The Year of the Black Swan: The Middle East’s Revolution, Regicide and Regime Change in 1979

The term “black swan” derives from the Latin expression “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan”, a description used by the ancient Roman poet Juvenal for something extremely rare to the point of non-existence. The popular belief at the time was that black swans simply did not exist, until their discovery in Western Australia in 1697 [1]. In his book, “The Black Swan”, Nassim Taleb described a black swan event as a highly improbable event with major impact on human history. The birth of Jesus, World War One, and even the development of the internet are considered black swan events. For the Middle East: the birth of Mohammad in 570, the discovery of oil in Persia in 1908 and the meteoric rise of ISIS in 2014 were some of the most game changing black swan events in the history for the Middle East and the rest of globe.

Black swan events, like Trotsky’s revolutions, are judged impossible until they become inevitable. 1979 was the year of the Earth Goat in the cosmology of the Confucian Chinese calendar, yet I believe 1979 should be remembered by history as the year of the black swan because it was the year when epic, unpredictable events in the game of nations changed the political, economic and diplomatic constellations of the Middle East forever.

Revolution in the streets of Tehran (1979). Credits: Azitan

February 1979: the Shah of Iran pilots his jet and flees his nation, abandoning his Peacock Throne and a 2,500 year old Persian imperial tradition to a revolutionary Shia theocracy led by Imam Khomeini in the Iranian Revolution. Khomeini midwifed an Islamic republic that has funded Shiite revolutions in Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain, declared holy war against the state of Israel and the West, and is currently engaged in a cold war with its Sunni neighbor, Saudi Arabia, across the Arabian Gulf (or Persian Gulf depending on who you ask) for sectarian superiority in the Islamic World.

Iran also undertook a nuclear program that threatened to spark a nuclear arms race across the Islamic world, which thankfully was stopped after the Iran deal in 2015. Khomeini’s calls for Islamic revolution frightened traditional rulers in the Middle East. Islamic monarchies such as the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia and secular regimes such as the Baathist Party in Iraq with Saddam Hussein (who became President in 1979) were threatened by Khomeini’s declarations of illegitimacy and heresy.

April 1979: Pakistani Prime Minister Z. A Bhutto was hanged by General Zia ul-Haq, his army chief, who then takes power as President and Islamizes the country. Zia enforced his Hudood Ordinances, which aimed to Islamize the country by enforcing Sharia Law and promoted greater xenophobia and Islamic fundamentalism. Laws were implemented that discriminated against minority sects of Islam, such as the Ahmadi, and imposed harsh sentences on minor crimes, calling for the amputation of a thief’s hand and foot if they stole more than $170. Furthermore, laws were introduced which required women to present four “good standing” male witnesses to prove the event of rape: failure to provide these witnesses put women at risk to be prosecuted for false accusations, and therefore no rapist was ever convicted while this law was in place [2]. By 1988, 6,000 women were wrongly jailed for the “crime” of being the victim of rape [3].

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A young Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan (1989). Credits: AFP

July 1979: Operation Cyclone, a CIA led program in coordination with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had come into effect in Afghanistan in an attempt to stop Soviet expansionism through the finance and arming of the Afghan mujaheddin forces [4]. In September, President Nur Tariki was eliminated in a coup by fellow socialist Hafizullah Amin, who was later assassinated by Soviet Special Forces in the presidential palace by the end of the year [5]. Clerical fatwas across the Middle East called for jihad against the “atheist invaders,” which caused in influx of expatriate Arab fighters to Afghanistan. Prince Turki Al Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence, coordinated with the CIA and ISI to finance the influx of Saudi and Arab jihadists to Afghanistan – including a young volunteer named Osama Bin Laden, then 22 and a drop out from a college in Jeddah.

After the Soviet withdrawal, many of these radical fighters returned to their home countries and deemed regimes “apostates” of Islam and ruled by corrupt secular illegitimate tyrants (e.g. Mubarak, Assad, and Saddam). This led to the rise of Islamist groups such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that still terrorize the region (and beyond) till this day, and which have spawned more powerful, murderous and radical offshoots such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and The Islamic State in the Levant. Even though the Soviets pulled combat troops from Afghanistan in 1989, the United States had to engage in 15 bloody years of war against the jihadists it originally funded.

