Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Frontline's 'House of Saud' - 1964 to 1979

This is the second in a series of posts criticizing Frontline's episode, House of Saud. The first explained what I saw as shortcomings in their presentation of the history of Saudi Arabia prior to 1932. Now I want to look at what Frontline left out regarding Saudi history from 1964 to 1979. Much of this involves Saudi-Egyptian relations.

In 1952 King Farouk abicated, leaving Egypt to the Free Officers, lead by Nasser. The Suez Crisis of 1956 rised Nasser's prestige among Arabs outside of Egypt. A nationalist, pan-Arabist and socialist Nasser's popularity threatened the Saudi. Meanwhile, secular Ba'athist had taken control of Iraq and Syria. All of these countries were aligned with the USSR. Saudi Arab was being surrounded by godless communists.

In 1962 a military coup overthrew the monarchy in Yemen, on the Saudis southern border. Yemen plunged into civil war. This quickly turned into a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Nasser backed the nationalists. King Faisal backed the royalists. This proxy war is often overlooked, as is was by Frontline, but I think it deserves more study. It is, to my knowledge, the most intense intra-Arab fighting since WWII and the most intense intra-Muslim fighting until the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Schwartz writes that as a response to this proxy war the Saudis founded "the Muslim World League - a kind of Islamic "International" - as a buffer against Nasserism."

Thomas Lippman, in Inside the Mirage, writes of the Egyptian-Saudi conflict in Yemen, "At the height of that conflict, when dissident Saudi officers defected to Cairo and Egyptian warplanes actually bombed a few Saudi towns, the State Department circulated a memorandum to other agencies detailing the threat to Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom's inability to defend itself." That memo, for all intents and purposes, would be rewritten at least twice more.

The war was a nightmare. (Hosnini Mubarak, then an Egyptian Air Force Captain, was dispatched to Yemen.) Mary Anne Weaver in A Portrait of Egypt writes that "the Egyptians were accused, in their frustration, of dropping poison gas on their pro-Saudi Royalist foes. One could say that the war in Yemen was Egypt's Vietnam." The Yemeni war finally ended, not due to anything that the Saudis did, but because Egypt lost the Six-Day War.

The Egyptians cracked down on domestic dissent, especially on the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as a religiously-inspired threat to Nasserism and indeed to Nasser personally. He blamed the Brotherhood for an assassination attempt. Nasser built concentration camps for the Brothers in the desert. One of those incarcerated was Sayyid Qutb, the chief theoretician of jihad. He wrote his major works while in prison. Qutb was tortured and finally hanged in 1966.

As part of their anti-Egyptian efforts the Saudis gave many of the Muslim Brothers asylum. The scholars received professorships at Saudi universities. These included Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid's brother. One of his students was later Osama bin Laden. Frontline mentioned that the Saudis welcomed many scholars from Egypt but I think the context is worth understanding. These scholars were jihadists theocrats and fanatically anti-nationalist. Many had been tortured. It's hard to overstate the historical importance of this migration.

This influx of Muslim Brotherhood thinkers represents an injection of extremist non-Wahhabi Sunni Islam into the heartland of Wahhabism. The hybridization of these two ideologies would see a perfect parallel years later when an offshoot of the Brotherhood, al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad, merged with bin Laden's Wahhabist army to form al Qaeda.

Frontline did a good job of covering the rise of Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. By the end of the 70s the Saudi were on top of the world: awash in cash, their Egyptian enemies humbled. However 1979 deserves it's own two hour episode. Four events threatened the Saudis that year: the Iranian Revolution, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Shi'ite clerics overthrew the Shah of Iran, another anti-communist pro-American royal leader. Remember that the Wahhabis despised the Shi'a since the sect was founded. This pushed them into an uneasy alliance with the Ba'athist Saddam Hussein, a Soviet client but a Sunni. Frontline had some great footage of King Fahd presenting Saddam with a gold-plated gun.
The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty meant that Egypt was switching sides in the Cold War. Egypt would receive billions in US aid. And the hated Jews were in a stronger position, their southern border secured. The Saudis cut off diplomatic relations with Egypt as a result. Then, as Frontline explained, a direct descendent of the Ikhwan lead a takeover of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Frontline summarized the events like this, "The standoff lasts for several weeks before the Saudi military can remove the insurgents."

Note quite. The Mosque takeover was a stunning blow to the Saudis and a direct challenge to their legitimacy. Yet, despite Frontline's claim, the Saudi military did not remove the insurgents. Aburish simply says that the Saudi armed forces failed to suppress the rebellion. Robert Baer, former CIA agent and author of Sleeping with the Devil, says that they "127 Saudi troops died in a pitched battle" but failed to retake the Mosque. Both agree that a special French police team was flown in to storm the Mosque. This is an example of defeat in victory for two reasons. The Saudi troop, for whatever reason, could not retake the holiest site in Islam after spending billions on US military hardware and training. Worse yet, they had to bring in infidels to do it for them. Aburish writes that non-Muslim French forces were given a "special dispensation to enter holy Mecca." I'd like to know why Frontline simply ignored this.

Frontline did cover that the Saudis responsed to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by essential engaging in a proxy war, encouraging fanatical domestic jihadist to fight the godless communists. But Frontline only touched on the other proxy war. The Saudis, along with the Kuwaitis, were loaning money to Saddam Hussein, funding his war against the hated Iranian Shiites. Both of these wars would bare bitter fruit for the Saudis.

But that is the subject of my last post on the topic.

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