Tag Archive | "Isreal"

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Arab Spring Splits Saudi U.S Alliance

Posted on 16 May 2011 by hashimilion

A tectonic shift has occurred in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Despite significant pressure from the Obama administration to remain on the sidelines, Saudi leaders sent troops into Manama in March to defend Bahrain’s monarchy and quell the unrest that has shaken that country since February. For more than 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been bound by an unwritten bargain: oil for security. Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided U.S. policies. But American missteps in the region since Sept. 11, an ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement building have brought this arrangement to an end. As the Saudis recalibrate the partnership, Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.

The backdrop for this change are the rise of Iranian meddling in the region and the counterproductive policies that the United States has pursued here since Sept. 11. The most significant blunder may have been the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in enormous loss of life and provided Iran an opening to expand its sphere of influence. For years, Iran’s leadership has aimed to foment discord while furthering its geopolitical ambitions. Tehran has long funded Hamas and Hezbollah; recently, its scope of attempted interference has broadened to include the affairs of Arab states from Yemen to Morocco. This month the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, harshly criticized Riyadh over its intervention in Bahrain, claiming this act would spark massive domestic uprisings.

Such remarks are based more on wishful thinking than fact, but Iran’s efforts to destabilize its neighbors are tireless. As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat. The emerging political reality is a Saudi-led Arab world facing off against the aggression of Iran and its non-state proxies.

Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilize the Arab monarchies — the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco. In Yemen, the Saudis are insisting on an orderly transition of power and a dignified exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh (a courtesy that was not extended to Hosni Mubarak, despite the former Egyptian president’s many years as a strong U.S. ally). To facilitate this handover, Riyadh is leading a diplomatic effort under the auspices of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council. In Iraq, the Saudi government will continue to pursue a hard-line stance against the Maliki government, which it regards as little more than an Iranian puppet. In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia will act to check the growth of Hezbollah and to ensure that this Iranian proxy does not dominate the country’s political life. Regarding the widespread upheaval in Syria, the Saudis will work to ensure that any potential transition to a post-Assad era is as peaceful and as free of Iranian meddling as possible.

Regarding Israel, Riyadh is adamant that a just settlement, based on King Abdullah’s proposed peace plan, be implemented. This includes a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. The United States has lost all credibility on this issue; after casting the sole vote in the U.N. Security Council against censuring Israel for its illegal settlement building, it can no longer act as an objective mediator. This act was a watershed in U.S.-Saudi relations, guaranteeing that Saudi leaders will not push for further compromise from the Palestinians, despite American pressure.

Saudi Arabia remains strong and stable, lending muscle to its invigorated foreign policy. Spiritually, the kingdom plays a unique role for the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims — more than 1 billion of whom are Sunni — as the birthplace of Islam and home of the two holiest cities. Politically, its leaders enjoy broad domestic support, and a growing nationalism has knitted the historically tribal country more closely together. This is largely why widespread protests, much anticipated by Western media in March, never materialized. As the world’s sole energy superpower and the de facto central banker of the global energy markets, Riyadh is the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, representing 25 percent of the combined gross domestic product of the Arab world. The kingdom has amassed more than $550 billion in foreign reserves and is spending more than $150 billion to improve infrastructure, public education, social services and health care.

To counter the threats posed by Iran and transnational terrorist networks, the Saudi leadership is authorizing more than $100 billion of additional military spending to modernize ground forces, upgrade naval capabilities and more. The kingdom is doubling its number of high-quality combat aircraft and adding 60,000 security personnel to the Interior Ministry forces. Plans are underway to create a “Special Forces Command,” based on the U.S. model, to unify the kingdom’s various special forces if needed for rapid deployment abroad.

Saudi Arabia has the will and the means to meet its expanded global responsibilities. In some issues, such as counterterrorism and efforts to fight money laundering, the Saudis will continue to be a strong U.S. partner. In areas in which Saudi national security or strategic interests are at stake, the kingdom will pursue its own agenda. With Iran working tirelessly to dominate the region, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt and unrest on nearly every border, there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability. The special relationship may never be the same, but from this transformation a more stable and secure Middle East can be born.

Comments Off on Arab Spring Splits Saudi U.S Alliance

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The History of Hizbullah Al-hijaz

Posted on 09 May 2011 by hashimilion

 

From its inception in 1987, Hizbullah al-Hijaz was a cleric-based group aligned with Iran, modeling itself on the Lebanese Hizbullah. It advocated violence against the Saudi regime and carried out several terrorist attacks in the late 1980s. Due to an improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations, it shifted its activities more towards non-violent opposition. Although opposed to negotiations with the Saudi leadership, it benefited from a general amnesty in 1993. After Hizbullah al-Hijaz was blamed for the Khobar bombings in 1996, most of its members were arrested. The crackdown and the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement following the accession of Muhammad Khatami in 1997 led to the disappearance of the organization, although its clerical leaders continue to be popular in parts of the Eastern Province. While the Khobar bombings have been discussed widely, only a few academic studies deal partially with Hizbullah al-Hijaz. The founding of the organization, its ideology, its role in Saudi-Iranian relations, and the activities of its members before and after the Khobar bombings have never been the subject of a distinct study.

Saudi Shi’a Clerics in Qom: The Formation of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz

In the 1970s, a group of Saudi Shi’a, who were studying in Najaf with Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, became acquainted with Khomeini’s teachings. After the Iranian Revolution they moved to Qom, where, in the mid-1980s, they formed Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, which later became part of Hizbullah al-Hijaz. The clerical wing of the Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz operated out of the Hawza al-Hijaziyya (Hijazi seminary) in Qom. Their names indicate that, like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they used the term “Hijaz” for the whole of Saudi Arabia to undermine the legitimacy of the Al Sa’ud. They also called themselves Hijazin or Khat al-Imam, the line of Imam (Khomeini), the name by which the group is still referred to colloquially in Saudi Arabia. Although there is a small Shi’a community in Medina, the founders of Tajamu’ and Hizbullah come from the Eastern Province, mainly from al-Ahsa, Safwa, and Tarut.

Husayn al-Radi

 

The biographies of the founders of the movement share some similarities: Husayn al-Radi was born in 1950/51 in ‘Umran in al-Ahsa. He studied in Najaf with Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and after the latter was killed in 1980, he moved to Qom. There he continued his studies with Hossein Montazeri and then became the supervisor of the Hawza for the Saudi students (al-Hijazin). In this position, he developed what he calls “special relationships” with Ayatollahs Hossein Montazeri – at that time the designated successor of Ayatollah Khomeini – and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. Shahroudi was also a disciple of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and left Najaf for Qom in 1979 to teach in the Hawza. Another leader of Tajamu’, Hashim al-Shakhs, was born in 1957 into a famous clerical family in al-Ahsa. His relative, Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Shakhs, was an early politically active Shi’a cleric and co-founder of the “Society of ‘Ulama’ in Najaf” in 1959/60. This connection facilitated his move to Najaf in 1972, where he became a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Hashim al-Shakhs

 

In the late 1970s, al-Shakhs returned to Saudi Arabia and started preaching in the village of Qarah in al-Ahsa. In the early 1980s, he went to Qom to study with Hossein Montazeri and to teach in the Hawza. It was only in Iran in the 1980s that he became politicized. Crucially, al-Shakhs and several other cadres of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl and ‘Abd al-Jalil al-Maa, did not take part in the Shi’a uprising of 1979/80 in the Eastern Province and remained in Saudi Arabia for a while after the uprising. Just days after the occupation of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by a group of Sunni rebels led by Juhayman al-‘Utaybi, the Shi’a in the Eastern Province staged Muharam rituals in public, defying a ban on public Shi’a processions in place since 1913. The instigators of this uprising were a network of young Islamists led by Hasan al-Safar and Tawfiq al-Sayf. They were the leaders of the Saudi branch, founded in 1975, of the Movement for Vanguards Missionaries (MVM), which worked under the spiritual guidance of Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi (1928-2001). Tens of thousands took to the streets between November 26 and 30, 1979 and clashed with the National Guard, leading to around two dozen fatalities. On the eve of the demonstrations, the group adopted the name Munazama al-Thawra al-Islamiyya fi al-Jazira al-‘Arabiyya (Islamic Revolution Organization in the Arabian Peninsula: IRO). Although some later members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, such as ‘Ali ‘Abdallah al-Khatim from Tarut, participated in the uprising, the “Intifada,” as the uprising was termed by the IRO, does not feature heavily in the discourse of Hizbullah al-Hijaz.

After the uprising, several hundred young Saudi Shi’a were brought to the Hawza al-Imam al-Qa’im of the MVM in Tehran. Immediately after the Iranian Revolution, the MVM and its leaders such as Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrasi were very close to the new Iranian leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Muhammad al-Shirazi also had good relations with Khomeini, and he and the cadres of the MVM moved to Iran. Iranian support for the Shi’a movements in Iraq and the Gulf was implemented through the Office of the Liberation Movements, created in the early 1980s and first headed by Mohammed Montazeri and then Mehdi Hashemi. The political theory of Muhammad al-Shirazi and the MVM was quite close to Khomeini’s notion of velayet-e faqih (the guardianship of the jurisprudent), although al-Shirazi favored the theory that not a single cleric, but a council of scholars should govern the Islamic State (hukumat al-fuqaha’/shurat al-fuqaha’). Therefore, al-Shirazi had expected a bigger role in post-1979 Iran, and relations between him and Khomeini deteriorated in the early 1980s. He also continued to compete with Khomeini for the post of marja’ al-taqlid – the post of highest ranking authority for Shi’a Muslims.

Muhammad al-Shirazi

 

The MVM and its Iraqi branch, the Islamic Action Organization (Munazama al-‘Amal al-Islami), often acted rather autonomously, which led to conflicts with the Iranian government. The MVM saw armed struggle as a legitimate political tool and had a military wing, which was active in Bahrain until its coup attempt was foiled in December 1981, and in Iraq under Saddam. Although there was no such military branch for Saudi Arabia, the Iranian authorities repeatedly pressured the MVM and the IRO to intensify military efforts in the Gulf states. After the bloody crackdown on the “Intifada” in 1979/80, the MVM thought that military action was of little use in the Saudi case and rejected bombings and assassinations there. Yet, a number of Saudi Shi’a fought in the MVM’s military branches or opted to fight on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War.

