Tag Archive | "Eastern Province"

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Why Saudi Arabia Should Be Worried About Iran’s Next Move

Posted on 20 April 2011 by hashimilion

Protests in Qatif, Saudi Arabia

 

Iran warned Saudi Arabia on Monday of the dire consequences of Riyadh’s intervention in Bahrain.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s adviser for military affairs, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, told journalists, “The presence and attitude of Saudi Arabia (in Bahrain) sets an incorrect precedence for similar future events, and Saudi Arabia should consider this fact that one day the very same event may recur in Saudi Arabia itself and Saudi Arabia may come under invasion for the very same excuse.”

A post-U.S. Iraq renders the Saudi kingdom vulnerable to a future Iranian invasion.

The remarks made by Safavi, who formerly served as commander of Iran’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (1997-2007), constitute the first time Tehran has issued such a direct warning. The Saudis and the Iranians have had tense relations since the founding of the Islamic republic in 1979 and increasingly so since the U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled the Baathist regime, which led to a Shiite-dominated Iraqi state and the empowering of Iran. But never before has Iran issued a public statement about an invasion of the Saudi kingdom.

So, why is the Persian Shiite state engaging in such threats now? The Saudi move to intervene in neighboring Bahrain, where popular unrest was largely waged by the Shiite majority, threatened to topple a Sunni monarchy. Well aware of the implications, the Saudis embarked on their first long-term, overseas military deployment, sending in 1,500 troops to help Bahraini forces crush the Shiite opposition.

The Saudi move succeeded in quelling the unrest (for now at least), which placed Iran in a difficult position. Lacking the capability to physically aid their fellow Shia in the Persian Gulf, the Iranians were caught in an awkward situation. Iran had to do more than issue diplomatic statements and engineer protests against the Saudis and their allies.

Warning the Saudis that they too could be invaded on the same pretext that they used to go into Bahrain is definitely an escalation on the part of the Iranians. Since Iran making good on its threat is unlikely to happen anytime soon (given that the United States would not stand by and allow Iran to attack Saudi Arabia), this can be argued as yet another hollow threat. A more nuanced examination of the situation, however, suggests that Tehran is not just simply engaging in bellicose rhetoric.

Instead, Iran is trying to exploit Saudi fears. The Wahhabi kingdom fears instability (especially now when it is in the middle of a power transition at home and the region has been engulfed by popular turmoil). The clerical regime in Iran sees regional instability as a tool to advance its position in the Persian Gulf region.

Riyadh can never be certain that Tehran won’t ever attack but Iran would have to overcome many logistical difficulties to make good on its threat. The Saudis are also not exactly comfortable with the idea of overt military alignment with the United States. The last time the Saudis entered into such a relationship with the Americans was during the 1991 Gulf War and it lead to the rise of al Qaeda.

Put differently, any conflict involving Iran entails far more risks than rewards for the Saudis. Cognizant of the Saudi perceptions, the Iranian statement is designed as a signal to the Saudis that they should accept Iran as a player in the region or be prepared to deal with a very messy situation. The key problem for Saudi Arabia is that Tehran doesn’t have to actually resort to war to achieve its ends. But Riyadh’s efforts to counter Iran and its Arab Shiite allies are likely to create more problems for the Saudis because crackdowns are contributing to long-term instability in the region and causing agitation among the Shia, which Iran can use to its advantage.

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Saudi Arrests Over 160 Dissidents

Posted on 20 April 2011 by hashimilion

Nadhir al-Majid

“Saudi authorities have arrested over 160 peaceful dissidents in violation of international human rights law since February 2011,” HRW said in a statement.

It called on “the interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, to order the immediate release of peaceful dissidents, including Nadhir al-Majid, a writer and teacher arrested on April 17.”

Most of the arrests were in Eastern Province, where the Shiite minority has been holding protests calling for political reforms and the release of prisoners.

HRW slammed Saudi Arabia’s western allies, especially the European Union and the United States, for not taking a harder line over the conservative Gulf kingdom’s arrest of dissidents.

