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Madawi Al-Rasheed says the Saudis contend with ISIS to be the leaders of the Sunni world, but their interests converge as both regard Iran and the Shia as their enemy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. Continuing our series of discussions, Madawi al-Rasheed. She joins us, again, from London. Thanks for joining us, Madawi. MADAWI AL-RASHEED, PROF. MIDDLE EAST CENTER, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Thank you. JAY: Once again, Madawi’s a visiting professor at the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and Political Science. So in part one of this interview series, we talked about the Saudi stakes in Yemen. But as most countries, domestic politics sometimes is the most important determining factor about external policy. So today we’re going to talk a little bit more about the situation in Saudi Arabia. First of all, let’s talk about the Shia in Saudi Arabia. First of all, as you mentioned in part one, the Saudis have incurred a couple of times actually in Bahrain to help the Bahraini monarchy suppress the rebellion there, or protests. There’s a large minority Shia population in Saudi Arabia, and it happens to be very strategically located right where most of the oil is. Incurring this, the Yemen incursion, as the Houthis are Shia, how does this play out, in terms of Saudi domestic politics? AL-RASHEED: I think the Saudi Shia started a kind of uprising protest movement. But they were suppressed. And until sort of recently, they continued to stage very small demonstrations in their villages in the Eastern province where the oil installations are, and the oil fields. But they failed to create any kind of cross-sectarian solidarities. The reason for this is that the Saudi government adopted the view that any kind of dissent in the country must be regarded as an Iranian conspiracy against Saudi Arabia, and the Shia were accused of being a fifth column, loyal to Iran, and trying to destabilize Saudi Arabia. But intervention in Yemen has much to do with the majority of Saudis, and the situation among those ones. For four years, Saudi Arabia’s been trying to present itself as the leader of th Sunni community, the Sunni community worldwide. And at the same time, Saudi Arabia has failed to actually make that into a reality. Its own Islamists were targeted when they started some kind of agitation, but very minor ones, Saudi Arabia introduced new anti-terrorism laws that criminalized almost all Islamists. One of them is the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other Islamist movements. It suppressed those and quite a lot of people were not able to voice any kind of dissent as a result of these new anti-terrorism royal decrees. But at the same time, Saudi Arabia wants those Islamists to support it, because they are very loud, and calling upon their brothers everywhere to support a kind of Sunni-Islamist revival, in order to limit and repel the Iranian Shiite expansion. So this new war that the Saudi [inaud.] seem to be very keen on, a response to that domestic demand. Saudi Arabia is also losing, almost, its credentials when it is facing the challenge in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS. This particular state that emerged in June, declared itself to be the caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, present a real challenge for Saudi Arabia, because the caliphate of al-Baghdadi presents itself as defender of Sunni Muslims, and this is exactly what it’s been doing in Iraq and in Syria. Whereas the Saudi regime, who wants to be the defender of the Sunni, is incapable of doing anything. So the Saudi regime finds itself competing with this ISIS among the local constituencies. Among Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia. And therefore by launching this war, the Saudi regime has silenced dissent among Islamists, which represent a substantial majority in Saudi Arabia. JAY: It seems like the policy is very contradictory, particularly towards Iraq and ISIS, in the sense that the IS is fighting to a large extent Shia militias, an Iraq government that’s very sympathetic to Iran, even the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are actually sending commanders and other kinds of support to fight IS. Which in a sense is, that converges with some of the interests of the Saudis in terms of IS. On the other hand, there’s a lot of interest converging between IS and the Saudis to try to fight Shia/Iranian-backed forces. AL-RASHEED: Yes, absolutely. Well, the politics of the Middle East, the politics of Saudi Arabia in particular, and other regional powers, are not straightforward. They do not follow a particular logic. They are momentary decisions that seek to achieve limited goals and if those goals are not met, then they move to the next target. But as you said, Paul, the contradiction is there. The contradiction and the competition between multiple actors is there. And I think we just observe this politic as it unfolds without actually having a clear idea where it’s going to lead. What we know, it has lead to death and destruction in the area, from Syria all the way down to Yemen, now. But the interesting thing about this sort of convergence between Saudi Arabia and ISIS — have you noticed, Paul, that since the beginning of the air strikes on Yemen, it’s almost now seven days. Neither ISIS nor Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is located in southern Yemen, have actually said anything. We do not know what they’re thinking. Are they thinking that, well, this is great. Saudi Arabia is providing cover for us? Or is Saudi