The West should get out of the Middle East

By Jonathan Power

The year’s first major atrocity – Saudi Arabia’s execution by beheading on Sunday of 47 people, including an important Shia ayotallah who led Shia protests against discrimination by the Sunni majority but never committed an act of violence.

Even the Islamic State doesn’t behead 47 in one day. Although beheading is swift it strikes most of us as being grotesque as well as medieval. The Saudis are aware of their image in the outside world but nevertheless persist, as if they want to tell the rest of the world: “Back off. Our Wahhabi (ultra puritanical) morality is our morality. We are a belief system unto ourselves.”

They exported the political convictions that have evolved out of Wahhabism to Afghanistan (with money for guns along with the theology), first to fight the Russians, then to arm the Taliban and later to allow them to “ignore” that the Taliban was giving refuge to Al-Qaeda.

Over the last three years rich Saudis, for lack of policing, have been allowed, in effect, to fund IS.

Saudi Arabia not only has a political and judicial system capable of repulsive acts it is also got a foreign policy that the West should have no part of. Along with Israel it hounded, unsuccessfully, the US, Russia and the EU into not making a deal with Shia Iran over curbing its nuclear program.

Today it opposes Iran on a wide range of issues, not least its support of President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria.

Now with the beheading of a respected Shia iman it has made a bid to be the unchallenged tough guy of all Sunni-majority countries in what looks like becoming a clash of civilizations between the major strands of Islam, in defiant disregard of the admonishment of Mohammed himself not to kill fellow Muslims.

The West should remove itself from this imbroglio as quickly as it can.

Imagine if some outside power (India? China?) had tried in the 16th and 17th centuries to intervene directly in the murderous religious wars, Catholics versus Protestants, that devastated Europe. They could have done nothing useful, and would have only stirred things up further.

Of course, talking, cajoling, negotiating make for a useful outsiders’ input but not providing guns to this or that side or bombing and certainly not “putting boots on the ground” as in Iraq and, now with “special forces”, in Syria.

The US and Europe don’t need Saudi Arabia as they used to. The surge in oil fracking technology has diminished the strategic value of Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states.

Foreign policy is no longer aligned. Ten years ago a combination of US pressure and the shock of large-scale al-Qaeda attacks inside Saudi Arabia itself convinced the Saudis and their neighbours to clamp down on jihadist activities within their own borders. Yet today, such is their desire to overthrow Assad, they have, as Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson write in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, “subordinated the suppression of jihadism to the goal of overthrowing Assad and hobbling his patrons in Iran. They are doing this by backing Sunni extremist rebels in Syria despite Washington’s exhortations to stop”.

Moreover, the West no longer finds Middle Eastern countries as attractive an investment opportunity as once it did. Much of the region is becoming dysfunctional. Even the more prosperous parts run large fiscal and external deficits, maintain huge and inefficient civil services, and spend heavily on subsidies.

On nearly every indicator – infant and maternal mortality, education and health services – they do less well than countries elsewhere with the same income levels. And they treat their immigrant workers badly.

The hopes since the 1950s for the ascendancy of a secular, technocratic, Western-orientated elite that would bring their societies along with them have been eroded. Egypt is regressing. Saudi Arabia is hoisting itself on its own petard of extreme fundamentalism. The latest manifestation of the historic Shia-Sunni quarrel – tragically triggered by the US/UK decision to overthrow Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – is coming to the boil.

Even if the West believed that politically it should do something, militarily it couldn’t. The US and its allies are capable of defeating a coherent nationalist state in warfare but it cannot deal with “a transnational clash of ethnicities, turbo-charged by religious narratives”.

As in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it is in the chaotic aftermath of the conflict that outsiders run out of solutions as to how to stabilize the political and religious turbulence unleashed by war.

Europe and North America are not seriously threatened at home by these Middle Eastern conflicts. Since 9/11 there have been fewer terrorist attacks on American soil than there were in the 1970s. But if the West does get more involved it will inevitably provoke more attacks.

Saudi Arabia and its local allies and enemies should be left to work themselves out of their quagmire without outside interference.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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