‘Black Wave’: Ex-BBC Journalist Kim Ghattas Analyzes Iran and Saudi Arabia in Book

By Firouzeh Nabavi

The Middle East is one of the hardest areas of the world for journalists to cover. It requires not only a grasp of current affairs, but also a deep familiarity with the events of the past several decades.

Kim Ghattas
Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese-Dutch journalist, is no stranger to the subject matter. She has worked for the Lebanese media and for international outlets such as The Financial Times and the BBC. Ghattas recently published her second book:  Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. 

Ghattas examines a series of events in 1979 in several countries in the region, including the Islamic revolution in Iran, and explains how those events have redrawn the geopolitical map in one of the world’s most turbulent areas.

This is her second book. Her first, based on her time as the BBC’s State Department correspondent and titled The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power, came out in 2013. She is now a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Kayhan Life recently interviewed Ghattas about her latest release.

Why is this book titled Black Wave? You have a quote from the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine referring to a ‘black wave’ of religious fundamentalism. Is that a reference to Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Youssef Chahine used the term “black wave” in the 1990’s to describe the spread of the Saudi-style niqab and abaya in Egypt, a style that was not really known in Egypt before then. He despaired at actresses who were suddenly not just donning the veil, but the niqab. There was a lot of Saudi money flowing into Egypt during that period, influencing journalism, the style of cinema, and culture in general. At the same time, the Shia chador was spreading in Shia communities, such as in Lebanon, in ways it hadn’t before 1979. It used to be worn mostly by very conservative women, wives of clerics and so on. Then started to spread more and more as a result of the efforts of [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s Iran to export its revolution.

So there is a wave of black engulfing women, because of the actions of Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is also the spread of black flags, the flags of mourning for Imam Hussein that became much more ubiquitous, and then the flags of militant groups like ISIS. Eventually the black cloth becomes the darkness that has engulfed us over the last few decades.

What are the similarities between the way Iran and Saudi Arabia have conducted their domestic and foreign policy since 1979? 

Before 1979, Saudi Arabia was already busy using religion as a tool of diplomacy, but it did so haphazardly, with limited funds. The impact was minimal. There was not much interest in what the kingdom offered. After 1979, both Iran and Saudi Arabia threw themselves into a competition for the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere, using all tools at their disposal in this battle for hegemony.

Of course, Iran is at a disadvantage as a Shia country in a dominantly Sunni world. But Khomeini identified the Palestinian cause as a way to appeal to a wider audience beyond Iran and beyond the community of Shias. Yasser Arafat, a Sunni, was the first foreign visitor that Khomeini received in Tehran after his return from exile. The rallying cry was: “Tehran today, Jerusalem tomorrow.” Arafat’s guerillas had helped train Iranian revolutionaries in Lebanon.

Yasser Arafat in Iran, meeting with Khomeini. Kayhan London

Yasser Arafat in Iran, meeting with Khomeini. Kayhan London

It’s important to remember that before 1979, the Sunni-Shia divide was not a tool of geopolitics. There had been no widespread sectarian violence or battles for over a century, and it was very sporadic even before then.  After 1979, both Iran and Saudi Arabia began to export their world view systematically, with money, publications and guns. The Saudis backed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, with US help, while Iran began to export its revolution by setting up groups like Hezbollah.

Iran is a lot more strategic, methodical and centralized in the networks it builds: Shia militias in Iraq and Lebanon answer to the regime in Tehran. The Saudis have not been able to replicate this. They probably didn’t try until very recently; they prefer checkbook diplomacy. But that doesn’t buy solid allies who respect you and deliver for you consistently. It also leads to many unintended consequences — offshoots of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan that spawn al-Qaeda, then al Qaeda in Iraq and so on, until ISIS — a group which, though inspired by the religious doctrine of Saudi Arabia, is determined to overthrow the House of Saud. Today, both Iran and Saudi Arabia realize that religion does not appeal much anymore to the younger generation, so they’re resorting to nationalism to whip up the masses, to the extent that they can.

The Middle East is obviously a region that is well covered by reporters and historians. What would you say is new in the findings of your book?

Most books about the region fall into specific categories. They are written by Westerners about one country or issue, either from a narrative perspective where we are often the victims or the villains, or from a policy perspective that feeds into a Washington debate. Books written by locals focus on their own country, or on specific issues– they look at Egypt in isolation or the Saudi-Iran rivalry from a narrow perspective. There are very few if any narrative history books written by someone from the region that spawn several decades. And rarely do books about the Middle East include Pakistan, which turns out to be key to understanding the last four decades in the region.  Finally, no book has so far explored the thesis of 1979 as a pivotal year not just from a geo-political perspective but from a cultural, social and religious perspective.

So while I did not uncover groundbreaking new information, I found lots of fascinating, forgotten details that help illustrate and enrich my narrative. The overall result is a book that sheds new light on known events, connecting dots between seemingly separate events, piecing together the puzzle in such a way that readers come away with a real ‘aha’ feeling, as many readers have written to let me know—both experts and non-experts.

