Tag Archive | "Libya"

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Why The West’s Silence on Bahrain Risks a Full-Blown Sectarian Conflict

Posted on 19 April 2011 by hashimilion

Today: It’s hard not to see a double standard in the West’s responses to the Arab Spring.

Western governments have had no problem in calling for Muammar Gaddafi to go. They have condemned Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen for firing on protesters, detention without trial and the usual responses of repressive regimes.

But on the topic of the equally repressive Khalifa family in Bahrain, diplomats of all stripes have been much more restrained.

Meanwhile, the Saudis have sent 1,000 troops to its neighbour to help put down the “coup” — what anyone else would call peaceful protests. Bahraini activists risk being arrested or threatened. Last week a fourth detainee died in police custody in less than two weeks. Witnesses said his body, like the others, bore signs of abuse.

The strategy of inertia could well blow up in the West’s face. The protesters in Bahrain are mainly Shiites, who form the majority of the population; the rulers are Sunni.

Shiite Iran next door is the wild card. No one can predict how the ayatollahs will respond. They are already suspected of covert meddling and it’s hard to imagine they will sit by while their co-religionists are massacred.

At the British newspaper The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting attributes the West’s silence in part to Britain’s relationship with the ruling Bahraini family.

“It has been one of the most successful chapters in British imperial domination; the Al Khalifa dynasty signed its first treaty with the British in 1820 and they finally ‘left’ in 1971. The British have backed a repressive regime in a very cosy, mutually advantageous relationship of finance, military training, arms deals and royal ceremony (one of the less edifying aspects of the imperial endgame has been the use of the royal family to flatter and seduce client regimes, however unpalatable). In the last few months the Bahrain government has beaten, killed, tortured the Shia protest movement …The west has done little but mumble incoherently; too many interests are at stake to live up to the grand moral rhetoric now being lavished on Libya.”
In an interview with the Iranian-owned Press TV, Christopher Walker, a former Moscow and Middle East correspondent of the London Times, has no problem in connecting the dots.

“The fact is that Bahrain is the regional base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet is its major strategic arm in the Middle East. Although it is based in Bahrain, it is crucial to the current Washington policy in the region. So they are very worried that if something was to happen in Bahrain of deep instability, that Fleet would lose its base. That is really the guiding force …
[Covering] Bahrain has not frankly been of the Western media’s interest. You can see a conspiracy behind it if you want. It was the West’s interest not to encourage the downfall of the ruling Khalifa family in Bahrain. Bahrain is also a much easier place for the authorities to restrict press coverage. In Libya, for instance, when journalists could not get in, because Gaddafi did not at that time allow them, they just drove into the East or got there another way. But in Bahrain, they have to go via the airport and they are just not given visas.”
To have different levels of tolerance for different despots raises awkward questions, says The Observer in an editorial.

“One obvious lesson for the west from recent upheaval in the Middle East is that propping up authoritarian regimes on the grounds that they make stable allies is a terrible policy.
The stability procured by despotism is an illusion. Brittle police states can contain, but never satisfy, a captive people’s appetite for better lives. Eventually, they shatter and the more rigid the apparatus of repression, the more explosive the change when it comes.
That has been demonstrated clearly enough in North Africa and yet the west struggles to apply the lesson to the Arabian Peninsula. The contagious spirit of democratic springtime that provoked protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya also reached Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. But there the west has been markedly less inclined to cheer it on.”
At the Christian Science Monitor, Kristen Chick explains why the U.S.’s silence could backfire:

“While the U.S. stance is generally attributed to an attempt to protect regional interests, the festering situation in Bahrain is actually increasing Iran’s opportunity for influence in the region and widening rifts between Arab nations – neither of which are in the interest of the U.S. … the U.S. failure to condemn human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini security forces while condemning such abuses in Libya and Syria is undermining any credibility it had with Bahrainis. If Saudi and the U.S had hoped to curtail Iran’s influence through Bahrain, they may have instead given it an opening …
Indeed, the situation in Bahrain has given Iran repeated opportunities to publicly criticize the oppression of Shiites and criticize Bahrain.”

