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Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East

By Kim Ghattas

Review by Albadr AbuBaker Alshateri, PhD

Kim Ghattas, author of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, is a Lebanese journalist who has covered the Middle East for decades. The book, published in 2020, draws on her long career as a reporter for many well-respected news outlets such as BBC and the Financial Times.

She writes the book as a Lebanese and an Arab trying to unravel the events that have dominated the last four decades of the Middle East. “What happened to us?” she asks. In that search for an answer Ghattas has written a book, that is, according to her, “neither a work of historical scholarship nor an academic study,” but “more than a reported narrative.”

Answering the question of what happened to us led Ghattas to the pivotal year of 1979. That year, notes Ghattas, saw three major events in three countries: the Iranian Revolution, the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi religious zealots, and the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, which led to the birth of Jihadism in the region.

Ghattas comments that “The combination of all three was toxic, and nothing was ever the same again.” The Saudi-Iran competition was the consequence of these three momentous events. The rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran over the leadership of the Muslim World led the contesting countries to “wield, exploit, and distort religion in the more profane pursuit of raw power.” Ghattas concludes that this rivalry “is the constant from 1979 onward, the torrent that flattens everything in its path.”

If the author believes that 1979 was an annus horribilis for the Middle East, then one has to add three other events in 1979 that catalyzed this outcome. The first was oil prices that had jumped to record highs giving the Saudis the financial wherewithal to influence the region and contain Iran’s expansionism. The second was the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty; as Egypt exited the lingering conflict, the way was paved for Iran’s entrance into the region. Ghattas later makes a similar point when she contrasts the image of Sadat negotiating peace with Begin as Khomeini was hosting the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The third was the rise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq—the man who would reignite Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shiite acrimony when he declared war on Iran the following year.

The antecedent to the Iranian Revolution could be found in Lebanon. Lebanon of the seventies had become the hotbed of revolutionaries of every type. Among them were Iranian secular nationalists who had their training in Palestinian camps. A stalwart of the Liberation Movement of Iran, Mostafa Charman, lived and mingled with Shiite clerics and politicians during this time. Charman would prove to be a crucial player in the subsequent revolution and would serve as the first Minister of Defense in post-revolutionary Iran.

The agendas of these competing persuasions were bigger than Iran. Their world has seen tragedies befall the region in the loss of Palestine in 1948 and the occupation of the holy city of Jerusalem in 1967. Ghattas argues that the “wounds of the Arab-Israeli conflict indisputably drove some of the action at the heart of the events that led to 1979 and the years that followed.”

The unfolding events leading to the revolution in Iran took a twist that would determine the course of the new regime. The secularists and Islamic modernists had facilitated Khomeini’s emergence as the leader of the revolution. With nimble political legerdemain, Khomeini and his high clerics were able to sideline the opposition and highjack the revolution to establish a theocracy. While the populace feared a US-sponsored coup, the clergy engineered their putsch.

As the new fundamentalist regime was consolidating in Tehran, Saudi Arabia faced its greatest challenge since its inception. An ex-officer of the Saudi National Guards, Juhayman Al-ʿutaybi, and Mohammad ibn Abdallah al-Qahtani, who claimed to be the Mahdi (the Muslim Messiah), along with a group of religious extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in the same year. The group’s leaders made demands to expel foreigners, cut ties with the West, and return the country to genuine Islamic teachings.

The Saudi government, unable to set the Mosque free from its captors for two weeks, called French commandos to the rescue. To acquiesce to the rescue mission, the Saudi clerics “drove a hard bargain that would haunt the kingdom and the whole region for decades, a bargain that would make Saudis feel that time had stopped in its tracks. A new fundamentalist pillar had been erected opposite the Iranian one.”

Arguably, the seizure of the Mosque was a watershed moment in the annals of Saudi history. However, the author does not explain how the turn of events made the Kingdom a fundamentalist beacon given its origins were rooted in the Wahhabi Movement. As Ghattas explained previously, the reversals suffered by the Al-Saud dynasty, notwithstanding, the alliance between the latter and Ibn Abdelwahhab “sealed in the desert in 1744 had persisted”.

