The first step towards hegemony over the Arab world was the snuffing out of the Arab Spring movements. My first reaction to the recent attacks that wiped out approximately half of Saudi Aramco’s oil production capabilities is that if this is what ‘stability’ in the Middle East is supposed to look like, I’d hate to see what chaos looks like.
For ‘stability’ has been the great lie sold to the world to counter the ‘Arab Spring’ and those great movements of liberty that forced their way into history at the beginning of this decade. But it’s these great movements, diverse in composition but all of whom were ultimately unified in their desire for democracy and the fundamental liberties that make life worth living, which have been completely forgotten.
Instead, under the guise of ‘regional security’ and ‘stability’, we have a bunch of state forces now vying for hegemony over the region at the risk of war. The reality was always that ‘security’ and ‘stability’, which are code words for the maintenance of regional order at the expense of democracy and human rights, was always a fairy tale.
That the world could sit by and look the other way as Russia and Iran brutally and genocidally dismantled the popular Syrian revolution on behalf of the Assad dynasty was always an absurdity. As is the idea that the world could sit by and look the other way as Saudi and the UAE wage an unfathomably cruel war in Yemen following its revolution. The dominant narrative regarding the Middle East and North Africa demands that one takes a side between Saudi and Iran, while it’s clear to anyone who supported the ‘Arab Spring’ that neither of these forces are victims of any kind – nor, indeed, are they heroes.
Indeed, while the extent of Iranian involvement in the attacks on Saudi Aramco is not entirely clear, the sophistication and precision of the strikes, which involved both drones and cruise missiles, would point to some level of involvement by Tehran. Evidence notwithstanding the Trump administration will lay the blame at Iran’s feet.
Iran’s stance is that if the US, supported by its major regional ally Saudi, can sanction its domestic oil production, Saudi’s oil production ought to be halted too. Yemen is no longer the country that rose up to demand democracy but rather a pawn in the great game between the US-Saudi-UAE alliance and Iran, condemning it to perpetual war. If Iran has any involvement with the Houthis in Yemen, it was only granted such an opportunity due to the will of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ensure that meaningful democracy never emerged in that country following the revolution against Ali Abdullah Saleh.
And, in turn, Iran has only become so emboldened to be able to strike at the heart of Saudi Arabia thanks to its major role in the war waged against Syrians who rose up in huge numbers against the dynastic tyrant Assad. This isn’t a story about Iran versus Saudi – it’s a story about two different blocs of triumphant counterrevolutionaries vying for power at the expense of the popular revolutions that erupted across the Arab world.
If you’re unconvinced, you ought to entertain a short hypothetical: imagine if Yemen had been allowed to transition to democracy? Imagine if Saudi and the UAE hadn’t prolonged the ‘transitional government’, keeping a wing of Saleh’s ruling party in indefinite power, allowing for Saleh and his allies to regroup and join forces with the Houthis to overthrow the transitional government.
Imagine if, back in 2012 right up until 2015 (when Iran went to Moscow to inform it that without Russian intervention, Assad would fall) the US and the world had intervened to protect civilians and support those attempting overthrow tyranny? If you’re utterly unmoved by the sheer amount of innocent life that would’ve been saved in the event of those hypotheticals and you must have some ‘geopolitical’ justification, the region wouldn’t currently be on the brink of war. Even factoring in an erratic and unqualified Donald Trump gaining power in the US and ripping up the P5+1, if democracy had been allowed to flourish in Syria and Yemen, Iran wouldn’t be in a position to attack Saudi Aramco.
Iran has veritably conquered Syria, giving it and its proxies newfound opportunities and scope – if Assad had been overthrown before this, Iran’s range of operations would be limited. Meanwhile, Saudi and the UAE would have to come to terms with much-hated democracies on their doorsteps, while their obsessions with Iranian expansionism would be tempered.
‘Realists’ might claim such a take is utopian and over-simplistic, but it’s ‘realist’ policies, carried out by Barack Obama and continued by Donald Trump, of allowing ‘order’ to be maintained in the region that has led to this current crisis that brings us to the brink of regional war. Both of the hypotheticals I outlined above are not removed fantasies – they were, at one point, within grasp. Recent history tells us that the triumph of the brutal conditions of war and genocide only ever lead to more war and genocide.
The rise of fascism and World War II—which can be seen as the apogee of the imperialist era where the self-interest of states degraded human life—is the epitome of what the historian Ernst Nolte called ‘unlearned lessons.’ Whether it’s Iran’s role in the genocide in Syria and its backing of the Houthis and undermining of democracy in Iraq, or Saudi’s role in the war in Yemen, its invasion of Bahrain to maintain that sectarian tyranny or its support for the brutal coup in Egypt; we see the region conditioned almost solely by brutality and war.
The West, led by successive US governments and incited by Putin’s Russia, all citing support for ‘stability’ and ‘order’, has engendered this chaos. The only small sliver of hope we have is that—and it genuinely hurts to write this—the US, Iran and Saudi, each as actors hostile to democracy, liberty and human rights, remind each other that they have more in common with each other than they do apart. Maybe that dismal realisation will at least stop the catastrophe of more war.