THE BLOG

4 Currents Shaping the Middle East

Who would have foreseen, even a couple of years ago, that the Arab world led by Saudi Arabia would have abandoned their Sunni ally, Hamas, in favor of siding with Israel. This development is only one of four that have come to the fore in recent times in the Middle East.

The Iraq war handed over a Sunni-run country, Iraq, to the Shias, who are in a majority there. It also forged a close bond between Shiite Iran and Iraq. What Khomeini wanted to do, but was unable to, the United States did for him: exporting his Shia revolution to a key Arab country, Iraq, and raising alarm bells all across the Sunni Arab world.

Emboldened by its Iraqi trophy, Iran reenergized its nuclear program. It knew that the West, deflated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was in no mood to launch another ground war. And any nukes that it had built or was busy building were so dispersed and buried so far underground, that an air assault would prove insufficient to take them all out.

The Muslim-Jewish conflict is visceral and abiding, but if anything, it is dwarfed by the intensity of the congenital Shia-Sunni loathing. Israel wants to take on Iran. Curiously enough, while the Sunni Gulf states make much ado about their hatred for the Jewish State, they are the ones egging on Israel to attack Iran.

Hamas is Sunni. The sustenance it derives from Shiite Iran doesn't fit into the pattern of support that Teheran gives other organizations, which are typically Shiite or Shiite-ruled entities. In the past, the Sunni Gulf states provided mild support to Hamas; now they are actively egging on Israel to destroy it. Iran, of course, is the reason why. They feel that Hamas has become a cat's paw of Teheran.

Strange then that key Sunni countries have abandoned a Sunni outfit, Hamas, and left it at the mercies of a Jewish Israel and a Shiite Iran. The overall Sunni house has become riven by division.

The second major development is that while Saudi Arabia is renowned for exporting Wahhabism, a radical strain of Sunni Islam, to different parts of the world, it is now quivering in the face of other radical Sunni movements like the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. The Brotherhood attempted to restore the primacy of Egypt in Arab affairs, which, of course, was not to the liking of the Saudis. So the Saudis financed the Egyptian army to depose the brotherhood.

On the contrary, Saudi Arabia supports the Taliban, which has readily adopted Wahhabism. In fact, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries that recognized the earlier Taliban government in Afghanistan. The Saudis still remain keen for the Taliban to regain power Kabul.

In a similar vein, the Saudis support one of the most vicious Sunni Islamic movements to have raised its head, the Islamic State, which aspires to revert Iraq to Sunni rule, as well as depose Shiite rule in Syria, a cause dear to the Saudi heart. So even with Sunni movements, the Saudis will support those that are aligned to themselves or pose them little to no threat (e.g., the Taliban, the IS), and disdain ones that hope to supplant their primacy in the Arab world (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood).

The third major development is the complete repudiation by the Gulf States of the Arab Spring and the hope for democracy that it engendered. When it comes to the Arab Spring, the Sunni Gulf states again find themselves on the same page as Israel in that both saw the entropy that resulted as a threat to themselves, and an opening for Iran to gain ascendancy.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood triggered alarm bells in Israel as well as the Sunni Gulf states. Libya has become an anarchy, which is another cause for worry. The Sunni revolt in Bahrain is seen as Saudi Arabia as a direct assault upon its own self. A Sunni state ruled by a predictable and friendly tyrant (e.g., Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Qaddafi in Libya, Mubarak in Eqypt, the Bahranian monarchy) is much preferable to the turbulent waters unleashed by revolts and revolutions in all of these countries.

Fourthly and finally, after half a century, the Saudis seem to have lost trust in the security umbrella provided by the United States. They are aghast that the U.S. has not launched strikes against Iran's nuclear program, in fact they are turning to Israel to do the same. They were also stunned that Obama did a U-turn on launching air strikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, especially when he himself noted that red lines for an assault had been crossed.

They believe that the U.S. is fatigued by the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is no mood to provide them protection from Iran. So much so that Saudi Arabia has already arranged for nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Missile launch pads are already in place, and the weapons can be brought in and activated at a moment's notice.

The impact of the discovery of shale oil in the U.S. has also not been lost on the Saudis. For fifty years, the U.S. provided security in exchange for oil, but now that it is not dependent on Arab oil as much, it does not feel the need to secure its Arabian allies as much as before.

The Middle East is on tenterhooks. The Saudi determination to maintain their leadership of the Sunni world, Iran's push for a similar role in the Shiite world, the reluctance of a jaded United States to get actively involved, the internecine and almost ubiquitous Shia-Sunni bloodshed -- all of these are intractable currents roiling the Muslim world. The situation is so dire and so much in flux that no one knows what is going to happen tomorrow.

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