Yemen war part of Saudi's regional power bid

Obama at Saudi king's funeral, January 2015.

Saudi Arabia’s month-long aerial offensive against Yemen resumed on April 22, one day after the Saudi regime announced it was over.

Yemen is undergoing a humanitarian crisis, with millions of Yemenis lacking basic access to food, clean drinking water and health care.

The Saudi bombardment has only worsened the plight of the Yemenis, with schools destroyed, hospitals and healthcare facilities targetted, and electricity supplies cut off. Basic infrastructure is being shattered, threatening a catastrophic health crisis for Yemeni residents.

The Saudi war on Yemen is intended to prop up the tottering regime of Yemeni President Abed Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This war is backed by the United States, which is helping Saudi Arabia with intelligence sharing, military supplies and logistical support.

The arms used by the Saudi military are mostly imported from the US, Britain and other Western nations. The Saudi regime has become the world’s leading arms importer, spending an estimated US$6.4 billion dollars on weapons last year.

In a March 30 article, Patrick Cockburn said that this war on Yemen will only inflame sectarian tensions across the Arab and Islamic-majority countries.

Military alliances

The reactionary petro-sheikhdoms such as those in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait — united in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — have lined up shoulder to shoulder with fellow GCC member Saudi Arabia.

Egypt, under a US-backed military dictatorship, was quick to provide military and political support to Riyadh. There are reports that Saudi and Egyptian troops will launch a ground invasion.

The GCC is now taking steps to create a pan-Arab military alliance to serve as a rapid-response force to be deployed anywhere in the Middle East in response to political unrest or military upheaval.

Such a goal has been a long-term desire of the GCC. But the latest Saudi assault on Yemen has prompted other regimes in the region, such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the pro-western Arab states to make proposals for a multinational military force.

The US welcomes such an alliance, because it would provide a strong counter to Iran. But is also cautious about the potential for members of a new military alliance to develop an agenda of their own.

There is a deep and strong connection between the Saudi military and political elite and Western powers, in particular the US, that have been cultivated over decades. The political and military support to the House of Saud — the ruling royal family of the Saudi nation — is a key base of support for US policy in the Middle East.

The intimate US-Saudi partnership is in no danger of breaking anytime soon. US President Barack Obama, who was in Riyadh in January for the funeral of the former Saudi king, described the relationship as a “force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond”.

The Saudi state not only plays a key role in exporting oil, but also in exporting its official ideology of Wahhabism, an especially fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam.

Wahhabism derives from the teachings of the 18th century preacher and itinerant cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated a strict, literalist interpretation of the Koran.

A learned scholar from the central Arabian region of Najd, he witnessed what he saw as the corrupting influences of modernisation, innovation and religious laxity in the Ottoman Turkish empire. Lamenting the demise of the former greatness of Islamic civilisation, Wahhab wanted to purge the Islamic world of what he viewed as degenerative practices.

Wahhab would have remained an obscure theologian if not for one crucial development — Wahhab made a pact with Muhammad ibn Saud, the leader of the Najd tribes. Wahhab's ideology would provide an important religious foundation for a centralised state under the control of the Saud family.

Religious piety was combined with a program of state building. Saud set about crushing his rivals, forming a Saudi state based in Najd, with the Wahhabi ideology as the rallying cry.

Wahhab developed another key concept with implications for political state building today. Muslim “impostors” — those who did not accept the purity of the Wahhabi ideal — would be declared takfir (infidels), enemies of the original faith.

Any Muslim who engaged in practices deemed to be forbidden in the Wahhabi canon were to be annihilated. The main targets were Shia Muslims, Sufis and others who refused to accept Wahhabism's strict rules.

By the end of the 18th century, the Saudi clan controlled most of the Arabian heartland and parts of what are today Iraq and Syria.

In 1801, Saudi forces ransacked the largely Shia city of Karbala (located in today’s Iraq), killing its Shia inhabitants. Wahhabism was no longer a fundamentalist theological creed; it was now an instrument of political power.

