Trump’s Ally: Saudi Arabia’s drive for Aristocratic Hegemony in the Middle East

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Saudi Arabia is making a drive to become a regional hegemon. It has long used its oil wealth to achieve a great deal of influence among neighbors, of course. But it is now flexing military muscles. From a Saudi point of view, they have suffered decades of dangerous reversals, and they are determined to push back foes and ensure not just their security but their control.

The dangers the Saudis see include the revolutionary, Shiite Islam of Khomeinist Iran. It is not only a hated rival branch of Islam but Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who came to power in 1979, said “there are no kings in Islam.” It is republican with a small ‘r.’ The Saudis hate it just as the Austro-Hungarian emperors hated the French Revolution. Inasmuch as Hizbullah in Lebanon adopted Khomeinism and is close to Tehran, it is also seen as a threat by the Saudis. The anti-Wahhabi, Zaydi Shiite Houthi movement in Yemen has made the error of imitating Hizbullah and speaking of overthrowing the House of Saud in Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia has gone to war against the Houthis in Yemen. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, dominated by Alawite Shiites who are secular socialists, is seen as an enemy mostly because it is allied with Iran (the Saudis used to support the al-Assads back in the 1970s and 1980s). The Saudis have supported radical fundamentalist guerrillas in Syria such as Jaysh al-Islam.

It so happens that along several dimensions, the groups the Saudis see as threats are the same as those tagged as dangerous by the right wing Likud Israeli government, creating a Saudi-Israeli tacit alliance. Hence the influence in the campaign against Qatar of American Israel lobbies.

Riyadh feels that the Bush administration deprived them of an ally in the form of the Sunni Saddam Hussein, and replaced him with a pro-Iranian, Shiite dominated Iraq that they fear.

On the Sunni Side, the Saudis are anxious about the populist Sunni movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Saudi Arabia, a country of some 20 million citizens and 6 million guest workers, follows the ultra-conservative and puritanical Wahhabi form of Islam, which is rejected by all but 21 million or so Muslims in the world. Some Sunnis are attracted to a form of Sunnism inflected by Wahhabism, known as Salafism. The Saudi royal family does use appeals to Muslim arch-conservatism as a form of soft power. But it is also perfectly capable of supporting secular movements and governments. Thus, it backs the Egyptian officer corps, which is nationalist rather than fundamentalist. It favors the secular Palestine Liberation Organization over the fundamentalist Hamas.

Think about the Wahhabis as sort of like Southern Baptists inasmuch as both are very literalist in their approach to scripture, protestant, puritanical, and reject the idea of saints’ intercession with God or gaudy decorations in place of worship, and both are highly patriarchal. The two are very different, but share some religious themes.

Qatar is also a Wahhabi society, but it is a much smaller country (probably 300,000 Qatari citizens and a couple million guest workers, mainly from Asia). Because influential members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood took refuge there in the 1950s and after, since the MB was and still is seen as dangerous subversives in nationalist Egypt.

Think of the Muslim Brotherhood as sort of like a lay Catholic order that enters into politics, the sort of people active in the National Right to Life organization, who want to shape civil law in the light of their canon law. The MB for the most part did not reject saints or visiting their tombs for blessings. It is populist, a movement of the lower middle class (along with some business people and professionals) rather than being aristocratic and absolutist the way Wahhabism is.

If authority in Saudi Arabia is a pyramid with the king at the top and the tribes and clergy and people at the bottom, authority in the Muslim Brotherhood is more like the spokes of a wheel going out in a more egalitarian way from the Supreme Guide and his politburo. The Saudis are afraid the wheel will pull down the pyramid.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization, and Qatar, contrary to what Trump alleged, is not supporting terrorism. In fact, the common conceit in the West that Wahhabism is linked to terrorism would be hard to prove. Lots of Sunnis and Shiites have committed terrorist acts, as have Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and Hindus. Most Wahhabis go through life committing no violence. I even know relatively liberal Wahhabis who are more liberal than some Sunnis I know. The oil wealth has created a new generation of cosmopolitan Wahhabi young business people and professionals. There are still many strict puritans, of course, but puritanism, however annoying, is not terrorism. And let’s not forget that America was founded on puritanism.

