Saturday 25 April 2015

When myths are taken as facts (Pakistan Observer)

Friday, April 24, 2015 - The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is far and away the most important power in the Middle East, not merely because of its oil wealth and its size, but because of the fact that the two holiest sites of Islam are within its boundaries. This geographical reality has given Riyadh a “soft power” completely out of proportion to its size. Given the tapestry of the Muslim world, where many different schools of thought exist, some having millions of followers, in hindsight it may have been preferable for the regime in Saudi Arabia to be more neutral in its approach towards these different strands of a faith that is the fastest-growing in the world.

However, almost from the start of their ascent to power two centuries back, the ruling Al Saud family (after whom the Kingdom is named) have formed a bond with the followers of Abdul Wahhab, with the two families closely linked through marriage. As a consequence, the teachings of the theologian have been accepted as the only true version of a faith which has more than a billion adherents worldwide, and in brief decades will overtake Christianity as the faith having the largest number of followers worldwide. Mosques other than those approved by this interpretation of the faith are disallowed from construction, while the houses of worship of any other faith is banned under law. 

At a time when change is the only constant, and when hundreds of millions of young people seek to acquire the skills needed to succeed in competition with their peers, a more liberal approach would have served the overall interests of this vast country better. Indeed, this was what was being attempted by King Abdullah, who even reached out beyond the Abrahamic faiths to Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism when ensuring the holding of interfaith dialogues, some of which have been attended by this columnist.

The Sudairi branch of the Saudi royals has for several decades persued a policy of enforcing orthodoxy within the Kingdom despite the reality of their being coismopolitan in their outlook and lifestyles. after the passing away of King Abdullah, there has been a visible shift in Riyadh’s policy towards the region. Rather than a nuanced approach, intervention is now direct, and in a military form, as witnessed by the air force operations in Yemen. As those familiar with such combat know, it is impossible to subdue a fighting force exclusively from the air, except in Europe, where the pain threshold of the population is low, and consequently an air offensive can lead to civilian hardship so severe that a country’s leaders are forced into submission, as took place in the matter of Serbia.

Both London and Washington, in contrast, have a “Use & Throw” policy towards those who expend blood and treasure by the side of the US and the UK in conflicts, as policymakers in Asia and surrounding regions know only too well from Taipei to Kabul, not to mention Cairo, where it took Hillary Clinton less than thirty days to abandon to his fate Hosni Mubarak, who had served the interests of Washington and its principal partner in the region, Isrrael, for three decades and more. The creation of myths is a function of psychological operations, and part of the chessboard of struggle in the modern world. However, the danger comes when myths deliberately created to mislead get believed even by those manufacturing them. 

After Saddam Hussein’s unwise takeover of Kuwait, the individual who was given massive help in his decade-long battle against Iran suddenly became a foe, and consequently a flood of reports linking him to terrorism got manufactured in the psy-war laboratories of NATO. That these were too potent for relatively simple-minded individuals to be immune from became clear when both President George W Bush and Vice-President Richard Cheney of the US began to believe that Saddam was the actual head of Al Qaeda and that Osama bin Laden was only his subordinate. It did not take long for another simple-minded individual, Tony Blair, to fall into the same delusion, along with more than a hundred million people in both the UK as well as the US. While the removal of Saddam Hussein was certainly a desirable outcome, the manner in which the aftermath was handled by successive Viceroys of Iraq sent from Washington ensured that the country developed into even more of an extremist swamp than Afghanistan in its worst days. 

However, the disease of swallowing self-made propaganda continued, for example in the case of Libya, where Nicholas Sarkozy followed the delusionary path of Bush-Cheney and saw in Muammar Kaddafy a Hitler rather than the cartoon character the Libyan dictator was. In seeking to save thousands from possible reprisals by Kaddafy’s forces at Benghazi, Sarkozy ( followed eagerly by David Cameron and Hillary Clinton,two other policymakers known to consume their own spin) began a series of military operations which led to Libya becoming a headache for Europe in the matter of both terrorism as well as migration by boat. 

Given such examples, it may have been expected that Riyadh would pause before going down the same path as Washington, London and Paris had done, with such dire consequences for the region as well as (ultimately) for themselves. However, the new order in the Kingdom following on the passing away of King Abddullah clearly believes that airctaft costing tens of billions of euro to buy and maintain need to be used in actual combat rather than be confined to fly pasts during festivie occasions. 

The decision to use Saudi airpower and US intelligence assets to degrade the fighting capacity of the Houthis in Yemen is a historic mistake. Getting involved in the sectarian divisions of the Middle East is an error, especially for a country where poverty is rife and where unrest is not far from the surface, unlike in Qatar or Kuwait, where popular discontent is far lower. More than Riyadh it is Washingtonm that has made the bigger mistake in Yemen, by openly backing military action against a force that is sectarian but not in the least terrorist. By weakening the Houthis, the Obama administration has handed a lifeline to Al Qaeda-ISIS, the effects of which will soon get felt throughout the region. 

In Yemen, the choice is not between the hapless Hadi regime and the Houthis but between the Houthis and Al Qaeda-ISIS. In similar fashion, in Syria the choice is not between imaginary “moderate freedom fighters” and the supposed twin threats of Assad annd Al Qaeda but between Al Qaeda-ISIS and Assad. By following Samantha Power’s dictum that Assad is the main foe in Syria, the US will only be providing oxygen to Al Qaeda-ISIS. As it is,Yemen had been host of a substantial Al Qaeda presence. Now that will multiply, because of the focus of bombings being on the Houthis, who are the principal (indeed, the only) enemies of Al Qaeda-ISIS in that country. The two partners in the war on the Houthis, Riyadh and Washington, will soon be reaping the bitter results of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, and a rise in instability within the region. However, this is what happens when myths made up by themselves get believed as fact by the very spin doctors who manufactured them.

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