By Araminta Wordsworth

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Bahrain Escapes Censure By West As Crackdown on Protesters Intensifies

Posted on 19 April 2011 by hashimilion

Bahraini government forces backed by Saudi Arabian troops are destroying mosques and places of worship of the Shia majority in the island kingdom in a move likely to exacerbate religious hatred across the Muslim world.

“So far they have destroyed seven Shia mosques and about 50 religious meeting houses,” said Ali al-Aswad, an MP in the Bahraini parliament.

He said Saudi soldiers, part of the 1,000-strong contingent that entered Bahrain last month, had been seen by witnesses helping demolish Shia mosques and shrines in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

The attack on Shia places of worship has provoked a furious reaction among the 250 million Shia community, particularly in Iran and Iraq, where Shia are in a majority, and in Lebanon where they are the largest single community.

The Shia were already angry at the ferocious repression by Bahraini security forces of the pro-democracy movement, which had sought to be non-sectarian. After the monarchy had rejected meaningful reform, the wholly Sunni army and security forces started to crush the largely Shia protests on 15 and 16 March.

The harshness of the government repression is provoking allegations of hypocrisy against Washington, London and Paris. Their mild response to human rights abuses and the Saudi Arabian armed intervention in Bahrain is in stark contrast to their vocal concern for civilians in Libya.

The US and Britain have avoided doing anything that would destabilise Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, to which they are allied. They are worried about Iran taking advantage of the plight of fellow Shia, although there is no evidence that Iran has any role in fomenting protests despite Bahraini government claims to the contrary. The US has a lot to lose because its Fifth Fleet, responsible for the Gulf and the north of the Indian Ocean, is based in Bahrain.

Sunni-Shia hostility in the Muslim world is likely to deepen because of the demolition of Shia holy places in Bahrain. Shia leaders recall that it was the blowing up of the revered Shia shrine of al-Askari in Samarra, Iraq, by al-Qa’ida in 2006 that provoked a sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia in which tens of thousands died. They see fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, upheld by the state in Saudi Arabia, as being behind the latest sectarian assault and attempt to keep the Shia as second-class citizens. Mr Sadiq believes Saudi troops are behind the attacks on mosques and shrines. “What is happening comes from the ideology of Wahhabism which is against shrines,” he said. To the Wahhabi, the Shia are as heretical as Christians. Mr Aswad said soldiers in Saudi uniforms had been seen attending the destruction of Shia religious sites.

Yousif al-Khoei, who heads a Shia charitable foundation, said he could “confirm that reports of desecration of Shia graves, shrines and mosques and hussainiyas [religious meeting houses] in Bahrain are genuine and we are concerned that Saudi troops, who believe that shrines are un-Islamic and are trying to enforce that Wahhabi doctrine on the Shia of Bahrain, will undoubtedly result in heightened sectarian tensions.”

Some 499 people in Bahrain are known to have been detained during the current unrest and many are believed to have been tortured. Four who died in detention this month showed signs of severe abuse and appeared to have been beaten to death.

In the case of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, who had turned himself in to the security forces after threats to detain his family if he did not do so, photographs showed signs of whipping and beating. The Bahraini human rights activist who photographed the body was later detained and accused of faking the picture, but the same injuries were witnessed by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

There are continuing arbitrary arrests of people who took part in the pro-democracy protests that began on 14 February. Even waving a Bahraini flag is considered an offence, and a doctor who was shown on television shedding tears over the body of a dead protester was detained.

The aim of government repression is evidently to terrorise the Shia and permanently crush the protest movement. Doctors who treated injured demonstrators have been arrested and on 15 April the authorities detained a lawyer, Mohammed al-Tajer, who defended protesters in court. Human Rights Watch says the families of many of those detained have no word on what has happened to them. The authorities do not seem concerned about providing plausible accounts of how detainees died. In the case of Mr Saqer, who was detained on 3 April and whose body was released six days later, the government said he had “created chaos” in the detention centre and had died while the disturbance was being quelled.