The Ottoman empire, viewing the rising Wahhabi-Arab threat as a growing danger, crushed the first experiment in the Saudi state-building in 1815. The domination of the Ottoman Turks was restored. This situation lasted until the final defeat of the Turkish empire at the end of World War I.

Western interests

The new Saudi state that arose with the fall of the Ottomons was not a purely Arab affair. Rival imperialist powers of Britain, France and the US coveted the Arab territories formerly under Turkish control.

The Sykes-Picot agreement, arranged in secret between Britain and France in 1916 while the war was raging, defined sphere of influence for the rival imperialist powers once the Ottoman empire was defeated.

The borders of the newly defined Arab states facilitated Western interests in the Middle East.

Britain acted as the “godfather” of the emergent Saudi state. It forged an alliance with the House of Saud and promoted an Arab facade, while real control remained in British hands.

With British backing, the new Saudi-Wahhabi state served as a bulwark in the Arab and Islamic worlds against anti-imperialist forces. During the 20th century, Saudi Arabia fought against all revolutionary, Arab socialist, or anti-imperialist projects, be it pan-Arab nationalism, secular socialism or Ba’athism.

But Wahhabism was not just a state policy. It is an overarching, proselytising Islamic purist movement that refuses to remain confined to national borders. It does not recognise political boundaries and projects drawn up by politicians motivated by state interests.

The Ikhwan, while initially recognising the need for a centralised and modern Saudi state, began to revolt against the Saudi rulers for elevating realpolitik and state-building over the militant puritanical drive to convert the world.

The Ikhwani insurgents, after conquering the various regions of Arabia, began to attack the British and French protectorates of Transjordan, Syria and Iraq in order to force them to subjugate to Wahhabi doctrines. They came into direct conflict with imperialist interests in the Middle East.

Throughout the 1920s, the Saudi royal family, now elevated to kingly status with British imperial patronage, eventually crushed the Ikhwani revolt by the end of the 1920s, and its remnants were absorbed into what became the Saudi national guard. However, this contradiction between the needs of a conservative state-building ideology and the movement of Wahhabi militants to proselytise remains.
We can see historical echoes in the current activities of the Islamic State (IS), which is working to smash national boundaries, upsetting the post-World War I Sykes-Picot arrangement that has prevailed in the Middle East.

By the 1930s, the British Empire was in decline. The US emerged as a strong and powerful economic and military force. It viewed the Middle East, particularly its enormous oil wealth, as an asset to be acquired.
In the early 1930s, the US established diplomatic relations with the Saudi state. It entered into lucrative business contracts, helped to develop oil fields, took part in oil exploration in Saudi Arabia and revitalised the Saudi Arabian Oil Company.


In the 1960s and '70s, a Saudi petro-nationalism emerged. It was based on the burgeoning oil industry and the growth of huge transnational energy corporations.

The Western economies’ large consumption of oil filled the coffers of the Saudi state and provided it with a new avenue to explore — petro-nationalism, spreading the Wahhabi ideology as a cultural export to influence the direction of Islam.

The oil bonanza enabled the Saudi ruling elite to maintain its hold over the holiest sites in Islam — Mecca and Medina — and project itself as the ultimate definer and protector of the faith.

The Saudi state has now developed regional ambitions as a power in its own right. Saudi wealth extends to its allies in the region — the Egyptian dictatorship has received generous and lavish financial support from Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen is part of this pattern of serving as a regional strongman for Western imperialism. But the Saudis have never given up the goal of pushing Wahhabi cultural and social conservatism in the Muslim world.

The IS is a product of Wahhabism, but it has come into conflict with the interests of the Saudi ruling class, who intend to push its interests within the framework of the imperialist system. The IS, on the other hand, wishes to demolish national state boundaries in its drive to resurrect its version of a Caliphate.

The Saudi attack on Yemen, and its militarily intervention to crush Bahrain's democratic uprising in 2011, is made possible by the sale of sophisticated weaponry to the Saudi state.

Through support for the Saudi regime Western powers have aided and abetted the spread of terrorism and increased the suffering of people in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

[Abridged from Rupen Savoulian's blog.]

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