashar al-Assad is the ideological progenitor of those early rebels who fought to unite the Arab world against the wishes of imperialists. The stoking of the Syrian Civil War was just an extension of century-old divide and conquer tactics, as the West sought to enrage Sunnis against the secular Syrian Arab government for the betterment of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Israel. Recall too that neo-Ottoman Turkey is aware of the imperial history and sees Syria as Ottoman territory lost to the West.

If the Syrian revolution ever had a grassroots base it was in the impoverished Sunni Idlib governorate, where Turkey and Saudi Arabia had for decades financed Salafist mosques and imams with the intention of eventually breaking this region off from Syria. Although the remaining terrorists in Idlib have yet to be defeated, Saudi Arabia’s failure to achieve full regime change in the Syrian Civil War marks its waning power: previously both Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein spoke out in favor of pan-Arabism and denounced the Saudis at the cost of their lives. Unlike the ideological and religious bonds that tie America and Israel, America’s commitment to Saudi Arabia was always strategically contingent and several developments suggest that it is declining.

America has abandoned support for the war in Yemen

The war against the Houthi movement in Yemen has been fought with a threefold strategy: sanctions to starve the Yemeni population, targeted assassinations to kill Shia imams and others tied to the Houthis, and traditional military force by Saudi conscripts. The Kingdom’s force has performed poorly and relied heavily on support from America. In one case in 2019, the Saudis were planning an attack in the disputed town of Najran in retaliation for missile strikes on Riyadh oil facilities. They were baited into a trap and over 2,500 were captured by Houthi forces. In blind retaliation, they struck a Houthi prison in Yemen and killed over 290 of their own prisoners.

It is no surprise in such conditions that morale is low among the Kingdom’s soldiers and that Iran has supported the Houthi side with weapons and intelligence.

Why has America abandoned its ally in the conflict? Simply, we don’t need Saudi oil as much anymore. Shale gas technology completely changed the nature of the global oil and gas industry and broke the Saudi monopoly. Recall my article The Empire is Losing the Energy War. Since then, more confirmation of this thesis has come around as prices have risen – beneficial to Russia, and oil experts have broadly agreed that Russia has won the most recent price war with the Saudis. America’s withdrawal in Yemen is an acknowledgement of their diminishing role and a reason which under Trump’s “Middle East Peace Plan” Saudi Arabia panickedly sought to tie its future not to oil production but to the creation of a joint security bloc against Iran.

Pipeline developments: NordStream 2 and Goreh Jask

By mid-2020, two major new pipelines are expected to be built. The first is the NordStream 2, which will cement Russia’s control of European energy markets. Washington is moving in slow motion to try and stop this pipeline but it is basically already done. Only 100 miles of pipe remain and the Biden admin’s early smackdown of the American energy industry with the Keystone XL cancellation means that there will not be enough American gas to provide an alternative to Russia. The German public retains a dislike for Russia but the industrialists have pushed ahead regardless.

NordStream 2 serves two other geopolitical purposes. First, Ukraine will be deprived of $1-2 billion of energy transit revenue, a big deal for a country with a $150 billion GDP. This also lowers NATO’s interest in Ukraine, which will suddenly have less of an ability to bottleneck Russian energy shipments to Europe. Second, the pipeline also reduces Russia’s exposure to Turkey as an energy transit and will allow Russia to be more “gloves off” in northern Syria without risking economic retaliation.

Iran’s Goreh Jask pipeline is expected to be completed by June 2021, and the development will improve the country’s energy situation by limiting its reliance on the Strait of Hormuz and opening up Southeast Asian markets to Iranian oil. In addition to promoting economic ties with the rest of Asia the move also allows Iran to potentially shut off the Strait of Hormuz in a crisis situation, a hypothetical move which never made sense in the past given that it would kill its own energy exports. Naturally, sanctions have been applied to the project but this has simply been used as an opportunity to develop domestic industrial capacity: over 95% of the parts for the Goreh Jask pipeline have been sourced domestically.

Iran is increasing its influence in Iraq and Syria

The increased Iranian influence on Iraq suggests that supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein may have been a miscalculation by the Western bloc. The government of Hussein was aggressive on Iran-Iraq border issues and had a large and powerful military. With Iraq’s expensive military infrastructure largely destroyed and a diminished American presence, Iran has grown its soft power both through religious and economic outreach.

In southeastern Iraq, Iran is massively expanding and developing Shia shrines at sites like Kerbala as a method of promoting its influence. Some of these developments are enormous, for example the $600 million expansion of the Imam Hussein shrine, which was mostly constructed with Iranian funds and parts. These developments also give economic opportunity to both Shia and Sunni Iraqis who are paid to work in construction and benefit from increased tourism. Conducting business in eastern Iraq also gives Iran an opportunity to transact in a region unaffected by sanctions.

