Israel’s Channel 2 news station improbably made history last week by airing a brief interview with an obscure policy wonk named Abed al-Hamid Hakim. The subject was the blockade of Qatar imposed by the Saudis and a couple of other despotic Sunni Arab rulers to punish the country for its ties to Iran, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It obviously wasn’t what Hakim had to say — religion should not be used to justify violence and extremism; we should all try to live in peace and harmony — that aroused interest. Rather, it was where he was sitting when he said it: Jeddah, the commercial capital of Saudi Arabia. For the first time ever, here was a Saudi national being interviewed live on Israeli TV, complete with Hebrew subtitles. Perhaps more extraordinary, though, was that after word got out in Saudi Arabia about their little chit-chat there was no serious backlash.
Having worked for a number of years in the heart of the government-controlled media in Jeddah, I know that such an interview could never have taken place without the go-ahead from the very highest levels of the Saudi regime. A few days later, in fact, it appeared to have been just the opening salvo of an orchestrated, pro-Israel propaganda campaign. An equally unprecedented column about the Jewish state duly appeared in the widely read Saudi daily Al Riyadh, which, like all newspapers in the kingdom, is closely guided and monitored by the government. Written by a certain Musaid al-Asimi, it hardly heaped praise on Israel; but it did emphasise that — in odd phrasing that perhaps reflected the awkwardness of the moment — there was no reason for Arabs to ‘unjustifiably demonise’ the country. After praising the peace accords Israel has signed with Egypt and Jordan (another break with protocol), al-Asimi left his readers in no doubt about what his princely overlords want them to believe. Iran, not Israel, he boldly concluded, must henceforth be considered Saudi Arabia’s regional enemy.
Neither the TV pundit nor the newspaper columnist have been censured by the Saudi regime, which imposes a decade-long sentence for the flimsiest criticism of government policy. Compare their happy lot with that of Jamal Khashoggi, among the kingdom’s most famous and prolific journalists. The world hasn’t heard a tweet from him since last year. His crime? In a speech at a pro-Israel think tank in Washington in the run-up to the US Presidential elections, he suggested that the next incumbent in the White House might not see eye-to-eye with Saudi Arabia about how a potentially nuclear-armed Iran may be contained. For that, Khashoggi has been indefinitely banned from writing on, or commenting about, anything, either in Saudi Arabia or the outside world. By promoting some voices while preventing others from being heard, the royal court is testing the Saudi public’s reaction to a possible future announcement that the enemy (Israel) of my enemy (Iran) is my friend (Wahhabi-Zionist alliance).
This new geopolitical reality was championed last month by Donald Trump during his visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel. There, he too singled out Iran as the main instigator of terrorism and instability in the region. He gave King Salman (whom he had damned as a promoter of global Wahhabi terror and hatred just months earlier) a huge bear hug. Then he was symbolically flown on Air Force One from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, the first direct flight between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Trump, of course, did not write the speech he had been prepped to read. Truth be told, he would probably not have understood it if he had been in the audience. During the election campaign, he brazenly admitted that he had absolutely no understanding whatsoever of the difference even between (the Shia, Lebanon-based) Hezbollah and the (Sunni, Gaza-based) Hamas. Not since George W. Bush has the White House been inhabited by such an inarticulate, manipulable President with zero foreign policy experience.
The two main architects of America’s new Middle East strategy with Trump’s mask pasted onto it do, however, form a kind of Wahhabi-Zionist partnership. As a recent CEO of ExxonMobil, Secretary of Defence Rex Tillerson has extensive contacts in Saudi Arabia. (Astonishingly, ExxonMobil signed off on a massive deal with the Saudis while Trump was in Riyadh and while — utterly shameless — Tillerson himself was actually in the room.) Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and special adviser, has extensive business ties with Israel, and has been a friend of the Netanyahus since childhood.
Trump’s trip came on the back of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE having increased diplomatic contacts and intelligence sharing in light of what all view as the equally grave threats posed by Iran and Isis (even as the latter are slaughtering each other in what remains of the Caliphate). All cling to the surely forlorn hope that the non-Isis Sunni jihadists, with whom all are to varying degrees in cahoots, will oust the Alawite regime in Syria — even if this were to result in a sectarian bloodbath and floods of refugees into Europe.
