Tag Archive | "King Abdullah"

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Saudi Arabia’s New Role In The Emerging Middle East

Posted on 28 April 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia is once more seeking to shape events in the Arab world, encouraged by a regional upheaval that is threatening to bring down regimes in neighbouring territories and to harm national security in the process.

When King Abdullah acceded as monarch in 2005, hopes were high in the kingdom, as well as in the US administration, that the vacuum in the Arab world could be filled with a more activist Saudi leader, able to improve the regional situation to the benefit of the US-allied Arab “moderates” and to the disadvantage of Iran.

But those hopes were soon dashed.

The inadequacies of the Saudi foreign policy-making machine, a lack of Saudi political will partly due to the king’s age and inclinations, and regional and US obstruction, saw efforts to promote intra-Palestinian peace run into the sand.

Mediation on other fronts – Lebanon, Sudan and Somalia – came to naught.

Backbone of Bahrain

This year, the Saudi leadership has watched with horror as the US has in effect rerun 1979 by abandoning a strategic ally – in this case President Mubarak of Egypt instead of the Shah of Iran.

Washington even appeared to sympathise with what Riyadh considers to be Iran’s de facto allies – the Shia opposition in Bahrain.

The Saudi response to events in Bahrain – located a short drive from the Eastern Province where Saudi Shia are relatively populous – has been to stiffen the al-Khalifa regime’s backbone by once again sending its troops into the Bahraini fray. The Saudi Arabian National Guard last intervened in 1995.

Saudi Arabia has come to the aid of the Bahraini ruling family

The Saudi mission is dressed up in a flimsy flag of convenience, that of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose assent has seen nominal UAE and Kuwaiti military contributions too.

However, it is Saudi troops that are underpinning al-Khalifa control in the Gulf island, just as Saudi money lubricates the al-Khalifa patronage power.

Yemen has for several years been Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent security concern. This is due to al-Qaeda’s presence there, as well as perceived Iranian penetration and the threat of internal Yemeni secessionism.

Yemen face-off

The Saudi alliance of convenience with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has however recently collapsed. Saudi Arabia has once again given heft to an apparent GCC initiative – a “peace plan” that requires the Yemeni leader to hand over power to his vice-president.

As both Yemeni government and opposition party representatives are expected to gather shortly in Riyadh to explore the deal, the determining issue will be whether there is a Yemeni will to agree to its terms.

Without such domestic agreement, there will be no Saudi-led breakthrough, even allowing for Riyadh’s political influence, resources and ability to talk to an array of challengers to Mr Saleh’s rule, including Islamist, tribal and secessionist elements.

Yemeni opposition leaders and the GCC have called for President Saleh to step down
Riyadh’s view of the Arab uprisings is shaped by the kingdom’s long-standing concern of maintaining stability in the face of internal and external threats.

Saudi military options have been exercised in Bahrain just as they were 18 months ago in Yemen, in facing down a Yemeni Shia group that had crossed its borders.

As Arab uprisings threaten to increase Iranian and al-Qaeda opportunities in neighbouring territories, Saudi Arabia will attempt to counter them with force, or diplomacy and largesse, as appropriate.

Syrian alternatives

Baathist Syria is not, however, a neighbouring concern. It has long been distrusted as an Iranian ally that has proven unwilling to work with perceptible “Arab” interests.

The Saudi government cannot hope to try to directly influence the regime or events on the ground. In common with the US and Israel, it is not sure that the alternative would be to its advantage, even if it disadvantaged Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s internal authority appears firm because of a mixture of patronage, security and a concern among many nationals – Sunni and Shia – that they stand to lose if the regime is directly challenged.

However the “virus” of popular demands is an uncomfortable spectacle for the al-Saud, seeing, as it does, regional events through the prism of national security and strategic competition.

Saudi Arabia shares with the US a desire to ensure that Iran is also affected by regional popular protests.

But Riyadh does not see Washington as a decisive upholder of this shared interest.

As a result, Saudi Arabia will act unilaterally where it can in order to further its interests. But it is liable to be stymied by a mixture of its own political inadequacies and the force of local events that have a life of their own.

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Warmth is Back in Pakistani-Saudi Relations?

Posted on 26 April 2011 by hashimilion

In normal circumstances, a visit by a Pakistani minister to Riyadh would make no news at all. But these are interesting, although not abnormal, times in Pakistan-Saudi relationship.

There is a consensus among political observers that after the inception of the PPP-led government in 2008, Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh had lost the warmth that had defined their partnership for the past six decades.

But the chill has apparently given way to a thaw, the observers think, and Islamabad now seems to be back on the regional radar — for more than one reasons.

