Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

The Affinity Between Iraqi Sunni Extremists and the Rulers of Saudi Arabia

The extremist group ISIS has used a Saudi tactic—monopolizing oil revenues—to fund its brutal execution of a Saudi goal: the repression of the Middle East’s Shiites.

Inter Press Service

Which story line sounds the more credible – that linking the rebel movement ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) to policies pursued by Iran or that linking the Sunni extremist force to Iran’s adversary Saudi Arabia?

In June this year, fighters belonging to ISIS – a rebel movement that had previously established its foothold in the oil-rich areas of north-eastern Syria – succeeded in capturing Mosul, a city surrounded by oil fields in northern Iraq. Ever since, commentators in the world’s media have been speculating on the origins of the dreaded organisation’s military success.

It is admitted that the occupation of Mosul and vast tracts of the Sunni-dominated portion of Iraq would not have been possible except for the fact that ISIS forged a broad grassroots alliance with Iraq’s minority Sunnis frustrated with the policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s government. Nor would Mosul have fallen but for the dramatic desertion by top-officers of Iraq’s state army.

Yet various observers have meanwhile focused on the political economy behind the advance of ISIS. Some experts from U.S. think tanks have discussed the likely sources of ISIS’ finances, pinpointing private donors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Other writers instead have connected ISIS’ reliance on black market sales of oil in Kurdish territory with Iranian exports of crude, described as “illegal”.

I propose putting the spotlight on the methods of war financing used by ISIS, but first it is necessary to highlight the movement’s complete sectarianism.

Soon after the occupation of Mosul, rebels blew up and bulldozed shrines and mosques in the city belonging to Shia Muslims. Pictures on the demolition of these buildings were circulated widely by the world’s mainstream media. Unfortunately, few Western journalists cared to draw attention to the role which destruction of shrines has played in the history of Islam.

Sunni orthodoxy and especially its Saudi variety, Wahhabism, considers the worshipping of saints at tombs to be unacceptable. Islam’s minority Shias, and its mystical current of Sufism, freely engage in such worship – and this throughout the Muslim world.

ISIS’ work of demolition in Iraq can in no way be equated with practices of Iran’s Shia rulers. Instead, they express the extremist movement’s affinity with policies long championed by Saudi Arabia. Ever since the founding of the Saudi state, numerous Shia and Sufi shrines have been rased to the ground at the behest of this country’s Wahhabi dynasty.

What does the political economy behind ISIS’ military advance in Syria and Iraq tell us about the organisation’s affinities? First, in one sense, the ISIS strategy might be interpreted as rather novel.

Whereas the extraction of raw materials is a war strategy pursued by numerous rebel movements in the global South – see, for example, UNITA’s extraction of diamonds in the context of Angola’s civil war, and the trade in coltan by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo – rarely has a Southern rebel movement succeeded in turning crude oil into its chief source of revenue.

Indeed, whereas ISIS originally relied on private funders in Saudi Arabia to build up a force of trained fighters, the organisation has consciously targeted regions in Syria and Iraq harbouring major oil fields and (in the case of Iraq) oil refineries. By laying siege to the oil refinery at Baiji, responsible for processing one-third of oil consumed in Iraq, ISIS hoped to undermine the state’s control of oil resources.

Further, some 450 million dollars was stolen by ISIS fighters from a subsidiary of Iraq’s central bank after the occupation of Mosul. This reportedly was all income from oil extraction. Some observers put the cash income which ISIS derives from smuggled oil at one million dollars a day!

ISIS is thus a ‘religiously inspired’ Sunni extremist organisation with an utterly secular objective: to control the bulk of oil resources in two Middle Eastern states in order to re-establish a caliphate, an all-Islamic state-entity guided by a central religious authority.

Yet though ISIS’ methodology of reliance on oil for financing of its war campaigns is novel for a rebel movement, such use of oil is not unique in the context of the Middle East. Ever since the 1970s, most oil-rich countries of the region have squandered a major part of their income from the exports of crude by (indirectly) exchanging their main natural resource against means of destruction – weapon systems bought on the international market.

And while Iran under the Shah was equally enticed into opting for this form of trade in the 1970s, it is the Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia which from the oil crisis of 1973 up to today has functioned as the central axe of such a trade mechanism.

