Mideast's turmoil, terror rooted in '73 oil-price spike

Mideast's turmoil, terror rooted in '73 oil-price spike
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According to the prevailing wisdom, 1979 was the turning point in the Middle East. It certainly was a busy year:

The Shah of Iran fled abroad in January.

Ayatollah Khomeini flew in to Tehran in February, from exile in France, establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In March, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on the South Lawn of the White House.


In July, Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq.

On Nov. 4, the U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized by “students” who held the diplomats hostage for 444 days.

On Nov. 20, Saudi rebels seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

The following day Pakistani rioters burned down the U.S. embassy in Islamabad.

To round off the year, on Dec. 27, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, replacing one communist leader (and Columbia University graduate), Hafizullah Amin, with a more pliant puppet, Babrak Karmal.

As Thomas L. Friedman wrote in the New York Times earlier this year: “I know a bit about 1979. I began my career then as a cub reporter in Beirut … writing about … the ayatollahs' takeover in Iran … and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by puritanical Sunni extremists … .”

On my own personal note, as a (youthful) Financial Times reporter, I covered the Iranian revolution from December 1978 until May 1979, returning to Tehran to cover the first half of the hostage crisis, from November 1979 until May 1980. I had previously been the BBC and FT correspondent in Pakistan, from 1977 to 1978, and knew personally several of the diplomats who were nearly roasted to death in the Islamabad embassy a year later.

The current fixation with 1979 is because Saudi Arabia's effective ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, aka MbS, sees it as the date when Saudi Islam became extremist. That was also the point of Friedman's column. As Salman al-Ansari wrote in The Hill on Feb. 7: “MbS sees Saudi Arabia’s religious perspective before 1979 as the foundational reference to what Saudi Arabia should be after 2017.” He quoted MbS as saying: “We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”

I have an issue with whether Islam in the kingdom was ever moderate but my bigger doubt is whether focusing on 1979 is misleading in historical terms, making a connection to the Iranian revolution, which was in fact coincidental. I think 1973 is more significant, not because of the October war when Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria but its consequence: a fourfold increase in oil prices.

The flood of revenues was used in part by Saudi Arabia, the largest oil exporter in the world, to burnish its Islamic credentials — as well as financing multimillion-dollar arms deals and some grand palaces. The Saudi royal family used some of the dollars to placate the kingdom’s religious establishment, which historically has legitimized its rule. Abroad, mosques were built by the dozens, and copies of the Koran distributed by the tens of thousands. But these Islamic endeavors were often not good works.

As Mr. al-Ansari, who is the founder and president of the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), noted (though dating the development to 1979): “The Mecca-based Muslim World League failed in its past mission because of its leniency toward the Muslim Brotherhood and poor supervision of finances being channeled abroad through the Pan-Islamic organization.”

(It is a revealing statement because many people may judge that “poor supervision of finances being channeled abroad” is what allowed extremist supporters of al Qaeda to fund the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States.)

An important secondary argument emphasizing the importance of the period from 1973 onward is that the Cold War was still raging. Moscow’s influence rivaled Washington’s across great swathes of the Middle East — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Algeria. Saudi Arabia wanted to replace godless communism with Islam. The United States found that useful.

Post-1979, religious fervor — the type of which MbS now apparently disapproves — was the prime motivating factor in the Afghan mujaheddin fighters (financed by Saudi Arabia and the United States) who eventually forced the Red Army to leave Afghanistan. As history now records, that defeat was a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent falls of communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe.  

Was the liberation of millions of people worth it when compared with the emergence of al Qaeda, then the Islamic State, and whatever the next version of such extremism is? The question is too simplistic. But concentrating on 1979 is misleading. If crown princes and commentators want to make political points with history, historians should debate the merits of what is being said.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.