The visit is taking place in the backdrop of the so called ‘Arab spring’ which has almost stalled and appears to be going nowhere. Old regional alignments are being revived and new alignments have been emerging on the wider Middle East chessboard as a new cold war between regional heavyweights gets stickier.

The ongoing popular uprising in a number of countries have all lent a new meaning to the Arab-Iran gulf. And Pakistan’s role in the scenario has come under a renewed focus.

Events over the past few years have only helped reinforce and entrench misgivings within the Arab world about the growing Iranian influence. The departure of Saddam Hussain from Baghdad and the fostering of Maliki government in Iraq, has led many to look at the development from a different perspective- the growing Shia influence in the Arab world.

King Abdullah of Jordan once referred to it as “the expanding Shia crescent” in the region. Arab governments feel apprehensive on that account. And recent events seem to have only reinforced their fears.

In Lebanon the influence of the pro-Iran Hezbollah is ascending — at the expense of the Saudi-backed Hariri. This was regarded by many here as a strategic loss.

Riyadh has also been complaining, for long, of the growing Iranian influence in Hamas-ruled Gaza. And to counter Tehran’s growing clout, Riyadh had little option than supporting the pro-West Abbas set-up in the West Bank. Then the upheaval in Egypt turned out to be the last straw on the back of the proverbial camel. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supported Hosni Mubarak till the end.

The US failure to support Mubarak, not only soured the political relations between Riyadh and Washington, but also forced the Kingdom to play its cards rather aggressively. There was no room for further complacency — many felt here.

When the uprising began in Bahrain, everyone here in Riyadh realised the stakes were too high. The option of watching things take its own course was definitely not on the table. Riyadh acted and acted swiftly.

WAR OF WORDS

An explosive war of words erupted between Riyadh and Tehran. Events in Bahrain exacerbated tensions between Saudi Arabia, its Arab allies and Iran, dragging relations between them to its ebb in at least a decade and setting the stage for confrontations elsewhere in the region.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising six Arab states around the Gulf, was also dragged into action. The GCC explicitly warned Iran of dire consequences, if it continued endeavouring to make inroads into the Arab world.

Back-channel diplomacy was also used to send the message in rather clear terms to Tehran. Gulf governments were no more ready to give in and vowed doing everything at their disposal to protect their ‘legitimate interests’.

Hands off the Arab world — was the clear message to Iran. And in the meantime, the Arab world also went into full gear to galvanise support and muscle to block Tehran’s inroads, into what is being termed here the ‘Arab territory’ – through the Shia soft belly of the Arab states.

And it is here that Pakistan and Turkey got into the loop too. For after all these are the two strongest countries — as far as muscle is concerned — within the Sunni world.

A stream of events took place in a short span of time. Saudi National Security Council chief Prince Bandar bin Abdul Aziz came over to Islamabad, immediately after the meeting in Kuwait of President Zardari and Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, the second deputy premier and the long-time interior minister.

And Prince Bandar’s visit was preceded by a visit of the Saudi chief of staff to Pakistan. In the meantime, the Bahraini foreign minister also dashed to Pakistan, despite the ongoing strife in his country.

Something was indeed brewing. Islamabad was again on the radar in Riyadh. Interestingly, the visit of Hina Rabbani Khar to Riyadh was announced after Prince Bandar sent a letter to Prime Minister Gilani — following up on his meetings in Islamabad late last month. In the letter, Prince Bandar reiterated Saudis’ desire to further strengthen relations with Pakistan in all areas of mutual interest.

In the aftermath of Prince Bandar’s regional visit, Riyadh has already signed a security agreement with Malaysia, vowing to enhance the level of security cooperation between the two countries. And after his Beijing trip, Saudi Arabia and China too announced signing an agreement on nuclear cooperation for peaceful purpose.

And Prince Bandar is no ordinary diplomat. He is often regarded as a trouble-shooter for Riyadh. John Hannah, writing in the Foreign Policy magazine, says: ‘Saudi Arabia’s legendary former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is once again a major presence on the world stage.’

And his previous visit to Pakistan did not escape world attention and generated considerable interest. In the same story Hannah says: “More interestingly – and undoubtedly more worrisome – at the end of March, in the wake of the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, Bandar was dispatched to Pakistan, China and India to rally support for the kingdom’s hard line approach to the region’s unrest.

“Bandar’s formidable skills in the service of a Saudi Arabia that feels itself increasingly cornered and unable to rely on US protection is a formula for trouble — made even worse when the likes of Pakistan and China are thrown into the mix.

“No one should forget that, in the late 1980s, it was Bandar who secretly brokered the delivery of Chinese medium-range missiles to the kingdom, totally surprising Washington and nearly triggering a major crisis with Israel. The danger today, of course, is that the Saudis feel sufficiently threatened and alone to engage in similar acts of self-help.