“As the list of Saudi political prisoners grows longer, the silence of the US and the EU becomes more deafening,” Christoph Wilcke, a senior Middle East researcher at HRW, said in the statement.

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Libya’s Only a Part of Mideast Equation

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

What’s more important than Libya? At least four other countries.

The outcome of the unfinished revolution in Egypt will affect the prospects for democracy across the region. The outcome in Yemen, where Al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch is headquartered, is important to the struggle against terrorism. A change in Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, would upend the balance of power on Israel’s northern borders.

And then there’s the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, where troops from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries have intervened to quell a Shiite Muslim uprising. It might seem odd to include a power struggle in a quasi-country of half a million citizens on a list of major strategic issues, but the crisis in Bahrain qualifies.

About two-thirds of Bahrainis are Shiite, but Sunni Muslims hold almost all the power. After Shiite groups staged increasingly violent demonstrations to demand more democracy, the government cracked down — and when the Bahraini police faltered, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries stepped in with troops.

Opposition groups say more than 400 activists have been arrested; the Bahraini government has refused to disclose the number of arrests. Human Rights Watch has charged that at least seven detainees have died in custody and that some may have been tortured.

Last week, the government announced that it was outlawing the largest — and most moderate — Shiite political party, but then backpedaled after an international outcry.

Why does all this matter? Because Bahrain isn’t the only Arab state on the gulf with a sizable Shiite population. Iraq has a Shiite majority and a Shiite-dominated government. Saudi Arabia is ruled by Sunnis, but it has a significant Shiite minority in its oil-rich eastern province. In all three countries, Shiite Muslims have historically been treated as an oppressed underclass — but now, watching other Arabs win more rights, they’re demanding equality too.

Bahrain matters, as well, because Saudi Arabia treats it as a virtual protectorate. The Saudi royal family doesn’t like to see Shiite Muslim demonstrators demand the head of any monarch; it’s too close to home.

Besides, in the view of many Sunnis, Bahrain’s Shiite protesters look like puppets in the hands of Iran, the Shiite Muslim behemoth across the gulf that has long tried to assert itself as the region’s dominant power.

The fear among many U.S. officials, though, is that the Sunni-Shiite unrest in Bahrain could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Bahraini government stops negotiating with the moderate Shiite opposition, it risks radicalizing its own population — and driving some of them into the arms of Iran. Another outcome could be a conflict between Sunni and Shiite that would cross several borders.

In a worst-case scenario, warned Charles Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-Shiite split could prompt the pro-U.S. government in Iraq to ally itself with Iran, scrambling the basic foundation of U.S. security policy in the area, which aims to make Iraq a bulwark against Iran.

“The strategic stakes in Bahrain are higher than many outside the region appreciate,” Freeman said.

The Obama administration has been urging the Bahraini government to negotiate. Last week, the State Department’s top Middle East hand, Jeffrey Feltman, rushed to Bahrain to try to reopen talks between the government and the opposition.

But the administration has been notably gentle, because it wants the Bahraini royal family to stay in power and it doesn’t want to offend Saudi Arabia.

In a speech last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. “strongly condemned the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government.” But on Bahrain, she merely warned that “security alone cannot resolve the challenges.” (“We know that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense,” she explained.)

Another official said the administration is promoting reform throughout the Arab world, but it’s also reassuring rulers in places such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that it won’t insist on immediate change. “It doesn’t have to come fast,” he said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security advisor Tom Donilon visited Saudi Arabia this month to try to patch up the U.S. relationship with King Abdullah, who was furious when Obama backed the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both U.S. and Saudi officials said the meetings helped repair the U.S.-Saudi alliance on issues such as Iran. But they said there was no sign of any Saudi moderation on the issue of Bahrain, which the Saudis consider their backyard.

The gulf has long been a central focus of U.S. foreign policy, both because it’s the source of much of the world’s oil and because it’s the frontier between the pro-American Arab monarchies and anti-American Iran.

That’s why the U.S. has a naval fleet there — headquartered, as it happens, in Bahrain.

