1979 was a seismic and seminal year for the Middle East and the Muslim world. It not only transformed the region, but its global repercussions are still being felt, four decades later. The year witnessed the fall of the Washington-backed Shah of Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile to successfully lead the Iranian revolution, and the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran; the execution of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan; the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty at Camp David; the assumption of power by Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq; the takeover of Makkah’s Grand Mosque by Saudi militants; the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by Irani students, leading to the hostage crisis that eventually brought Ronald Reagan to power in the US; and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union.

Since that fateful year, the region has been convulsed by multiple wars, political turmoil, increasing sectarianism and terrorism, the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the outbreak and subsequent failure of the Arab Spring and cultural changes brought by government-led Islamicisation drives. Kim Ghattas, a Dutch-Lebanese journalist based in the United States, tries to connect the dots in her elegantly written, insightful book Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East by presenting a general history of the Middle East since 1979, and attributing most of these radical political and social changes and turn towards conservatism to the cold war between the two bastions of the Muslim world: Wahhabi Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.

A former correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times in the region for over two decades, Ghattas has travelled extensively across the Middle East, and seen these changes first-hand, starting from a cosmopolitan Beirut, where she grew up during the Lebanese civil war. Ghattas, now a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also covered former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, accompanied her on various trips and wrote a best-selling account titled The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power.

Three events — the Iranian revolution, the takeover of Makkah’s Grand Mosque and the invasion of Afghanistan — stand out for Ghattas as the key turning points. The Iranian revolution ushered in Islamic republicanism which was seen as a threat by the bloc of monarchies in the Persian Gulf led by Saudi Arabia — which became more conservative after Makkah’s mosque was seized by Saudi militants. Both Tehran and Riyadh, before Khomeini’s revolution, were close allies of Washington in its efforts to contain communism. Since 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been locked in a rivalry for religious and cultural supremacy. This cold war has adversely impacted the culture, society, religion and politics of the Muslim world.

By bankrolling Jihad International against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia also got an outlet to export its militants — including Osama Bin Laden — to a foreign country. But the move backfired as Saudi Arabia witnessed heightened attacks by local terrorists after 9/11, which had been masterminded by Al Qaeda and carried out by mostly Saudi hijackers. Riyadh, in an effort to counter the export of the Iranian revolution, has engaged in chequebook diplomacy, by financing proxies and/or promoting Wahabbism in many Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia etc. Iran has responded by supporting its allies in, and exporting its revolutionary ideals to, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Palestine.

Former BBC and FT correspondent Kim Ghattas traces the current problems of the Middle East to three key events from 1979

In this book, which reads like a fast-paced novel, Ghattas also looks at Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Egypt. She pieces together four decades of history across these seven countries by narrating the tales of revolutionaries, clerics, intellectuals, novelists, Sufis, musicians, spymasters, journalists and leaders. She retraces the steps to a period before 1979, which was less violent or sectarian, in order to understand how we arrived at this juncture.

Her protagonists are individuals who have struggled against repressive regimes and intolerant thought-brigades. Her heroes and heroines range from a Pakistani television anchor who refused to obey a military dictator’s orders to cover her head, to the Egyptian novelist who was incarcerated for indecent writings, to dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Ghattas’s story starts with her native Lebanon, torn by a civil war in 1977, where Irani exiles collaborate with local Shia activists to record cassettes calling for the fall of the Shah of Iran. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have played a role in the sectarian proxy war in Lebanon, and the author is no fan of Hezbollah or the Iranian revolution. But to be fair to her, Ghattas is an equal opportunity offender, being very critical also of Saudi Arabia’s policies, both domestic and foreign.

Her main thesis — that most of the greater Middle East’s current troubles can be traced to events in Iran and Saudi Arabia in 1979 — is quite appealing. It has many adherents among analysts and policymakers, and also among leaders such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who like to pin the blame on the Iranian revolution, which is branded as sectarian and reactionary. However, this simplistic explanation is, at best, only partially correct, as it ignores many nuances and factors. For example, the rebellion by Saudi militants at Makkah’s Grand Mosque was a purely domestic issue and had nothing to do with the Iranian revolution. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, even before 1979, was a conservative country, where promoting religious piety was part of government policy to counter threats of communism and pan-Arab socialism.

