Saudi Arabia's Bid For Middle Eastern Supremacy Isn't Going Quite As Planned

Mohammed Ayoob

Key point: A series of missteps has undermined the Kingdom when it can least afford it.

In 680 CE, less than fifty years after the death of Prophet Muhammad, an army of over thirty thousand men was deployed by thirty-three-year-old Umayyad Caliph Yazid to confront a tiny group of seventy-two people led by the prophet’s grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, who had challenged the legitimacy of the Umayyad hereditary rule as un-Islamic. In the resulting battle that took place in Karbala on the banks of the Euphrates in modern Iraq, Hussein and his companions were killed almost to the last man. Following the battle, his kinswomen, belonging to the house of the prophet, and their children were taken in captivity to Damascus, the capital of the Umayyad caliphate.

This was the seminal event in the history of early Islam that led to the consolidation of the political identity of the Shia (Partisans) of Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law, Hussein’s father, the fourth of the righteous caliphs, and now, posthumously, the first Imam of the Shia. Theological differences between the Shia and those who upheld the legitimacy of the Umayyad dynasty, despite its usurpation of the Caliphate (who came to be known as Sunnis three hundred years later), emerged during the next couple of centuries. Religious schism clearly followed political schism and not the other way around as is commonly assumed.

The current inheritor of Caliph Yazid bin Mu’āwīyya’s political mantle is Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the impetuous crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who is also thirty-three years old. He seems to be currently promoting a fight to the finish with the Shia in the Middle East just as Yazid did in 680 CE. Keeping in mind the balance of forces in the region, especially between Saudi Arabia and the leading Shia power Iran, he has chosen the Lebanese Hezbollah as his first target. He seems intent on repeating the story of Karbala by destroying Hezbollah, a military pigmy compared to the armed might of Saudi Arabia, just as Yazid’s forces had destroyed Hussein’s miniscule band of followers in the seventh century.

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