Now Bahrain is at risk. Hard-liners have opted to use an iron fist, to see whether repression can restore stability; reform, they say, can come later. If they turn out to be wrong, the consequences could be dire.

By Doyle McManus

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Saudi Shi’ites Protest, Call For Prisoner Release

Posted on 15 April 2011 by hashimilion

 

Hundreds of Saudi Shi’ites in the oil-producing east took to the streets in protest on Thursday, calling for the release of prisoners held without trial and an end to human rights violations, activists said.

The main rally took place in the Shi’ite centre of Qatif in the Eastern Province and a smaller one in a nearby village. Activists said there was very little police presence.

“Now in the centre of Qatif there are around 500 men and women, carrying candles and chanting for the release of prisoners and their right to protest,” said one activist who declined to be named for fear of being detained.

Another activist said around 50 women gathered in Awwamiya village, near Qatif, also carrying candles and chanting for the release of prisoners held without trial and for an end to female discrimination in the absolute monarchy.

A police spokesperson in the Eastern Province did not answer calls for comment.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer and major U.S. ally is an absolute monarchy that does not tolerate any form of dissent. It has not seen the kind of mass uprisings that have rocked the Arab world in the last few months.

Shi’ites in the Eastern Province have held some protests over the past few weeks, resulting in police detentions of some of the demonstrators, but almost no Saudis answered a Facebook call for protest on March 11, amid a huge security presence.

Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority, mostly living in the Eastern Province which holds much of the country’s oil wealth, have long complained of discrimination, a claim the government denies.

 

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While the Saudi Elite Looks Nervously Abroad, A Revolution Is Happening

Posted on 14 April 2011 by hashimilion

The Saudi regime is under siege. To the west, its heaviest regional ally, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, has been ousted. To its north, Syria and Jordan are gripped by a wave of protests which shows no sign of receding. On its southern border, unrest in Yemen and Oman rages on. And troops have been dispatched to Bahrain to salvage its influence over the tiny kingdom exerted through the Khalifa clan, and prevent the contagion from spreading to Saudi Arabia’s turbulent eastern provinces, the repository of both its biggest oil reserves and largest Shia population.

Such fears of contagion no longer seem far-fetched. Shortly after the toppling of the Tunisian dictator, an unidentified 65-year-old man died after setting himself on fire in Jizan province, just north of the border with Yemen. Frequent protests urge political reform, and internet campaigns demand the election of a consultative assembly, the release of political prisoners, and women’s rights – one that called for a day of rage on 11 March attracted 26,000 supporters.

The government’s response was in keeping with a country named the region’s least democratic state by the Economist Intelligence Unit last year. Tear gas and live bullets were fired at peaceful demonstrators as helicopters crisscrossed the skies. One of the 11 March organisers, Faisal abdul-Ahad, was killed, while hundreds have been arrested, joining 8,000 prisoners of conscience – among them the co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, Mohammed Saleh al-Bejadi. Many Saudis have even been detained when seeking news of relatives at the interior ministry, like Mubarak bin Zu’air, a lawyer whose father and brother have long been held without charge, and 17-yearold Jihad Khadr whose brother Thamir, a rights activist is also missing. A short video tackling the taboo of political prisoners attracted over 72,000 views since its release 4 days ago.

Although demands for change date back to 1992’s Advice Memorandum – a petition for reform submitted by scholars to the king – the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have accelerated them. In an unprecedented move, a group of activists and intellectuals defied the official ban on political organisation to announce the formation of the kingdom’s first political party (all 10 founding members have since been arrested). And calls for reform have even come from the royal family, with Prince Turki Al Faisal appealing for elections to the Shura, the appointed parliament, at the Jeddah Economic Forum two weeks ago.

What had been whispered behind closed doors for years is being discussed openly not only in social networking sites, but even in front of cameras – as Khaled al-Johani did to a BBC crew in defiance of the hundreds of police, disappearing soon after. And although the regime seeks to appeal to sectarian divisions and invoke the threat of Iran in order to delegitimise dissent, the truth is that the discontent is found across Saudi society, fed by political repression and developmental failure, as a result of corruption, government malfunctioning, and the squandering of billions on arms. You need look no further than ravaged Jeddah after the floods of 2009 and 2011 to see that marginalisation is not unique to the kingdom’s Shia.

