December 16, 2022

West Asia After Political Islam And Black Gold

An excerpt from, "‘The end of the oil state era in West Asia is approaching fast’: Patrick Cockburn" Frontline, January 8, 2021:

West Asia has been unstable since the end of the Ottoman Empire. It has been an arena for international confrontation ever since. Reasons for this include, one, oil; two, Israel; three, states in West Asia look weak but societies are strong and very difficult to conquer—witness Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the even more self-destructive U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Invaders and occupiers in West Asia have great difficulty turning military superiority into political dominance.

Foreign intervention usually exploits and exacerbates sectarian and ethnic divisions, though it seldom entirely creates them. Britain relied on the urban Sunnis to rule Iraq; the French looked to minorities such as Christians in Lebanon to rule there. More recently, foreign powers gave money, arms and political support to factions in Iraq to enhance their own influence but fuelling civil war. Opponents of Saddam Hussein genuinely believed that he had created religious divisions and these would disappear when he was overthrown. But, on the contrary, they got much deeper and more lethal. The same is true of Syria: the battle lines generally ran along sectarian and ethnic boundaries. Intervention in West Asia has traditionally ended badly for British and American leaders: three British Prime Ministers (David Lloyd George, Anthony Eden and Tony Blair) lost power or were badly damaged by the West Asian interventions they launched, as were three American presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush).

The Iran Revolution was a turning point for the region out of which came the Iran-Iraq war that in turn exacerbated Shia-Sunni hostility throughout the region. Saddam Hussein won a technical victory in the war but then overplayed his hand by invading Kuwait. Aside from Iraq, the sides confronting one another in West Asia are much the same now as they were 40 years ago. One big change is the recent emergence of Turkey as an important player, intervening militarily in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Biden or no Biden , the nature of power in West Asia is changing. Oil states are no longer what they were because the price of oil is down and is likely to stay that way. This is profoundly destabilising: between 2012 and 2020, the oil revenue of Arab oil producers fell by two-thirds, from $1 trillion to $300 billion, in a single year. In other words, the ability of the rulers of a state like Saudi Arabia to project power abroad and retain power at home has significantly diminished. A country like Iraq has just half the income it needs from oil—and it has no other exports—to pay state employees and to prevent the bankruptcy of the Iraqi state. People forget what a peculiar situation we have had in West Asia over the last half century, with countries that would have had marginal or limited importance in the world—like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Libya and Iran—becoming international political players thanks to their oil wealth. They could afford to buy off domestic dissent by creating vast patronage machines that provided well-paid jobs. But there is no longer the money to do this. The end of the oil-state era is not yet entirely with us, but it is approaching fast.

An excerpt from, "Decline of political Islam as a national ideology in Saudi Arabia has implications for the Islamic world" By Mohsin Raza Khan, The Indian Express, September 12, 2022:

The international dimension of these changes extends to a strict domestic clampdown on Islamic charities as well as a moderation of the external face of Saudi Islam that is represented by the World Muslim league. Its head, Sheikh Al Issa, has delegitimised all violence in Islam’s name, even within Israel. He delivered the main Haj sermon this year and now regularly meets and visits Christian and Jewish leaders at home and abroad, including a visit to Auschwitz. MBS has himself met delegations of visiting evangelicals a couple of times.

The excesses of violent extremism unleashed by al Qaeda and ISIS over the past two decades have paradoxically helped to legitimise these changes. In addition, the decades of strife in and around Saudi Arabia have culled the most violent among the hardliners and left others with nightmares of that time.