In contrast to the MVM and the IRO, the Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz initially did not have a defined organizational structure and focused on religious activities and the propagation of the marja’iyya of Khomeini. From about 1985 onwards, members of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz came to Sayyida Zaynab, a shrine city outside Damascus, in addition to the Eastern Province, and started preaching the virtues of Khomeini. Sayyida Zaynab was an important transnational hub for the Gulf Shi’a, especially the ones following Ayatollah Shirazi. In 1987, they started their first publication, al-Fath, under the name of Hijaz Students Group (Jama’ min Talaba al-Hijaz). Some lay activists also started to work with Tajamu’, although its leaders remained clerics.

Sayyida Zaynab

 

Saudi-Iranian Rivalry over the Hajj and the Foundation of Hizbullah al-Hijaz

In the second half of the 1980s, Iran began to revise its policy of exporting the revolution, and the position of the MVM in Iran was severely weakened. The MVM was close to parts of the Iranian regime advocating the export of the revolution, namely Hossein Montazeri and Mehdi Hashemi. Yet, this faction was increasingly sidelined by people such as Sayyid ‘Ali Khamene’i and ‘Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who questioned the usefulness of this approach. The MVM was directly involved in the struggle between the different Iranian political factions, and a member of the MVM allegedly helped to leak the Iran-Contra Affair in late 1986. As a result, Mehdi Hashemi was executed in 1987, the Office of the Liberation Movements closed, and Hossein Montazeri was deposed in 1989 as the successor of Ayatollah Khomeini. Consequently, the MVM and the IRO had lost their main ally in Iran, and their leaders chose to leave Iran gradually. In addition, the Central Committee of the IRO made a decision in 1987 to soften its approach towards the Saudi regime after a general amnesty decreed by King Fahd. Thereafter, ordinary members of the MVM and the IRO began to be harassed by Iranian authorities. However, the IRO still had representatives in Tehran and Qom and maintained relations with the Iranians and with Hizbullah al-Hijaz.

On July 31, 1987, over 400 people, most of them Iranian pilgrims but also many Saudi policemen, were killed and many more injured at a demonstration that led to a stampede outside the Great Mosque in Mecca during the Hajj. Iran and Saudi Arabia blamed each other for the clashes, leading to a severe worsening of Saudi-Iranian relations. Although the incident mainly involved Iranians, some had alleged links to Saudi Shi’a organizations. As a result, both countries sought to influence Muslim public opinion abroad and discredit the other party. The weak relations of the MVM and the IRO to the new centers of power in the Iranian regime, their refusal to carry out military operations in Saudi Arabia, and the Hajj incident in 1987 were the main reasons for the formation and the strengthening of Hizbullah al-Hijaz. Iran wanted to have small, controllable organizations that could be used as pressure tools on the Al Sa’ud but would not endanger Iran’s foreign policy objectives.

1987 Mecca Demonstration

 

Founded in May 1987, Hizbullah al-Hijaz issued one of its first statements one week after the Hajj incident, vowing to stand up against the Saudi rulers. Among the founders of Hizbullah al-Hijaz were the leaders of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, Shaykh Hashim al-Shakhs, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl, and ‘Abd al-Jalil al-Maa. From the beginning, Hizbullah al-Hijaz had two wings: one for religious and political activities – Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz – and another one for military tasks. Some members of the movement came from Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, but others were members of the MVM that wanted to use violence against the Saudi regime and preferred the marja’iyya of Khomeini. Ahmad al-Mughasal, who came to be the head of the military wing of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, was a former member of the MVM and had studied at the Hawza Imam al-Qa’im in Tehran. Furthermore, some Saudi Shi’a students who had studied in the US, who belonged to later generations of members of the MVM, joined Hizbullah al-Hijaz. This led to tensions between Hizbullah al-Hijaz and the IRO, which had hitherto been the only Islamist Saudi Shi’a opposition group. Hizbullah al-Hijaz’s long-term political goal was the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Arabian Peninsula after the Iranian model, and it advocated the overthrow of the Saudi regime through violence.

Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl

 

Escalation , Violence, and a Gradual Improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations

After the Hajj Incident in 1987, “many supporters of the Islamic Republic among the Shi’a were willing to pursue military means to retaliate against the Saudi regime.” In August 1987, an explosion occurred at a petroleum facilty in Ra’s al-Ju’ayma. Although the government claimed that it was an accident, it was later ascribed to Hizbullah al-Hijaz. In March 1988, the Sadaf petrochemical plant in Jubayl was bombed, an incident for which Hizbullah al-Hijaz claimed responsibility. A Hizbullah cell with four members from Tarut had carried out the attack. One of them had been an employee at Sadaf, while another, al-Khatim, had fought with Hizbullah in Lebanon and had received military training. Several bombs also detonated at the Ra’s Tanura refinery and one allegedly failed to explode in Ra’s al-Ju’ayma. Widespread arrests occurred, and when the security forces confronted three members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, several Saudi policemen were killed and injured. These three and another member of the cell were later publicly executed. The execution of the four was enabled by a fatwa from the Council of the Assembly of Senior ‘Ulama’ (Majlis Hay’a Kibar al-‘Ulama’) allowing the execution of dissidents convicted of “sabotage.” The IRO argued that the bombings were a response to Saudi assistance to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and that, while it did not claim responsibility for them, bombings were a natural continuation of the opposition’s activities. In response, Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz issued one of its first public statements, entitled “the execution of four fighters (mujahidin) in the Arabian Peninsula” and so did Hizbullah al-Hijaz. In addition, Ayatollah Montazeri condemned the execution while the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying any links to the executed.

In response to this escalation, members of the IRO, leftist groups, and leaders of Hizbullah such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl and Ja’far al-Mubarak were arrested. Four members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz were released in 1990 as part of a royal pardon but at least four other leaders remained in prison until 1993. Some Shi’a apparently blamed the opposition movements for the crackdown, and this was a reason for the IRO to abandon its revolutionary discourse.

Some members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz wanted to avenge the beheadings and assassinated several Saudi diplomats and agents abroad. It is possible that they were killing security officials that were trying to arrest and extradite them to Saudi Arabia. One report argues that the killings in October 1988 and January 1989 and the attempted killing in December 1988 targeted members of the Saudi Arabian intelligence services, working under diplomatic cover, who had been pursuing a group of about 20 Shi’a for their involvement in the bombings of oil installations in the Eastern Province.

Two groups, the Soldiers of Justice (Jund al-Haqq) and the Holy War Organization in the Hijaz, claimed responsibility from Beirut for an assassination in Bangkok in January 1989. The Holy War Organization in the Hijaz claimed that the killing was revenge for the execution of four of its members in Saudi Arabia, and Risalat al-Haramayn reported that an October 1988 killing in Ankara was also in retaliation for the executions in Saudi Arabia. Some sources assert that this was a new front organization made up of Lebanese and Saudi Shi’ites with links to Palestinian groups and factions inside Iran that were opposed to an Iranian rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. These two groups, probably related to the military wing of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, claimed responsibility – or were blamed – for the assassination of a Saudi diplomats in Ankara in October 1988 and in 1989, of wounding a Saudi diplomat in Karachi in December 1988 in addition to several bomb attacks in Riyadh in 1985 and in 1989.

In September 1989, 16 Kuwaiti Shi’ites were beheaded for smuggling explosives and placing them in the vicinity of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in July 1989. They were members of the group Hizbullah al-Kuwayt but were all Shi’a of Iranian or Saudi origin. Indeed, the family links between Shi’a from al-Ahsa and Saudi Shi’a emigrants to Kuwait are usually strong and continue to play a role in the development of Hizbullah networks in the Gulf. Some Shi’a from al-Ahsa were also arrested and members of Hizbullah al-Kuwayt and Hizbullah al-Hijaz jointly announced vengeance at a press conference in Beirut. In November 1989, the Holy War Organization claimed responsibility for the assassination of a Saudi diplomat in Beirut in revenge for the beheading of the 16 Kuwaitis and the four Saudis.

From the late 1980s onwards, several members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz travelled to Iran and Lebanon, where they likely received military training. They used Sayyida Zaynab in Syria as a hub for their travels to Saudi Arabia and for the recruitment of new members, who visited the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab on pilgrimage. Some Saudi Shi’a also fought with Lebanese Hizbullah against Israel in southern Lebanon.

Ideology and Propaganda: Risalat al-Haramayn

Saudi-Iranian relations gradually improved after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in August 1988, the death of Khomeini in June 1989, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Iran had, however, an interest in continuing to promote anti-Saudi propaganda and establishing a hegemonic claim over Mecca and Medina as well as portraying itself as the patron of Saudi Shi’a. This caused Hizbullah al-Hijaz to focus more on political and propaganda activities, such as the publication of a journal, Risalat al-Haramayn (The Letter of the Two Holy Places [Mecca and Medina]), at the expense of assassinations and attacks. It was published by the al-Haramayn Islamic Information Center and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz from 1989 to 1995 in Beirut, although from 1991 it also had an office in London. The outreach of the journal was supposed to be the whole umma. It focused on the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, and published statements by Hizbullah al-Hijaz and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz. It was mainly written by a new group of non-clerical activists referred to as the effendiyya in Shi’a circles. Many of the activists behind Risalat al-Haramayn had been educated by the MVM in Kuwait and then in Tehran. Members of Iraqi and Lebanese Hizbullah also wrote in the journal.

Anti-Saudi propaganda, the creation of a martyrdom mythology, and the links to other movements were some of the main focuses in the journal. The first martyrs of Hizbullah al-Hijaz were the four “mujahidin” that were executed in 1988. As three of the four and some of the Saudis who fought on the Iranian side in the Iraq-Iran War were from the village of al-Rabia’iya on Tarut Island, this village was frequently described in the journal as the archetypical revolutionary village. The four also entered the martyrdom discourse of the IRO, and certain contemporary oppositional publications and websites still remember them as the “four martyrs.” The publication also tried to promote the legacy of Shi’a clerics in Saudi Arabia, something which Hashim al-Shakhs continued in his four-volume work on the Shi’a clerics from al-Ahsa.

Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah

 

In autumn 1989, members from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (SCIRI) and Lebanese Hizbullah gave speeches praising the four martyrs in Sayyida Zaynab outside of Damascus while Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah delivered a similar speech in Qom. In Baalbek, one member of Tajamu’, Muhammad al-Mubarak, denounced the Saudi regime in the presence of a representative of the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. The journal also reported meetings between delegations of Tajamu’ with Lebanese Hizbullah and Khamene’i. This made clear that Hizbullah al-Hijaz was very well connected to and supported by Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah, among others.

A cleric of Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that there is no difference between the Hizbullah groups “in Hijaz, Kuwait, Lebanon or any other place.”

In addition, the organization accepted Sayyid ‘Ali Khamene’i as Khomeini’s successor, and the clerics began to assume a leading role in Hizbullah al-Hijaz, following Khomeini’s doctrine of velayet-e faqih. Furthermore, the journal stated that “there is no doubt that our links with the Islamic Republic are very strong, because it is a base for all the liberators and revolutionaries in the world.”

The discourse of the movement became increasingly anti-American from 1990 onwards. Hizbullah al-Hijaz and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz both declared in 1990 that the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia made jihad against the unbelievers a duty of Muslims. This discourse was, however, not unique to Shi’a Islamists; the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia was one of the main reasons for the rise of the Sunni Islamist opposition. To a certain extent, the discourse in Risalat al-Haramayn shifted more towards human rights and freedom of speech, although the IRO’s switch towards a discourse of democratization was much more pronounced.

“The Regime swallows the Opposition:” Hizbullah al-Hijaz Publicly Opposes the Agreement between the IRO and the Saudi Leadership in 1993

In autumn 1993, the Saudi regime and some leaders of the IRO reached an agreement to abandon the latter’s political activities in return for a general amnesty. On the regime’s side, the main reasons for this agreement were the regional crises which occured after the invasion of Kuwait and reports about a possible alliance of Sunni and Shi’a Islamists. The IRO negotiated in the name of all Saudi Shi’a opposition groups, including Hizbullah al-Hijaz and the leftists that were active in Syria and Iraq. Some argue that the negotiations were also intended to isolate Hizbullah al-Hijaz and that they were not asked to take part in the negotiations.They were informed about the negotiations by the IRO, but Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that it would only negotiate if there were an end to sectarian discrimination and real gains for the Shi’a. Although some in the IRO had voiced similar demands, al-Safar and other leaders of the IRO agreed that these things could not be done immediately by the government. Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that the opposition would lose its strength if it ceased its publications and returned to Saudi Arabia, where it would be under tight supervision by the security services. The movement stated that the negotiations were intended to play out the Shi’a opposition against the Salafis. In addition, Hizbullah al-Hijaz would only change its strategy if the Shi’a were to be recognized as an official sect by the government. It vowed to continue on the path of jihad and revolution and invoked the example of the four martyrs of 1988. A reason for this official opposition was the dissatisfaction of the Iranian regime with the negotiations.

Hasan al-Safar

 

Eventually, the agreement included the release of all Saudi Shi’a political prisoners, many of whom were members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, and thus most members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz returned to Saudi Arabia. They suspended the publication of Risalat al-Haramayn in 1995 but – unlike the suspension of the IRO’s publication al-Jazira al-‘Arabiyya – this was not a condition of the agreement as the government thought its impact was limited. Iran apparently tried to persuade the members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz that it had played a role in the release of their prisoners, and that it was a result of the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the following years, the Hizbullah trend gained in prominence amongst those former activists and ordinary Shi’a that were dissatisfied with the agreement or had opposed it from the beginning.

After their return to Saudi Arabia in 1993 and 1994, many members focused on religious and social activities. The clerics became imams in their local mosques and started teaching in the Hawza in Mubarraz or Qatif. Ja’far al-Mubarak was released from prison in the summer of 1993 but was subject to intense surveillance and was not allowed to perform Friday prayers. This was used as an example in the movement literature that the opposition should not trust the Saudi regime. He returned to a leadership role in Hizbullah al-Hijaz and eventually became an imam in Safwa. Hashim al-Shakhs also became imam in a local mosque in his native village of al-Qarah, and like other clerics of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, started to work as a local representative of Ayatollah Khamene’i, gaining an income from the religious khums tax.

Ja’far al-Mubarak

 

The Khobar Bombings: Accusations, Arrests, and the Disappearance of Hizbullah al-Hijaz

 

On June 25, 1996, a tanker truck filled with several tons of TNT exploded near the Khobar Towers housing compound for the US Air Force in Dhahran, killing 19 US soldiers and injuring hundreds of others. Shortly afterwards, the Saudi government started to blame Hizbullah al-Hijaz for the attack and arrested hundreds of Islamists, both Sunni and Shi’i. Nearly everyone who was loosely affiliated with Hizbullah al-Hijaz was arrested in the crackdown. The prisoners included its main religious and political leaders such as Hashim al-Shakhs, Ja’far al-Mubarak, ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl, and Husayn al-Radi. Many were tortured and remained imprisoned for years. Sympathizers with the movement were arrested for the possession of books by Khomeini or Fadlallah or because they had attended mosques where Hizbullah clerics preached. Although several reports of the investigation were published, there were tensions between Saudi and American investigators. Some claim that strong evidence for Iranian involvement would have been used as a pretext for war against Iran, something the Saudis did not want. This would have destabilized the whole region and probably involved the redeployment of more American troops to Saudi Arabia. It took several years before the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was granted access to the suspects and almost five years until they were indicted in the US. The accused included Ahmad al-Mughasal, the alleged head of the military wing of the Saudi Hizbullah, Hani al-Sayigh, and ‘Abd al-Karim al-Nasir, whom the indictment described as the leader of Saudi Hizbullah. Especially after September 11, 2001, the theory that al-Qa’ida was involved in or responsible for the attack gained in prominence. Although Usama bin Ladin has repeatedly applauded the Khobar attacks, he did not take responsibility for them, and Thomas Hegghammer states that al-Qa’ida did not have the technical skills at the time to carry out such a large-scale attack. He also dismisses the idea of cooperation between al-Qa’ida and Iran.

In June 2002, a Saudi official said that a number of Saudis arrested after the Khobar bombings had been convicted110 and that nine Shi’a blamed for involvement in the preparation and the execution of the bombings remained imprisoned in SaudiArabia.

As a response to the indictment and the trials, al-Haramayn Islamic Information Center published a long report on the Khobar Bombings in June 2002. It attempts to prove that the investigations were flawed and implies that Hizbullah al-Hijaz was not responsible. In addition, it claims that blaming Saudi Shi’a and Iran was part of the American and “Zionist” agenda. The report implies that statements by Hizbullah al-Khalij, or “Saudi Hizbullah,” claiming responsibility for the attack, which appeared in Western and Arab media, are forgeries. The report states that although Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah had expanded to the Gulf countries, an organization called Hizbullah al-Khalij is not known. It adds that two other organizations also claimed responsibility for the bombing, while reproducing statements by Iran, Lebanese Hizbullah, and Hizbullah al-Hijaz rejecting any involvement in the attack. According to the report, the absence of Ja’far al-Shuwaykhat from the indictment is another major flaw. Al-Shuwaykhat was a student in the Hawza in Qom and was arrested in 1988 upon his return to Saudi Arabia. After six years in prison, he was released and went to Syria. A biography of the “martyr” al-Shuwaykhat posted on a homepage associated with the Hizbullah networks claims that he was involved in a number of military operations, that his main enemy was the Americans, and that he rejoined his former group in Syria after being released from prison. After the Khobar bombings, he was arrested by Syrian intelligence, apparently on the request of the Saudi government, but died in a Syrian prison only days later. Several interviewees pointed out that he could have provided vital information and that his sudden death and the absence of his name in the indictment were suspicious.

Ja’far al-Shuwaykhat

 

The report sees the American troops as occupiers and implies that the authors see American troops as a legitimate target. It urges the Americans to think about the reasons for the bombings, namely their occupation of Muslim lands and their arrogance towards other people. In a statement released in late 1996, Hizbullah al-Hijaz rejects any responsibility for the bombings but calls the US the “biggest satan.” A statement published after the US indictment in 2001 argues that “although we refute this indictment as a whole and in detail, we will continue on the path of Jihad until the expulsion of all occupiers from the land of the Arabian Peninsula.”

Hizbullah al-Hijaz’s ideology would, therefore, have permitted an attack on American soldiers in Saudi Arabia. In addition, members of Saudi Hizbullah wanted to continue an armed struggle against the Saudi regime as well as against its main backer, the US. They also may have wanted to demonstrate their strength and disapproval of the 1993 accord, hoping that the repression after an attack on a US target would be less harsh than after attacking the Saudi government directly. However, the Khobar bombings were much more sophisticated than earlier operations by the group. It is also puzzling why the group should, after an absence of attacks for over six years, return to violence as a political tool. Given the close relations with Lebanese Hizbullah, it seems plausible that, if Hizbullah al-Hijaz was behind the attack, it would have needed Lebanese technical assistance. The connection to Iran is impossible to assess through an analysis of open source material, but a faction inside Iran opposed to the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could have masterminded the attack. It is also possible that the military wing of Hizbullah al-Hijaz acted with Iranian or Lebanese support but without the knowledge of the clerics of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al- Hijaz.

After the Khobar Bombings: Online Propaganda, Social Activism, and Clerical Authority

The virtual disappearance of Hizbullah al-Hijaz as an organization after 1996 is due to the arrest of most of its members and a general Saudi-Iranian rapprochement leading to a security agreement in 2001. After the Khobar bombings, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed that while Saudi Arabia would not permit the US to launch attacks on Iran from the Kingdom, Iran would stop supporting Saudi Shi’a opposition activists. Although several of those accused in the indictment are believed to be in Iran, the agreement did not include the extradition of fugitives. On his historic visit to Saudi Arabia in 1998, ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani planned to call for the release of the Shi’a arrested after the Khobar bombings.It is not clear whether this influenced the gradual release of many high- and middle-ranking members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz. Thereafter, they refrained from openly political activities and renounced violence as a political tool.