Along with the visible political threats facing the regime, it is beset by a more potent social challenge. This is the product of the advancing process of modernisation in Saudi society, with growing urbanisation, mass education, tens of thousands of foreign-taught students, and widespread communication media, with one of the region’s highest percentages of internet users (almost 40%, double that of Egypt). The country’s gigantic oil wealth has taken the society from a simple, predominantly desert existence to a model of affluent consumerism in the space of a few decades. Yet this rapid transformation has not been matched at the culture level, causing a yawning gap between social reality and a conservative ideology imposed by the regime and justified via an intimate alliance between the ruling clan and the Wahhabi clerical establishment with its austere Hanbali interpretation of Islam. This is not to say that the clerical council and its religious police are the decision-makers in Saudi Arabia. They are mere government employees who provide a divine seal for choices made by the king and his coterie of emirs. Their role is to issue the monarch with edicts like the one that sanctioned the “appeal to infidels for protection” when US troops were summoned to the Gulf in 1991.

As a price for political quietism, the clerics’ hands are left untied in the social realm, where they are granted unlimited authority over the monitoring and control of individual and public conduct. No one has paid a greater price for this ruler-cleric pact than women. While turning a blind eye to the monarch and his elite’s political authoritarianism, financial corruption, and subordination to American diktats, these divine warriors turn their muscle on women instead. Every minutia of their lives is placed under the clerics’ watchful gaze, rigorously monitored by draconian religious edicts rejected by the majority of Muslims; they are denied the right to drive, enter into any form of legal agreement, vote, or even receive medical care without a guardian’s consent. But as Hanadi, a Saudi friend, put it: “It’s all hypocrisy. While we are forbidden from baring any flesh in public, including our faces, the TV channels funded by the emirs are the most promiscuous ones around. You don’t see any black robes or niqabs there, only half-naked young girls gyrating to the beat of cheap pop music. It’s a shameless exploitation of religion.”

Now Saudi Arabia finds itself in the eye of the Arab revolutionary storm, its religious and financial arms have been deployed to fortify the status quo. As well as made-to-fit fatwas prohibiting dissent as fitna (division and social strife) and demonstrations and pickets as forms of “insurrection against rulers”, the regime has resorted to bribing its subjects in return for allegiance and acquiescence. On his return from a three-month medical trip in US, the ailing 87-year-old King Abdullah announced financial handouts worth an astonishing $129bn – more than half the country’s oil revenues last year – including a 15% rise for state employees, reprieves for imprisoned debtors, financial aid for students and the unemployed, and the promise of half a million homes at affordable prices – not to mention increases to the religious police budget.

Externally the regime draws sustenance from its “special relationship” with the US. In return for keeping the oil supply steady and pouring billions into the American treasury through arms deals, the Al-Saud family gets a US commitment to complete protection.

Does this mean that the country’s fate is to remain ruled by an absolutist system where the notion of the citizen is non-existent and power is monopolised by an ageing king and his clan? That is unlikely, for Saudi Arabia is not God’s eternal kingdom on Earth and is not impervious to the change that is required internally and regionally. The question is not whether change is coming to Saudi Arabia, but what its nature and scope will be.

By Soumaya Ghannoushi

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Saudi Authorities Free 25 Shiites Detained During Demonstrations

Posted on 10 March 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabian authorities released 25 Shiites arrested during protests in the Eastern Province earlier this month, according an activist.

The detainees were released yesterday, Ibrahim Al- Mugaiteeb, president of the Human Rights First Society, based in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, said today in a phone interview.

Shiites in al-Qatif held a demonstration on March 3, attended by about 100 people and heavily policed, to demand the release of prisoners. Another rally of a similar size took place in the eastern village of Awwamiya the same day, while on March 4, protesters in al-Hofuf demanded the release of Shiite cleric Tawfiq al-Amir. Activists said he was freed two days later.

