The Wind Beneath Their Wings

And now for something a little different.

This image was released by the Saudi government at roughly the same time the kingdom’s war over Yemen began. It’s a fascinating image, timed with the shakeup in the succession and appointing of a number of new — and much younger — ministers.

CDxL7JgW0AArRct.jpg-largeThis is, of course, Saudi King Salman bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud in the center, flanked by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud to the left, and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin Abd al Aziz Al Saud to the right. Together, the form the triumvirate ruling the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

No, actually, that’s not right. They form the trinity ruling the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

(An aside: I leave the “a” in “al Aziz” lower case because it reflects the use of the Arabic definite article ال, while the capital “A” in “Al Saud” reflects another word entirely, آل that of “family.”)

And they are a trinity. A holy threesome. The image is brilliantly constructed. King Salman is in motion, striding forward, confidently into the future, while the two crown princes are following thoughtfully, purposefully, with the deputy crown prince’s gaze fixed on his father the king.

(The Al Sauds have solved the succession crisis. And as should have been guessed some time ago but wasn’t, the prize of creating a lasting dynasty is very likely going to the last son of Abd al Aziz Ibn Saud to be king — both Muhammads are grandsons, the crown prince being the son of the late interior minister Prince Nayef — who never got the chance to be king — and the younger deputy crown prince, who is roughly Kim Jong Un’s age, is the son of King Salman.)

Behind the three men are the symbols of Saudi Arabia — the Ka’aba in Makka (signifying ancient Islamic legitimacy), the giant clock built overlooking the Ka’aba (symbolizing the monarchy’s current stewardship of the holy place of Makka and Madinah), the flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (containing both the shahada, the confession of faith, and the sword that is the symbol of Al Saud power), and an outline of the Arabian peninsula focusing specifically on the Gulf. The patch of land the Al Sauds rule, and provide security for.

But the most important part of this image are the wings. They are angelic wings, as much as Islamic motif as a Christian one:

All praise and thanks to God, the Originator of the heavens and the earth, Who made the angels messengers with wings, two or three or four. He increases in creation what He wills. Verily, God is is able to do all things. (Qur’an 35:1, modified Khan & al-Hilali)

They are white wings, symbolizing not the falcon or the eagle, but the dove. These are the protective and nurturing wings of peace, not the avenging and rapacious wings of war. (These are not the wings of the divine bombardiers of surah 105.) And while they emanate from behind the king (indeed, it looks like the king has wings), they encompass both crown princes. These wings encompass the entire nation, they are the protection of God, extended through an angelic host and through the three-in-one/one-in-three monarchy. I cannot help but think of this passage in Matthew when I see this image:

37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Matthew 23:37-39 ESV)

Which is a bit ominous, given what happen to both Jesus and Jerusalem.

Or this bit from the Psalms:

8 Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
9 from the wicked who do me violence,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
(Psalms 17:8-9 ESV)

There are several psalm passages, but the point is clear. The wings of God provide protection for those who are enveloped by them. Which is what these wings are supposed to do. And not just to Saudis, but also to the smaller states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are mostly covered up, but the wings are just translucent enough so that you can see the outline of both countries.)

Protected from want, from deprivation, from insecurity, and mostly, from outside threats — in this case, that of the “apostate” Shia, who should stop being so uppity. Which, ostensibly, the war in Yemen is all about.

To an extent, the individuals in this picture matter less than the institution portrayed here. This is monarchy as both traditional and modern institution. King Salman matters (this sort of thing didn’t happen when his younger brother Muqrin was Crown Prince), and yet he doesn’t. We’re not quite at the point where the king of Saudi Arabia is as unimportant as the president of Switzerland (who?) or reduced to sash-wearing and bus-riding civil servants in the way the monarchs of Scandinavia are, but this is less a picture of three individual men than it is a representation of the Saudi monarchy itself.

This image is an icon.

Actually, the war in Yemen is mostly a matter of convenience. Yemen is poor and has a significant Shia minority, and cannot defend itself from the kind of air war the Saudis are busy waging. It’s easy to pick on the poor this way, which is why high tech nation-states tend to do just that, whether it’s the United States pulverizing Afghanistan and Iraq, or Israel bombarding Lebanon and Gaza.

Or Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen.

And yet, the poor always seem to come out on top. The stated Saudi war aim was the return of Yemen’s internally recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (really, he looks like a man who wants to sell me some real estate). But that desire has met the reality of war. Saudi jets can roam the skies at will, bomb anything they see, but they have not and can’t really force the Houthi rebels of northern Yemen to stop advancing, or give up territory, much less sue for peace or surrender. It would take a significant commitment of land forces to accomplish the stated goals, and the Saudi armed forces — the Royal Saudi Land Forces and the Saudi Arabian National Guard — are simply not up to what Yemen would do to them. The Israelis could maul Gaza and Lebanon at will, inflict horrific damage to cities, towns, and villages, and even damage their opponents Hezbollah and Hamas, but flinched when it came to wholescale invasion. The costs were simply too high.

