In a statement made in December 2015 but which gained attention last week, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, declared that chess was forbidden for Muslims. This was only one among many ignorant, bigotry-laced and extremist statements that constantly flow from the kingdom.
In December the same mufti claimed that Islamic State (IS) was actually run by Israel. On January 17 Sheikh Saud al-Shuraim, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, claimed that Jews and Iranians were conspiring against “Muslims,” by which he meant Sunni Muslims of his flavor. “There is no surprise in the alliance of the Safavids with the Jews and Christians against the Muslims, history witnessed this. But there is surprise at minds delaying their understanding of this truth until this moment,” he wrote. Given statements like these, it may be surprising that Israel has increasingly been moving into the Saudi orbit in recent years.
On January 21 Sudanese foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour said at a conference that “the matter of normalized relations with Israel is something that can be looked into.” His comments come in the wake of Sudan breaking off relations with Iran after the Saudi embassy in Iran was attacked and Saudi Arabia encouraged Sunni regimes to oppose Iran.
The embassy had been attacked by angry Shi’ite protesters after Saudi Arabia had executed a Saudi Shi’ite preacher named Nimr al-Nimr. The Sudanese “opening” to Israel is part of a larger quiet revolution in the Arab world. Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold told the Institute of National Securities Studies (INSS) conference on January 18 that Israel has contacts with “almost every Arab state.” Rather than being isolated, Israel is being incorporated into the Saudi Sunni-Arab orbit. Part of this includes the opening of a mission in Abu Dhabi and increasing contacts in the Gulf States. The Wall Street Journal termed this Israel “quietly courting Sunni states,” but in fact it is the other way around: the Sunni states of the Arab League want Israel defending their goal as their world crumbles under an Iranian octopus that has seen Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen fall to Iranian proxies.
Part of this reversal of fortune can be seen in the numerous statements coming out of Turkey about rekindling ties with Israel. Turkey’s President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan made criticism of Israel a key to his policy in the region since his AKP came to power 15 years ago. But after years of supporting Hamas in the Gaza Strip and making outrageous anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish statements, including a famous tirade against Shimon Peres in 2009 at Davos, he changed course on January 2. “Israel needs a country like Turkey, we have to admit we need Israel,” the Turkish leader said, on a flight home from, guess where? Saudi Arabia. Israel plays into this new charm offensive like a poor kid in the sandbox who begs to be picked second-to-last when sides are chosen for kick-ball.
The Saudi-led initiative has its pedigree. During the second intifada Saudi Arabia led a peace plan to grant Israel recognition in the region if Israel withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza. In June 2015 the Saudis also told Israelis at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US that Iran was a common enemy.
The courting of Israel comes against the backdrop of the rise and fall of IS in the region and the frustration of Sunni regimes with their inability to topple Bashar Assad in Syria. At the base of the Saudi worldview is an interest in using other actors to achieve the kingdom’s goals in the region. In the 1980s that meant bankrolling Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to fight Iran. In 1990 it meant asking the Americans to “save” it from Saddam when he got too big for his britches and invaded Kuwait. Every time the Saudis find themselves in trouble they sell their role in the region as guaranteeing stability. Bret Stephens bought into this in a column on January 19, noting that the US must “stand by” its historic Saudi ally “lest they be tempted to continue freelancing their foreign policy in ways we might not like.” This is the Saudi blackmail tactic; support us or the “real” extremists might emerge, not “us moderate Wahhabis” that only ban chess and such.
The Sunni Arab states that want Israel to help them confront Iran have proved incapable of doing so themselves. In Yemen the “grand alliance” of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and others, has relied on Columbian mercenaries, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia even asked Pakistan to send troops.
The same weird idea that outsiders could topple Syria’s Assad led Turkey to allow thousands of IS volunteers to transit its borders. Initially Turkey thought that the Syrian rebels would defeat Assad, but for unknown reasons the country also didn’t notice the cancerous growth of IS. The Saudi-Turkey- Qatar alliance against Assad could have toppled him in 2013 and 2014 if they had not allowed IS to grow but instead backed the moderate rebel factions.
Instead they played “wait and see.” Not until 2015 did Turkey begin to detain large numbers of IS volunteers, by which time it was too late and IS had conquered parts of Iraq and Syria and emboldened Iran, eventually leading Russia to intervene.