They focused more on social and religious activities such as the organization of marriages, pilgrimages to Mecca, and public festivities during Muharam and the birthdays of the Imams. Young Qatifis point out that former movement members are active in schools and other gathering places for the youth. Its current leaders include Shaykh Hashim al-Hubayl, Sayyid Kamal al-Sada, and Shaykh Hasan al-Nimr, who hosts a diwaniyya in Dammam. Due to the improvement of Saudi-Iranian relations, the religious activities of the pro-Iranian clerics are increasingly tolerated. There continue to be roughly 200 Saudi students in Qom, although the majority of them do not follow Khamene’i, but rather follow Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani. The religious connection to Iran, however, does not imply membership in the political organization Hizbullah al-Hijaz. Until 2008, Dr. ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Fadli was considered the main representative of Ayatollah Khamene’i in Saudi Arabia. Originating from al-Hasa, Al-Fadli had been one of the founding members of the Dawa Party in Iraq. He later became the head of the Arabic language department at King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz University in Jeddah and a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini. He is a mujtahid and a prolific writer and some consider him to have been a candidate for a local marja’iyya.

Dr. ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Fadli

 

Some former leaders of Hizbullah al-Hijaz such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl have started a gradual rapprochement with the government, emulating the IRO. Hasan al-Nimr encouraged some supporters of Hizbullah al-Hijaz to stand in the municipal elections of 2004/5, although they failed to win a seat. Other former leaders of the Hizbullah, such as Husayn al-Radi, have participated in the National Dialogue. Contrary to the IRO, the Hizbullah has always emphasized the role of the clergy and lacks a mass following. On the other hand, some of the highest ranking Saudi Shi’a scholars such as ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Fadli and Hashim al-Shakhs – both considered to be mujtahids – are leaders of the Hizbullah. When the system of the Shi’a courts in the Eastern Province was reorganized in 2005, a former supporter of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, Ghalib al-Hamad, was briefly appointed as the Shi’i judge of Qatif. This shows that the Saudi regime thought it was useful to co-opt certain members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz with public posts and to allow its religious activities, including the collection of khums money for Khamene’i. The “al-Fajr cultural website” serves as a platform for their moderated discourse and the propagation of the marja’iyya of Khamene’i. It publishes the Friday prayers of Hashim al-Shakhs and others, provides guidance on religious matters and, since early 2008, publishes a journal dedicated to the spirit of Imam Husayn and Imam Khomeini.

The confrontational discourse of Hizbullah al-Hijaz is only present on the website of al-Haramayn Islamic Information Center. It seems that those people responsible for this website are outside of Saudi Arabia and that they no longer form one group with those former leaders that returned to Saudi Arabia. The Center, however, continues to issue statements by, amongst others, Hizbullah al-Hijaz, Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, and the “Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula,” while also digitizing Saudi Shi’a opposition publications such as Risalat al-Haramayn.

Recent Hizbullah al-Hijaz statements dealt with Saudi Arabia’s condemnation of Lebanese Hizbullah’s activites in 2006 or the assassination of ‘Imad Mughniyya, the military leader of Lebanese Hizbullah. Some supporters of Hizbullah al-Hijaz started to express themselves through support for Lebanese Hizbullah. In July and August 2006, several demonstrations in support of Lebanese Hizbullah occurred in Qatif and surrounding areas and security forces arrested dozens. However, the demonstrations did not only involve supporters of Hizbullah but also other political groupings.

But the group also comments on domestic Saudi matters. In 2005, Hasan al-Safar implied in an interview that Hizbullah al-Hijaz had been part of the 1993 agreement and that it had abandoned its revolutionary discourse and organizational activities thereafter. Hizbullah countered with a long statement condemning the rapprochement between the IRO and the Saudi government and stating that its main political goals were “the military, economic and political liberation of our homeland (the Arabian Peninsula) from the American-Western Occupier” and the downfall of the Al Sa’ud. From spring 2008 onwards, a new weekly news survey – al-Rasid al-Sahafi – concerning Saudi Shi’a issues was published on the website. It also focuses on, for example, Saudi involvement in Lebanon, praising Hizbullah’s activities there, while reproducing statements by Khamene’i and Fadlallah.

Conclusion

From its inception, Hizbullah al-Hijaz has advocated armed struggle against the Saudi regime. After the Hajj in 1987 Iran wanted to retaliate against Saudi Arabia and created Hizbullah al-Hijaz as a pressure group that was integrated into the Hizbullah networks. Therefore, it was subject to changes in Saudi-Iranian relations, which partially explains the absence of attacks between 1989 and 1996 and its virtual disappearance after the Khobar Bombings. With the accession of Khatami as Iranian President, Saudi-Iranian relations ameliorated considerably, leading to a security agreement in 2001. Thereafter, most former members have abstained from politics but many are still deeply suspicious of the regime. In the local context, Hizbullah al-Hijaz has always positioned itself as the most radical Saudi Shi’a opposition group. So far, the Hizbullah trend has not managed to integrate itself into local Shi’a politics in the way the former leaders of the IRO have. Its former advocacy of violence, the political theory of velayet-e faqih, and the uncritical endorsement of the Iranian political system are the main reasons for its limited influence in contemporary Saudi Shi’a affairs. The Iranian model does not have the same appeal for Saudi Shi’a as it did in the 1980s. Yet, sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia have increased following the clashes between Shi’a and Sunni pilgrims and riot police in Medina in 2009 and the subsequent demonstrations and arrests in the Eastern Province. It is not inconceivable that this broadens the appeal of groups like Hizbullah al-Hijaz that advocate an uncompromising approach towards the Saudi state.

By Toby Matthiesen

Comments (2)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Saudi Arabia’s Political Risks

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

The world’s No. 1 oil exporter faces the twin challenges of creating jobs for a young population at a time of unrest in the Arab world, and pursuing economic reforms with a royal succession looming.

The stability of Saudi Arabia is of global importance since the kingdom sits on more than a fifth of oil reserves, is home to the biggest Arab stock market, is a major owner of dollar assets and acts as a regional linchpin of U.S. security policy.

King Abdullah, who is around 87, unveiled $93 billion in social handouts in March, on top of another $37 billion announced less than a month earlier.

But this apparent effort to insulate the kingdom from Arab popular protests sweeping the region has not stopped activists, including liberals, Shi’ites and Islamists, calling in petitions for more political freedom. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no elected parliament.

Riyadh has not seen the kind of mass uprisings that have shaken the Arab world this year, but Shi’ites in the kingdom’s oil-producing east have staged a number of protests.

Almost no Saudis in Riyadh answered a Facebook call for protests on March 11 in the face of a massive security presence.

Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the Al Saud family for 79 years, with influence from clerics following the austere Wahhabi school of Islam, and many oppose the very reforms the king has started.

However, slowing down reforms to modernise education might affect government plans to create jobs — unemployment last year reached 10 percent.

And with around 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s almost 19 million people under the age of 30, the pressure to find them gainful employment is huge.

SUCCESSION

King Abdullah returned home in February after spending three months abroad for medical treatment, during which he underwent two surgeries after a blood clot complicated a slipped disc.

With the slightly younger Crown Prince Sultan also in poor health, the throne could eventually go to Interior Minister Prince Nayef, a conservative who could put the brakes on some reforms started by Abdullah, analysts say. Nayef, around 77 years old, was promoted to second deputy prime minister in 2009.

He has supported the religious police who roam the streets to make sure unrelated men and women do not mix in public and that shops close during prayer times.

To regulate succession, Abdullah has set up an “allegiance council” of sons and grandsons of the kingdom’s founder but it is not clear when, or how, it will work in practice.

So far only sons of the kingdom’s founder Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud have ascended the throne, and the remaining 20 or so are mostly in their 70s and 80s. Leaders have been reluctant to hand senior jobs over to the next generation.

If a younger generation were unexpectedly to come into play, prominent potential candidates include Nayef’s son Mohammed, who as the anti-terror chief was the target of an al Qaeda suicide attack in 2009. Another leading face among the grandsons of Ibn Saud is Sultan’s son Khaled, the assistant defence minister.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– The health of senior royal family members and their involvement in day-to-day affairs of running the kingdom

– Any sign of abrupt cancellation of scheduled programmes such as foreign visits by senior leaders

– Any signs that the elder generation is passing on more responsibility to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, and to which ones

REFORMS

Officials who back Abdullah say they fear that young Saudis frustrated over their failure to find work could provide potential recruits to violent Islamists who want to overthrow the House of Saud.

Abdullah started some narrow reforms to overhaul education and the judiciary after taking office in 2005 but diplomats say his reform drive has run out of steam.

He has not altered the political system of an absolute monarchy that analysts say has fuelled dissent, with democracy activists, liberals and Islamists calling on the king in petitions to allow elections and more freedom.

Abdullah’s handouts focused on social largesse and a boost to security and religious police, but included no political change.

The kingdom in March also announced it would hold long-delayed municipal elections but said women will not be allowed to vote. With no elected assembly, Saudi Arabia has no political parties.

Saudi analysts say the king could reshuffle the cabinet, where some ministers have been on board for decades, or call fresh municipal elections, a plan that was shelved in 2009 due to the opposition of conservative princes.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Any signs of protests or petitions by activists demanding political reforms

– Any signs of a cabinet reshuffle or plan to hold fresh municipal elections

– Any approval of a much-delayed mortgage law, which aims to ease pressure on the housing market

SHI’ITE MUSLIMS

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-led regional diplomatic heavyweight, has sought to contain Iran’s influence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq produced a Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.

With majority Shi’ites in neighbouring Bahrain having protested against the Sunni government there, analysts say there is a risk that unrest could spread to Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite minority, which lives in the oil-producing Eastern Province just across from Bahrain.