Witness, for instance, the 1980s oil-for-arms (!) ‘barter deal’ between the Saudi kingdom and the United Kingdom, the so-called ‘Al Yamamah’ deal, and the 60 billion dollar, largest-ever international arms’ agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United States clinched in 2010.

Forward to 2014, and an Iraq desperately struggling to survive. A section of the world’s media has already announced its impending demise, predicting a split of the country into three portions – Sunni, Kurdish and Shia. On the other hand, some commentators have advised that the United States should now change gear and line up with Iran, in order to help the Iraqi government overcome its domestic political crisis.

Yet the United States and its European allies for long, too long, have bent over to service the Wahhabi state. Even as Western politicians loudly proclaimed their allegiance to democracy and secularism, they failed to oppose or counter Saudi Arabia’s oppression of, and utter discrimination against, Shia citizens.

For over 40 years they opted to close their eyes and supply Saudi Arabia with massive quantities of fighter planes, missiles and other weaponry, in exchange for the country’s crude. Playing the role of a wise elderly senior brother, the United States has recently advised Iraq’s prime minister al-Maliki, known for his sectarian approach, that he should be more ‘inclusive’, meaning sensitive towards Iraq’s minority Sunni population.

But has the United States’ prime Middle Eastern ally Saudi Arabia ever been chastised over its systematic discrimination of Shias? Has it ever been put to task for its cruel oppression of heterodox Muslims? And has the United States ever pondered the implications of the trading mechanism of disparate exchange it sponsored – for the future of democracy, food sovereignty and people’s welfare in the Middle East?

Peter Custers, an academic researcher on Islam and religious tolerance with field work in South Asia, is also a theoretician on the arms trade and extraction of raw materials in the context of conflicts in the global South. He is the author of ‘Questioning Globalized Militarism’. 

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Haim Saban is a media mogul and major donor to the Democratic Party known for his hardline stance on Israel and opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.


Nikki Haley, Donald Trump’s first U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is known for her lock-step support for Israel and is widely considered to be a future presidential candidate.


Brian Hook is the director of policy planning and senior policy advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and is the head of the Iran Action Group.


Josh Rogin is a journalist known for his support for neoconservative policies and views.


Laurence Silberman, a senior justice on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, was a mentor to controversial Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and has been a vocal supporter of right-wing foreign and domestic agendas, including the campaign to support the invasion of Iraq.


The People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK, advocates regime change in Iran and has strong connections with a wide range of top political figures in the U.S.


Eli Lake is a columnist for Bloomberg View who has a lengthy record of advocating for aggressive U.S. foreign policies towards the Middle East.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

The tragic end of Jamal Khashoggi should serve as a reminder that it’s time for the United States to move on and leave the motley crew of undesirable Middle Eastern partners, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, to their collective fate. They deserve each other.


Jobs should not be an excuse to arm a murderous regime that not only appears to be behind the assassination of a U.S. resident and respected commentator but is also responsible for thousands of civilian casualties in Yemen—the majority killed with U.S-supplied bombs, combat aircraft, and tactical assistance.


The contradictions in Donald Trump’s foreign policy create opportunities for both rivals and long-standing (if irritated) US allies to challenge American influence. But Trump’s immediate priority is political survival, and his actions in the international arena are of little concern to his domestic supporters.


While the notion that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is decades old, it has been bolstered in recent years, by the campaign to add to the definition of anti-Semitism any criticism that singles Israel out and doesn’t apply the same standard to other countries. The bottom line is that this entire effort is designed not to combat anti-Semitism but to silence criticism. 


Short-term thinking, expedience, and a lack of strategic caution has led Washington to train, fund, and support group after group that have turned their guns on American soldiers and civilians.


Trump is not the problem. Think of him instead as a summons to address the real problem, which in a nation ostensibly of, by, and for the people is the collective responsibility of the people themselves. For Americans to shirk that responsibility further will almost surely pave the way for more Trumps — or someone worse — to come.


The United Nations has once again turn into a battleground between the United States and Iran, which are experiencing one of the darkest moments in their bilateral relations.


RightWeb
share