Saudi Arabia, Iran, and The Hajj: The Middle East’s Overwhelming Power Struggle and the US Election


I’m not saying that to be a successful President you have to understand what this map means. But you actually kind of do… (Image from

In which the ludicrous complexity of a region in historic transformation is nearly impossible to understand. 

In this blog, when writing about affairs overseas, I usually try to take it own its own terms, and not through an American lens, unless I am writing specifically about our policy. One mistake politicians and pundits make is to view everything either how America impacts it or how it impacts America. To an extent that is fair: we are concerned about our concerns. But in doing so, we both overestimate our importance and underestimate local concerns, which causes us to ignore them. The classic example of that is the post-9/11 argument of whether they “hate us for our freedoms” or “hate us for what we have done”, between people who have never heard of, say, Mohammed Iqbal or Sayid Qutb. So the trick is always to start by understanding what drives the actors, where they came from, why they behave the way they do, without assuming that everything is a reaction to American goodness or American evil.

But there are some days, like after the disaster of last night’s forum, where it is impossible not to think about the US when reading something.

This morning, The Soufan Group had a briefing about Saudi Arabia and Iran using the hajj, once again, as a battleground for their ideological differences.

Saudi Arabia’s guardianship of the Hajj symbolizes its position in the Islamic world; for the Saudi royal family, the task of ensuring the safety of millions of Muslims—both Sunni and Shi’a—who make the journey each year is considered a distinguished honor and a solemn responsibility. It is also a major source of tourism and income for the Kingdom, bringing in two to three million pilgrims and billions of dollars annually. As the main arbiter of the pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia has occasionally wielded its power over the Hajj in its disputes with Iran. For Iran, undercutting the Kingdom’s prominent role in securing the Hajj is par for the course.

So, obviously, you have the overarching and underpinning Sunni/Shi’a issue at play here. But it is also power politics between a very rich nation and a very strong one, whose division of influence is largely based on the long-standing religious division, though it also has a lot to do, historically, with the reach of Persia and the isolation and sheer newness of a united Saudi kingdom.

How that’s playing out is with various militias and wars throughout the region. You have (deep breath) Iranian soldiers and proxy militias fighting in fronts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq and possibly Yemen (while also maybe influencing Bahrain) and Saudi Arabia is also fighting in Yemen (against perceived Iranian interests, though Iran may only be interested because of Saudi intervention) while supporting the enemies of Iran in Syria, though not ISIS, even though it ultimately sprang from Saudi sands, the same of which can be said for Nusra, now called Jabhet Fatah al-Sham, who have decoupled from al-Qaeda, but also probably not really.  Hezbollah, an Iranian ally, is deep in Syria, but also have their own issues in Lebanon. All of this is playing out in the remaking of the map, in a world that is post-Syria, probably post-Iraq, and almost certainly post-Yemen. Something new, borne of the mechanisation of history and the bloodlust of man, is being born.

And I haven’t even mentioned Turkey. Or for god’s sake, Israel.

This is a very rough summary, and purposefully rushed. It isn’t meant to be thorough. The point is this is probably too much for anyone to handle. Even Barack Obama who has taken a step back from our usual self-serving narrative and approached the Middle East not as a realist, per se, but as a real place, in out of his league. I think it is fair to say that any American president would be. Anyone would be. The problems are immense. That’s not to argue for total disengagement, but to show the impossible nature of it, and how every piece must be handled delicately, and understood both in its own terms (Yemen, for example, is NOT about Saudi Arabia and Iran, though it also is) and on a regional and global skill.

That is to say: someone who knows nothing, who has never known anything, and who can’t be bothered to learn, probably shouldn’t be President. Even someone who wants to learn, and who is acting in good faith, couldn’t come in without having spent a lifetime thinking about how foreign policy actually works, and how the world actually works, and expect to get anything done. Someone who assumes that having an opinion on headlines they skim means they are experts couldn’t help but be a historic disaster.

4 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia, Iran, and The Hajj: The Middle East’s Overwhelming Power Struggle and the US Election

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