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Smoke rising from the Grand Mosque in Mecca (1979). Credits: Wikipedia

November 1979: one of the most significant and traumatic events in Arab history occurred: The Siege of Makkah. A small army of about 500 religious zealots led by Juhaiman al-Otaybi, a former member of the Saudi National Guard, had taken control of the Kabaa during morning prayers [6]. Al-Oaybi declared his brother-in-law Mohammad Abdullah al-Qahtani to be the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam who is prophesied to rule the Islamic world during the End Times, and called for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and immediate preparation for Judgement Day. The date of the attack, 20th November 1979, marked the first day of the year 1400 in the Islamic calendar, the day the Madhi would reveal himself [7].  Saudi Special Forces were unable to take back the holy site and had to call on French GIGN and Pakistani SSG commandos to intervene. According to Lawrence Wright in his book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, French commandos had to convert to Islam in order to enter Makkah, due to prohibition against non-Muslims in the holy city, and in coordination with Saudi forces ended the siege by December [8]. Al-Qahtani was killed in the fighting while Al-Otaybi and his remaining followers were put in trial and publicly beheaded in all the main cities of the kingdom.

King Khalid did not crack down on religious extremism, but instead delegated more power to the harsh, punitive, orthodox rules on the populace through the Wahhabi religious establishment and encouraged conservatism. Khalid believed that to combat religious extremism was to encourage greater religion in society [9]. One of Khalid’s nieces said “Those old men actually believed that the Mosque disaster was God’s punishment to us because we were publishing women’s photographs in the newspapers. The worrying thing is that the king probably believed that as well” [10]. Cinemas and music shops were shut down. The religious police was given greater power and nationwide gender segregation was enforced in the social sphere. Schools got rid of subjects such as non-Islamic history and the curriculum encouraged greater focus on Islamic studies. An education policy that would breed more Islamic studies majors than Finance and Science majors was institutionalized.  Many of these radicalized students would go on to join the war in Afghanistan, including Osama Bin Laden.

There are moments in the human pageant when history goes fast forward, the center cannot hold, and black swans and anarchy are loosened upon the world. The aftermath of these black swan events marked the beginning of the rise of fundamentalism and fall of secularism in the Middle East, a relationship which will forever be negative to the region. International calls for jihad had not occurred since The Crusades, the emergence of an “Imam” in Shia Islam was never thought to be possible until the end times, and the prediction of bloodshed in the courtyards of the Kaaba would have warranted execution. Yet, despite the high improbability all of these events, they came true. In his 1979 hit song, “Eve of the War”, Jeff Wayne sang “the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one but still they came.”


Mujahedeen: Plural for the word mujahid which means one who engages in jihad.

Jihad: Islamic holy war/ spiritual struggle within ones self against sin

Fatwa: a ruling on a point of Islamic Law by a recognized authority.

[1] Puhvel, Jaan (Summer 1984). “The Origin of Etruscantusna (“Swan”)”. The American Journal of Philology (Johns Hopkins University Press) 105 (2): 209–212.

[2] Hudood Ordinance – The Crime And Punishment For Zina

[3] Ashfaq, Abira (Winter 2006). “Voices from Prison and a Call for Repeal: The Hudood Laws of Pakistan”. New Politics.

[4] Meher, Jagmohan (2004). America’s Afghanistan War: The Success that Failed. Gyan Books. pp. 68–69, 94.

[5] Braithwaite, Rodric (2011). Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979–1989. Oxford University Press

[6] Wright, Looming Tower, (2006), p. 104

[7] Benjamin, The Age of Sacred Terror, (2002) p. 90

[8] Wright, Robin B., 1948| Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam| Simon & Schuster| c 2001, p. 148

[9] Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. pp. 49–52.

[10] Lacey, Robert (2009). Inside the Kingdom : Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia. Viking. pp. 48