Political power is another way that Iran has expanded its reach. The prime minister of Iraq is aligned with the Saudis and Americans but outnumbered in parliament by pro-Iranian MPs, and has been able to do little to diminish the Iranian presence.

As far as Syria, the Iranian angle must be considered. In July of 2015, Quds force General Qasem Soleimani visited Moscow to work out the details of the Russian intervention with Vladimir Putin. Although Moscow denies this likely to maintain good relations with Israel, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah recently stated that it was Soleimani that convinced Putin to enter the conflict. What was exchanged during that conversation in July of 2015? It is impossible to know but it can be reasonably assumed based on how things unfolded that the Russian intervention was largely a cover for Iranian movement into Syria.

The majority of the leg work performed in the Syrian Civil War was done by Syrians and Iranians. While Russia provided crucial air support and logistics, the on-the-ground troop counts have remained small. What Russian intervention did however was to provide the stamp of legitimacy of a powerful, nuclear armed nation to the Syrian/Iranian side, to prevent any major invasion, and to quickly soften the tones on the Assad government. By clearing ISIS out of central Syria, Iran has now created a contiguous path through Syria and Lebanon and upheld its Syrian ally at the expense of the Saudis.

Pakistan is drifting to Iran

In recent history Pakistan has been heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia, in part due to a Sunni majority and a large amount of outstanding loans financed by the Kingdom. As Sheikh Imran Hosein put it unflatteringly, Pakistan has served as “a shoeshine boy for the Saudis.” Several wedges are growing between this strong historical relationship.

First, Pakistan is warming to its neighbor Iran and the new prime minister of Pakistan has accelerated ties with its western neighbor in many areas. One is the accelerated development of a massive Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad railway which highlights an emerging challenge to Saudi supremacy: the nascent Turkey/Iran/Malaysia/Qatar bloc in the Muslim world could potentially expand to include Pakistan. Keeping Pakistan away from Iran has long been an intention of the Saudis, who sought to fuel tensions with their neighbor by financing anti-Shia terrorism in Pakistan in the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, the two countries seem to be getting over it and the populations of both nations rate each other positively in opinion polling.

Another sign of nervousness in the West about Pakistan-Iranian integration is the failed attempt to stop the construction of the new Iran-Pakistan oil pipeline with threats of sanctions. This will further pull Pakistan into the Iranian orbit.

A new major straining factor on the relationship with Saudi Arabia is Riyadh’s unwillingness to defend Pakistan’s claims to the disputed Kashmir border region. Pakistan has hoped that the Kingdom would defend its claim, but Saudi Arabia has been unwilling to do so.

Finally, there is the issue of Israel. Saudi Arabia would like to recognize Israel as soon as possible but doing so would cause massive protests in Pakistan and ruin the Saudi reputation there. Therefore it is trying to pressure Pakistan to first recognize Israel, something which would be unpopular and put the Pakistani government in a precarious situation domestically.

The Saudis are losing their status as the head of the Muslim world

Consider the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan’s recent comments while promoting the D-8 organization of Islamic nations:

“Countries like Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia and China have the potential to form a new alliance for better future of the region”

None of this economic integration would be occurring if not for the US sanctions policy. The impact of sanctions has been to lay the groundwork for creation of a “Zone B” which circumvents the Empire entirely. A model that replaces proxy wars, regime change, and terrorist funding with peaceful economic integration and diplomacy. If Iran had full access to international markets it would have been content to sell its exports to the highest bidder and would not be forced to expand its influence regionally as it is currently doing.

What does this emerging “Zone B” look like? Well, let’s start with the Muslim countries labeled an “Axis of Evil” by George Bush and John Bolton:

Syria, Iraq, Iran. And of course we can add in Lebanon, Yemen, and Palestine right off the bat to this anti-imperial bloc. The growing ties between Sunni Pakistan, heterogeneous Syria, and Shia Iran foreshadow a geographically contiguous model of peaceful relations between Islamic nations untainted by the Takifirism of Saudi Arabia, with Syria and Lebanon serving as a tolerant bridge between the Sunni and Shia regions of the Arab world.

This bloc could then be combined with the D-8 Muslim countries: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey. D-8 alone represents one billion people and over 60% of the Islamic world. Iran, as a major advocate of inter-Islamic integration through organizations such as D-8 would be the lynchpin connecting the resistance nations of the Arab world with the larger emerging Islamic economies in a new trade network to bypass sanctions. (It is worth adding that all D-8 nations other than Turkey supported Syria’s side against Saudi in the civil war, so such an alliance is not much of a stretch by any means.)

