Talisman Gate

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Saudi Mega-Plot

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 9, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1666 words

HEADLINE: The Saudi Mega-Plot


Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He recently returned from a trip through the Middle East that included time in Lebanon. He can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com.


Is there or isn't there a Saudi megaplot to thwart democracy in the Middle East and spread fundamentalism in its place? Is Lebanon the staging ground for a fundamentalist Sunni restoration in Syria to be orchestrated by the Saudis? And are the Americans about to be duped by the Saudis yet again? I can't figure it out just yet.

The Saudis appear to be sending out three seemingly contradictory messages: one to the Americans, another to their own internal extremists, and a third to the Syrian leadership. The Saudis are telling the Americans that they are going to help bring down the regime in Syria. They are telling the Wahhabis within Saudi Arabia that they are going to bring back a Sunni country into the fold and liberate it from the obscure, pseudo-Shiite Alawite regime currently in power. And they are telling these very same Alawis that this whole Bush vision for democracy threatens them both and that all they are up to is for show and that it should not be taken seriously.

As it happens, all three messages seem to be sincere. The Saudis are indeed going to pull all the strings to bring down the Alawite regime in Syria, and then place a Sunni fundamentalist regime in place that will appease the Wahhabis and scare the hell out of the Americans. Bush may be striving for democratic change in Damascus, but what he will get in return is a bunch of crazies hostile to America, and there won't be an equivalent to Iraq's Sistani to curb them. The Saudis will then turn around and whisper in Bush's ear, "We told you that this whole democracy thing is a bad idea, now imagine who you'd have to deal with if we were pressured to change and our own oil-securing yet brittle regime is threatened?"

Doesn't the scenario described above look very familiar to what happened throughout the 1980s in Afghanistan? Didn't the Saudis strike a deal with the Americans to fund the mujahedeen, defeat the Soviets, and establish the Taliban regime? Wasn't Pakistan the staging ground for that former mega-plot? At the time, the Saudis were threatened by both Soviet-supported Arab socialism and out-of-control Wahhabi fundamentalism, and the solution was simple: Give the Saudi crazies a project in faraway Kabul, become a global strategic ally of America, and humiliate the Russians. It worked, but left a mega-mess called the Taliban as a nasty and exceedingly dangerous by-product.

Poor little Lebanon is the new staging ground for this latest Saudi grand adventure. Beirut has yet to recover from the last regional adventure that played out on its suffocating streets: the effort to violently liberate Palestine and cast the Jews into the sea, which apparently involved igniting a futile Lebanese civil war en route. The pockmarks still dot almost every building in a wide radius around Beirut's downtown, which itself is marked by new flashy construction and many open plots. The ruins of old Beirut were piled up into the sea to enlarge the coastline for an ambitious rebuilding project headed by the pan-Middle Eastern Sunni construction magnate, Rafik Hariri, who became better known as the murdered former prime minister.

Hariri's ressurectionist vision for Beirut was a throwback to the heyday of the city in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Persian Gulf sheikhs would dole out petrodollars on sidewalk cafes and gawk at dolled-up Lebanese hotties. Those times were glamorous and prosperous, and oddly innocent in a materialistic, sexist way. Lebanon was an aberrant colonial creation that perennially carried within it the prospects of sectarian strife, but the thinking back then was who would bother with civil war with all these gorgeous bombshells strutting around? Surely enough, even today, partiers at the bars and clubs of a resurrected Monot Street would not inquire into the sectarian identity of visible female cleavage. But that is only half the story, for 15 years after a 15-year civil war, Beirut is still split in half, and the cleft runs smack down the middle of Hariri's vision.

The idea of a unified Lebanon as a home for coexisting diversity made sense on paper, on colonial maps, and in the constitutional code. But the old way of doing things, the divvying up of power, patronage, and paychecks among the corrupt elite of its 18 sects and communities was enshrined in unwritten pacts. Any external interference, such as the advent of Palestinian armed factions, would tempt one sect or another to renegotiate this pact in its favor. Every army or band of adventurers that has waltzed into this beautiful land, running the gamut from the French to the recent Syrian occupiers, understood and played this macabre and distinctly Lebanese game, and delayed the process of nation building through legal, nonsectarian frameworks. The Saudi plan has its local cheerleaders, the Sunnis, who are poised to welcome this external crutch to beat down fellow Lebanese in an endless recalibration of sectarian dynamics. It also helps to have the heir to Hariri's legacy, his untested and not-so-brainy son Saad, consider himself a Saudi by birth and upbringing.