Qatar stands accused of using the Al Jazeera satellite t.v. station to promote the Muslim Brotherhood. (Religious Palestinians have long been important in its management and staffing). When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt in 2011-2012, claiming Islamic authority based on its populism and elections, that posed a severe threat to the Saudi monarchy, which suddenly had a religious and not just secular rival in Egypt. The Saudi elite was afraid Brotherhood influence would come over and challenge the monarchy.

Hamas in Gaza is a distant branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (it is organized by country, so there is no common reporting line). That is one reason the Saudis dislike it and back the secular PLO.

Qatar, from Riyadh’s point of view, is just not a team player. It has supported the Muslim Brotherhood and kindred movements in Egypt and Syria. It is allied with the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Turkey. Qatar’s traditional policy is to keep lines open to Iran and to remain on speaking terms with the ayatollahs, while Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince Muhammad bin Salman wants to isolate Iran, cut off its government, and kill it. Qatar is on the exact opposite side from Iran in Syria, where it supported the Muslim Brotherhood rebels, some of whom morphed into radicals. But it doesn’t support the Salafis such as Jaysh al-Islam, who are backed by the Saudis.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have lost in Syria to the Iran-Russia coalition. But since Qatar has no ambitions to be a regional hegemon (it is too tiny for that), they can live with that defeat and still hope to be influential among the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups in any post-war settlement. The Saudis are furious about their defeat and inability to dislodge Iran from Syria. The Saudis are on a war footing in their quest for hegemony, and so abhor grey areas. Everything is black and white to them, and Qatar is not following that logic.

The Saudis and their allies have blockaded Qatar, which gets 90% of its food from places like Jordan, from which it is trucked in across Saudi Arabia. If it has to fly or ship in food, that will be an added expense for the guest workers, who could start peeling off.

It isn’t clear exactly what the militant Saudi would-be hegemons want. Qatar has already expelled Hamas members from Doha. Does Riyadh insist on Qatar cutting off the Muslim Brotherhood everywhere? The closure of Al Jazeera or radical changes in its editorial line? Cutting off Iran diplomatically?

The crisis will probably be resolved without such drastic measures. Qatar has the advantage of being the world’s biggest supplier of Liquefied Natural Gas, making it fabulously wealthy and independent. But it suffers from having a tiny citizen population, smaller than that of Cleveland. In military contests, demography is often destiny.

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34 Responses

  1. While mainstream MB is not a terrorist organisation, MB has long had extreme elements. In Syria, these extreme MB elements, with their outside connections, were ready to get into armed conflict from the outset.

    At one stage, Qatar was said to be supporting Ahrar al-Sham. A-S has grown in recent times as it has absorbed smaller groups of rebels.

  2. While the American President was on a historical visit to KSA a few weeks ago the Arabian rulers were rubbing noses against each other

    Suddenly the scenes changed at the theater of the absurd.

    What was Qatar’s wrongdoing?

    The Saudis accused it of supporting “terrorism”. It is unbelievable that they support terrorism as such

    If that is true that support applies to other Arab states too

    Qatar’s real wrongdoing is that it has been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood that the Saudis, Egyptians and Emiratis have targeted.

    Also Qatar refused to sign the ‘Riyadh Declaration’ that the Saudis put in front of Muslim rulers in Riyadh on May 22 to sign when Donald Trump was visiting.

    Is this declaration a new sort of Muslim NATO or a plan to destabilize Iran and try a regime change in Iran with American help later on?

    It is true Qatar has played a role in the war on Yemen but rather very minor role but the Saudis are not getting anywhere in Yemen either with or without Qatar.