That the Saudis have not cross the border in force despite reports of major Yemeni attacks says something. I’m not surprised to read that Saudi commandoes (and others) are on the ground in and around Aden. But anyone with any sense knows that Yemen is a place where armies are shredded (as Egypt was in the 1960s), and avoids doing much more than dropping bombs.

Which the Saudi air force can do as long as supplies continue to arrive from the United States. Which they will.

But they will need to find a way out, an end to the bombing which will increasingly become an embarrassment as it becomes clear that the targets have very little military value, and those hurt most are non-combatants trying their best to get out of the way of the war. It hard to claim you are protecting people you are busy brutalizing.

An end which saves face, and allows the trinity that rules to continue to claim the strong and mighty wings of God, as stretched out behind the three ruling Al Sauds, still protect the kingdom and its people. Even as the ability of that trinity to project power, and to do anything more than brutalize and terrorize people, is shown to be quite limited.

One thought on “The Wind Beneath Their Wings

  1. A lot of insight conveyed for a single post. My take on many aspects of events in the Mideast (as often also elsewhere) is that there is very little resemblance between the realities and the official stories. I have to admit that the Saudi system mystifies me as to how it actually functions, though I’m not often surprised by the actions resulting. At least the ones I am aware of.

    The shredding of Egypt in Yemen in the 60’s which you mention had a lot to do with the outcome of the 1967 war. Hardly surprising, but the ragged and demoralized state of the troops brought up to Sinai suggest that Nasser did not really intend to push things all the way to war. But closing the straits was technically an act of war, and telling the UN observers to get lost was reckless, to say the least. I remember the mounting tension of the month before the war more vividly than any other world events of the 1960s. The pressure and general foreboding were intense. The stress crushed Rabin entirely, which is one reason the Israeli government reluctantly had to bring in Dayan.

    Re: “The Israelis … flinched when it came to wholescale invasion. The costs were simply too high.”

    I think it was less a sober estimation of cost than the general collapse of leadership in Israel. In Lebanon in 2006, the government had no plan and was just reacting to events, and pulled back in chaos when Hezbollah turned out to be no pushover. Re: Gaza, the Israeli public wanted a full-scale invasion (and less air power) far more than the government. This had less to do with the rockets than with the tunnels, which terrified Israelis, all the more because the IDF seemed to have so much trouble finding them. Tunnels mean the possibility of raids on border towns and settlements, and the abduction of civilians as well as soldiers.

    There has been a tectonic shift in Israeli society which was foreseeable since the 1980s, and which is happening now. The old Ashkenazi elites are losing control of the country. They still hold most of the positions of power, but without a true constituency sufficient to maintain them. The majority of Jews in Israel are now of Middle-eastern or North African descent, in spite of the million or so former Soviet subjects who arrived in the 90s. The majority of the officer corps are now religious nationalists. (In 1949 they were mostly pro-Soviet Marxists.) The ‘ultra-Orthodox’ are now a substantial proportion of society rather than the insignificant minority they were 40 years ago. The economy used to depend on American Jewish donations and (after 1973) US government aid; now it doesn’t. This is probably Netanyahu’s last go-round, because he is now a dinosaur as much as anyone.

    Israeli Jewish minds are “wonderfully concentrated” by the chaos and large armed militias around them. Hezbollah now has far more and better missiles than they had 9 years ago. The Islamic State is on Israel’s doorstep and Iranian-led Shiite militias opposing them could be there any time. But still the candidates prefer to talk about the economy (and the public have some real beefs in that area) and the possibility of an Iranian bomb, which is far more remote a threat than Iranian soldiers entering Jordan. Jordan is to Israel what Belgium was to Britain a century ago. Neither Netanyahu nor any of the other old-style Zionists want to come to terms with the reality. Much like the Saudi Royals, they prefer to pose in attitudes of confidence and triumph, while blocking out any thoughts of the looming catastrophes and of their own impotence.

    This Knesset will surely not last long, unless Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu rejoin the coalition, which appears to be unlikely. If not, the government has the smallest possible majority, and a coalition filled with mutual loathing. There will not be a left-center government either. Labor was doomed as soon as the 2nd Intifada began, and it has been steadily shrinking. I would guess that Jewish Home is the way of the future, but Bennett, the leader and founder in its current form, alternates between looking like a political genius and a political amateur (which he was until recently). It may take another five years for Israel to shed its past and resolve into its future, whatever that may look like, if it can manage the transition at all without disaster. Until then, it will try to avoid getting sucked into the surrounding maelstrom. I can’t imagine even another attack on Gaza – unless the government is in a corner with no good options and decide they have to do something just to avoid looking as weak as they really are. Hamas may try to provoke them; on the other hand, Hamas has been rapped on the knuckles by Iran for supporting the IS, and reminded which hand feeds them. Iran will not want Israel to be a factor until much else is resolved.

    I think the great majority of Israelis understand that they are likely to be fighting a big war (comparable in severity and losses only to 1948-49) within the next decade, regardless of cost, at unforeseeable times and places not of their choosing. They can only hope to hold it off until they have learned how to stop hating each other.

    And I hope I’m wrong about all that.

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