Black Wave is really the culmination of 20 years of reporting and expertise on the region. It is the result of my deep understanding of and love for the Middle East. It took much longer than two and a half years of focused work to produce the book itself.

You say that you wrote the book in response to the question “What happened to us?” Your response is that it was a battle by a minority in each country “who fought and continue to fight against the intellectual and cultural darkness that slowly engulfed their countries in the decades following the fateful year of 1979.” If they were a minority, shouldn’t the majority have had its voice?

I don’t think they are a minority. On the contrary: I think the minority are the extremists, the radicals, those who preach intolerance, but they are the loudest, the most willing to kill the other. They wield a gun while the majority holds on it to its pen, its music, its culture in the hope that it can survive this onslaught. We forget how many people protested against Khomeini’s rapid efforts to impose the veil and to turn the country into an Islamic republic: They were threatened, arrested, or assassinated. Few people know how vigorously Pakistanis tried to push back against Zia ul-Haq’s efforts to Islamize the country. Women protested relentlessly, burned their veils, stood up to the bureaucracy. It’s the same in Egypt, in Syria, and elsewhere. But over time, the narrative becomes dominated by the loudest, most intolerant, most violent voices. This is what makes the headlines. This is what the West focuses on.

I try through my book to give a voice back to this vibrant, diverse, tolerant majority, showing that they have agency, hopes and desires. They are not victims, even though many suffered greatly, and some paid with their life, such as Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in a Saudi consulate in October 2018.

At the end of the book, you criticize the United States for its role in the region, but there does not seem to be any criticism of Russia for its role, particularly in Syria. Was there a reason for the omission?

First, let me say that if I leave the US for the end it’s not because I absolve it of its many mistakes in the region over the last decades but because I wanted to focus on the responsibility of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran in taking us to the edge of the abyss, perhaps even into the abyss. There is a lot written about American foreign policy, from a policy perspective, from a narrative perspective. I thought it was time to look at the role of the regional powers. Russia’s role in the region only really becomes relevant towards the end of the period I cover, from 2015 onwards when it intervenes militarily in Syria. There’s a lot there to criticize—Russia sided unquestioningly with Assad, aided his campaign to quash the rebels by also terrorizing the civilian population and deliberately destroying the healthcare infrastructure. It’s a raw strategic gambit with zero regard for human life and no pretense at caring either. Without Russia’s help, Assad would not have survived this long, not even Iran could have helped him stay in power anymore after a certain point. The cost for Syria has been huge, in human life, in treasure, infrastructure… But that’s another book.

Your reporting took you to many countries in the region. But Jordan and the Palestinian territories are noticeably absent in the book. Is there a reason for that?

When you write a narrative with a structure as complex as the one in Black Wave — covering 40 years of history, seven countries and over a dozen characters — it’s important to make sure you don’t lose the reader along the way. I had to choose the best examples or stories that demonstrated my thesis about the importance of the year 1979 and how the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia impacted the region. The stories of the characters in my book are independent of each other, but they also flow from one another. There is a buildup from country to country, from decade to decade, as I take the reader through space and time, moving chronologically through the decades while also switching between countries.

It’s impossible to include all countries. Otherwise it just becomes a disconnected narrative, a dry policy book. I was also asked why I left out Sudan, or Yemen, or Algeria….! Jordan is mentioned via the stories of Abdullah Azzam and Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi. And Palestine features prominently at the beginning the book, as I mentioned earlier. The Palestinian cause continues to be used and abused by both Iran and Saudi Arabia as a tool for their own propaganda purposes.

Given your work as a journalist and author, what is your prediction for the years ahead? What will the region look like, say, in the next decade, and why?

I really hate predictions. No one had truly predicted the Arab uprisings of 2011, even though everyone knew the situation was untenable. Back in 1978, no one predicted that an Islamic Republic would replace the Shah. We forget that the revolution did not start out as an Islamic revolution. In fact, the US and the Saudis were worried that a communist regime would replace the Shah, and saw Khomeini as a cleric who could calm the ardours of the leftists in the revolutionary movement.

If I had to try to decipher the trend lines, I would say the next decade will be more or less the same as the last decade but a bit worse — before it gets better. The impact of Covid-19 on the economies of all countries, including Saudi Arabia but also Iran, is going to be tremendous. It will impact some of their choices, priorities and investments. Some of what comes next depends on who gets elected in the US in 2020—will we get more maximum pressure under a second Donald Trump administration, or some easing of the pressure under Joe Biden? And don’t discount big surprises — internal divisions inside Saudi or Iran — which could cause an upset in the power structure.

What I do know for sure is that the region’s younger generation wants a different future, one that is not hostage to the mistakes their parents made, that is not hostage to the ghosts of 1979. We see that in their relentless efforts since 2011 to overthrow their governments, to demand accountability, governance, jobs and basic rights. Writing Black Wave was often depressing, but it was also exhilarating because of the incredible people I met everywhere who have not given up on finding a different better way forward.