The Saudi-ISIS myth and the Iran Deal PR imbalance

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa, Saudi Arabia

King Salman of Saudi Arabia (right) and President Rouhani of Iran (left)

King Salman of Saudi Arabia (right) and President Rouhani of Iran (left)

The Iran deal has been good for Iran from every angle, particularly on the PR front. By agreeing to the stringent technical conditions on its nuclear program, Iran has presented itself as a country genuinely striving for peace in the midst of animosity and a country demonstrating restraint and perseverance in this endeavour. In particular, it has presented itself as a country extending its hand to Saudi Arabia and seeking warmer ties, and being rebuffed by the Kingdom on spurious and over-exaggerated claims. The result has been that mainstream media have begun to turn on Saudi Arabia, accusing the Kingdom of funding terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, propagating ‘extremist’ ideology, and causing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. A petition has even been drawn up urging the British government to condemn Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey for ‘sponsoring’ terrorism.

The problem with this PR campaign that has become prevalent in mainstream media including the Independent, the Huffington Post and others, is that it underestimates or belittles the events that have led to the current situation in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. They describe Saudi Arabia’s fears as ‘exaggerated’, failing to give credence to Iran’s steady expansion into ‘Arab’ territories since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Moreover, they allude to Saudi funding for ISIS; an incredible notion given the Kingdom’s struggles with extremism in the past few years with recently over 400 people arrested accused of being part of an ISIS cell, a suicide bombing in Qatif which ISIS claimed responsibility for, as well as Saudi security personnel being killed in Abha.

Iraq

Indeed the biggest blame for the rapid expansion of ISIS lies firmly with former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki whose 10 year sectarian rule polarised Iraqi society, and gave rise to impunity for militias loyal to Iran. Maliki governed with a Shia alliance held together by Iran. This was demonstrated most clearly when Moqtada Al-Sadr, after having fought Maliki in a bloody war and then threatening to bring down Maliki by withdrawing his support for a Shia alliance, travelled to Tehran and returned declaring that he would enter the ruling coalition.

Maliki exacerbated sectarian tensions even during the war against Al-Qaeda, when the Sunni ‘Sahawaat’ movement, created from the Sunni tribes and who had proved pivotal in driving the terrorist group out of Iraq, were subsequently defeated and destroyed by Maliki who feared a threat to his own power. Over 10 years, Maliki succeeded in marginalising the Sunnis, antagonising the Kurds, clamping down on opposition, weakening the army, and strengthening loyal militias that roamed without impunity.

Therefore, when ISIS travelled from Syria into Iraq via ‘Sunni’ areas, they faced little opposition from the tribes who found themselves between a brutal and oppressive central government, and the brutality of a terrorist group. More so, many of these tribes rode the tide of opposition to the central government and declared the entry of ISIS a ‘revolution’ against 10 years of oppressive rule. The army that Maliki had intentionally weakened to prevent any coup against him lacked the capabilities and willpower to put up any resistance and ISIS stormed Mosul and seized large swathes of Iraq.

Syria

The original emergence of ISIS itself in Syria stems from an international failure to support the Syrian revolution and the Free Syria Army (FSA). Whilst NATO were quick to bomb Libya into oblivion, they were less inclined to do so in Syria where Russia refused to allow NATO so close to its border (Crimea is an clear example of what happens when NATO attempts to force itself on Russia). The Syrian opposition also failed to unite, resulting in an ability to present themselves as a credible alternative that the international community could back.

Syria is where the distortion in Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s role arises. Sources to the International Interest revealed that instead of sponsoring terrorism as espoused by a number of media outlets, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided arms to those willing to fight the Assad regime, particularly when Prince Bandar bin Sultan was Head of Intelligence. ISIS and Nusra had not emerged by then and therefore there were no clear ‘extremist’ elements to the revolution. These would appear later after the revolution began to stall and the tide of war turned against them. Furthermore, Sisi’s coup on the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia’s listing of the group as a ‘terrorist’ organisation only exacerbated internal differences between the various factions within the Syrian opposition that left the US unsure who to support.

