Review: «Black Wave», by Kim Ghattas (Henry Hold & Company, 2020)

Hala AlGhanim @hala097

On June 17, 2017, a few countries (including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt) drastically severed diplomatic relations with Qatar. This decision was followed by a blockage of Qatar’s air and sea routes throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Officially, Saudi Arabia and its allies claimed this was a reaction against Qatar’s alleged support of Islamic fundamentalist groups. In a sense, that may not be completely false: Qatar has traditionally supported the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization that all the aforementioned countries regard as a terrorist group. Unsurprisingly, things were not so simple. For some time, Qatar had been strengthening ties with Iran and Turkey. In fact, June 2017 was the expected completion date of a Turkish military base in Qatar. And when most of the country’s airspace was blocked, Qatar Airways airplanes were allowed to divert their routes and fly instead over Iranian territory. Why were Saudi Arabia and its allies so angry about this? Well, there is a reason: since at least the 1970s the Middle East has been the scene of a fierce rivalry between Arabia Saudi and Iran for the control of the region and the Islamic world, a conflict often referred to as the Middle Eastern Cold War. Although these countries have never engaged in direct armed conflict, they have done so indirectly, fighting proxy wars in other countries. Take, for instance, the ongoing Yemeni Civil War. There, Iran is backing the Houthi rebels, whereas Saudi Arabia supports the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi (and has, in fact, intervened militarily). As we can see, Qatar is only a pawn in a bigger chessboard. By getting closer to Iran (and Turkey), Saudi Arabia and its allies thought, Qatar had chosen the wrong side.

When did things start to get so bad? In her book Black Wave, journalist Kim Ghattas sets out to answer that question. In her view, 1979 provides a good starting point. For at least three transcendental events shattered the Islamic world that year. In February 1979 the Iranian Revolution successfully overthrew Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. Though he was a reformist of sorts, the Shah’s harsh authoritarianism, his sympathies towards Israel and his relationship with the United States – the Shah’s main supporter – eventually lead to his fall. Backed by secularist leftists and Islamic moderates, Ayatollah Khomeini ascended to power. But the hopes of the former would rapidly come to dust as the latter turned the country into a fundamentalist Islamist theocracy. The Ayatollah’s aggressive Shi’ism (Iran’s majoritarian branch of Islam) swept over Iran, its citizens once again subjected to the arbitrariness of an authoritarian regime (though this time without any progress whatsoever). The veil became obligatory, alcohol was banned and religion pervaded every aspect of the Iranian’s lives.

Some months later, on 20 November, 1979, another crucial event took place, this time in Saudi Arabia. A group of Sunni radicals, led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, burst into the Great Mosque of Mecca – Islam’s holiest site. Heavily armed, they took thousands of worshippers as hostages, and called for the House of Saud – Saudi Arabia’s ruling dynasty – to be overthrown. In addition, they also announced the arrival of the Mahdi. In some Islamic traditions, the Mahdi is a Messiah who will bring a short period of justice and redemption before Judgment Day. According to al-Otaybi and his followers, the Mahdi had at least appeared, and he happened to be one of them: the leader’s brother-in-law. The Siege of Mecca ended on 4 December, 1979, when Saudi military forces eventually regained control of the Grand Mosque.

The last of the three events happened twenty days later. On 24 December, 1979, Soviet troops arrived in Afghanistan. One year earlier, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan had taken power after a coup d’état, supported by the Soviet Union. The Communists’ militant secularism, along with the authoritarian nature of the new regime, was met with strong resistance, including armed anti-government groups (who were in turn supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States). After the situation ran out of control, the Soviet Union decided to intervene. Relying on the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, which claimed that a threat to a socialist government constituted a threat to all socialist governments, thousands of soldiers were sent to Kabul. This decision marked the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan War.

Those events, Ghattas claims, are not unrelated. Together, they contain the seed (or an important part, at least) of the Middle Eastern Cold War. After the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini became the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Among his many convictions, there was the belief that the House of Saud was corrupted to the root. He deemed the rulers of Saudi Arabia unworthy custodians of the two holiest places of Islam – the cities of Mecca and Medina. The Iranian Revolution had blazed the trail that true Muslims ought to follow: they should not only challenge the authority of secularist leaders (as he had done with the Shah), but also the authority of those supposed Muslims, who were really infidels in disguise (such as the al-Saud family). The newborn Islamic Republic represented the embodiment of that challenge, a real contender for the control of the Islamic world.