Shi’ites in the east have held a number of protests calling for prisoner releases and a withdrawal of Saudi forces sent to Bahrain to help put down the unrest.

Saudi Shi’ites have long complained about marginalisation and have started small protests to demand the release of prisoners they say have been detained without trial. Riyadh denies any charges of discrimination.

Riyadh also shares U.S. concerns that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons in secret. The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran, which says it is developing nuclear energy only to generate electricity.

Saudi Arabia has publicly tried to stay out of the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear programme but a series of U.S. diplomatic cables released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks portrayed Riyadh as pressing for a U.S. attack.

King Abdullah was said to have “frequently exhorted the U.S. to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear programme,” a cable printed in Britain’s Guardian newspaper said.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Any signs of further protests and a deterioration in the eastern province

– Any possible military action against Iran and its impact on the Gulf region

– Any Saudi diplomatic moves to tighten sanctions on Iran and any signs of Saudi facilities offered for military action

AL QAEDA THREAT

Saudi Arabia, with the help of foreign experts, managed to quash an al Qaeda campaign from 2003 to 2006 that targeted expatriate housing compounds, embassies and oil facilities.

Riyadh destroyed the main cells within its borders. But many militants slipped into neighbouring Yemen where al Qaeda regrouped to form a Yemen-based regional wing that seeks, among other things, the fall of the U.S.-allied Saudi royal family.

The Yemen-based al Qaeda arm shot to the global spotlight after it claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane in December 2009.

Despite the U.S. killing of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden on May 1, the Yemeni wing of the militant Islamist group is expected to remain active, and exploit political instability in Yemen as well.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Whether al Qaeda’s resurgent Yemen-based branch mounts more operations in Saudi territory, as it has within Yemen

– Riyadh wants to build a fence to seal the mountainous 1,500-km (930-mile) Yemen border, which could help stop militants from crossing.

Comments Off on Saudi Arabia’s Political Risks

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Middle East Power Shifts Put Region In State Of Flux

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

‘Melodrama” and ”Middle East” are words that sit comfortably in the same sentence. But who would have thought, as the world thrilled to the peaceful revolt by millions of ordinary Tunisians in January, that just three months later two of the region’s bad-cop regimes – Riyadh and Tehran – might be seen to be verging towards war?

They are on snarling terms already. Amid the clamour for rights and reform across the Middle East and North Africa, the irony of these heavyweights coming to blows is that each is as repressive as the other – but none of that will stop the rest of the region, and the world, lining up to take sides.

For now it’s a cold war, fought by proxies elsewhere. In Lebanon, the Saudi-backed Sunnis have lost significant ground to the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, which now controls the levers of power in Beirut.

In the current crises, Riyadh and Tehran face-off in Bahrain – Tehran is backing the majority Shiites; Riyadh had thrown its lot in with the minority Sunni monarchy, as it attempts to smash the protest movement. And Yemen, on the Saudis’ southern border, is the most likely next point of friction between the two.

Historically, they have pulled in opposite directions. Saudi Arabia is Arab and Sunni; Iran is Persian and Shiite. Both invest hugely in spreading their beliefs to the farthest corners of the Muslim world. Iran lines up with the so-called Arab rejectionists – Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. The Saudis line up with Egypt, Morocco, the Gulf statelets and the Palestinian Fatah faction. Riyadh pulls with Washington; Tehran against.

”The cold war is a reality,” a senior Saudi official told The Wall Street Journal. ”Iran is looking to expand its influence. The instability over the last few months means that we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and watching events unfold.”

How that plays out will be intriguing in what has become a ”yes, but …” geopolitical, global crossroads. The permutations tantalise. If the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad collapses, what are the implications if the Syrian alliance with Tehran fractures? What becomes of Syria’s joint sponsorship, with Iran, of Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon and of Hamas in the Palestinian Occupied Territories?

All these are ”yes, but …” issues, as much for Damascus as for Tehran. Given that Syria remains, technically at least, at war with Israel, can we assume that any new order in Syria would rush to throw over Hezbollah and Hamas? Even Israel, as much as it loathes the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas quartet, is wary of who and what might replace Assad in the Syrian capital, because just as the interim regime in Cairo is shifting away from the ousted regime’s alliance with Israel, there is no guarantee that a new Syrian leadership will be any friendlier to Tel Aviv.

What if Syria dumped Iran as an ally – but was to pick up expansionist Turkey as a new best friend in the region? Likewise, how might the regional balance be altered if Tehran was to lose Damascus as an ally, but in turn was to pick up Shiite-controlled Iraq and liberated Egypt, which this week revealed that it was resuming diplomatic relations with Tehran?

The official spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry told reporters: ”We are prepared to take a different view of Iran; the former regime used to see Iran as an enemy, but we don’t.” Similarly, the ministry confirmed that new Foreign Minister, Nabil Elaraby, was considering a visit to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. As a return on the Americans’ huge blood-and-treasure investment in deposing Saddam Hussein and thereby delivering Iraq from minority Sunni control to a majority Shiite government that is becoming increasingly relaxed and comfortable in its dealings with Tehran, the US has handed the Iranian regime a rare gift. Yes, the ayatollahs might lose Syria as their Arab champion, but here is Arab Baghdad and Washington’s lock-step ally Cairo beckoning Tehran with open arms.

The Saudis are furious with Washington over the loss of Sunni control of Iraq and over Barack Obama selling out the Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak. Such is the chill between the two countries that Riyadh recently refused official visits by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and by the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates. A measure of Saudi determination – maybe that should be ”desperation” – is that when Riyadh saw a need to quell the unrest in Bahrain, it ignored pleas from Washington and sent its own troops over the causeway that links Bahrain to the kingdom.

This is a regime that ordinarily pays others to fight its battles – see its funding of Iraq in its 1980s war with Iran; or has relied on allies – see American wars against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and in 2003.
Ramping it all into a religious conflict, a senior Saudi official was quoted: ”King Abdullah has been clear that Saudi Arabia will never allow Shia rule in Bahrain – never.” In turn, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has warned the House of Saud that it ”should learn from Saddam’s fate”.

The stakes for the US are huge – a third of its imported oil comes from Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols vital sea lanes through which a fifth of the world’s oil supplies are shipped. Equally, Riyadh and other capitals in the region have openly speculated on pursuing their own nuclear programs, if Tehran is allowed to persist with its program.

The story of the Washington response to all of this is circuitous.

The Western military intervention in Libya is dressed up as a humanitarian act, but don’t be fooled, writes Robert Kaplan of the Centre for a New American Security in The Wall Street Journal. Arguing that in foreign policy all moral questions are really questions of power, Kaplan observes: ”We intervened twice in the Balkans in the 1990s, only because Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic had no nuclear weapons and could not retaliate against us; unlike the Russians, whose destruction of Chechnya prompted no thought of intervention on our part.”

Was that then the rationale for Washington’s decision to throw its superpower weight behind the Libyan intervention? Not entirely – orchestrated leaks from the Obama White House reveal that a critical element in the decision to join the attacks on Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was the message such an action would send to Tehran.

As reported by The New York Times, failure to act against Libya would be seen by Tehran as a failure by Obama to follow through on his claim that Gaddafi had ”lost the legitimacy to lead”, as a confirming sign of weakness that Obama also would not follow through on his vow that he would never allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

Benjamin Rhodes, a senior aide present for the talks, was quoted: ”The ability to apply this kind of force in the region this quickly – even as we deal with other military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan – combined with the nature of this broad coalition, sends a very strong message to Iran about our capabilities, militarily and diplomatically.”

In a broadcast translated into Persian and beamed into Iran to mark last month’s Persian new year, Obama told Iranians: ”So far, the Iranian government has responded by demonstrating that it cares more about preserving its own power than respecting the rights of the Iranian people. These choices do not demonstrate strength, they show fear.”

In this context Libya is presented as a sideshow. The real contest is with Tehran, which the Americans want to see stopped in its nuclear tracks – and whose tilt for the balance of power in the entire region they have blocked.

But the Arab uprisings were something of a get-out-of-jail-free card for Iran. In January, Washington was happy in the belief that it was boxing Tehran in with economic sanctions; a deal with Russia to halt weapons deliveries to Tehran; and a computer virus called Stuxnet, which was eating its way through the centrifuge machines in the Iranian uranium enrichment program.

Fast-forward to the present, and Washington’s Arab allies are more preoccupied with their own longevity and – ka-ching, ka-ching – Iran is doing better than the sanctions might have allowed, thanks to the crises in the region driving oil to $US100-plus a barrel.

In all of this, Washington’s key ally in the region was to be Riyadh. But the contempt for the US coming out of the Saudi capital is visceral – in the view of the princes, the Bush administration botched by toppling Saddam, thereby delivering Iraq to Tehran; and the Obama administration is condemned equally for selling out Mubarak, and allowing the grubby rank-and-file Egyptians to have a meaningful vote.

In these twin efforts, Washington is seen to have dislodged two great stones in what was a Sunni wall that effectively thwarted Iranian ambition. Likewise, in refusing to go along with Saudi efforts to resolve the Palestinian crisis, Riyadh saw Washington prolonging the issue that Iran used to great effect in stirring the Arab street.

Washington, it must be noted, does not have a mortgage on hypocrisy in the region. The Americans look morally bankrupt – leading the charge against Gaddafi and dumping long-standing allies Mubarak in Cairo and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, while at the same time allowing the leaders of Bahrain, Yemen and Syria to get away with murder in confronting protesters.

But, like the US, the Iranian ayatollahs are into picking winners and losers. Initially they simply ignored the growing unrest in allied Syria, but when that became unsustainable, they took to casting the demonstrations against Assad as the work of Israeli-trained provocateurs.

The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, according to the Tehran spin, were belatedly inspired by Iran’s 1979 revolution. And while it champions the ”Islamic awakening” rights of the demonstrators who are being brutalised by the regime in neighbouring Bahrain, it whitewashes out of the equation its own brutal suppression of Iranians who have attempted to revive the mass protests that erupted in the wake of Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009.