When the policy on Syria failed, Saudi Arabia was quick to remove Bandar bin Sultan as Head of Intelligence and give the ‘file’ to the talented interior minister Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, who, whilst in the midst of a succession struggle, began to rein in Saudi support in Syria so as to avoid being outdone domestically. The rapid pace of government reshuffles towards the end of King Abdullah’s reign demonstrated a lack of cohesion on foreign policy as the future of the kingdom showed signs of uncertainty. Therefore, to claim that Saudi Arabia had an ‘active’ and ‘clear’ foreign policy, in any meaning of the word, is illogical and cannot be substantiated.

Yemen

In Yemen, many have tried to portray the conflict as a domestic issue gone wrong following international intervention. This is a shallow view of the conflict. The facts are that a legitimate government was in power under President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi. The Houthis had participated in the National Dialogue and Yemen, following its Arab Spring, was facing difficulties with protests regarding the price of fuel and other goods, as well as having to deal with rampant corruption. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable in any modern state that a militia can have license to leave their city in the north, seize Jawf and Amran on the pretext of fighting terrorism, and then march on the capital, blockade it for two weeks, then storm the city, place the president under house arrest, declare a military council, and then march onwards further south to Taiz, Dhaali’, and then besiege Aden on the southern coast.

During all of these events, the international community sought only to use rhetoric in calling for restraint, and even at one point began to suggest that it might sanction the Houthi expansion as UN envoy Jamal Ben Omar attempted to seat all the parties together in a dialogue recognising the Houthi Military Council. Neither did Saudi Arabia suggest it would send its forces into Yemen even after daily flights between Houthi-controlled Sanaa and Tehran began to take place.

In fact, only when President Hadi was besieged within his last bastion in Aden, and following Houthi attempts to assassinate him by sending fighter planes to attack the presidential palace, forcing him to flee, did Saudi Arabia bring together an international alliance to save the legitimate government.

This is not to suggest that no humanitarian crisis exists in Yemen, nor that Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign has not contributed to this. However the facts that led to this situation and the alternative that is a militia imposing its authority on Yemen by force and ousting a legitimate government must be stressed.

Furthermore, a Yemen under Houthi would effectively mean that Saudi Arabia would be surrounded by pro-Iran states; Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in the North, Iran in the East, and Yemen in the South.

‘Wahhabism’

This is not to absolve Saudi Arabia of any blame regarding the tensions in the region. But any suggestion that Saudi Arabia actively ‘helped’ ISIS is misleading and wrong. Furthermore, anyone who understands Saudi Arabia will know that the government sought to weaken the ‘Wahhabist’ religious institutions and began funding MTV, Rotana, MBC, Al-Arabiya…all in a bid to weaken the ‘Wahhabist’ ideology. Prince Khaled al Faisel was appointed education minister for the sole purpose of weakening the religious authority on the education system; in other words, weakening the so called ‘Wahhabist’ influence. They isolated the religious scholars and articles even emerged within the country questioning the infallibility of key religious scriptures. Even now, the current Media minister is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya, a flagship of the more liberal trend that is making headway and suggesting that the struggle between the established religious authorities and the more liberal channels is not over.

All in all, there is a ‘Saudi-bashing’ carousel that has led to impartial media reporting on events in the region. Saudi Arabia has not intervened in Iran, Iraq or Syria in the way Iran has. Nor has it created militias and ensured their impunity. For all its reported human rights abuses, lack of free speech, imprisoning of critics, Saudi Arabia does not pose a threat to the region in the way Iran has, and does. And in Iraq, as a war rages against ISIS, the main force conducting the fighting is the Hashd al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Force, a composition of Iranian backed militias including the Badr Brigade which has been implicated by human rights groups in a number of atrocities, and threatens to split Iraq in a way ISIS never will. Criticising Saudi Arabia is acceptable. However the same standards should apply to Iran. The media must be fair.

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…