The Siege of Mecca: how 1979 shaped 2019

Forty years ago today, dozens of bearded gunmen stormed the holiest site in Islam, the Grand Mosque at Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.

They held the complex for two weeks before a French-trained Saudi force rooted them out, but the fallout from the attack went on to shape the modern Middle East in ways that are still with us today: in the scourge of transnational jihadism and the deepening rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.


It's worth recalling the backdrop in November 1979. Cairo had recently allied itself with the US and made a controversial peace deal with Israel at Camp David that would later lead to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's assassination. The Iranian revolution had just brought to power a Shiite Islamic theocracy that was immediately a political and sectarian rival to the Saudis. The godless Soviets were mulling their fateful invasion of Afghanistan.

And several years earlier, the Saudi King himself had been assassinated by an extremist relative who resented his introduction of television to the kingdom.

The gunmen who took the mosque at Mecca were of a similar mindset. Their leader, Juhayman ("the scowler") el-Oteibi, was a homegrown Saudi religious fanatic who believed – as did many of the kingdom's clerics, in fact – that Saudi Arabia's rapid, oil-fueled modernization of the 1970s had caused it to stray from strict Islamic ideals: Too many women in the workforce. Too much TV. Too many foreigners. Too many Saudi princes carrying on in Monaco.

Stung by Iran's external challenge to its legitimacy and Juhayman's internal one, Saudi Arabia radically changed course: it rolled back all social liberalization, imposing the clerical establishment's strict wahhabi interpretation of Islam at home, and aggressively exporting it abroad.

Saudi Arabia's rulers made this bargain in part because they thought it would head off the growth of anti-government extremism in the Kingdom. And in part because, fearful of Iran's rise, it made sense to double down on extreme Islamic piety in the face of a nearby theocratic rival.

There are three things happening today that flow directly from all of this:

First, today's transnational jihadism was hugely inspired by Juhayman's attack – the first spectacular jihadist operation of its scale in the modern world – and by the ultra-conservative ideology that motivated it. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's funding of Wahhabism around the globe helped nurture much larger transnational jihad networks like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Second, Saudi Arabia is only now undoing the legacy of 1979: Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom today, has framed his tightly controlled experiments in social liberalization as an attempt to put the country back on its pre-1979 course.

Lastly, it crystallized the Iran-Saudi rivalry that continues to cut across the region today. As Wall Street Journal correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov, who quite literally wrote the book on the Siege of Mecca, explained to us, the one thing that the House of Saud, the clerics, and the Juhayman types could all agree on was that Iran, as a Shiite power, was a heretical danger that must be confronted. Now, forty years later, even as Saudi Arabia carefully liberalizes at home, the rivalry with Iran is as fierce and dangerous as ever.

This month, a bipartisan group of legislators in Washington state presented new legislation that could soon become the most comprehensive privacy law in the country. The centerpiece of this legislation, the Washington Privacy Act as substituted, goes further than the landmark bill California recently enacted and builds on the law Europeans have enjoyed for the past year and a half.

As Microsoft President Brad Smith shared in his blog post about our priorities for the state of Washington's current legislative session, we believe it is important to enact strong data privacy protections to demonstrate our state's leadership on what we believe will be one of the defining issues of our generation. People will only trust technology if they know their data is private and under their control, and new laws like these will help provide that assurance.

Read more here.

Let's be clear— the Middle East peace plan that the US unveiled today is by no means fair. In fact, it is markedly more pro-Israel than any that have come before it.

But the Trump administration was never aiming for a "fair" deal. Instead, it was pursuing a deal that can feasibly be implemented. In other words, it's a deal shaped by a keen understanding of the new power balances within the region and globally.

More

Betty Liu, Executive Vice Chairman for NYSE Group, explains:

Do election years have an impact on the markets?

So, the short answer is it depends. There's lots of factors that affect the markets, right. But there are some trends. So, the S&P has had its best performance in the year before elections and the second-best performance on election year. Now since 1928, we've had 23 election years and the S&P has had negative returns only four times in that duration.

More

For months now, the US has been lobbying countries around the world to ban the Chinese tech giant Huawei from building the 5G data networks that are going to power everything from your cell phone, to power grids, to self-driving cars. US security hawks say allowing a Chinese company to supply such essential infrastructure could allow the Chinese government to steal sensitive data or even sabotage networks. On the other hand, rejecting Huawei could make 5G more expensive. It also means angering the world's second-largest economy.

More

The end of the interim in Bolivia? – Mere months after taking over as Bolivia's interim president, Jeanine Áñez has decided that "interim" isn't quite permanent enough, and she now wants to run for president in elections set for May 3. Áñez is an outspoken conservative who took over in October when mass protests over election fraud prompted the military to oust the long-serving left-populist Evo Morales. She says she is just trying to unify a fractious conservative ticket that can beat the candidate backed by Morales' party. (Morales himself is barred from running.) Her supporters say she has the right to run just like anyone else. But critics say that after promising that she would serve only as a caretaker president, Áñez's decision taints the legitimacy of an election meant to be a clean slate reset after the unrest last fall. We are watching closely to see if her move sparks fresh unrest in an already deeply polarized country.

More