For the mullahs, the region’s uprisings are a day-by-day proposition. They might posture endlessly about the holy Shiite suffering in Bahrain, but they know – and they know that their people know – the revolts in Tunisia and in Egypt were a secular lunge for a kind of democracy which, if successful, will make their theocracy a sad venture by comparison.

But for now, Iranian security forces have arrested opposition leaders and tightened media censorship and control of the internet and social media. In the region, the Iranian leadership observes a greater level of difficulty for Washington in achieving the three elements of its regional policy – a region from which the oil flows freely; in which Israel is protected; and in which citizens enjoy basic human rights, or at least to the extent that they do not attack US interests, as expressed by Thanassis Cambanis, of Columbia University. Or, to quote the Hillary Clinton lexicon – ”stability”.

As they happily crack the heads of the few who dare to take to the streets in Iranian cities, the mullahs cannot believe the Sunni Saudis were mug enough to send forces into Bahrain to put down an uprising by Shiites.

Despite endless complaints from Riyadh, there has been little to substantiate its claims that Iran is deliberately manipulating events in Bahrain – even US diplomats have reported no signs of Iranian intervention in the Bahraini protests.

It was only after the Bahraini regime unleashed its brutal attacks on demonstrators that posters of the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, appeared in the crowds and that calls were made for the ousting of the royal family. Iran did beam broadcasts of Nasrallah’s speeches into Bahrain, but foreign diplomats back the protest leaders’ denial of claims by the regime that they have received money and weapons from Tehran.

For the Saudis, the uprisings are a horrific moment. Abutted by all of Jordan, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain, Riyadh views the varying degrees of unrest in all four as a threat to its own stability. Others agree.
Kaplan grinds all this into a single, core question for Washington: ”Which regime [will last] longer: Saudi Arabia’s or Iran’s? If the Saudi monarchy turns out to have more staying power, we will wrest a great strategic victory from this process of unrest; if Iran’s theocracy prevails, it will signal a fundamental eclipse of American influence in the Middle East.”

Answers to that question thrown up by some analysts, make the call in Tehran’s favour.

In a joint-paper, Ruth Hanau Santini, of the Brookings Centre on the US and Europe, and Emiliano Alessandri, of the German Marshal Fund, see the balance of power in the Persian Gulf shifting in Iran’s favour, ”just as it did in 2003, with the US-led war in Iraq”.

They write: ”Regional power shifts, rising oil prices and progress in its nuclear program all seem to have combined to boost Iran’s external ambitions.

”The authority of Saudi Arabia, which has long served as a counterbalance to Iran, the bastion of regional stability, and the guarantor of Israel’s survival, has been severely weakened by the ongoing turmoil.”

Reviewing Washington’s options, the paper concludes: ”Iran’s calculus that the current level of unrest will turn to Tehran’s advantage, without it having to lift a finger, makes it an especially difficult interlocutor.”

By Paul McGeogh

Comments Off on Middle East Power Shifts Put Region In State Of Flux

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Fear And Loathing In The House of Saud

Posted on 20 April 2011 by hashimilion

Early last week, US President Barack Obama sent a letter to Saudi King Abdullah, delivered in person in Riyadh by US National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon. This happened less than a week after Pentagon head Robert Gates spent a full 90 minutes face to face with the king.

These two moves represented the final seal of approval of a deal struck between Washington and Riyadh even before the voting of UN Security Council resolution 1973. Essentially, the Obama administration will not say a word about how the House of Saud conducts its ruthless repression of pro-democracy protests in Bahrain and across the Persian Gulf. No ”humanitarian” operations. No R2P (”responsibility to protect”). No no-fly or no-drive zones.

Progressives of the world take note: the US-Saudi counter-revolution against the Great 2011 Arab Revolt is now official.

Those ‘pretty influential guys’

The wealthy, truculent clan posing as a perpetual absolute monarchy that goes by the name House of Saud wins on all fronts.

Last month’s ”Day of Rage” inside the kingdom was ruthlessly preempted – with the (literal) threat that protesters would have their fingers cut off.

With the price of crude reaching stratospheric levels, and with Saudi refusal to increase production, it’s a no brainer for Riyadh to dispense with a few billion dollars in pocket change to appease its subjects with some extra 60,000 ”security” jobs and 500,000 low-rent apartments.

King Abdullah also recently ”received a verbal message” from the emir of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, on the thriving ”bilateral issues” – as in Saudi Arabia ruthlessly repressing the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain by invading their neighbor and deploying their ”security” advisers.

The House of Saud’s violent reaction to the peaceful protests in Bahrain may have been a message to Washington – as in ”we are in charge of the Persian Gulf”. But most of all it was dictated by an absolute fear of Bahrain becoming a constitutional monarchy that would reduce the king to a figurehead; a nefarious example to the Saudi neighbors.

Yet as much as real tensions between Iranian Shi’ites and Arab Shi’ites may persist, the Saudi reaction will end up uniting all Shi’ites, and turning Iran into Bahrain’s only savior.

As for Washington’s reaction, it was despicable to start with. When Sunnis in Iraq oppressed the Shi’ite majority, the result was Iraq shocked and awed to destruction by the neo-cons. When the same happens in Bahrain, liberal hawks have the Sunnis get away with it. (As much as there’s been plenty of spinning to the contrary, the Pentagon’s Gates knew Saudi Arabia would invade Bahrain on the spot, on a Saturday (the invasion started on Sunday night).

Not that Washington cares that much any way or another. Last week, in a Chicago restaurant, President Obama qualified the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, as a ”pretty influential guy”. He praised him as ”a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East’.’ But Obama didn’t notice there was an open mike, and CBS News was listening; so he added, ”he himself is not reforming significantly. There’s no big move towards democracy in Qatar. But you know part of the reason is that the per capita income of Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict.”

Translation; who cares whether these ”pretty influential guys” in the Gulf reform or not as long as they remain our allies?

The Saudi war of terror

Way back in 1965, the opposition in Bahrain was accused (by the colonial British press) of Arab nationalism (the nightmare of assorted colonialists and also US imperial designs). Now, it is accused (by the al-Khalifas and House of Saud) of sectarianism.

The House of Saud has predictably terrorized the majority-Shi’ite democracy movement in Bahrain with fear, loathing and – what else – sectarianism, the ultimate pillar of its medieval Wahhabi ideology. For intolerant Wahhabis, Shi’ites are as heretical as Christians. Shi’ite holy sites in Bahrain are being demolished under the supervision of Saudi troops. Bahrainis via twitter are stressing Saudis are using ”Israeli tactics”, demolishing ”unauthorized” mosques.

Once again, this may only lead to a total radicalization of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide across the Arab world. Everyone who followed the Bush administration-provoked Iraq tragedy remembers that when al-Qaeda blew up the revered Shi’ite shrine of al-Askari in Samarra, in 2006, that was the start of a horrible sectarian war that killed tens of thousands of people and sent hundreds of thousands into exile.

The House of Saud (as well as the US and Israel) backed Mubarak in Egypt until the 11th hour. They all knew if that ”pillar of stability” fell, the other (Saudi) would also be in danger. For all its bluster, the House of Saud’s actions are essentially moved by fear. In recent years it has lost power in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and now Egypt. Its ”foreign policy” consists in supporting ultra-reactionary regimes. The people? Let them eat kebab – if that. Their last bastion of power is the Gulf – crammed with political midgets such as Bahrain or Kuwait. With a little thrust, The House of Saud could reduce all these to the status of mere provinces.

Not yet. As the House of Saud developed its counter-revolutionary strategy, the Saudi-Israeli alliance morphed into a Saudi-Qatari alliance. Qatar could be destabilized via the tribal factor – the Saudis had attempted it before – but now they needed a close ally. And that, unfortunately, explains Qatar-based al-Jazeera’s meek coverage of the repression in Bahrain.

It took only a few days for the House of Saud to force the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to toe the new hard line: we are the top dog; there’s no room for democracy in the Gulf; sectarianism is the way to go; our relationship with Israel is now strategic; and Iran is to blame for everything. The ”Persian conspiracy” is the key theme being deployed by the hefty Saudi propaganda machine especially in Bahrain and Kuwait.

Israeli hawks, not surprisingly, love it. There’s plenty of flower power – or downright lunatic – rhetoric in the Israeli press about a ”strategic alliance” between Tel Aviv and Riyadh, ”similar to the one between the Soviet Union and the US against the Nazis”.

And guess what – Obama is to blame for it. Without this strategic alliance, according to the Israeli narrative, the whole Gulf will fall ”victim of a nuclear Iran”, and the Obama administration won’t lift a finger to save anybody. Obama is vilified as someone who ”only confronts and abandons allies”, while emboldening ”evil” Syria and Iran. It’s a narrative straight out of the Loony Tunes.

Shallow grave or bust

Trying to understand the stakes, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal got it all backwards, blaring there’s a new Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s what you get when you regurgitate PR by ”Saudi officials”.

It’s the House of Saud incendiary manipulation of sectarianism which is angering Shi’ites everywhere – not only Iranians; that may turn the Islamic Republic into the only substantial defender of all Shi’ites against Wahhabi medievalism.

It’s the House of Saud counter-revolution against the Great 2011 Arab Revolt – condoned by the US – that has shattered America’s ”credibility on democracy and reform”.

All this while the ”traditional security arrangement” with Washington is not even working anymore. The House of Saud is not stabilizing global oil prices; by refusing to increase production, it will let it reach $160 a barrel-levels quite soon. And meanwhile the White House/Pentagon keeps protecting that medieval bunch that were the first to recognize the Taliban in the mid-1990s, and whose billionaires finance jihadis all across the world.

The Gulf political midgets are now in the process of being homogenized – and kept under a leash – by House of Saud force. Those Gulf kings and emirs may preserve their golden thrones – for now. But expect plenty of cultural and religious violence ahead; plenty of nasty tribalism and sectarian wars, with no possible political evolution and no possible development of a modern civil society. No surprise; fear and loathing are embedded in this reactionary House – an axis of multiple evils in itself that should only deserve a shallow grave in the desert sands.