Truly, it is hard to be hopeful about Lebanon: On Monot Street, there is a nightclub called "1975" whose self-mocking theme is the civil war. The club is decked out with sandbags and barbed wire, and bullet pockmarks adorn the walls. Just outside, the sandstone facades on Monot Street bear actual pockmarks and the frayed posters of Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite warlord assassinated more than 20 years ago. Yet just because it is hard to hope for the better does not make it impossible. The Saudis want to sell the Americans on the idea that change will bring extreme and unruly alternatives; that the autocratic regimes are strategic lids on a simmering anti-American generation of young Arabs beholden to the ranting fundamentalists. But that is not the case: The young partiers at club "1975" are the same ones who filled the empty lots of downtown Beirut in the hundreds of thousands in defiance of the 30-year Syrian occupation set up before they were even born. These youngsters are the potential constituency for a democratic Lebanon. Needless to say, pop culture is as much as a target for the fundamentalists as democracy is.

A few weeks ago in downtown Beirut, and a short distance from Hariri's grave, the espresso-sippers at trendy cafes got the privilege of first-row seating to the spectacle of fellow Lebanese demonstrating for an Islamic state and the imposition of Islamic law. They were Sunnis from the furthermost northern region of Lebanon around Akkar that hugs the Syrian border. Some in the noisy crowd that carried black banners of "God is Great" looked suspiciously like veterans of the Afghan mujahedeen wars. In fact, the slain liberal Lebanese journalist, Samir Kassir, was called out by a colleague during an interview to take a peek at the scenes from Taliban-era Kabul right outside his office window.

The Syrians had kept close tabs on and harassed these Lebanese fundamentalists, but with them out and the Saudis in, the Sunnis of Akkar are out on the streets flexing their stuff. Could Akkar be the next Deoband, the town in Pakistan where Saudi-bankrolled religious seminaries spawned the Taliban? The structure of power in Saudi Arabia is based on an alliance between the royals and the Wahhabis. The royal family needs to legitimize itself in the eyes of its fanatic allies by putting up the cash and its strategic global alliances in the service of Wahhabism as it did in Afghanistan. What better prize than to win back Damascus - the celebrated capital of the first Islamic empire - to the Sunni fold, in compensation for the loss of the second capital, Baghdad, to the Shias?

The Alawite leadership of Syria shares this same handicap of binary power. In the Syrian case, the veneer of ideology as embodied by the Ba'ath Party is part and parcel of the Damascene power structure. The Ba'ath cannot but think that its main current adversary is democracy in neighboring Iraq,and it is doing all it can to hobble it by supporting the renegade Iraqi Ba'athist terrorists. And as the unfolding events of its 10th party conference now under way in Damascus show, the Ba'ath is not about to reform its authoritarian self. But democracy may be the only thing that saves the minority Alawites from the nightmare of a fundamentalist Sunni resurgence in Syria itself, harking back to the times during the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood assassinated the creme of Alawite professionals and administrators. Maybe, if Lebanon is turned into a springboard for democracy rather than Sunni fundamentalism, the Alawites might be won over to a peaceful transition of power through sacrificing the Ba'athist edifice in return for real reform.

President Bush needs to understand two things: Democracy can save Lebanon from itself, and Saudi Arabia is not an ally for democracy. Right after Prince Abdullah returned from his most recent visit to Crawford, Texas, a Saudi court passed harsh judgment on three Saudi democratic dissidents, while the Wahhabi clerics who call for jihad against America in Iraq are roaming free. Subcontracting American policy and allowing the Saudis to micromanage Lebanese politics in the post-Syrian era, even with the tempting "low-hanging fruit" of regime change in Damascus, will not realize the Middle Eastern freedom and democracy that Mr. Bush envisioned in his second inaugural address.

Lebanon may be tiny, but its intellectual output in literature and the press, as well as its current role as the beacon of Arab pop culture, has had the whole Middle East hooked on the Lebanese spectacle for decades. America needs a democracy policy for Lebanon because everyone is watching and asking, "Is Lebanon going forward into a nonsectarian democracy, or is it about to relapse into a testing ground for ambitious regional adventures?" The odds need to be rearranged in favor of the hipster youths of Monot Street rather than the Wahhabi thugs of Akkar.