Of course, Saudi leaders felt uneasy about this. To make things worse, the seizure of Mecca only strengthened their opponent’s position: if they had not been able to prevent a group of armed men from entering Islam’s holiest place, how could they be considered good custodians? Moreover, it also showed that the challenge to their authority did not only come from without, but also from within. Their opponents were not only a group of Shia Muslims from Persia, but also included Sunni Muslims from their own country. In November 1979, a Shia uprising in the oil-rich Eastern Province only added more salt to the wound. Against the ropes, King Khalid reacted by giving religious conservatives more power. As a result, the implementation of the Sharia (the Islamic law) became stricter. The best way to counter the rise of Shia Islam was to boost Sunni Islam. Or more precisely, the Islamic doctrine prevalent in the Kingdom: Wahhabism. What the precise content of Wahhabism is constitutes a moot issue, but there is some agreement on its puritanical and extremely conservative nature. The doctrine supports a very particular interpretation of Islam, accusing other Muslims (including the Shia, but also other Sunnis) of idolatry. In the past, activities such as dancing, watching non-religious TV programs, smoking or playing cards have been considered unacceptable, and have been severely punished.

When, in 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Saudis (along with the United States and many other countries) supported Islamic armed groups (the mujahideen), who fought against the Afghan Communists and their Soviet allies. For the Saudis, this was a useful way to present themselves as defenders of the Islamic cause. In addition, it allowed them to get rid of the Kingdom’s most fundamentalist elements, who fled the country to support the mujahideen. While Pakistan and Afghanistan absorbed most of the costs, Saudi Arabia reaped many of the benefits. General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s dictatorial President since 1977, also benefited substantially. Support from the Saudis helped him advance his Islamization project, radicalizing the Pakistani society. Because of Pakistan’s role in the Soviet-Afghan War (with its Eastern Province hosting military camps), the Saudis and their allies ensured that he was able to remain in power for a long period of time. Slowly, the black wave of fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabism was extending further towards the East, knocking on the door of the Indian Subcontinent. Iran did not lag behind, though. Like Saudi Arabia, it expanded its area of influence. For instance, its presence became prominent in many areas of Lebanon, and eventually led to the creation of Hezbollah (the “Party of God”), which has contributed to unravel the region for years.

This dynamic, Ghattas explains, has also operated in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Every time Iran makes a step, so does Saudi Arabia. And, because the fight never takes place in Iran or Saudi Arabia, every country in the Middle East becomes a potential battlefield. For instance, when the United States invaded Iran in 2003, many expected the creation of a new government that would eventually rebuild the country. But this is not what happened. After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, Iran and Saudi Arabia began fighting for the pieces. What they have left behind is a failed state, where sectarian violence is the norm, and where no stable authority has been able to emerge.

Black Wave is an elegantly-written, clearly-structured and illuminating reconstruction of this process. From the Iranian Revolution in 1979 to the cruel assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul (the chapter is aptly called «Murder on the Bosporus»), the book describes the chain of events that have shaped the Middle East throughout the last decades. Two features are especially worth noting.

First, the book focuses mainly on the actions of countries in the Greater Middle East. This is not because the author does not believe that exogenous factors do not play an important explanatory role: she acknowledges this, and throughout the book she provides plenty of examples (e.g., the Soviet and US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively). These stories are well known, however; at least for those who want to know about them. What is less known, at least for many Western readers, is the role, actions and decisions of the main players in the region: the countries’ governments, transnational religious organizations, civil society associations and the individuals whose lives Ghattas narrates in some detail.

Second, the book does not pay much attention to Israel. Again, this is not because the author thinks it does not matter. She does, and explicitly says so. However, if her account of the evens is correct, the causal mechanisms at play in the Middle Eastern Cold War are somewhat independent from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What primarily concerns Saudi leaders is whether Iran expands its area of influence, and the same goes for their Iranian counterparts. To the extent that Israel matters, it matters instrumentally.

All in all, Black Wave offers a very good introduction to the conflict. Although it is not an academic work that discusses alternative explanations of the main events, it is a carefully researched, well-written and clear book. The language is plain and excessively technical epressions are avoided. The narrative is also easy to follow: names abound, but the book includes a useful list of characters that one can check when feeling a bit disoriented. Quite recommended.

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