    It is terribly a sad story that the relations between Arab nations are not related to the unity of the Ummah but are manipulated by the policies that are linked to American Empire

  3. Aristocratic Hegemony and Austro-Hungarian emperors! You are too generous. I would call it primitive tribal affiliation, rivalry and interest. Add money and we have, Wealthy dictatorial nanny nations, narrow puritanical religious scripture, √. Fire breathing radical preachers in grand mosques, AfPac caves and online,√. It’s a miracle by Trump that stuff is hitting the fan where every ones role can be seen and discussed openly.

  4. More interesting for me will be if the security establishment can get the President to keep his mouth shut long enough to mediate this crisis between it’s Gulf allies.

  5. It seems unlikely Trump would be aware of any of this, or indeed endowed with sufficient patience to take it in. There’s an interesting piece in the Brookings Institution publication proposing, pretty convincingly, that the $350 billion, wham bang thank you armament deal with Saudi Arabia is another Trump fantasy link to brookings.edu . Assuming this to be true brings again to the fore the question, what exactly was he up to there aside from his inelegant effort at a sword dance. The fixed point is perhaps his extensive demonisation of Iran, repeated again with Netanyahu. Considering his campaign trail insistence he was not intending to get involved in foreign adventures, it could be he left the Saudis confident that if they choose, alone or with others, to have a go at Iran he would regard it as a local matter and leave them to it. That would remove their US ankle monitor and vastly increase their local stature regardless of whether or not they do actually attack Iran. Meanwhile Trump comes home waving ‘the biggest arms deal ever’. The next episode will be screened on Sunday at 9 pm.

  6. You are absolutely right to point out the alliance between the Saudis and the rightwing Likud government in Israel, and hence the involvement of Israeli lobbies against Qatar. The issue is not about Qatar’s support for terrorists, because in that case it is Saudi Arabia and its extreme Wahhabi ideology that should be at the center of attention. The reason for the attacks on Qatar is because she has given shelter to Hamas leaders, supports Muslim Brotherhood, and also is not prepared to join the Arab-Israeli crusade against Iran.

    President Trump and the Iranophobes around him are playing a very dangerous game with their campaign to unify the Arab states and Israel against Iran. Instead of putting an end to terrorism, this strategy will destroy the little stability that exists in the Middle East and will intensify terrorism. Muhammad bin Salman, the ambitious Saudi defense minister, said a couple of weeks ago that he would wage the war inside Iranian territory. This morning’s concerted terrorist attacks in the Iranian parliament building and in Khomeyni’s mausoleum that have killed and injured a dozen people seem to be the first sign of the implementation of the prince’s plan. I hope President Trump and U.S. government will condemn those terrorist attacks, as they do elsewhere.

    It is ironic that far from unifying the Sunni world, President Trump’s meeting with Arab autocrats in Riyadh has divided the GCC. Kuwait and Oman did not join in breaking off relations with Qatar, and already Qatar has moved away from the Saudis and closer to Iran that has provided her with flight paths and has offered to send food. There is talk that Qatar will be expelled from the GCC.

    Cooler heads in Washington must see the danger of the present situation and instead of starting an all-out war in the Middle East should press Israel to resolve the Palestinian issue in keeping with international law, and also call on their Arab allies to stop supporting the militants in Syria and beyond.

    • Muhammad bin Salman, the ambitious Saudi defense minister, said a couple of weeks ago that he would wage the war inside Iranian territory.

      The defense (sic) minister would do well to ponder Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran and the United States’ “cakewalk” through Iraq and the history of the Middle East since.

    • Iran? Hell, Russia could airlift food in, in ironic callback to Berlin 1948. But what will it demand in return? Looks like the Pentagon is really stuck with Trump on this one.

  7. When will the news agencies report about the FBI suspecting Russian hacking in this whole mess. It would make sense on so many levels. Split US allies in the middle east, make the oil markets unstable and raise prices, and make Putin look that must more powerful.