Activists have called for a nationwide “Day of Rage” on March 11, and a Facebook Inc. page advocating the plan has more than 30,000 followers. The kingdom’s Council of Senior Islamic Scholars this week condemned protests as forbidden, and the Interior Ministry warned that demonstrations, marches and sit- ins are “strictly” prohibited.

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Saudi Arabia is Losing Its Fear

Posted on 09 March 2011 by hashimilion

In Riyadh the mood is tense; everyone is on edge wondering what will happen on Friday – the date the Saudi people have chosen for their revolution. The days building up to Friday so far have not been as reassuring as one would like.

On 4 March, there were protests in the eastern region and a smaller protest here in Riyadh. The protests in the eastern region were mainly to call for the release of Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, who had been detained after giving a sermon calling for a constitutional monarchy.

The protest in Riyadh was started by a young Sunni man, Mohammed al-Wadani, who had uploaded a YouTube video a few days before, explaining why the monarchy has to fall. After the protests, 26 people were detained in the eastern region and al-Wadani was taken in soon after he held up his sign near a major mosque in Riyadh.

It’s not just the people who are on edge; apparently the government is also taking this upcoming Friday seriously. Surprisingly, Sheikh Amer was released on Sunday, while usually political detentions take much longer.

All this week, government agencies have been issuing statements banning protests. First it was the interior ministry that promised to take all measures necessary to prevent protests. Then the highest religious establishment, the Council of Senior Clerics, deemed protests and petitions as un-Islamic. The Shura Council, our government-appointed pretend-parliament, also threw its weight behind the interior ministry’s ban and the religious decree of prohibition. But you can’t blame the clerics or the Shura for making these statements – the status quo is what’s keeping them in power and comfortable.

Saudis are now faced with a ban on any form of demonstration, and the blocking and censorship of petitions. Moreover, four newspaper writers who had signed one of the petitions are now suspended.

Saudis feel cornered, with little means of self-expression and at the same time exposed to news and opinions that only add salt to the wound. For example, Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, the king’s half-brother, went on BBC Arabic TV to state his support for a constitutional monarchy and warn that anything less will lead to “evils” (his word).

Meanwhile, a newspaper reported that an expatriate was sentenced to 14 months in prison and 80 lashes for stealing part of a chicken from a restaurant. In response to the news, Abdulrahman Allahim, an award-winning Saudi human rights lawyer, tweeted that in his experience he had never come across a case in Saudi courts where a defendant was given a verdict of not guilty.

In Jeddah, a committee that has spent more than a year investigating the disappearance of millions of public funds assigned to the municipality to build a sewerage system has yet to make one formal accusation against anyone.

Another article revealed that the unemployment benefits recently decreed by the king have been whittled down from 3,000 riyals (£490) a month to 1,000 riyals (£165) and will probably only be given to unemployed men but not women.

The official unemployment rate of men is 10%, although many estimate it to be higher. The unemployment rate for women is yet to be officially announced but a study in 2010 estimated it at more than 26%.

It’s also estimated that about 60% of the population is under 30. These young, unemployed people live with many constrictions on their freedom. In addition to extreme gender segregation, single men are banned from entering shopping malls, and women cannot process their own papers, get a job or even access transport without male accompaniment and approval.

There’s no denying that the country is fertile ground for a revolution. However, I am concerned that the revolution might be hijacked by Islamists. Sa’ad al-Faqih, a London-based anti-monarchy activist, is claiming the revolution for himself. His TV programme, which is accessible via satellite in Saudi, is organising protest locations and revving up viewers to participate. Another contender is the new Islamic Umma party, whose founding members are imprisoned until they renounce their political aspirations (they have so far refused). Although the founding members are not free, the party’s online activity grows day by day. Both groups make use of a rhetoric that is dear to many average Saudis – attacking US foreign policy and the royal family’s misuse of the nation’s wealth while threading both issues within an Islamic theme.

On the other hand, the king is popular. All the petitions call for a constitutional monarchy, rather than the fall of the monarchy. Those who signed the petitions are mostly loyal to the king, but want access to decision-making and an end to corruption.