Add in China, Russia, Mongolia, Myanmar, and the ‘stans and this new Asian empire would come to span a lion’s share of the planet’s population, GDP, energy resources, and habitable surface area. Moscow and Berlin would emerge as gates between East and West while the sprawling trading network of China would provide an alternative to the overregulated and strings-attached commerce and financing available in the West. China has already replaced America as the major trading partner for most nations.

Though there are other concurrent factors at play, the state of Saudi Arabia which once served as the lynchpin for dividing the Islamic world is diminishing, as Eurasian integration progresses naturally. No color revolutions or regime change are required for this process to continue because:

Zone A’s claims to upholding human rights and other civil liberties increasingly appear like a bad joke: undermined by lockdowns, tech censorship, and politically correct speech codes

Zone B is working past historic rivalries in the pursuit of development while Zone A embraces legally enshrined racism and creates complex taxonomies of privilege to delineate tiers of citizenship

Zone B’s population is growing while Zone A’s is declining

Zone B’s share of global wealth is growing while Zone A’s is declining

Zone B has a burgeoning middle class while Zone A’s middle class is disappearing

Zone B is doing away with extreme politics while Zone A is swept by cultural revolution


The Ister is a researcher of financial markets and geopolitics. Author of The Ister: Escape America

Palestinian rights have always been secondary to the ‘national interest’ of Arab regimes

Joseph Massad

28 December 2020 12:18 UTC 

Normalisation with Israel is just the latest example of Arab rulers advancing their own interests at the expense of Palestinians

The Arab League summit meeting held in Mecca on 31 May 2019 (AFP)

Since the First World War, the Palestinians have been used as a bargaining chip by different Arab regimes to advance their own interests by sacrificing Palestinian rights.

Yet, apologists for the Arab regimes, which recently normalised relations with Israel, defend their governments’ decision with the same arguments the earliest normalisers – Egypt and Jordan – used decades ago, namely that these countries made sacrifices since 1948 by placing Palestinian interests above their own “national”, read regime, interests.

Their decisions to normalise with Israel now, they tell us, have finally placed their own national interests first, and yet at the same time in normalising they are also helping the Palestinians!  

American propaganda

A major argument – proffered in this regard – relates to the American-sponsored ideological notion of “peace”, a cornerstone of American propaganda against peoples struggling against colonial and racist oppression, whether in the colonised world or inside the US itself.

Arab regimes have always put their own national interests first and had established ties and collaborated with Israel since 1948

“Peace”, which maintains oppressive colonial and racist relations, we are told, brings prosperity, whereas struggling against injustice and oppression, dubbed “war” in US lingo, brings destruction and poverty.

In contrast with the Arab peoples who have ceaselessly shown solidarity with the Palestinians since Britain issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Arab regimes, as I have written in Middle East Eye before, have always put their own national interests first and had established ties and collaborated with Israel since 1948 – in the case of the Hashemite Amir Faisal since 1919. Apologists for Sadat’s surrender to Israel claimed for decades that President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s excessive zeal to defend the Palestinians led Egypt, as  Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi put it in 2014, to sacrifice “100,000 Egyptian martyrs” for the Palestinians.  

In fact, Egypt’s losses in the 1948 war, according to Egyptian military sources, were 1,168 soldiers, officers, and volunteers killed (as mentioned in Ibrahim Shakib’s book: The Palestine War 1948, p432-433), whereas other Egyptian official sources  (noted in Benny Morris’ book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, p406-407) put it at 1,400.

Moreover, King Farouk of Egypt entered the war in 1948 not because he placed Palestinian interests ahead of Egypt’s, but as analysts have shown, on account of his rivalry with the Iraqi monarchy for hegemony over the post-colonial Arab world. 

Not only did Nasser not launch a single war against Israel, but also all of Egypt’s subsequent wars were fought to defend Egypt, not the Palestinians. In 1956 and in 1967, Israel invaded Egypt and occupied Sinai.

photo taken on September 9, 1980 in Alexandria shows Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (L) and President of Egypt Anouar el Sadate (R).
Former Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin (L) and President of Egypt Anwar el Sadat (R) in Alexandria on 9 September 1980 (AFP)

Egyptian soldiers died in these wars defending their country, not the Palestinians. Between 1968 and 1970, Israel and Egypt fought the “War of Attrition” in which Egyptian soldiers were killed defending their country against continuing Israeli aggression, a war fought on Egyptian soil; and in 1973, Egypt launched a war to liberate Sinai, not Palestine, and Egyptian soldiers were again killed defending their country against foreign occupation.

