Never has the need for a book like “Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East” seemed greater. As Iran and the United States have drawn toward and retreated from the brink of war over the past two years, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East have watched with apprehension. Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese-born journalist with years of experience in the region, promises to analyze this conflict from both sides of the Persian Gulf. Whether “Black Wave” delivers remains another story.
“Black Wave” went on sale at the end of January, just a few weeks after one of the most memorable episodes in the cold war between Iran and its American adversaries. An American airstrike killed the Iranian spymaster Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3, upending the Middle East’s already-precarious balance of power. Iran retaliated by launching a barrage of ballistic missiles at American military bases in Iraq on January 8, terming it “Operation Martyr Soleimani.”
“Black Wave” attempts to explain “how the modern Middle East unraveled and why it started with the pivotal year of 1979.”
Even if the showdown between Tehran and Washington appears to be reaching its climax in the 21st century, Ghattas believes that the true conflict began decades earlier. As “Black Wave” details on its Amazon description, the book attempts to explain “how the modern Middle East unraveled and why it started with the pivotal year of 1979.” “Black Wave” also paints “the largely unexplored story of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran” as “born from the sparks of the 1979 Iranian revolution and fueled by American policy.”
Ghattas displays an obvious talent for writing and narration in particular, a skill that she likely honed during her time as a reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). While the BBC has earned a reputation for short, punchy articles, “Black Wave” weaves through the highs and lows of the years surrounding the Iranian Revolution with the grace of a novel.
Choosing to recount the history of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s relationship from the perspectives of the two countries’ most significant personalities and players, “Black Wave” begins with the efforts of Iranian intellectuals to overthrow their oppressive monarchy. In the end, these revolutionaries in the making opted to court the assistance of Ruhollah Khomeini, an Iranian cleric living in exile in Iraq, where he called for the downfall of the notorious pro-Western leader Reza Shah.
Khomeini acted as the architect of the theocracy still governing Iran and assumed the title of the country’s supreme leader from 1979 until his death in 1989. He hijacked a rebellion comprising not only Islamists but also communists, nationalists, and secularists to seize power. Drawing on Ghattas’ impressive array of sources, “Black Wave” narrates Khomeini’s masterful manipulation of his onetime allies among the intelligentsia to position himself as Iran’s ultimate power broker. On a wider level, her story highlights how Khomeini exchanged one form of oppression for another.
Ghattas’ gripping writing style carries the narrative through many other pivotal moments of the era, among them when militants captured the Great Mosque of Mecca in 1979 before calling for the removal of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. “Black Wave” loses steam, however, when it goes on chapter-length detours to discuss events in countries tangential to Iranian–Saudi relations.
The book dedicates an entire chapter to Egypt in the 1970s and the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, the country’s president. Though Ghattas makes a point of mentioning the Iranian Shah’s brief layover in Cairo during his flight from Tehran as well as Khomeini’s call for Sadat’s ouster, the link between tumult in Egypt and upheaval in Iran feels superficial.
A similar problem arises in a later chapter on the Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. The section focuses on Zia’s Islamization of Pakistan. References to Iran and Saudi Arabia, foremost among them the Pakistani philosopher Abul A’la Maududi’s fascinating influence on Islamism in both countries, come few and far between. Given the complexity of Pakistan’s role as an intermediary between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the absence feels striking.
The book’s often-jarring detours tend to come at the expense of its overarching focus. In the chapter on Egypt, “Black Wave” spends several paragraphs on the role of 20th-century Egyptian women in the film industry; though interesting in its own right, this strange digression does little to inform readers about Iran and Saudi Arabia’s decades-old conflict. In the chapter on Pakistan, meanwhile, “Black Wave” delves into the plight of Pakistani feminists, who deserve a book all their own, not a subsection of one on tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The book’s often-jarring detours tend to come at the expense of its overarching focus.