Assad, whom everyone hated in 2013, was suddenly the “bulwark against extremism.” In 2015 Turkey detained 913 volunteers for IS from 57 countries.
These included Trinidadians, 324 Muslims from China (Uighurs), 99 Russians (Chechans), 83 Palestinians and dozens from Indonesia, Afghanistan, Germany and the UK.
Now you can understand why in 2016 Saudi Arabia fully awoke to the ruin that its failed policies of managing conflict and soft-power diplomacy had wrought. Who will stand against Iran now that Iraq and Syria have fallen? With the apparent election of Michel Aoun in Lebanon with the support of his old adversary Samir Geagae, Hezbollah’s stranglehold on that country is complete. Aoun runs a small Christian party allied with the Shi’ite movement and Lebanon’s president is by law a Christian.
IT IS perhaps understandable that Saudi clerics hate chess so much – they’re bad at it. In the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Saudis have been badly outplayed. The Persians, on the other hand, invented the game. Without taking the stereotype too far, chess is a game whose complexity and history have more in common with the ancient intricacies of Iran than with the monochrome ignorance of Saudi’s Wahhabi imams.
Chess is also a game that Jews have excelled at.
It’s sophistication appeals to Jewish cultural and religious heritage. In one list of the 64 greatest chess minds of all time, 31 are Jewish. Here we find Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, Mikhail Tal and László Szabó.
So why are Israel’s allies in the region anchored by Saudi Arabia? Because Iran’s regime loathes Israel.
That’s the simple answer. When Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was speaking at INSS he made an offhand comment that he “prefers IS to Iran.”
What he meant was that Israel views Iran as a more serious threat, because of its strategic depth. Unlike IS, which has only one extremist policy which has brought it into conflict with the whole world, Iran is on the march in international diplomacy and its proxy Hezbollah threatens Israel. Over the weekend, for instance, Iran held high level meetings with China and John Kerry was in Riyadh admitting that Hezbollah’s 80,000 rockets aimed at Israel had come from Iran. Another report revealed Iran had recruited 20,000 Afghan Shia to fight it’s proxy war in Syria, and that sanctions relief would bring millions of dollars to the coffers of the Revolutionary Guards, which help run the wars in Syria and Iraq.
This isn’t the situation Israel would have historically preferred. Israel has far more in common with Iran than with Saudi Arabia. Iran builds on the legacy of an ancient Middle Eastern civilization, much as the Jewish people do in Israel. It is part of the fabric of diversity of the region. The Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia is a net destroyer of the region’s diversity and beauty. It abhors music, culture, dancing, pre-Islamic temples and architecture and of course chess. Wherever it is, diversity is destroyed in the name of a simplistic extremism. Localized Islamic diversity, sheikhs’ tombs, Sufi shrines or Islamic sects like the Ahmadis are all hated. Despite the extremist nature of the Iranian regime, levels of anti-Semitism in Iran are among the lowest in the region. The extremist nature of Iran’s current regime is in contrast to its history.
In the period after 1948 Israel and Iran had diplomatic relations and Iran was the second country after Turkey to recognize the Jewish state. It was a relationship based on common interests. During 1964-1975 the warm relations with Iran enabled the opening of contacts with the Kurds, who were fighting against the Iraqi regime.
In an interesting irony, the Kurds in Iraq now find themselves in the same perplexing situation as Israel. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have cultivated closer ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, at the same time that the Kurdish leadership there is seeking independence. The Arab states used to call Kurdistan a “dagger” that would be a “new Israel” in the region. There is no doubt that part of that newfound support for Kurdistan in the Gulf is due to perceptions that the Kurds can be a bulwark against Iranian power in Iraq and Syria. Some Saudi strategists seek to use Israel and the Kurds as pawns against the Iranian position.
Israel and pro-Israel commentators should therefore not take the Saudi opening as example of some genuine move toward friendship. There is also nothing to celebrate in having relations with Sudan, a pariah state. It is worthwhile to keep in mind that Iran, despite all the negative aspects of its regime, has a cultural heritage more in common with Israel’s in terms of preserving diversity in the region.
Israel may have wanted an Iranian ally, but due to the extremism of the 1979 Revolution, the Jewish state has ended up with the Saudis. For now that relationship may work. But the long-term strategy should be to build relations with groups like the Kurds, and others.
Follow the author on twitter @Sfrantzman.