In this book, which reads like a fast-paced novel, Ghattas pieces together history by narrating the tales of revolutionaries, clerics, intellectuals, novelists, Sufis, musicians, spymasters, journalists and leaders.

Most importantly, however, the book airbrushes the role of Israel in the geo-politics of the Middle East, and downplays the significance of American foreign policy towards Iran — both before and after the Islamic revolution — and the Middle East in general. In order to understand the share the hostile and anti-Tehran foreign policy of Israel and the US had in determining the path-dependency of Iran’s aggressive and militant posture towards the region, one has to turn towards Dilip Hiro’s impressive and detailed Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy.

Ghattas is a master storyteller and her most interesting chapters deal with Egypt and Pakistan. Since 1979, both countries have seen long spells of military dictatorships supported by Riyadh and Washington. Both succumbed to “Saudisation” under military dictators who exploited Islam and were financially helped by Riyadh in exchange for allowing Saudi influence to increase. In Egypt, six percent of books published in 1985 were religious but, because of Saudi influence, this number touched 85 percent by 1995. In the 1970s, 30 percent of Egyptian women wore the headscarf; by the mid-1990s, under Hosni Mubarak, that had risen to 65 percent.

Influential journalists in Cairo on the Saudi payroll wrote laudatory articles. Prominent Egyptian actresses — known for their beauty in films — suddenly started wearing the niqab and abaya, the veil and the long, black, Saudi style robe, sometimes after visiting Saudi Arabia. Ghattas, a witty raconteur, narrates that the popular joke in Cairo was that the second-richest women in Egypt were belly dancers who were slipped money under their skirts by rich Saudi men who watched them dance; the richest Egyptian women were the belly dancers/actresses who had converted and donned the veil, because rich Saudi men deposited money directly in their bank accounts!

Ghattas has visited Pakistan and witnessed the social and cultural transformation which began under military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq, who took pride in the fact that he introduced strict allegedly Islamic Sharia laws in Pakistan a day before Khomeini assumed power in Tehran. These punitive Islamic laws, as Ghattas details, were drafted by Maarouf al Dawalibi, a former Syrian prime minister exiled to Saudi Arabia in 1964, and dispatched to Islamabad by Riyadh at Gen Zia’s request, to assist the Council of Islamic Ideology in his ‘Islamisation’ drive.

Pakistan saw a mushrooming of Deobandi/Wahhabi mosques, as the Saudi footprint increased massively during the Afghan ‘Jihad’ in the 1980s. Pakistan became an active battleground for the Saudi-Iran proxy war, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives in the last three decades from sectarian violence and targeted killings, mostly of Shias. This deadly process kicked off under Gen Zia in 1987, when one sectarian militia was pitted against the other in a two-week battle in the Kurram district, near the Afghanistan border — 52 Shias and 120 Sunnis were killed and 14 villages were completely or partially destroyed. As Ghattas poignantly observes, it was the first premeditated, state-sponsored attack by one sectarian militia against another sect, the first such killing that the Muslim world had witnessed in modern times.

The author also illustrates the lives of audacious Pakistan men and women who opposed military dictatorship — television anchor Mehtab Rashdi who defied Gen Zia’s orders to cover her head, for example — or lost their lives while resisting intolerant ideologies — for example, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who was assassinated for speaking up in defence of a Christian woman.

But the book suffers from a few mistakes: Taseer was not Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s nephew, but his wife Alys Faiz’s. Irani revolutionary ideologue Ali Shariati was in his mid-40s, not early 30s, when he mysteriously died in London in 1977; and Pakistan, not Syria, was the first country to officially recognise the Iranian revolution in 1979. Despite these minor drawbacks, Black Wave is a valuable and entertaining book which should be read for its elegant prose, impressive research and engrossing story.

The reviewer is an independent researcher and consultant in Islamabad

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East
By Kim Ghattas
Wildlfire, UK
ISBN: 978-1472271099
377pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 31st, 2020