By M D Nalapat
09 November 2017
After more than a century of benefitting from support by the Anglo-American powers, Wahhabism is being challenged in a manner not seen even after 9/11. The battle against this school of theology and human behaviour is being led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The young prince has shown that he has nerves of steel, not hesitating to arrest even close relatives, each with billions of dollars in their bank accounts.
There has been much global commentary about the risk that the Saudi Crown Prince is taking by this extreme step. Those “experts”, diplomats and opinion makers in the US and the EU who for decades have lived lavishly on the largesse doled out by those arrested are naturally apoplectic about this bold move, and have forecast disaster for the 32-year old son of King Salman as a consequence of the arrests. In reality, the Crown Prince had no choice but to take strong action against even the cream of Saudi society, for it is these elements who have been funding movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and who have donated hundreds of millions of dollars each to Wahhabi individuals and institutions worldwide.
If Prince Mohammad is to succeed in his mission of switching societal tracks in Saudi Arabia from Wahhabism to the much more modern and moderate practices in the United Arab Emirates, these highly-placed persons are guaranteed to continue to try to block his path. For the future of the globe as well as the Ummah, it is vital that the Crown Prince succeed in his battle against Wahhabism, for otherwise the instability and societal fractures seen in the globe as a consequence of the spread of Wahhabi influence will lead to catastrophe. The only problem is that some reckless individuals within the inner circle of the Donald J Trump administration in Washington are urging Prince Mohammad to make internal reform a lower priority than open conflict with Iran. The Crown Prince will have to choose. He cannot both ensure internal reform on the scale planned by him and at the same time face the fires that even a low intensity conflict with Iran will result in. Of course, the resultant chaos would severely affect oil production in the Middle East, thereby deepening the markets for US crude oil, to the benefit of that country at the expense of the GCC. Now that Washington is not only self-sufficient in oil production but has become a major exporter of petroleum, the downside to the US of turmoil in the Middle East has been much reduced. However, such instability will cause great damage to the economic prospects of countries such as China and India, thereby lowering their ability to compete with US companies Within the GCC, a policy of outright enmity with Teheran would be unpopular in Oman, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, each of whom has extensive trade and other linkages with Iran. The Trump administration is creating instability in global markets by making the same error as the Saudis, which is to undertake a two-front battle.
The immediate danger comes from a nuclearising North Korea, and it is here that attention needs to get focussed in the Pentagon. However, the same geopolitical illiterates who made such a mess of Iraq, Libya and Syria are now seeking to replicate their success by destroying Iran. The problem is that Iran is way more powerful than Iraq, Libya and Syria put together ever were. The country has been hardened by its resistance to decades of effort by the US, the EU and a part of the GCC to destroy the governance system in the country. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Committee (IRGC) is probably the most deadly fighting force in the region, and has lately played a major role in the steady takeover of territories that were seized by Daesh (ISIS) in 2014.
Even without nuclear weapons, the Iranians have sufficient firepower to inflict punitive damage on countries that move against it, including Israel, where Prime Minister Netanyahu is leading the anti-Iran crusade in the Mideast when the attention needs to be on the battle against the Wahhabis. A follower of the tactics of Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu is in daily contact with friends within the Trump administration, goading them on to more and more actions against Iran. Such moves may wound Teheran but will not subdue it, in large part because neither Russia nor China will allow Iran to succumb to its regional enemies. For both countries, Iran is a reliable partner. Similarly for Iraq as well, that has in the past and would in future oppose any moves against Tehran.
In 2003, the George W Bush administration took its attention away from Afghanistan to go after Iraq, and as a consequence the US has in effect lost the war against the Taliban, at least thus far. Should Riyadh and Jerusalem concentrate more on a quixotic campaign against Tehran than on ridding the world of the menace of Wahhabism, that philosophy will gain a second life and indeed emerge stronger Both Qatar as well as Turkey are opposed to the courageous moves against Wahhabis by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The Emir of Qatar has made no secret of his backing for the theology, despite his country hosting a US base. As for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he is seeking to win back for Turkey the role it had before the 1914-19 war, when it was a Caliphate.
Indeed, Erdogan is acting in a manner suggestive of the past glory of Turkey rather than the present-day reality of its being a middle-rank player in global geopolitics. Such moves are leading to tensions inside Turkey, most acutely with the Kurds, against whom several actions have been carried out, as also against the many followers of Fethullah Gulen in Turkey. Although Prince Mohammad has thus far held his hand so far as Turkey is concerned, he has been instrumental in persuading the UAE to join in the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, a policy that has disconcerted the government of that small but wealthy country that in the past, refused to join the UAE.
However, Egypt under General Al Sissi is giving full backing to the Crown Prince, as is Washington and much of the EU, despite Riyadh’s ill-advised and very costly in human terms war on the Houthis in Yemen. So long as the Crown Prince follows a double track strategy (of warring against both Iran as well as the Wahhabis), the future is uncertain. Hopefully, he will stop trying to overpower Iran and instead focus on internal reform. Should he succeed, the Crown Prince would deserve the gratitude of the world.
M D Nalapat is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.