The drone attack on the Saudi refinery is no game-changer. But is there a new ‘axis of evil’ in the Middle East?

The Saudi-led destruction of Yemen - and the inevitable Houthi response - is part and parcel of the usual geopolitical games. Israel re-shaping the West Bank under the radar is where the rules are changing

Slavoj Zizek
Tuesday 17 September 2019 15:21 BST
Drone attacks spark huge fire at Saudi Aramco, the world's biggest oil processing facility

When, a couple of days ago, Saudi Aramco’s crude-oil processing facilities were attacked with drones – it is thought by the Houthis in Yemen – our media repeatedly characterised this event as a “game-changer”. But was it really this? In some sense yes, since it perturbed the global oil supply and made a large armed conflict in the Middle East much more probable. However, one should be careful not to miss the cruel irony of this claim.

Houthi rebels in Yemen have been in an open war with Saudi Arabia for years, with Saudi armed forces (and the US and the UK supplying arms) practically destroying the entire country, indiscriminately bombing civilian objects. The Saudi intervention has led to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the century with tens of thousands of children dead. As it was in the cases of Libya and Syria, destroying an entire country is obviously not a game-changer – just part and parcel of a very normal geopolitical game.

Even if we condemn the Houthis' alleged act, should we really be surprised to see them, cornered and in a desperate situation, striking back in whatever way they could? Far from changing the game, could the attack have been its logical culmination? They might have finally found the way to grab Saudi Arabia where it really hurts. Or, to paraphrase Brecht’s famous line from his Beggar’s Opera “what is robbing a bank compared to founding a new bank”, what is destroying a country compared to slightly disturbing the reproduction of global capital?

The media attention grabbed by the “game-changing” attack also conveniently distracted us from other truly game-changing projects like the Israeli plan to annex large, fertile chunks of the West Bank. What this means is that all the talk about the two state solution was just that; empty talk meant to obfuscate the ruthless realisation of a modern-day colonisation project in which what awaits the West Bank Palestinians will be in the best case a couple of tightly controlled Bantustans. One should also note that Israel is doing this with the silent connivance of Saudi Arabia – a further proof that a new axis of evil is emerging in the Middle East composed of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and the emirates. It is here that the rules of the game are truly changing!

And, to broaden the scope of our analysis, one should also be attentive to how the game is changing with Hong Kong protests. A dimension as a rule ignored in our media is that of class struggle which sustains the Hong Kong protests against China’s efforts to constrain its autonomy. Hong Kong protests first erupted in poor districts – the rich were prospering under Chinese control.

Then a new voice was heard: one banner carried at the march read “President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong” in English. Some marchers sang the US national anthem as they moved towards the consulate. “We share the same US values of liberty and democracy,” 30-year-old banker David Wong said. Every serious analysis of the Hong Kong protests has to focus on how a social protest, potentially a true game-changer, was recuperated into the standard narrative of the democratic revolt against totalitarian rule.

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And the same goes for mainland China itself. In the last few days our media have reported on how the Unirule Institute of Economics, one of China’s few remaining outposts of liberal thought, has been ordered to shut down. Another sign of the dramatically shrinking space for public debate under the government of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping?

Yes, sure. But we are here far from the police intimidation, beatings and arrests to which leftist students are submitted to. Ironically, taking the official return to Marxism more seriously than it was meant, groups of students organised links with workers who suffer extreme exploitation in factories around Beijing. Pollution in chemical factories is largely uncontrolled and ignored by state power, and students have been helping workers to organise themselves and formulate their demands to improve their conditions.

It is these links – between students and workers – that pose the true challenge to the regime, while the struggle between the new hard line of Xi Jinping and the pro-capitalist liberals is ultimately part of the dominant game, the tension between the two versions of the unbridled capitalist development, authoritarian and liberal.

In all these cases, from Yemen to China, one should thus learn to distinguish between the conflicts which are part of the game and the true game-changers. These are either ominous turns to the worse masked as the continuation of the normal state of things (Israel annexing large parts of the West Bank), or the hopeful signs of something really new emerging. The predominant liberal view is obsessed by the first and largely ignores the second.

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