These narrative difficulties stem from Ghattas’ dubious decision to tell the story of Iranian–Saudi relations not only from the eyes of Iranian and Saudi policymakers, but also from the viewpoints of peripheral characters. Her subjects range from an Egyptian professor and a Pakistani television anchor to a Saudi architect and a Syrian student. In theory, this approach could shed light on daily life in the region. In practice, her stylistic choice just makes way for purple prose.
“Ayaz, the secular, liberal poet who wrote about Sufi saints and women’s breasts, had to lead the daytime prayers for his department staff,” reads one line. “She felt that the soul of Pakistan, born on the same day as she was, was stronger than the dictator,” says another.
Even passages integral to the book’s subject, such as one on Khomeini’s 1980s war with the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, can get excessive in the description of actors’ motivations.
“Old wounds, long buried and forgotten, were reopened by Saddam and Khomeini, two men with delusions of grandeur reaching into ancient Persian and Arab history to justify their modern murderous campaigns,” goes one of Ghattas’ more florid narratives. “The mighty Persian Sassanid Empire had succumbed to Arab conquest in 636 during the Battle of al-Qadisiyya. Now, over a millennium later, Khomeini and Saddam wanted a redo. Or revenge.”
The hiccups in the book’s narrative, combined with a few assertions of questionable relevance and validity, detract from the text’s overall readability. As an example of Iran’s historical influence on Pakistan, it notes, “Urdu is filled with thousands of Persian words.” While accurate in a sense, Persian itself borrowed much of this loaned vocabulary from Arabic. “Black Wave” also calls a Pakistani newspaper’s use of an Arabic word in its headline “perhaps a mischievous nod to the Arab influence” that was reshaping Pakistan, a likely overinterpretation of this detail.
“Black Wave” offers a vivid account of the groundwork for Iran and Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars across the Middle East.
Despite its limitations, “Black Wave” offers a vivid account of the fascinating history that laid the groundwork for Iran and Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars across the Middle East. As the pair wrestle for control of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and their neighbors, readers looking to learn a little more about current events in the region can purchase Ghattas’ latest book.
The distinguished journalist’s accessible writing style helps laymen familiarize themselves with the arc of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia without getting stuck on the esoteric details that so often undermine the readability of academic writing. As a primer on the rise of Islamism in both countries, “Black Wave” will likely attract a non-specialist Western readership in a way that the books coming out of Washington think tanks and Ivy League universities struggle to.
Experts hoping for deeper or newer insights into the politics of Iran and Saudi Arabia might have to turn elsewhere. “Black Wave” prioritizes breadth versus depth, trying to encapsulate 40 years of history into a single book. Whether it succeeds depends on Ghattas’ target audience.
While “Black Wave” has few competitors in the realm of Iranian–Saudi relations, two books offer more nuanced portraits of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s individual leadership. “The King’s Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America’s Tangled Relationship With Saudi Arabia” recounts the role of a famed Saudi ambassador in American–Saudi relations. “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” meanwhile, tells the story of Iran’s most famous institution. Both texts have few flaws and can service experts on the Middle East and laymen alike.
Whether “Black Wave,” “The King’s Messenger,” or “Vanguard of the Imam,” any book on the Middle East must confront a frustrating reality. New developments in the region tend to happen so fast that even the most authoritative accounts go out of date moments after publication.
Days after the release of “Black Wave,” Iran expressed interest in fixing its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Days after the release of “Black Wave,” Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi expressed his country’s interest in fixing its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s longtime ally and a perennial Iranian foe, “as quickly as possible.” Iranian and Iraqi officials also claim that Soleimani was working toward that mission when he died. Though policymakers in Riyadh and Tehran are continuing their war of words, the talk of de-escalation could be guiding the future of Iranian–Saudi relations in a direction that few would have expected.
The coronavirus, which is devastating the Middle East, has added another complication. Iran and Saudi Arabia will have little time for each other when they have to deal with a health crisis.
Until the nature of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s possible détente becomes clear, “Black Wave” provides a serviceable guide to Iranian–Saudi relations if a flawed one. The public deserves more books on this meaty subject. If all goes well, “Black Wave” will become one of many.