  8. Excellent summary, Juan.
    Saudi Arabia is/wants to be the natural hegemon on the Arabian Peninsula. Qatar has been getting out of line, feeling its oats with all that carbon-based income. AlJazeerah, FIFA world cup, independent foreign policy in conflict resolution (Darfur,Palestine,etc.Libya of course). Young Mohammad bin Salman in KSA is also feeling his oats unlike his elders from the late kings Faisal to Abdullah. Spot on!

  9. This is certainly one of your best analyses! In laymen’s terms it points out some of the extraordinarily difficult concepts we have of the Islamic and political issues of the region. Thanks

  10. Saudi Arabia, America’s supplier of oil for decades, and now one of America’s top customers of our deadly weapons,has got arrogant, and emboldened by America’s continuous support, and our willingness to ignore all it’s human rights violations. It has joined forces with enemy no.1, Israel, to wage their proxy wars, and bring Iran down. Most probably Qatar is being punished for it’s association with Iran.

      • No, but due to a 1971 vote by OPEC, all member sales are denominated in US $. Saudi Arabia provided the key votes as it has the plurality of votes in OPEC. Thus, OPEC’s victories were also a guarantee of the ability of the US to run fiscal and trade deficits without the usual consequences, since printing more $ doesn’t proportionately reduce their value as long as they are needed overseas.

        It’s been understood that as part of this arrangement, the Saudis would have to recycle the $ they earn in various ways, including investing in the US and buying weapons from the US.

  11. Trump and Saudi money and Iran, what a mix. Trump Netanyahoo and the Arabs would like to level Iran.
    Trump is ready as long as the kings pay for it and his family makes a profit.

  12. Islamic State takes credit for two suicide bombings inside Tehran – coincidence, or more Saudi mischief?

  13. I was struck by the observation of Khomeini that there are no kings in Islam both by its resonance with the founding principles of the U.S. and with how Trump had reveled in being treated as royalty in Riyadh by the wealthiest royal family on the planet.

  14. How credible do you think the story is about Qatar’s media agency being hacked by Russia? That would be quite a successful conspiracy, if true…

    CNN Exclusive: US suspects Russian hackers planted fake news behind Qatar crisis
    link to cnn.com

    UAE has gone off the deep end almost. They’re threatening to lock up anyone who sympathizes with Qatar for up to 15 years. They could literally disrupt Qatar’s gas supplies if they want…though aren’t going there yet.

    link to bbc.com

    Is this also the end of Al Jazeera? I was always aware of their biased slants and self-censorship, but still they were relatively ‘independent’ despite being state controlled. This might mean a more restrictive media and silencing throughout the region I think.

    And now the attack in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guards are implying it’s Saudi Arabia being behind it.
    link to cnn.com

  15. Questions:

    1. What is this map supposed to represent? Not Sunni- vs. Shiite-dominated governments, because Turkey and Russia are the same color as Iran. Not political alliances, because (for example) Turkey and Russia are the same color as each other. Other oddities: Georgia and Armenia seem to have joined into one country and converted to Islam. Yemen is shown as divided, but Iraq is not.

    2. Is Saudi Arabia still on track to go bankrupt soon? This could affect their plans for regional domination.

    3. How come the USA likes Sunnis better than Shi’ites, but Russia likes Shi’ites? Did one of them get to pick first?

    • The map shows countries willing to join Saudi Arabia in beating up on Qatar versus those who are not.

      Armenia is typically aligned with Iran in foreign policy. Russia is for the moment also allied with Iran. The map has nothing to do with religion. Israel, Egypt and Saudia have little in common but all hate Iran and the Brotherhood, hence are glad to join in anti-Qatar effort.

    • 2. They’re privatizing Aramco for short-term cash… and to curry the favor of those Westerners who will receive shares at a price that I guess the King can set on a case by case basis. What do you think a 1% share of Aramco is worth to The Trump Organization?