The two fundamentalist revolutions, one hushed (Saudi Arabia) the other loud (Iran), echoed one another “with the kind of cultural and social changes they were introducing into their societies”. The stage was thus set for the competition of who would lead the Islamic World. The Saudi and Arab Gulf states’ support of Iraq in the ensuing war further deepened the fissures in the region.

The third development that Ghattas points out arose in South Asia. General Zia’s Pakistan had become the hub of radical Islam albeit before 1979. The military ruler of that country came under the sway of Salafi interpretation of Islam, which dovetailed with the local Deobandis— a nineteenth-century revivalist school of thought. The Jihadist movement that would come to Peshawar as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would transform the region’s political landscape forever.

The patrons of Jihad in Afghanistan – the US and Saudi Arabia – poured billions of dollars into their common cause against the communists. Further, two Arab recruits to the war in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and Abdallah Azzam, would have a long-term impact on the region. The ‘Arab Afghans’, as they came to be known, would serve as the nucleus of al-Qaeda. The Iranian Revolution and Afghanistan war, appearing simultaneously, would pit the Shiite and Sunni communities against each other in Pakistan, which intensified sectarian cleavage. Even cosmopolitan Lebanon, once touted as the Switzerland of the region, would not be spared the fundamentalist onslaught in the 1980s with the rise of Hezbollah backed by Iran.

Throughout the book, the author returns to the idea of a “black wave” engulfing the region. The black wave is a metaphor for “hordes of men in black, waving black flags, [who] erased modern borders and conquered land, not on horses or camels as in 1926, but in pickup trucks and armored personnel carriers.” However, the author will find it a hard sell to convince readers that all problems started in 1979— it is like claiming the rooster crowing as the cause of sunrise! The author admits that, “as in Egypt, the rise of Islam as a political force and a social trend in Pakistan was not the result of one moment, or even the work of one person—it was a slow build that came in waves and ebbed and flowed.”

The real date for the decline of secular nationalism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism harks back not to 1979, but to the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran. The second date was 1967, when Israel defeated the secular Arab nationalist regimes in Egypt and Syria, which foreshadowed the nemesis, i.e. political Islam, as an alternative.

This brings me to a last flaw in Ghattas’ book: the external factors that shaped events in the region. Ghattas does acknowledge such external influence when she writes, “Hezbollah. . . was born from the ashes of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.” Ghattas notes in her conclusion that she “did not intend to absolve America for the many mistakes it has made and the deadly policies it has often pursued. From invasions to coups and support for dictators, America’s actions have fed and aggravated local dynamics.” The point is not to acknowledge the relevance of the external factor, which is self-evident, rather how conceptually one integrates the domestic dynamics with the external variables.

Finally, one cannot but admire the prose in the book. It conveys a belle-lettristic flavor with anecdotes, capers, and poetry interspersed with text or as vignettes to chapters. Moreover, the author steers clear of stereotypes and over-generalizations that plague some Western writings on the region. “Beyond the headlines about war and death,” she affirms, “the region is alive with music, art, books, theater, social entrepreneurship, advocacy, libraries, cafés, bookshops, poetry, and so much more, as old and young push to reclaim space for cultural expression and freedom of expression.”End.


Dr. Albadr Alshateri was a professor at the UAE National Defense College in Abu Dhabi. He earned a Ph.D from the University of Michigan in comparative politics, international relations and political economy as well as masters degrees in both political science and in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. He holds a BA from Indiana University, where he studied political science and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, as well as a certificate in African studies. Dr. Alshateri has received numerous awards, including a prize for his dissertation entitled “The Political Economy Of State Formation: The United Arab Emirates in Comparative Perspective”, from the Society for Arab Gulf Studies (USA). Dr. Alshateri has contributed articles to Al Ittihad Newspaper (Abu Dhabi), Al Khaleej Newspaper (Sharjah), The National (Abu Dhabi), American Diplomacy, and Gulf News (Dubai).

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