Who would have imagined that the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo in June, 1914 would signal the beginning of the First World War. The conflicting empires and the balance of power were so precariously positioned that an assassination triggered the war.
Today Syria, Gaza, Iran, Jordan, Yemen, Israel, US, Russia, UK, France, Turkey, Qatar, Russia, US – all are on edge, any ignition can flare up. There is a temptation to exaggerate the aftermath of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s macabre dismemberment with bone saws and eventual liquefaction in acid in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Yet, a plausible scenario can be constructed that powerful interests, determined to protect the embattled Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman will go to any lengths to save him. Any diversionary adventure will do. This diversion will not be easy now though that the US Congress is deeply involved and is already reacting to Trump’s insensitivity. Most unexpectedly, there is egg on MBS’s face in Argentina where he has turned up ostensibly to attend the G20 summit. Ostensibly, because his purpose is to plead with leaders and soften Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan who has, drip by drip, been leaking embarrassing intelligence details implicating MBS with the murder.
An Argentinian Prosecutor has taken up the case against MBS for alleged crimes against humanity, war in Yemen and the Khashoggi murder. Advocacy group Human Rights watch had petitioned Argentinian authorities to proceed against MBS when he turns up for the summit. It is terrible publicity.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made MBS the central column in his West Asian architecture and will go to any lengths to protect him. Towards this end he could embark on risky, diversionary expeditions. Netanyahu was the first one to warn President Trump.
He completely glossed over the Khashoggi murder. It was immaterial to him whether MBS was guilty or not. The cardinal point for him was that the Crown Prince is an indispensable “strategic ally”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may well have taken the cue from him. Pompeo wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
“The Trump administration’s efforts to rebuild US-Saudi partnership isn’t popular in the salons of Washington, where politicians of both parties have long used the Kingdom’s human-rights record to call for the alliance’s downgrading. The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile on.” It is a cunning draft, implying that the Washington elite was always averse to the Saudis and that the Khashoggi episode has only provided some grist to the mill. The thrust of the article is straightforward: a malignant power, Iran, has to be neutralized with MBS’s help – murder or no murder.
Most of the wordage is directed against Iran which according to Kissinger (quoted by Pompeo) is a “cause, not a nation”. To impede the advance of this “cause”, MBS was an essential requirement.
The tone of the defence is not that Saudi-US relations must be preserved at all cost. The unstated emphasis is that MBS has to be protected within Saudi Arabia vis a vis other possible aspirants.
It was to snuff out this narrative that Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir invited BBC’s Lyse Doucet to spell out the Kingdom’s red line. “Any speculation on the Keeper of the Holy Shrines King Salman and the Crown Prince will not be tolerated.”
To save MBS, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi personally pleaded with Trump. It must of course be remembered that a panic stricken MBS had personally turned up in Cairo to plead his case.
All manner of speculations are rife but one possibility stands out starkly: should the world’s power centres allow Saudi impunity to pass, the next phase in West Asia will be frightening, because tracks have to be swiftly covered. Khashoggi forgotten preferably in the din of some military action. Already, US Defence Secretary Gen. James Mattis has met chiefs of GCC Armed Forces in Kuwait and Bahrain. These are two GCC countries with substantial Shia populations. Sports exchanges have been reported between Israel and Oman – and other GCC countries.
Recently Arab diplomats in Europe have been openly discussing such subjects as: does the Arab League serve a purpose? GCC came into being soon after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Can it be wound up? What is being proposed is a tidy division of the Arab World into Sunni versus Shia. The project is as old as the hills. The last I heard Henry Kissinger and the late Zbigniew Brzezinski publicly talk about the idea was at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Oslo in December 2016. The great merit in giving primacy to the Shia-Sunni faultline is supposed to be that it will subsume the Palestinian story.
How naïve this line of thinking is has been stressed by, among a host of others, one of the more experienced princes in Saudi public life: Prince Turki al Faisal. He was Intelligence Chief, Ambassador to US and UK. He has repeatedly warned the authors of Shia-Sunni faultline that the thesis was self-defeating: there are sizeable and influential Shia populations in most GCC countries. Nearly 70% of Bahrain, 40% of Kuwait and 15% of Saudi Arabia are Shia. Indeed Saudi Shias are concentrated in the oil rich Eastern Province, linked to Shia majority Bahrain by a 37 kms causeway. Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen are all Shia majority states.
There is a sort of amnesia against the entire Shia Fatimid dynasty which ruled most of North Africa and founded the city of Cairo in the 10th century. The name of the ousted ruler of Tunisia, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali is of Fatimid extraction. No Saudi will ever keep that name.
Palermo, the capital of Sicily, was once the seat of Ismaili Shia power, where Moharram processions were common from the 10th to 12th century. Tariq Ali’s novel “A Sultan in Palermo” covers this period.
Over 20 years ago, in his elegant salon on the Nile, Sid Ahmad, distinguished writer and public intellectual, confused me all the more on the question of Shia and Sunni in Cairo. He said, “Many in this metropolis follow the dictum: Sunna bil deen; Shia bil hawa” (Sunni by faith and Shia by culture).