      3. The US got into this particular jam way back when it accepted the transfer of the Shah of Iran to our sphere of influence. That made us an enemy of Shiism right there, but we didn’t know it until the hostage crisis. Then we sided with the Falangists in Lebanon right when Shia militants began to attack the Falangist-Israeli alliance, thus the Marine barracks bombing.

      Russia, meanwhile, is stuck with Syria as a legacy of the naval base Assad Senior let the Soviets build. The British have fanatically opposed Russian access to the Mediterranean since, I don’t know, the Crimean War? Another commitment the US inherited. But since the end of the Cold War, Syria is coded “Shiite” not “socialist” because Iran took its side against Saudi’s growing jihad against all that is not Wahhabi. Syria is the land bridge between Iran and Lebanon, the two prior grudges I mentioned.

  16. Professor Cole,

    How likely is it that all our Western analyses are viewing KSR through a Western lens, when they should more properly be evaluated in more basic terms?

    It appears to me that the Saudi leadership and their Wahabi partners are simply resuming the offensive they left off when the British arrived in 1852. The still have a project in mind: the conquest of the whole of the peninsula.

    The utter incoherence and hypocrisy of their demands against Qatar speaks to this as their real objective. They just mean to grab Qatar for purely dynastic purposes, and Trump’s abdication of American interests is a perfect opportunity.

    There seems to be nothing that the Qataris could do faced with these demands other than cease existing- and that is, it seems to me, what the Saudis are intending to arrange.

  17. Articles like this are why I read/value this website. Thank you, Professor Cole.

  18. I have a few questions, and take these as honest questions, I am trying to understand, not push an agenda. Some of my confusion probably arises from dishonest media players and false narratives.

    1) When the Egypt revolution occurred, and MB was later elected, there were claims that MB was going to alter the constitution to seize power. There were claims that MB was supporting terror groups in Sinai. There were claims that this led to the bombing of a Russian jetliner MetroJet 9628. Are these claims credible? Was the bombing a terror attack, an assassination, or a message to end Russian involvement in Egypt?

    2) What is your opinion on the role of Ahmed Chalabi? His wikipedia article says that he was an Iranian Spy. If that is true – then his role as an adviser to the Bush administration in WMD intel, and invasion of Iraq, this implies that Iran “tricked” the US into ousting Saddam, thus making Iraq into a shiite-dominated Ally of Iran. On the other hand, when the US attacked Iraq, Saudi Arabia was the target of several ballistic missile strikes by Saddam. I don’t see how Saddam could have been thought of as an ally of Saudi Arabia either. Trying to divide this all up on Shia-Sunni basis seems to obscure some deeper motivations.

    3) Is it possible that with Qatar having the worlds 3rd largest oil and gas reserves in the world, that Saudi Arabia is simply making a grab to control more marketshare?

    • 1. The Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt in an autocratic way and tried to take over all major institutions of government; that way of proceeding however did not justify a military coup.

      2. Ahmad Chalabi was working for Ahmad Chalabi.

      3. Saudi Arabia produces oil, not gas, so measures against Qatar are political, not economic.

      • “that way of proceeding however did not justify a military coup.”
        Of course it did.
        The legitimacy of a government is not determined by who supports it or how many people support it. The legitimacy of a government is determined by what it does. Some implications of this understanding are that the ends (usually) justify the means. A second implication is that there is no point in trying to legitimize institutions that have a monopoly of coercive power in a given geographical region. Any such attempt will be based on subjective reasons not objective reasons. So of course to say that the legitimacy of a government is determined by what a government does not who supports it or how much support that it has is just as subjective as to say that a government gets its legitmacy “from the people”.
        The bottom line is that the current regime in Egypt is not legitimate. But it is more legitimate than the MB was. (In my subjective opinion, as a self proclaimed qualified world juror, based on the evidence that I have seen so far)

  19. Great dialogue here! So many intertwined facets. Wondering what will happen in ME when the climate crisis tightens it’s hold. Desert climates are already very hot and not productive if you discount oil.

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