- - Sunday, November 19, 2017


If hard times can make a monkey eat red pepper, as the ancient saying goes, tough times might require Arab and Jew to join forces to bring home the bacon. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.) The reformation of Islam, which stalled in Spain in the 16th century, might be struggling for renewed purchase in Saudi Arabia.

Unlike Judaism and Christianity, from which it borrowed, Islam has remained a combination of religious belief and authoritarian politics, which often confuses Western observers, eager as they are to preserve a patina of tolerance in considering the behavior of others.

Now a coup, by the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has led to the arrest of more than 200 princes and government ministers so far, ostensibly for corruption. They are members of the far-flung royal family which, with its enormous oil wealth, set the pace for world energy prices. But with the advent of U.S. technological advances in the extraction of shale oil and natural gas, international price fluctuations have upset the price structure of the Persian Gulf oil exporters, and the debt-ridden princes are having to reorganize. Many changes look to be afoot.

Prince Salman has already clipped the wings — and sheathed the knives — of the dreaded and brutal Saudi religious police who have enforced the royal family’s grip on power. This control has been used in the past against any hint of rebellion among the Saudi Muslims and in the Saudi satellite states on the Persian Gulf, particularly the underground threat of Shia in its oil fields. Frightened politically correct “thinkers” in the West have disdained as Islamophobia attempts to get to the point of controlling repressive aspects of Islam.

Now a wave of refugees from Syria is descending on a Europe with a rapidly declining native birthrate, and the West faces an Islam which is not only a religious faith but an ideology and a political force backed by military prowess. The West has been here before.

Perhaps fortunately for the West, a competing threat of Islamic terrorism has bubbled up amid Iranian fanaticism. The resignation of Saad Hariri, prime minister of Lebanon, and his flight for his life, first to Saudi Arabia and then to France, is a manifestation of this new reality within Islam. Saad Hariri was the Sunni Muslim prime minister; under long-standing custom, the president of Lebanon has been a Christian, usually a Maronite Catholic, and the speaker of the parliament a Shia. Now the formula has been upset by the growing power of Hezbollah in Lebanon, backed by the mullahs in Tehran.

As Salman has moved to clean up corruption and gather power he has formed a tacit alliance with Israel, which is also threatened by the changes in Lebanon. Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, tells a Muslim interviewer that “Iran seeks to take control of the Middle East, creating a Shiite crescent from Lebanon to Iran, and then from the Gulf to the Red Sea. We must prevent this from happening.” With President Donald Trump, he says, “there is an opportunity for a new international alliance in the region and a major strategic plan to stop the Iranian threat We are ready to share intelligence [with Saudi Arabia], if necessary.”

Only a few months ago, a Saudi-Israeli alliance, however unspoken, would have been unthinkable. But as Prince Salman assumes dictatorial powers in what has been a freewheeling family business, Islam and the politics of the region are undergoing earthshaking changes.

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