By Pepe Escobar

Comments Off on Fear And Loathing In The House of Saud

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Comments Off on Libya’s Only a Part of Mideast Equation

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Arab Spring and the Saudi Counter-Revolution

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

We return from a recent trip to the region persuaded that the main question engaging people with respect to the “Arab spring” is no longer “who’s next,” but rather “how far will Saudi Arabia go in pushing a counter-revolutionary agenda” across the Middle East? Whether Saudi Arabia is really capable of coping with the momentous changes going on in the region — not just with respect to demands for political change in a number of Arab states, but geopolitically, as well — is a truly profound and important question. To unpack this, it is helpful to take a historical perspective on Saudi Arabia and its traditional national security strategy.

Unlike Iran and Turkey, many Arab states are not, within their current boundaries, “natural” states. Most, in fact, are the creations of colonial powers, at least within their present borders — e.g., Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the smaller GCC states all fit this bill.

Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, is an important exception to this generalization. But, in contrast to Egypt, Saudi Arabia is not a historically “natural” state. The Saudi state was definitely created — but by indigenous actors, not outsiders.

Saudi Arabia is the product of hard-fought tribal wars and alliances, legitimated by an indigenously generated ideology — that is, the particular form of Islam that has been championed by the al-Saud since the mid-18th century, commonly known in the West as wahhabi (though many Saudis resist the term), and described by many of our Iranian interlocutors as salafi (though that strikes us as a more general term that can apply to Sunni Muslims who do not follow a Saudi-prescribed religious line). Buttressed by its massive oil wealth, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has emerged as a formidable, “home grown” political entity.

Since the consolidation of the modern Saudi state in the 1920s and 1930s, the Kingdom has turned to the United States as its principal external security partner. There were two main reasons for the Saudis’ original alignment with Washington: America had no legacy of colonial entanglements in the Middle East, and it was not Britain. At least some Saudi princes believe, to this day, that, but for the British, the al-Saud would have ended up controlling the entire Arabian peninsula, including territories now occupied by the smaller Gulf Arab states. And, in the 1930s, King ‘Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud was worried that London would try to weaken his autonomy and bring the new Saudi state firmly under British influence, along with its Bahraini, Kuwaiti, and other Gulf Arab wards.

The United States seemed the best available hedge against that — so, American oil companies received the first major oil concession in Saudi Arabia, in 1933. After World War II, the Kingdom developed a deep and multi-faceted strategic relationship with the United States. In essence, America and Saudi Arabia both wanted to cooperate in balancing against other external powers seeking to expand their influence in the Persian Gulf — but, during the Cold War, the major external power of concern was no longer Britain but the Soviet Union.

This record helps us understand the principal objectives and major elements of Saudi Arabia’s current national security strategy. The Kingdom wants to have at least a quasi-hegemonic status on the Arabian peninsula; at the same time, it does not want another regional state to attain what it would see as hegemony over the Middle East as a whole. And, even in the post-Cold War period, the Saudis have wanted to see their relationship with the United States as the ultimate guarantee of their security and survival.

Today, that strategy is in crisis on all fronts — and the Saudis are not handling it well.

The strategy is in crisis, first of all, because of Riyadh’s plummeting confidence in the reliability and competence of the United States as a security partner. This dynamic is not, per se, new. The Kingdom grew increasingly disenchanted with various aspects of America’s Middle East policy during the 1990s — disenchantment intensified by the various traumas that fallout from the 9/11 attacks inflicted on U.S.-Saudi relations. (The militancy associated with the religious ideology promoted by Saudi Arabia over decades has generated a number of significant security problems for the United States.)

But the Saudi leadership — including, it would seem, King Abdullah himself — is both enormously angry and deeply unsettled by what it sees as Washington’s abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is a critically important state for the Saudi — and it has not always been a friendly one. Mubarak’s predecessors, Nasr and Sadat, both challenged Saudi Arabia, in diametrically different but powerful ways. And now that Egyptian political order, the orientation of which is so strategically consequential for Saudi Arabia, is again up for grabs. So, while Western assessments have tended to criticize President Obama and his Administration for being too slow in supporting “forces of change” in Egypt, from a Saudi perspective the Obama Administration dropped Mubarak much too quickly, squandering opportunities to support him in pushing back against those demanding his removal.

On the regional front, the Saudis are discombobulated by what they see as a rising tide of Iranian influence across the Middle East. The Islamic Republic’s allies have been winning, politically, in key venues — Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine. Historically, the Saudis have never been big fans of pan-Arabism. But, in recent years, senior Saudi princes have, with increasing frequency, denounced what they have come portentously to call Iranian “interference” in “Arab affairs.” Now, with the Arab spring, the Saudis are alarmed that the influence of the Islamic Republic and political forces friendly to it will rise even more dramatically. The Saudis are even more alarmed about the potential geopolitical consequences of these developments — e.g., the high likelihood that post-Mubarak Egypt will enjoy improved relations with the Islamic Republic.

So, as the Saudi state sees itself increasingly “encircled” by multiple and expanding threats, Saudi leaders are doubling down on the fundamentals of their traditional national security strategy — military force to ensure its dominance on the Arabian peninsula, the use of religious ideology to raise sectarian concern about rising Shi’a influence, and putting enormous financial resources on the table (e.g., $30 billion for Bahrain) to further its goals. This approach is clearly reflected in the Kingdom’s response to recent events in Bahrain, culminating in the dispatch of Saudi military forces to repress popular protests there.

But Bahrain is not the only place in the region where the Saudi counter-revolution is being felt. Saudi initiative was critical to bringing about the Arab League’s quasi-endorsement of international military intervention in Libya. That amounts to Saudi endorsement of coercive regime change in another Arab state. Regime change is unacceptable in Bahrain, but OK in Libya — the main thing is, the Saudis have reaffirmed their ability to suck the United States onto their side in regional disputes (at those in which Israel is not taking a position at odds with the Saudis).

Washington’s deference to Saudi anxieties could prove almost as corrosive to the possibility of America making critically necessary adjustments in its own Middle East policies as Washington’s deference to Israel.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Comments Off on The Arab Spring and the Saudi Counter-Revolution

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Cold War

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

For three months, the Arab world has been awash in protests and demonstrations. It’s being called an Arab Spring, harking back to the Prague Spring of 1968.

But comparison to the short-lived flowering of protests 40 years ago in Czechoslovakia is turning out to be apt in another way. For all the attention the Mideast protests have received, their most notable impact on the region thus far hasn’t been an upswell of democracy. It has been a dramatic spike in tensions between two geopolitical titans, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This new Middle East cold war comes complete with its own spy-versus-spy intrigues, disinformation campaigns, shadowy proxy forces, supercharged state rhetoric—and very high stakes.

“The cold war is a reality,” says one senior Saudi official. “Iran is looking to expand its influence. This instability over the last few months means that we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and watching events unfold.”

On March 14, the Saudis rolled tanks and troops across a causeway into the island kingdom of Bahrain. The ruling family there, long a close Saudi ally, appealed for assistance in dealing with increasingly large protests.

Iran soon rattled its own sabers. Iranian parliamentarian Ruhollah Hosseinian urged the Islamic Republic to put its military forces on high alert, reported the website for Press TV, the state-run English-language news agency. “I believe that the Iranian government should not be reluctant to prepare the country’s military forces at a time that Saudi Arabia has dispatched its troops to Bahrain,” he was quoted as saying.

The intensified wrangling across the Persian—or, as the Saudis insist, the Arabian—Gulf has strained relations between the U.S. and important Arab allies, helped to push oil prices into triple digits and tempered U.S. support for some of the popular democracy movements in the Arab world. Indeed, the first casualty of the Gulf showdown has been two of the liveliest democracy movements in countries right on the fault line, Bahrain and the turbulent frontier state of Yemen.

But many worry that the toll could wind up much worse if tensions continue to ratchet upward. They see a heightened possibility of actual military conflict in the Gulf, where one-fifth of the world’s oil supplies traverse the shipping lanes between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Growing hostility between the two countries could make it more difficult for the U.S. to exit smoothly from Iraq this year, as planned. And, perhaps most dire, it could exacerbate what many fear is a looming nuclear arms race in the region.

Iran has long pursued a nuclear program that it insists is solely for the peaceful purpose of generating power, but which the U.S. and Saudi Arabia believe is really aimed at producing a nuclear weapon. At a recent security conference, Prince Turki al Faisal, a former head of the Saudi intelligence service and ambassador to the U.K. and the U.S., pointedly suggested that if Iran were to develop a weapon, Saudi Arabia might well feel pressure to develop one of its own.

The Saudis currently rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and on antimissile defense systems deployed throughout the Persian Gulf region. The defense systems are intended to intercept Iranian ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver nuclear warheads. Yet even Saudis who virulently hate Iran have a hard time believing that the Islamic Republic would launch a nuclear attack against the birthplace of their prophet and their religion. The Iranian leadership says it has renounced the use of nuclear weapons.

How a string of hopeful popular protests has brought about a showdown of regional superpowers is a tale as convoluted as the alliances and history of the region. It shows how easily the old Middle East, marked by sectarian divides and ingrained rivalries, can re-emerge and stop change in its tracks.

There has long been bad blood between the Saudis and Iran. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim kingdom of ethnic Arabs, Iran a Shiite Islamic republic populated by ethnic Persians. Shiites first broke with Sunnis over the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the year 632; Sunnis have regarded them as a heretical sect ever since. Arabs and Persians, along with many others, have vied for the land and resources of the Middle East for almost as long.

These days, geopolitics also plays a role. The two sides have assembled loosely allied camps. Iran holds in its sway Syria and the militant Arab groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories; in the Saudi sphere are the Sunni Muslim-led Gulf monarchies, Egypt, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah. The Saudi camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel. The Iranian grouping thrives on its reputation in the region as a scrappy “resistance” camp, defiantly opposed to the West and Israel.

For decades, the two sides have carried out a complicated game of moves and countermoves. With few exceptions, both prefer to work through proxy politicians and covertly funded militias, as they famously did during the long Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Iran helped to hatch Hezbollah among the Shiites while the Saudis backed Sunni militias.