Sacrificing Palestinians

When Sadat signed the Camp David Accords in 1978, not only did he not defend the Palestinians, he in fact sacrificed the Palestinians and their right to independence in exchange for the return of Sinai to Egypt (without full Egyptian sovereignty) and a lavish US aid package that served to enrich the Egyptian upper classes and impoverish most of the population.Arab rulers and Israel’s leaders: A long and secret history of cooperationRead More »

The Jordanian regime, whose army was led by a British colonial general, entered the 1948 war to expand its territory, which it did by annexing central Palestine (renamed the “West Bank”) after the war. In 1967, the Israelis invaded Jordan and occupied the West Bank. In both wars, Jordanian soldiers died for Jordanian regime interests, not Palestinian interests. 

When Jordan signed in 1994 its peace treaty with Israel, Palestinian interests were sacrificed yet again by Jordan’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist on stolen Palestinian land, and by securing some sort of Hashemite role over Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.

In exchange, Jordan also received a lavish US aid package benefiting the regime and the upper classes. In contrast with Egypt’s deal, Jordan’s deal was concluded without even requiring Israel to withdraw from any of the territories it occupied in 1967. Jordan’s “peace” with Israel, as a result, legitimised Israeli occupation and conquest and did not reverse any of it. 

While historically Egyptian and Jordanian soldiers might have been told they fought these wars for Palestine, the truth of the matter is that, unbeknownst to them, they fought them for their regime’s interests. As for Sudan, Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE, it remains unclear how they had ever put Palestinian interests before their own.

Peace ‘dividend’

A related argument is the so-called “peace dividend“, heavily marketed by the Americans since the 1970s, wherein we are told all the money spent on wars and armaments with Israel would now be used for economic development and prosperity.

To prove their allegiance to the anti-Palestinian policies of the US and Israel, Gulf officials have ceaselessly attacked Palestinians in the oil-families-owned Gulf media

The irony, of course, is that the military budgets of Egypt and Jordan, abetted by huge US military aid packages as a reward, skyrocketed since they normalised with Israel.  Economic development and state social benefits were in contrast reduced to unprecedented levels in both countries, bringing about massive poverty, and a decline in educational and health services. Even Jordanian officials who support the peace deal claim that Jordan has not properly cashed in on the “peace dividend”.

On the public relations front, as a result of congressional and media hostility to the Saudis and other Gulf countries after 9/11, the oil ruling families decided yet again to benefit at the expense of Palestinian interests by abandoning demands that Israel abide by international law and withdraw from the occupied territories as prerequisites to warmer relations. They quickly cosied up to Israel and its US lobby to stem the tide of such hostility by promising closer relations, which have now become open. 

 Pro-Palestinian protesters wave Palestinian flags and chant slogans against the US and Israel on December 10, 2017 in Rabat against
Pro-Palestinian protesters wave Palestinian flags and chant slogans against the US and Israel in Rabat on 10 December, 2017 (AFP)

None of this is the stuff of the past, but is part of ongoing normalisation, whereby President Trump announced huge SaudiMoroccanBahraini, and UAE purchases of US arms during the preparation and brokering of the normalisation deals in 2019 and after, which will militarise the region more than ever.

To prove their allegiance to the anti-Palestinian policies of the US and Israel, Gulf officials have ceaselessly attacked Palestinians in the oil-families-owned Gulf media and press in the last few years. Such attacks have recently become more vigorous, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

National interests

Ironically, the UAE had hoped to obtain the sophisticated F-35 fighter planes from the US in exchange for its peace with Israel. Israel and its supporters in Congress, however, refuse to allow this. Humiliated by this outcome, the UAE has suggested to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in order to assuage Israeli concerns, that Israeli fighter pilots take charge of the F-35s for a temporary period, after which they would train UAE pilots to replace them. How Gulf states became business partners in Israel’s occupation

Read More »

Morocco has also finally received US legitimisation of its takeover and annexation of the Western Sahara and Sudan was removed from the US list of terrorism-sponsoring countries. Neither country conceded nor sacrificed any part of its national interest to obtain such rewards.

Rather, like other Arab countries since 1948, they sacrificed Palestinian rights enshrined in international law to obtain benefits for themselves.  The  Arab League, an enemy of Palestinian interests since its establishment, also refused to condemn these peace deals even though they contradict its standing policy. 

Rather than sacrifice their national interests to defend the Palestinians, the Arab regimes have used every opportunity to sell out Palestinian rights to advance their own interests without respite.

Starting with the Hashemite Emir Faisal in 1919 who cooperated with the Zionists to ensure their support for his then Syrian kingdom, to King Mohammad VI’s normalisation with Israel to legitimise Morocco’s control of the Western Sahara, the Palestinians have been a God-send to Arab regimes which used and continue to use and abuse them for their own benefit.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.Joseph MassadJoseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, Desiring Arabs, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated to a dozen languages.

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