Saudi Arabia versus Iran—the conflict tearing the Middle East apart

According to Kim Ghattas, the rivalry can be traced back to one eventful year: 1979
March 2, 2020

Kim Ghattas sheds new light on the Middle East, especially the roots of the Saudi-Iran rivalry. Instead of tracing the divisions back hundreds of years, Ghattas points to three critical events of 1979. The first was Iran’s Islamic revolution and the overthrow of the Shah; the second, the storming of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia by fundamentalists; and the third, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. She argues these events ignited today’s Saudi-Iran rivalry, with leaders in both countries exploiting religion for their own ambitions, while they spread conflict and terrorism round the world.

The book is also deeply personal for Ghattas, who grew up in Lebanon during the civil war. Instead of laying the blame squarely on the old colonial powers or the United States (and both deserve a healthy share of the blame), she places manipulative and ruthless local actors at the heart of the struggle.

Whether you agree with her thesis or not, this book is a fascinating read, meticulously researched, and full of vignettes that bring the story to life. Ghattas writes eloquently and with passion. Black Wave is the perfect book for the educated lay person who wants to understand—to paraphrase President Trump—“what the hell is going on” in the Muslim world. Few non-experts know that, before 1979, women wore miniskirts from Kabul to Cairo.

Four decades on, sectarian violence scars nations from Pakistan to Iraq, while salafi-jihadi terrorism has become a global phenomenon. The changes in many of the countries discussed were manipulated by clever clerics and politicians. It’s clear from recent street protests in Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan that ordinary citizens are fed up with corrupt rulers. But whether new leaders will emerge to give voice to the “silenced majorities” remains to be seen.

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East by Kim Ghattas (Wildfire, £20)