Arabia bombing us in Syria and helping us in Yemen, so that there is a quite a big question mark about this convergence of interest. Because they fight the same enemy. ISIS and Saudi Arabia regard Iran and the Shia as their enemy. JAY: Some of the analysts I’ve talked to suggest that the contradiction between the Saudis and ISIS is mostly smoke and mirrors, that it’s rhetorical. That there is still really some kind of alliance between them prior to Yemen, even, in the sense that there may be some financing and support. I mean, more or less, I think most people assume there was early support for IS-type forces and IS itself in the fight against Assad in Syria. But even now that it’s more war of words. And in fact, they like the fact that IS is fighting Shia, or Iranian-backed forces in Iraq. AL-RASHEED: Yes, of course. I mean, that’s so obvious. They have a common enemy. They have a common enemy and Saudi Arabia was accused of supporting ISIS, or other groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra or the [al]-Sham. And they’re all rebel groups that have mushroomed and popped up in Syria and Iraq. But the interesting thing is, why is ISIS silent on the air strikes in Yemen, and why is al-Qaeda in Yemen, in southern Yemen, that has kind of affinity with ISIS but also some differences? Why are they both silent when Saudi Arabia’s bombing Yemen? I have a big question mark, and I still wait to hear a declaration or a word from these groups that are extremely active on the internet. They are, they keep posting their YouTube videos and running commentary on the regional affairs of, the affairs of the region. JAY: Well there’s, I mean, I guess what you’re getting at is a kind of de facto alliance there. AL-RASHEED: A common interest. JAY: Or, or more than de facto. AL-RASHEED: I would call it common interest. But again, you know, they had been very, very close. I mean, we only need to go back to the 1980s when Saudi Arabia, together with other Western powers, were actually promoting jihad in Afghanistan, and that lead to the creation of al-Qaeda. So they were their allies. In fact, they were working on behalf of these superpowers, and the regional ones, such as Saudi Arabia. And only after the liberation of Afghanistan, they fell out. And this is very, very common, and I hope history doesn’t repeat itself this particular time, because I hope that governments have learned a lesson from playing with fire. JAY: Well, there’s no reason to think so. I mean, it seems the Saudis have been playing this double game, as you said, at least from the Afghan war. I have to keep reminding everybody, because the mainstream media doesn’t want to talk about it. But the Joint Congressional Investigation into 9/11, 28 pages that were redacted from the report specifically accused the Saudis, in fact the Saudi government, of facilitating and financing the 9/11 attacks. So this double game, the relationship with al-Qaeda on the one hand, and supposedly allying itself with various Western anti-terrorist activities. This has been going on a long time. AL-RASHEED: But also, Paul, I would like to mention that there is a very royal element in the war on Yemen. And the royal element stems from the fact that we have a new leadership in Saudi Arabia since January, since King Abdullah died and his brother, King Salman, came to power. He managed to place his youngest son, Mohammed bin Salman, in the highest position. He’s the minister of defense, head of the royal court. He basically has so many powers at the moment. And at the same time, we have his cousin, Muhammad bin Nayef, who heads the ministry of interior. He’s more senior, and he’s had more experience, because he claims that he’s the one that actually destroyed al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, and he’s the one who managed to control terrorism in Saudi Arabia, and his methods of dealing with terrorists are copied by other governments and also acclaimed by the United Nations. So he’s established his credentials as the security man in Riyadh for internal security. But Muhammad bin Salman, the new minister of defense, he’s only 30 years old and he hasn’t established his credentials. And therefore, this war reminds me of what happened to his cousin Khalid bin Sultan in the 1990s, when he fought Kuwait with General Schwarzkopf and claimed that he was the desert warrior. And so there’s this mythology about Khalid bin Sultan who was the minister of defense at the time. And now I think Muhammad, son of the king, is trying to achieve some kind of victory in order to achieve some kind of balance and equality with his cousin, Muhammad bin Nayef, who heads the ministry of interior. So there is this particular very, very royal politics at play, and at the moment the war on Yemen broke out, we see images flooding the Saudi media showing this young minister of defense, who is still in experienced. He has, he’s an unknown quantity yet, and he’s desperate for a victory in Yemen in order to assert his credentials vis-a-vis his cousin. JAY: Right. Okay, we’re going to continue our discussion in the next segment in this series of interviews with Madawi al-Rasheed on the Real News Network. Please join us.


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Madawi Al-Rasheed

Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at The London School of Economics and Political Science. She is originally from Saudi Arabia and currently lives in London. Her research focuses on history, society, religion and politics in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Her recent publications include A History of Saudi Arabia and A Most Masculine State .