January 27th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Loy Yang just latest critical asset to go offshore

EDITORIAL Behind the power shift in the Middle East

CANBERRA OBSERVED Freedom of religion just an afterthought?

GENDER POLITICS Family Court washes hands of gender-dysphoric kids

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Western sanctions have forced Russia to upskill

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China exerts soft power on our southern neighbour

ENVIRONMENT Senate committee puts marine life before people

SEXUAL ABUSE Royal commission report ignores cause of abuse

HIGHER EDUCATION Critical thinking and the culture of skepticism

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS U.S. urges Taiwan rearmament to counter China threat

PHILOSOPHY A reflection on thoughts of Richard Dawkins

MUSIC Group theory: A good band is greater than its parts

CINEMA Darkest Hour: A long time till dawn

BOOK REVIEW 'Populism' and the new social divide

BOOK REVIEW Poems outshine dross of inept introduction



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Behind the power shift in the Middle East

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, January 27, 2018

For the first time in 70 years, the United States is independent of Saudi Arabian oil, and has redrawn the balance of power in the Middle East. Unwittingly, however, that has helped Iran challenge Saudi Arabia for hegemony in the Middle East, and broken the hostility of the whole Arab world to Israel.

Several factors have shaped the new politics of the Middle East.

In 2003, consequent on Osama bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center in New York and threatening actions by then dictator of Iraq Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration authorised the American-led invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, had persecuted Iraq’s Shiites, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the people of Iraq.

The result of the invasion was the replacement of a Sunni dictatorship with a Shiite government that persecuted the Sunni minority, prompting the formation of the Islamic State terrorist organisation in northern Iraq.

The establishment of Islamic State, a successor to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, forced the U.S. to re-commit to a military presence in northern Iraq in a bid to defeat Islamic State and its agenda of global terrorism.

Paradoxically, the U.S. intervention in northern Iraq prompted Islamic State to expand its operations into Sunni areas of Syria, leading to both American and Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war. The international intervention led to the defeat of Islamic State and separately, the survival of the embattled government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by both Russia and Iran.

New alliance

An indirect consequence of the American intervention is that a new alliance, based on Shiite Islam – led by Iran, and including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – is challenging the dominance of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.

The struggle has extended to Yemen, an impoverished Arab state located where the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have captured most of the country, deposing the Saudi-backed government.

Saudi Arabia, the site of the holy city of Mecca, has long aspired to leadership of the Arab and Muslim worlds. However, with a population of just 30 million, and faced by a Shiite alliance of about 150 million, Saudi Arabia is now on the defensive.

Saudi Arabia’s position has been further weakened as the U.S. has developed its shale oil deposits over the past 15 years, thereby putting an end to America’s dependence on Saudi Arabian oil, and driving down the price of oil.

This has both weakened the Saudis’ influence over U.S. Middle Eastern policy, and substantially cut Saudi Government revenue, which has been used throughout the world for decades to promote the fiercely intolerant Wahhabi sect within Islam.

The policies of the Trump Administration of encouraging oil and gas exploration and development in the U.S. and U.S. energy independence have strengthened this trend.

Paradoxically, this has weakened the position of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, even though Saudi Arabia has historically been America’s strongest ally in the region.

Saudi Arabia faces such a severe challenge from Iran that it has formed an unofficial alliance with Israel, which also faces an existential threat from Iran. Because of the violent hostility of most Arabs to Israel, which they regard as a both a Western and Jewish state imposed on the region, the cooperation between Israel and Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt will never be admitted, but there is clear evidence that it exists.

Recently, there were reports that Saudi Arabia wants to purchase Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile technology to protect Saudi Arabia from Iranian missiles, and to help the Saudis win the war in Yemen.

Although Saudi Arabia has bought advanced weapons (including military aircraft) from the United States, the Americans are apparently unwilling to supply the Saudis with anti-missile technology, fearing that it will promote an arms race in the Middle East. The Israelis face no such limitations.

Military cooperation follows unofficial exchanges of intelligence information in tracking Islamist terrorists who represent a threat not only to Israel but to governments of all Arab states in the region.

The military government in Egypt, which overthrew the extremist Muslim Brotherhood in 2014, needs unofficial intelligence links to Israel to track Islamist terrorists.

When Donald Trump announced recently that his Administration would implement the long-standing Congressional resolution to move America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it was predicted that anti-American riots would break out throughout the Arab world, which has long viewed Israel as the common enemy.

In fact, there were more protests in Western Europe, which has long championed the cause of the Palestinians, than in the Arab world, where protests were desultory. This would not have been the case even 10 years ago.

A fundamental realignment is occurring in the Middle East, arising from disputes within Islam, potentially ending the 70-year isolation of Israel in the region.

Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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