Until the middle of the last century, about the only Europeans who took a genuine interest in the inhabitants of the Middle East and adjoining regions were historians with a taste for the exotic, students of Biblical lore, linguists and adventurous travellers. During World War II, British, German and Italian generals did not bother to ask them if they minded having their homelands used as battlefields.
But then everything changed. The end of unabashed European imperialism was quickly followed by awareness that modern economies needed huge amounts of oil which, at the time, had to come from the Middle East. What the people who lived there thought about things suddenly became important. The Soviet Union and, after the Europeans turned inwards, the United States, tried to sell them their own versions of progress; both soon ran up against Islam, a creed which, far from fading away, in its many guises grew stronger and increasingly hostile.
After the Soviet Union imploded, much of the US foreign-policy establishment came to the conclusion that what the “Greater Middle East” needed most was a flourishing democracy whose achievements would prove irresistibly attractive to all its neighbours. Unfortunately, bona fide democrats have turned out to be thinner on the ground than Islamists determined to wage a holy war against all intruders.
Islamists come in so many varieties that fighting Jihadism is like whack-a-mole: no sooner is one band of murderous fanatics demolished than another equally ferocious one pops up to take its place, on occasion after having profited from the patronage of Westerners seeking “moderates” willing to fight for democracy against the real hardliners such as the genocidal killers of Islamic State. That is why political leaders in the US, the UK, France and other countries have gone to such lengths to persuade themselves that, despite some regrettable peculiarities, Saudi Arabia is on the whole a reliable ally that, with luck, under its current “reformist” regime, could become just a little bit more and should be backed against Iran.
Is it? Has it ever been? The murder of a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, is forcing Westerners to take a closer look at their alleged ally. Sceptics have always pointed out that the Wahhabite kingdom is every bit as keen on Jihad as Iran, the only real difference being that though the ayatollahs make no bones about their desire to wipe out infidel countries like the US and Israel, their Saudi foes prefer to speak softly while, at the same time, spending billions to build mosques in Western countries in which preachers can rail against the unbelievers and encourage the faithful to kill them.
Like Communism, Islamism – which never really went away but seemed to be dormant in the days when European powers were more than prepared to make full use of their military assets against anyone rash enough to question their superiority – is a chiliastic movement whose eventual triumph, its adherents devoutly hope, will usher in at least a thousand years of peace and spiritual wellbeing for all humankind. But while the Communists set great store on their largely imaginary material prowess, fervent Islamists care little for economic matters; most of the countries in which they are influential remain poverty-stricken backwaters. The Islamists make up for this deficiency by their willingness to die for their beliefs; in Afghanistan, the holy warriors will in all probability succeed in driving out the NATO forces sent there to defend ramshackle democratic institutions that were introduced at gunpoint.
However, some Islamic countries, the emirates of the Persian Gulf and, needless to say, Saudi Arabia, are enviably rich. Were it not for Saudi Arabia’s enormous oil reserves, much of the rest of the world would treat it with contempt as a brutal mediaeval relic, but because it overflows with the stuff, others feel obliged to pretend they respect its customs and applaud wholeheartedly reforms that might have seemed fairly progressive in the early 19th century but which today look laughably timid.
By overlooking many inconvenient facts – among them the financial support given to preachers of Jihad in Europe and North America, and the origin of most of the individuals who rammed passenger jets into the Twin Towers in New York and a wing of the Pentagon in Arlington – Western governments managed to convince themselves that, despite appearances, most of Saudi Arabia’s large royal family was on their side in the fight against Islamic extremism and therefore should be supported against rivals determined to topple it.
That pleasant fiction has now become far harder to maintain. The Turkish regime may be anything but trustworthy, but that does not mean individuals associated with it are lying when they say that a hit squad flown in from Riyadh cornered Khashoggi – a man with links to the Muslim Brotherhood who wrote for The Washington Post – in the Saudi consulate where, after torturing him to death, they quickly chopped up his corpse into easily disposable pieces. It seems that the expert entrusted with the job completed it in seven minutes. No doubt he had had plenty of practice. In any event, while that way of dealing with journalists who step out of line may be common enough in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where public executions or floggings are routine, it does not go down well in some other parts of the world.
This grisly affair puts North American and European governments in a tough spot. Neither Donald Trump nor his transatlantic counterparts can afford to let people think they approve of the Saudis’ behaviour, but they have plenty of reasons to be reluctant to treat them as they surely would the rulers of a country with far less oil or one unwilling to spend billions of dollars on high-tech weaponry. They are also aware that breaking with the dictatorship in Riyadh would help Iran, a militant Shiite theocracy they regard, with good reason, as being even more dangerous than the equally fervent Sunnis in Saudi Arabia. That is why many are clinging to the notion, favoured by Trump, that Khashoggi was done in by “rogue elements” who had nothing to do with the elderly Saudi monarch or the crown prince who runs the show and is allegedly of a reformist bent; to prove it, he dismayed traditionalists by allowing women to drive cars unaccompanied by a male relative.