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World’s worst kept secret: Why Saudi is following Israeli policy on sectarianism

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In the wake of the beheading of Ayatullah Baqir al-Nimr, the Middle East has quickly reshaped its political landscape. In response to the execution, Iranian protesters stormed Saudi embassies in Tehran and Mashhad, setting ablaze the office in its capital. While Iran arrested sixty individuals involved and even sacked its Tehran commander of special forces[1], Foreign Ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council met in Riyadh to issue a joint statement condemning the attacks as “terrorism” and accused Iran of “blatant interventions in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Saudi Arabia immediately announced the severing of diplomatic ties giving Iranian staff 48 hours to leave. Five days later, a Saudi airstrike struck Iran’s embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa injuring several staff.[2]

Whilst the violence and rhetoric between Riyadh and Tehran may have been a predictable outcome, what has been surprising is the response from countries without direct involvement to the latest Saudi-Iranian confrontation. First came the announcement from Bahrain, expeditious in following their closest Gulf ally by cutting diplomatic relations. This was swiftly followed by the UAE in downgrading its diplomatic representation. While Qatar and Kuwait recalled their ambassadors, Jordan summoned Iran’s ambassador to condemn the attack and “Iranian interference.”

Even more curious however, was the reaction of several African states. Sudan, Somalia and the tiny Horn of Africa nation, Djibouti, also cut ties with Iran citing “solidarity with Saudi Arabia.” This unprecedented trans-continental “solidarity” has drawn distinctly little attention from political commentators, almost establishing its normalcy in the political world. Few questions have been raised such as ‘what reason do these countries have to involve themselves in the Saudi-Iranian dispute’ or ‘why was there no such reprimand against the Saudis after airstrikes on the Iranian embassy?’ The silence is deafening. And it’s not the first time in recent weeks a trans-continental alliance with Saudi Arabia as its pivot has been formed.

On the 15th of December 2015, Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defence announced a 34 country military alliance “to fight terrorism.” Once again a passive and culpable media silence allowed the mendacity of such a notion to pass unquestioned. Isn’t this the same Saudi Arabia that is both the ideological and financial source of Islamic terrorism? In 2014 a “Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State” consisting of 59 countries was formed at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, while the US, France and Russia have all formed separate coalitions, thus why the need for an additional one? In 2015 the US dropped 23,000[3] bombs in their fight against terrorism, whilst Saudi Arabia hasn’t flown a mission against ISIS in 6 months;[4] if Saudi Arabia is so intent on fighting terrorism why have they been so inactive until now? In October, a Saudi diplomat even demanded Russia halt its attacks on terrorist groups in Syria.[5]

It is here that not only the intent but also the history of this coalition comes into question. It was first publicly floated, not by the Saudi’s but by Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence Service; Ayalon said, “What should be the future of the Middle East, ten years from now? It should be based on several parameters. First of all we have to accept that it is very important to create a Sunni coalition.” When asked about the threat to Israel from Iran he replied, “If we are going to act unilaterally, without creating the atmosphere in the Middle East, it’s not only that we shall have to face the reaction… but if the assumption is, we are part of a coalition based on a kind of Sunni coalition, meaning Turkey, with Egypt, with Jordan, with Saudi Arabia (who) understand that the major conflict is with Shi’a lead by Iran, and they create this coalition that will face Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will… (trails off).”[6]

This vision for the Middle East should not be taken lightly, especially in light of admissions of covert Saudi-Israeli cooperation against Iran over a series of five meetings since 2014.[7] On June 5, 2015 Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold and Saudi General, Anwar Majed Eshki announced the new alliance at a conference in Washington in which General Eshki presented a seven point strategic plan for the region. Whilst number one was peace between Arab countries and Israel, number two was regime change in Iran.[8] While Israel and Saudi Arabia share little, the one thing they do share is Iranian resistance. How much easier would each of their projects be should they unite to remove the “lead” force of opposition? Retired Israeli general Shimon Shapira explained the union as, “We discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers.”[9] Elsewhere evidence of Saudi-Israeli ties mount as Israel provide medical care to wounded Saudi sponsored ISIS fighters.[10]

This growing proximity between the Muslim world and Israel is now visible. Traditional Muslim opposition to Israel has waned through a series of political, economic and military ties. In 2009 Israeli Foreign Ministry official Yacov Hadas stated, “The Gulf Arabs believe in Israel’s role because of their perception of Israel’s close relationship with the United States” adding Gulf states “believe Israel can work magic.”[11] In 2014, Turkish-Israeli trade attained a historic record, a particularly remarkable fact in the context of global economic difficulties.[12] Qatar trades plastics, machinery, computer equipment and medical instruments with Israel.[13] The Sisi era has also witnessed “unprecedented coordination between Israel and Egypt” as “Sisi communicates directly with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu.”[14]