Also, many of the signatories are thinkers, writers and academics – generally an elite group of Saudis. From what I’ve read, nothing indicates they will go out to protest. However, one political activist who has been imprisoned several times for writing petitions was noticeably absent from recent lists of signatories. When a close friend of mine asked him why, he said, “now is not the time to sign petitions, now is the time to act”.

It’s very difficult to predict what will happen on Friday. My guess is that there will be protests. The larger protests will be in the eastern region and mostly by Shia Muslims. I also expect smaller protests in Riyadh and Jeddah. What tactics the security forces use will greatly influence not only the demonstrators but also the people watching from their homes. If undue violence is used against the demonstrators, it could possibly ignite the same fuse that led to full-blown revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Whether or not it comes to that, we as a people have changed for ever. No longer do I see the frightened hushing of political discussion – everyone is saying what they believe and aspire for out in the open without fear. As Fouad Alfarhan, a prominent Saudi activist, tweeted:

“Probably not much will happen, however the biggest gain is the awareness raised in a large faction of our young people of their human and political rights in this post-Bouazizi world.”

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Saudi Arabia Bans All Marches As Mass Protest Is Planned on Friday

Posted on 08 March 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and the regional domino whose fall the West fears most, yesterday announced that it would ban all protests and marches. The move – the stick to match the carrot of benefits worth $37bn (£23bn) recently offered citizens in an effort to stave off the unrest that has overtaken nearby states – comes before a “day of rage” threatened for this Friday by opponents of the regime.

The Saudi Interior Ministry said the kingdom has banned all demonstrations because they contradict Islamic laws and social values. The ministry said some people have tried to get around the law to “achieve illegitimate aims” and it warned that security forces were authorised to act against violators. By way of emphasis, a statement broadcast on Saudi television said the authorities would “use all measures” to prevent any attempt to disrupt public order.

Already, as The Independent reported yesterday, the ruling House of Saud had drafted security forces, possibly numbering up to 10,000, into the north-eastern provinces. These areas, home to most of the country’s Shia Muslim minority, have been the scenes of small demonstrations in recent weeks by protesters calling for the release of prisoners who they say are being held without trial. Saudi Shias also complain that they find it much harder to get senior government jobs and benefits than other citizens.

Not only are the Shia areas close to Bahrain, scene of some potent unrest in recent weeks, but they are also where most of the Saudi oil fields lie. More than two million Shias are thought to live there, and in recent years they have increasingly practised their own religious rites thanks to the Saudi king’s reforms.

But the day of protest called for this Friday was – perhaps still is – likely to attract more than restive Shias in the east. There have been growing murmurs of discontent in recent weeks; protesters have not only been much emboldened by the success of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, but online channels of communication by those contemplating rebellion have been established. Some estimates indicate that as many as 20,000 were planning to protest in Riyadh, as well as in the east, on Friday.

The jitters of the Saudi regime will be at least equalled in many parts of the world where sympathy for democracy movements is tempered by a reliance on petrol, which most people – for all the special pleading of the haulage industry – can just about afford. Saudi Arabia sits on a fifth of the world’s oil reserves.

The past week, with conflict disrupting all but a trickle of Libya’s oil production, has seen the Brent barrel price climb to $103, with UK pump prices swiftly going up to £1.30 a litre. The rise in the price per barrel was caused not just by the Libyan strife – the country produces only 2 per cent of the planet’s oil needs – but also by the prospect of further unrest in the region, although not the threat of full-scale breakdown in Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday, alarmist voices were not slow to exploit fears. Alan Duncan, an international aid minister and a former oil trader, raised the prospect in an interview with The Times of the price of crude rising well beyond 2008’s record of $140 a barrel, to $200 or more.

“Do you want to be paying £4 a litre for petrol?” he asked. “I’ve been saying in government for two months that if this does go wrong, £1.30 at the pump could look like luxury.” He outlined a “worst-case scenario” in which serious regional upheaval could propel the price to $250 a barrel, and thence to British drivers paying £2.03 a litre. London is now considering not imposing the planned 1p rise in fuel duty.

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