“Would they seek to modernise their ballistic missile force? Even worse, would the kingdom go shopping for nuclear weapons or, at a minimum, invite Pakistan to deploy part of its nuclear arsenal in the country?”

As the Middle East convulses and Iran relentlessly inches closer to achieving a nuclear weapons capability, has that time finally arrived? Even short of these extreme scenarios, other troubling possibilities exist. During his trip to Pakistan, Bandar reportedly discussed contingencies under which thousands of additional Pakistani security forces might be dispatched to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to crush the uprising.

So it appears Pakistan is getting sucked into a regional cold war — and Washington may not mind it this time too. When Hina Rabbani Khar lands in Riyadh today, she can expect the red carpet to roll — once again. The talk of chill seems a distant story.

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How long can Saudi Arabia hold off reforms?

Posted on 21 April 2011 by hashimilion

Surrounded by unrest in the Arab world, Saudi King Abdullah’s focus on lavish social handouts instead of political reform is a stop-gap solution that can only hold off change in the short term, reformers say.

Although unlikely to see uprisings on the same scale as in neighboring Bahrain and Yemen, the number one oil exporter and U.S. ally cannot stay insulated from the rest of the region or the world forever, they say.

“There are some people in the government whose interests are to maintain the status quo and they use tricks to do this such as forbidding demonstrations and saying that signing petitions is unlawful in Islamic law,” said Mohammed al-Qahtani, head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

“But how long can this continue? Things are happening now and society is no longer passive. It might spiral out of control in the next few years either in terms of the power struggle among the elite or from the people themselves.”

The elderly king has announced $130 billion so far this year in handouts to boost wages, raise benefits for the unemployed and build houses, while creating 60,000 security positions and giving more money to the religious police.

The government let it be known after the handouts were announced that it is organizing elections this year to half the seats on municipal councils, after the vote was delayed in 2009.

Those elections were first held in 2005 as a response to U.S. pressure on reform, but activists do not see revisiting the councils now as a much of a concession on political rights — women can not vote or run as candidates.

So the ruling family appears so far determined to continue its domination of political life.

Succession to the throne is restricted by law to sons and grandsons of founder Abdel-Aziz bin Saud. Senior princes hold the main posts in the cabinet and most of them have been in their jobs for decades.

Saudi intellectuals were likely to lead the demands for political change but they can expect a strong reaction, said a prominent Saudi journalist who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

“These people will come under attack by the government and conservatives will call them ‘corrupt liberals’ or ‘agents of the West’. That could be a spark in the political national movement of Saudi Arabia.”

FACEBOOK CAMPAIGN FIZZLES

A group of Saudi web activists launched an online campaign in January calling for political reform. The Facebook campaign called for a constitutional monarchy, an end to corruption and even distribution of wealth.

In the face of consistent warnings from the government and its leading clerics, as well as a massive security presence, most Saudis have not answered calls to protest for more rights.

Demonstrations so far have been confined to the oil-producing east, where minority Shi’ites have staged a series of protests in support of Shi’ites in Bahrain and political freedoms at home. But the government can easily pass off Shi’ite protests as not reflecting the views of most Saudis.

Earlier in February dozens of unemployed graduates and teachers staged protests in the capital Riyadh and Jeddah to demand jobs and better wages in the biggest Arab economy.

“They have lulled people in the short term but in the long term Saudi Arabia’s young population want their voices to be heard. They want to be active in society,” said a Saudi media analyst in Riyadh. “There needs to be structural reform rather than just the same old oil in new bottles.”

Under-30s account for some 60 percent of the population and most have grown up during the internet revolution. Many have a different mindset to veteran rulers and do not understand their arguments on why they do not deserve political rights.

The leading members of the Saudi royal family, most of them in their 70s and 80s, have heard it all before.

Calls for democratic rule came from Arab nationalists and leftists in the 1960s and Islamists in the 1990s. Those who have led calls in recent years for popular participation in government — through allowing elections to the advisory Shura Assembly or political parties — have been jailed.

The absolute monarchy argues that its system of government replicates the early Islamic state, fits with Gulf Arab traditions and has ensured stability.

London-based social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed said the state’s petrodollar wealth, extensive security apparatus and obedient clerics would prevent the emergence of a reform movement with teeth that so frightens the Al Saud dynasty.

“The regime today is much stronger and the family is like an octopus, controlling every part of the country,” she said.

“Twenty years ago it would have been easier for intellectuals to dream about reform. There will be no changes as long as there is money and a police state.”

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

Posted on 20 April 2011 by hashimilion

Protests in Qatif, Saudi Arabia

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Libya’s Only a Part of Mideast Equation

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Doyle McManus

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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

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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

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Saudi Shi’ites Protest, Call For Prisoner Release

Posted on 15 April 2011 by hashimilion

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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