This week the Wall Street Journal revealed that Israel and Saudi Arabia — both champions of the war against Islamist terrorism — started working together to support Islamist rebels at the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, with the Saudis providing the arms and Israel ‘supplying Syrian rebels near its border with cash as well as food, fuel and medical supplies.’ This ‘secret engagement’ in the common enemy’s civil war, the Journal explained, was ‘aimed at carving out a buffer zone populated by friendly forces.’ For both Saudi Arabia and Israel, the alternative would be the nightmare scenario of a soon-to-be nuclear-armed Iran and its only Arab ally President Bashar al-Assad emerging triumphant, with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hezbollah’s Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah grinning either side of him for the cameras.
A document recently leaked to the US media pertained to be a draft discussion of Gulf Arab leaders offering Israel gradual moves towards normalisation in return for some gesture on the peace process. (Ironically, after the Saudis got their Wahhabi clerics on board, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to have to agreed to the deal, but the extremist religious parties he relies on for support in parliament blocked it.) The Sunday Times reported last week that Israel and Saudi Arabia are now engaged in direct talks to forge economic ties. The swift denial from Riyadh perhaps unwittingly hinted at its veracity by suggesting that the meetings had been ‘wishful thinking’ on the part of the White House.
Saudi Arabia’s foes — Iran, Hezbollah and the Syria regime, principally — smell, as ever, a Wahhabi-Zionist conspiracy to divide the Arab and Muslim world by subserviently furthering Washington’s imperial ambition. (A sense that will not be diminished by Rex Tillerson’s apparent volte-face this week. The Secretary of State rebuked Saudi Arabia for not having provided evidence to justify the Gulf states’ embargo on Qatar – an embargo that Donald Trump had earlier approved.) Qatar is being pressed especially hard to sever relations with Hamas, Israel’s arch-enemy. In reality, Qatar has also been more open than any Arab country in discussing its trade and cultural ties with the Jewish state — something that, again unlike in the past, is not this time round being given as one of the reasons Doha has once more found itself at the top of Riyadh’s hit list. The country’s Al Jazeera news station, moreover, long ago broke a Arab media taboo: by interviewing Israeli politicians and civilians.
Then again, Qatar first gave sanctuary, then granted citizenship, to the so-called spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yousef al-Qaradawi. This is an individual so utterly deranged that even Britain’s emasculated political elite felt obliged to ban him from entering the country. Al-Qaradawi has long been infamous for justifying the killing of Israeli women and children in suicide bombings. More recently, he outdid himself, when he openly called for the genocide of all the world’s Shia — tens of millions of men, women and children. His rationale (if that’s the right word) was that they have proven themselves to be ‘even worse’ than the Jews. Even amidst the massive diplomatic fallout over that astonishing outburst, which marked an irrevocable turning point in Sunni-Shia relations, the ever-wily Emir of Qatar was cosying up to Shia-dominated Iran, a country that wants to see Israel destroyed.
There may be method in the Emir’s evident madness, but if there some kind of conspiracy here it is as lost on me as it no doubt is on Israel — and, considering that it has resulted in a medieval-style siege of his country, to almost everyone else too.
The upshot is that, through extraordinary geopolitical alignments, Israel now finds itself in a position that, in its way, is no less paradoxical that Qatar’s. The Jewish state is supporting radical Islamist groups in Syria and hooking up with a Wahhabi kingdom whose mosques and education system have, for decades, spewed anti-Semitic venom of the kind the world has not been subjected to since the Nazis. For the Israeli government, it appears this is something which can quietly be overlooked; and, most egregiously, especially if the Wahhabi religious establishment is redirecting its unbridled bile at Iran instead. Lest we forget, the Shia, because they have been so dehumanised by the Wahhabi-funded media and clerics inside Saudi Arabia and Qatar and throughout the world, are now at risk of being slaughtered wherever extremist Sunnis happen upon them. Unlike, as it happens, in Iran, the distinction between Jew and Israeli has never been respected in the Saudi media, schools and mosques. Likewise, the Shia and Iran are collectively damned today as infidels and traitors, not least by the new crown prince, the king’s son Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who as defense minister led the brutal campaign against Yemen’s (Shia) Houthi rebels.
Realpolitik, needless to say, will take precedent, and in this case it probably should. War, after all, does make for strange bedfellows. However, before we get on with celebrating the new Wahhabi-Zionist embrace, and in particular what it could mean for peace with the Palestinians, and for Arab-Israeli ties, we should ponder a basic human principle inadvertently highlighted by that Saudi columnist writing for Al Riyadh. Morally, you can never ‘justifiably demonise’ any group of people based on their race, religion or nationality, or condone others who do — however politically expedient it may be; even (indeed especially) in the name of defending your own.
John R. Bradley writes for the Daily Mail and the Jewish Chronicle, and has been covering the Middle East for almost two decades.