Ayalon’s proposal is beyond stoking sectarian tensions. He is advocating a complete manipulation of the billion plus Sunni world into a regional civil war for the benefit of Israeli protection. Saudi Arabia is not Sunni, but rather promotes its own brand of puritanical Islam, a cocktail of militant Wahhabiism and extreme Arab nationalism, while Iran promotes its own understanding of politicised Shi’ism. By suggesting countries form a Sunni coalition to unite against Shi’as precludes that the Sunni community must think along sectarian fault lines and view Shiism as the existential threat, and not Israel. National interests must now be seen through the lens of a manufactured Sunni-Shia conflict and all for the removal of the regions prime source of support for Palestinian self-determination and resistance to Israel. And with the Saudi adoption of this scheme, Muslims are falling into the trap. Jamal Khashoggi, a leading Saudi propagandist, recently declared that Muslim countries have to decide if they were “with us or against us” when facing the Shi’a threat.[15] A recent poll of Saudi public opinion conducted by students at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, an Israeli university, found that a minority of the Saudi public viewed Israel as a major threat to their country and instead cited, by a 3-1 margin Iran as their primary object of concern.[16]

The Sunni coalition has been Saudi Arabia’s Plan B. Its first option was to fund each faction of terrorism invading Syria and Iraq over the last five years to force a pan-regional sectarian war. US Vice President Joe Biden elaborated on this at a speech at Harvard University saying, “They (the Saudi’s) were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shi’a war, they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tonnes of weapons into anyone who would fight. Except the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra and Al-Qaida and the extremist elements of Jihadi’s coming from other parts of the world.”[17] What the Saudi’s hadn’t foreseen however, was Sunni-Shi’a coalitions in Iraq and Syria, liberating over a quarter of the land captured by the Islamic State.[18] As a result of the policy to fund sectarian extremists and a Sunni-Shia war failing, the international coalition project, as spawned by Israel, is well under way.

From the perspective of the US, a Sunni coalition to war against Iran is ideal. Following the unsuccessful occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little public support for a war against Iran. Although the invasions did bring financial relief in the form of contracts for American businesses, that could only come with regime change and the case for airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities haven’t even been successfully made. What better than exporting the issue to Saudi Arabia and their regional partners.

The mistake Saudi Arabia made was not remembering that the more people you tell your secret to, the less control you have over it. Eventually it will get out. Pakistan brought the issue of the coalition to its parliament for debate. The parliament initially rejected participation after the Saudi’s insisted that only Sunni Muslim soldiers in the Pakistani army be allowed to participate in the coalition.[19] Muslims across the world no longer need to ask, ‘why should a sectarian litmus test be applied to joining a coalition fighting terror and who exactly is the target of this Shia-excluded coalition?’ Amin Shalaby, executive director for the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs stated, “It is clear that the Islamic Coalition is represented by Sunni countries only; will it not play into the hands of the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites? This is the most dangerous potential development for the region at the moment.”[20] Moreover, not only are the likes of Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti present in the coalition, but countries with a distinct Shi’a presence such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria excluded – despite Iraq and Syria being at the forefront of fighting Islamic terrorism today.

The Muslim community should be most concerned by the parallel between Ayalon’s plan to use Muslim blood for its own cause and its ominous manifestation by Saudi foreign policy and regional alliances. The interests of the Muslim world surely do not lie in the intelligence services of Tel Aviv, or Washington for that matter, nor seemingly in Riyadh. That Saudi Arabia has aligned with Israel suggests the war on terror may soon take a lurch in an insidious and violent sectarian direction, one which may irreversibly split a billion Muslims. The people of the Middle East are being exploited by their fears and a finely choreographed war is being laid out in front of them. The Muslim world used to consider Israel as its greatest threat, yet today somehow it is its greatest ally. Syria has all but lost its sovereignty with gangs, armies, a dozen countries feeding it arms for self destruction and laying waste to it through airstrikes, all under the sanitised language of ‘coalitions’ and ‘fighting terrorism’. If Saudi Arabia and Israel have their way, Iran will be next.

Follow Sheikh Jaffer Ladak on Twitter here: @jafferladak