But the maneuvering extends far beyond the well-worn battleground of Lebanon. Two years ago, the Saudis discovered Iranian efforts to spread Shiite doctrine in Morocco and to use some mosques in the country as a base for similar efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. After Saudi emissaries delivered this information to King Mohammed VI, Morocco angrily severed diplomatic relations with Iran, according to Saudi officials and cables obtained by the organization WikiLeaks.

As far away as Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, the Saudis have watched warily as Iranian clerics have expanded their activities—and they have responded with large-scale religious programs of their own there.

The 1979 Iranian revolution was a major eruption that still looms large in the psyches of both nations. It explicitly married Shiite religious zeal with historic Persian ambitions and also played on sharply anti-Western sentiments in the region.

Iran’s clerical regime worked to spread the revolution across the Middle East; Saudi Arabia and its allies worried that it would succeed. For a time it looked like it might. There were large demonstrations and purported antigovernment plots in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which has a large population of Shiite Muslim Arabs, and in Bahrain, where Shiites are a distinct majority and Iran had claimed sovereignty as recently as 1970.

The protests that began this past January in Tunisia had nothing to do with any of this. They started when a struggling street vendor in that country’s desolate heartland publicly set himself on fire after a local officer cited his cart for a municipal violation. His frustration, multiplied hundreds of thousands times, boiled over in a month of demonstrations against Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. To the amazement of the Arab world, Mr. Ben Ali fled the country when the military declined to back him by brutally putting down the demonstrations.

Spurred on by televised images and YouTube videos from Tunisia, protests broke out across much of the rest of the Arab world. Within weeks, millions were on the streets in Egypt and Hosni Mubarak was gone, shown the door in part by his longtime backer, the U.S. government. The Obama administration was captivated by this spontaneous outbreak of democratic demands and at first welcomed it with few reservations.

In Riyadh, Saudi officials watched with alarm. They became furious when the Obama administration betrayed, to Saudi thinking, a longtime ally in Mr. Mubarak and urged him to step down in the face of the street demonstrations.

The Egyptian leader represented a key bulwark in what Riyadh perceives as a great Sunni wall standing against an expansionist Iran. One part of that barrier had already crumbled in 2003 when the U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein. Losing Mr. Mubarak means that the Saudis now see themselves as the last Sunni giant left in the region.

The Saudis were further agitated when the protests crept closer to their own borders. In Yemen, on their southern flank, young protesters were suddenly rallying thousands, and then tens of thousands, of their fellow citizens to demand the ouster of the regime, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family for 43 years.

Meanwhile, across a narrow expanse of water on Saudi Arabia’s northeast border, protesters in Bahrain rallied in the hundreds of thousands around a central roundabout in Manama. Most Bahraini demonstrators were Shiites with a long list of grievances over widespread economic and political discrimination. But some Sunnis also participated, demanding more say in a government dominated by the Al-Khalifa family since the 18th century.

Protesters deny that their goals had anything to do with gaining sectarian advantage. Independent observers, including the U.S. government, saw no sign that the protests were anything but homegrown movements arising from local problems. During a visit to Bahrain, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged the government to adopt genuine political and social reform.

But to the Saudis, the rising disorder on their borders fit a pattern of Iranian meddling. A year earlier, they were convinced that Iran was stoking a rebellion in Yemen’s north among a Shiite-dominated rebel group known as the Houthis. Few outside observers saw extensive ties between Iran and the Houthis. But the Saudis nonetheless viewed the nationwide Yemeni protests in that context.

In Bahrain, where many Shiites openly nurture cultural and religious ties to Iran, the Saudis saw the case as even more open-and-shut. To their ears, these suspicions were confirmed when many Bahraini protesters moved beyond demands for greater political and economic participation and began demanding a constitutional monarchy or even the outright ouster of the Al-Khalifa family. Many protesters saw these as reasonable responses to years of empty promises to give the majority Shiites a real share of power—and to the vicious government crackdown that had killed seven demonstrators to that point.

But to the Saudis, not to mention Bahrain’s ruling family, even the occasional appearance of posters of Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah amid crowds of Shiite protesters pumping their fists and chanting demands for regime change was too much. They saw how Iran’s influence has grown in Shiite-majority Iraq, along their northern border, and they were not prepared to let that happen again.

As for the U.S., the Saudis saw calls for reform as another in a string of disappointments and outright betrayals. Back in 2002, the U.S. had declined to get behind an offer from King Abdullah (then Crown Prince) to rally widespread Arab recognition for Israel in exchange for Israel’s acceptance of borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day War—a potentially historic deal, as far as the Saudis were concerned. And earlier this year, President Obama declined a personal appeal from the king to withhold the U.S. veto at the United Nations from a resolution condemning continued Israeli settlement building in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Saudis believe that solving the issue of Palestinian statehood will deny Iran a key pillar in its regional expansionist strategy—and thus bring a win for the forces of Sunni moderation that Riyadh wants to lead.

Iran, too, was starting to see a compelling case for action as one Western-backed regime after another appeared to be on the ropes. It ramped up its rhetoric and began using state media and the regional Arab-language satellite channels it supports to depict the pro-democracy uprisings as latter-day manifestations of its own revolution in 1979. “Today the events in the North of Africa, Egypt, Tunisia and certain other countries have another sense for the Iranian nation.… This is the same as ‘Islamic Awakening,’ which is the result of the victory of the big revolution of the Iranian nation,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran also broadcast speeches by Hezbollah’s leader into Bahrain, cheering the protesters on. Bahraini officials say that Iran went further, providing money and even some weapons to some of the more extreme opposition members. Protest leaders vehemently deny any operational or political links to Iran, and foreign diplomats in Bahrain say that they have seen little evidence of it.

March 14 was the critical turning point. At the invitation of Bahrain, Saudi armed vehicles and tanks poured across the causeway that separates the two countries. They came representing a special contingent under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a league of Sunni-led Gulf states, but the Saudis were the major driver. The Saudis publicly announced that 1,000 troops had entered Bahrain, but privately they concede that the actual number is considerably higher.

If both Iran and Saudi Arabia see themselves responding to external threats and opportunities, some analysts, diplomats and democracy advocates see a more complicated picture. They say that the ramping up of regional tensions has another source: fear of democracy itself.

Long before protests ousted rulers in the Arab world, Iran battled massive street protests of its own for more than two years. It managed to control them, and their calls for more representative government or outright regime change, with massive, often deadly, force. Yet even as the government spun the Arab protests as Iranian inspired, Iran’s Green Revolution opposition movement managed to use them to boost their own fortunes, staging several of their best-attended rallies in more than a year.

Saudi Arabia has kept a wary eye on its own population of Shiites, who live in the oil-rich Eastern Province directly across the water from Bahrain. Despite a small but energetic activist community, Saudi Arabia has largely avoided protests during the Arab Spring, something that the leadership credits to the popularity and conciliatory efforts of King Abdullah. But there were a smattering of small protests and a few clashes with security services in the Eastern Province.

The regional troubles have come at a tricky moment domestically for Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah, thought to be 86 years old, was hospitalized in New York, receiving treatment for a back injury, when the Arab protests began. The Crown Prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, is only slightly younger and is already thought to be too infirm to become king. Third in line, Prince Nayaf bin Abdul Aziz, is around 76 years old.

Viewing any move toward more democracy at home—at least on anyone’s terms but their own—as a threat to their regimes, the regional superpowers have changed the discussion, observers say. The same goes, they say, for the Bahraini government. “The problem is a political one, but sectarianism is a winning card for them,” says Jasim Husain, a senior member of the Wefaq Shiite opposition party in Bahrain.

Since March 14, the regional cold war has escalated. Kuwait expelled several Iranian diplomats after it discovered and dismantled, it says, an Iranian spy cell that was casing critical infrastructure and U.S. military installations. Iran and Saudi Arabia are, uncharacteristically and to some observers alarmingly, tossing direct threats at each other across the Gulf. The Saudis, who recently negotiated a $60 billion arms deal with the U.S. (the largest in American history), say that later this year they will increase the size of their armed forces and National Guard.

And recently the U.S. has joined in warning Iran after a trip to the region by Defense Secretary Gates to patch up strained relations with Arab monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. Minutes after meeting with King Abdullah, Mr. Gates told reporters that he had seen “evidence” of Iranian interference in Bahrain. That was followed by reports from U.S. officials that Iranian leaders were exploring ways to support Bahraini and Yemeni opposition parties, based on communications intercepted by U.S. spy agencies.

Saudi officials say that despite the current friction in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, they won’t break out of the traditional security arrangement with Washington, which is based on the understanding that the kingdom works to stabilize global oil prices while the White House protects the ruling family’s dynasty. Washington has pulled back from blanket support for democracy efforts in the region. That has bruised America’s credibility on democracy and reform, but it has helped to shore up the relationship with Riyadh.

The deployment into Bahrain was also the beginning of what Saudi officials describe as their efforts to directly parry Iran. While Saudi troops guard critical oil and security facilities in their neighbor’s land, the Bahraini government has launched a sweeping and often brutal crackdown on demonstrators.

It forced out the editor of the country’s only independent newspaper. More than 400 demonstrators have been arrested without charges, many in violent night raids on Shiite villages. Four have died in custody, according to human-rights groups. Three members of the national soccer team, all Shiites, have also been arrested. As many as 1,000 demonstrators who missed work during the protests have been fired from state companies.

In Shiite villages such as Saar, where a 14-year-old boy was killed by police and a 56-year-old man disappeared overnight and showed up dead the next morning, protests have continued sporadically. But in the financial district and areas where Sunni Muslims predominate, the demonstrations have ended.

In Yemen, the Saudis, also working under a Gulf Cooperation Council umbrella, have taken control of the political negotiations to transfer power out of the hands of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, according to two Saudi officials.

“We stayed out of the process for a while, but now we have to intervene,” said one official. “It’s that, or watch our southern flank disintegrate into chaos.”

By BILL SPINDLE and MARGARET COKER

Comments Off on The New Cold War

Advertise Here
Advertise Here