Black Wave – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry

Black Wave – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unravelled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. Kim Ghattas. Henry Holt & Company, NewYork, 2020.

black waves

Among the many books analyzing the Middle East, Kim Ghattas’ Black Wave is outstanding – that not necessarily being a good thing. It is very good as it presents what the subtitle says it is all about, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. She uses a wide range of sources including personal interviews with some of the main characters and writes a history not based as usual on the big players on the scene but of many of the smaller (or unknown) players who had a big impact.

Ghattas begins with the year 1979 as being a critical pivotal point in the Middle East, which it is, but it is only a pivot point and not the start of the problems. Most of the current problems have their antecedents as far back as World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the neocolonisation of the region through the League of Nations mandates, and the anti-Semitic notions in Britain that ironically created the Balfour Letter. However, that could be forgiven as the story she relates is detailed, accurate, and contains an interesting mix of anecdotal accounts for those involved. For that it is worth reading.


The main problem with the text is its very, very narrow focus and limited time frame. The time frame I explained in the preceding paragraph. The focus is extremely narrow and omits – not entirely but significantly – the actions of the U.S. and Israel throughout the region. All blame is given to Saudi Arabia and Iran and while she tries to make the argument that it is not the fault of the Islamic religion, most Westerners within their Orientalist viewpoint could not be blamed for taking that message away with them after reading the book.

The question Ghattas is trying to answer is “What happened to us?”, referring to the question that “propelled my research.” She gives only a partial answer, omitting one of the more consequential actors in the region, the United States and Israel. At the end of the book, she concludes:

In focusing mostly on the actions of Iran and Saudi Arabia and the multitude of local players, I did not intend to absolve America for the many mistakes it has made and the deadly policies it has often pursued…America’s actions have fed and aggravated local dynamics.

According to the Oxford English dictionary, absolution means “(especially in the Christian Church) a formal statement that a person is forgiven for what he or she has done wrong”. That paragraph at the end of the work certainly does that – “America” made some mistakes, aggravated a few things, but hey, I excuse you of your sins.

If Ghattas truly wanted people to understand all that has happened in the Middle East, it would have to include the United States and Israel and would have to extend much further back in time than 1979.

Errors of omission

The main error in the text is the error of omission.

To start with, at the more recent end of events, Libya is not mentioned other than in passing references to a place where different political players spent some time. Nothing about the U.S. promoting and arming the NATO attack after a highly contrived ‘right to protect’ UNSC provision that only allowed a no fly zone, and not the aerial bombing and support for the rebels. Nothing about the Benghazi ‘rebels’ consisting largely of more Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Nothing about Hilary Clinton’s ecstatic “We came, we saw, he died” cackle to later be overshadowed by the Benghazi attack that killed several U.S. CIA operatives dealing in the now ungoverned region. Finally, nothing about the mass of arms, men, and materials that were then shipped over to Turkey/Syria in order to “aggravate” the situation there (not to mention all the problems unleashed on the African sahel countries).

Syria, the most recent hot spot, is also misrepresented within its historical context. Iran is largely blamed for problems in Syria although Saudi Arabia is blamed for ISIS. Very narrowly focused both are true, but taken in context it is a very shallow analysis. For starters, Turkey is barely mentioned, and Libya, as above, is ignored. Also ignored is the U.S. role of helping to support the ‘rebels’ – the vast majority being out of state terrorists – with arms and money (indirectly through the Saudi’s if not directly through air drops). Three other statements made about the U.S. but not correctly:

“America’s disinterest in helping bring down Assad” is much too facile of an evasion, as the U.S. had declared several times within its global hegemon role, especially after September 11, that the Syrian government was to be taken down.

“America could claim victory” in Syria, well, okay, they could claim it, but most of the defeat of ISIS can be attributed to Russian actions after years of the U.S. pretending to bomb ISIS, restricting themselves to only soft targets.

“America provided air cover” in reference to Iran’s ground forces fighting the Islamic State, a statement that requires much more referencing to make it at all believable (see Russia, above).

There are many examples like this. Israel is mentioned frequently early in the text in relation to the mess in Lebanon, but again it is a dry non-contextual series of references wherein the real blame for the mess in Lebanon was put onto Hezbollah without inclusion of the disasters perpetrated by Israel and the U.S. Ghattas does mention the bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut but says nothing of why they were there or why the USS New Jersey lobbed shells into Beirut – another “mistake” or just a simple “aggravation”? On the Israeli side, nothing is said of the genocidal Sabra and Shatila massacres by the Christian Phalangists under the protection of the Israeli Defense Forces, not exactly a “mistaken” policy, certainly a crime against humanity.

Beyond Lebanon, throughout the whole region, the U.S. and Israel have turned events and twisted narratives in order to create their own control of the region for oil, money, and yes religion. Ghattas talks about the “tyranny of religion,” the “stranglehold of religion,” without discussing many of the precursor events to her series of events in the Middle East. Israel is certainly surviving under the “stranglehold of religion” at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned. The U.S. suffers from a “tyranny of religion” both from its abject servility to Israel and from its domestic politics where the Christian evangelical rapture seekers fully support Israel (until the actual rapture of course). Both these religions have used and abused the situation in the Middle East for their own desires.

Not a fatal, but a serious flaw

The critique could go on – including through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Egypt – but to do it justice would necessitate rewriting much of Ghattas’ work – not so much rewriting but expanding it, making it into the huge informative work it could have been.

Nevertheless, I would recommend reading it as it does cover territory not usually mentioned in the Middle East. Keep in mind however its narrow focus and limited time span and remember who the key players are behind the key players – the Black Wave of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and Saudi Arabia owes a lot of its power to the United States.

Jim Miles is an independent writer



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