How the Saudi-Iran rivalry has unravelled the Middle East



Barely one month in, the new year has already demonstrated that tensions in the Middle East show little sign of calming. The assassination in the first days of January of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ overseas forces, in a US drone strike and the unveiling this week of Donald Trump’s “win-win” Israeli-Palestinian peace plan only served to remind just how misunderstood the dynamics in the region are. Against this backdrop, Kim Ghattas’s history of the wider Islamic world since 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution, is a timely and welcome guide to the politics of a region that has long been shaken by regional rivalries — between Saudi Arabia and Iran; between Sunni and Shia — and foreign intervention. Well-researched and elegantly written, Black Wave focuses on the lives of a number of key individuals — from guerrilla fighters, revolutionary clerics and spy chiefs to Sufi leaders and journalists — that played prominent roles or were eyewitnesses to the events of 1979 and subsequent years. The book is particularly strong and vivid at the start, where the author describes the Lebanon of the 1970s, a haven for revolutionaries from around the world and from where some of the Iranian guerrillas would emerge who would play a key role in the toppling of the Shah. Ghattas’s book is a colourful account of their lives, interspersed with lines of poetry and the songs of the divas who defined the sound of that era: Fayruz, Umm Kulthum, Marzieh and Iqbal Bano. The book often gets nuances right, as when it traces those personal connections between activists from Amal (the movement that mobilised Lebanese Shia before Hizbollah was founded in 1982), the PLO and Iranian dissidents, and explains why in 1979, the Iranian revolution was hailed by the left, including by French intellectuals, as well as by Sunni Islamists such as the Muslim Brothers and the Pakistani Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi as a model to be emulated. Another strength is that the book connects different countries and regions that are usually looked at separately, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iran but also Pakistan, and shows how 1979 was transformative in all of them. And indeed, the late 1970s were a time when much changed across the world. As Christian Caryl argued in Strange Rebels, it was the cradle of many of the defining forces of the 21st century — from the enthusiastic embracing of neoliberal economics to the slow demise of communist rule in eastern Europe through to the emergence of political Islam as a global force.

Zia ul-Haqq came to power in 1977 in Pakistan, and soon implemented a Sunni version of the sharia as state law. After the occupation by militants of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, Saudi Arabia underwent its own transformation to an even more public display of religiosity. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated in 1981 by Sunni militants inspired by the Iranian revolution. That 1979 was transformative is thus well-known, and a sound argument, particularly when it comes to the Middle East. It is in that transformative moment that the wider Islamic world becomes divided into countries and movements allied to Iran, and those opposed to it, with the Americans squarely positioned as the leaders of the anti-Iran camp since the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran in 1980. It is in that transformative moment that the Middle East was divided into those for and against Iran This is all true and well told. Yet it is not the full story. The notion that all the ills of the Middle East can somehow be traced back to 1979 is popular, and one that is espoused not least by regimes in the region that seek to blame Iran for all of its problems (most recently, Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia embraced this thesis). In this narrative the pre-1979 era was a golden one, where ideas were flowering, young people were dancing, grand dames were singing songs of love, and women walked around without covering their hair. Needless to say, that narrative has its limits. For one, Islamic groups and states were built up as a wider cold war effort since the 1950s, in particular Saudi Arabia, in a massive attempt to strengthen piety as anti-communism in the Islamic world — epitomised by the Saudi King Faisal, who died in 1975. While much of the book is about how Sunni and Shii political parties and regimes started to use religion to further their political projects, and started attacking each other, Ghattas also describes how all Islamist movements tried to enforce a certain notion of public morality.

In particular there was a focus on the female body, creating a “black wave”, as Ghattas calls it in reference to the black headscarves, and in some cases full body chadors, that were imposed as public dress for women in Iran after the revolution. This also became the norm in other countries, including in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. But the anti-veiling campaigns of the “modernising” autocrats such as the Shah of Iran were also deeply enmeshed with the power structures and legitimising narratives of the state and coupled with repression. In that sense they were not unlike the claims of today’s autocrats, who give women the right to drive but not to vote, and assassinate their opponents (the life story of Jamal Khashoggi actually features prominently in Ghattas’s book). Some women also chose the veil as a symbol of Islamic activism, or to take control of their bodies, and many women were involved in the policing of dress codes. Ghattas, a journalist who has worked for the BBC and the FT, was born in Lebanon, and has no love lost for the Islamic Republic of Iran or its client Hizbollah. In a nutshell, she writes “the puritanism of Khomeini’s Iran was flattening Beirut’s joie de vivre.” For her, the cosmopolitan Middle East gave way to one dominated by Islamist politics, and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. But the book is not essentially about the veil, or about women, it is about power politics, and the complicated relationship between the Iranian revolution and its supporters on the one hand, and its enemies on the other — although the role of the US and Israel as key drivers of that rivalry could have been emphasised more. Black Wave is a sobering testament to all those who have dreamt of a different Middle East, and sometimes paid with their lives for it. And yet, there is also hope, which Ghattas finds in the ways in which people manage to deal with historical trauma, and the suffering that has been inflicted on the region by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and foreign intervention. “Their defiance is a source of hope, their steadiness contagious. Even when they go into exile, they don’t give up.” For, if you listen carefully, you can still hear Umm Kulthum in the taxis of Cairo, Fayruz in the streets of Baalbek, and you might even be able to buy a tape of Marzieh’s famous songs of longing in Tehran. Perhaps then, in today’s Middle East, it is understandable that people are nostalgic for a period that most have never experienced themselves, but that in comparison with the last few decades, seems more open and diverse. Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas, Henry Holt, RRP$27/Wildfire, RRP£20, 400 pages