Human Rights Watch, which saw his body during the ritual before he was buried in his home village of Sehla on 10 April, said “his body showed signs of severe physical abuse. The left side of his face showed a large patch of bluish skin with a reddish-purple area near his left temple and a two-inch cut to the left of his eye. Lash marks crisscrossed his back, some reaching to his front right side. Blue bruises covered much of the back of his calves, thighs, and buttocks, as well as his right elbow and hip. The tops of his feet were blackened, and lacerations marked his ankles and wrists.”

The fighting in Libya and unrest elsewhere in the Arab world has drawn attention away from Bahrain, and the authorities have also arrested pro-democracy journalists and prevented several foreign journalists entering the country.

Timeline of unrest

14 February Anti-government protests dubbed the “Day of Rage” attract thousands, prompted by demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia. One person is killed.

15 February Bahrain police open fire on crowds at the dead protester’s funeral. King Hamad attempts to appease the demonstrators, pledging to hold an investigation into the “regrettable” deaths.

26 February The ruling al-Khalifa family makes concessions to Bahrain’s majority Shia population. Hardline Shia dissident Hassan Mushaima is allowed to return from voluntary exile.

3 March First clashes between the Sunnis and Shia Muslim communities since February’s protests.

15 March Martial law is declared one day after Saudi troops enter Bahrain in an attempt to end the unrest. The United Arab Emirates vows to send 500 police.

16 March Bahraini forces arrest six opposition leaders and crack down on protesters.

18 March The geographical focal point of the mainly Shia protests, Pearl Roundabout in Manama, is demolished in an attempt to quash the rebellion. At least seven people die.

3 April Authorities lift a ban on the main opposition newspaper.

4 April Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls on Saudi Arabia to pull out of Bahrain.

10 April The body of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer is buried, seven days after he was taken into custody. His body showed signs of whipping and beating.

13 April A Shia opposition party claims that another protester has died in police custody – the fourth so far.

16 April Tensions rise further with new arrests and the alleged death of a female student.

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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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What happened to the Arab Spring?

Posted on 15 April 2011 by hashimilion

Think back to the dramatic events of January and February, when for a moment it seemed Arab dictators were falling like dominoes.

Then look at the bloody stalemate that characterises the region today.

The two trailblazers, Tunisia and Egypt, have entered an ambiguous transition as the forces of change confront old elites clinging to power and privilege.

Elsewhere – in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and above all Libya – the dictators are hanging on, through the violent suppression of protest.

The notion that people power would sweep through the region, erasing the old order like a tsunami, was always illusory.

We are wrong to think that everything has changed – or that nothing has changed.

Three lessons stand out.

Lesson 1: All politics is local

While Arabs share the same grievances – over autocracy, corruption, the lack of jobs – the expression of these grievances plays out differently in each country.

In Egypt the generals were the decisive force in toppling the ruler (which does not make them revolutionaries).

In Syria and Bahrain there is a sectarian dimension fuelled by minority regimes for whom majority rule is especially threatening – by sending troops into Bahrain, in response to an overblown Iranian threat, Saudi Arabia exacerbated sectarian tension.

Libya is different again, because of the lack of a strong centralised state – and because the opposition has called in Western help.

In no two cases is the balance of forces identical.

 

Lesson 2: Islam is part of the picture

In origin, the Arab uprisings were nationalistic. They brought together different groups united by the demand that a hated dictator should go.

But religion has not suddenly disappeared.

The question is not whether Islam will play a role in determining the region’s future, but what that role will be.

For the moment, Islamist groups – notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – are speaking the language of democracy and national unity.

The Islamists realise they have a unique opportunity to enter the political arena.

It is an ideal moment to put their democratic pretensions to the test.

A split between a more reactionary Islamist old guard and a more open-minded younger generation is not inconceivable.

 

Lesson 3: The West is not the driver

Western powers, not least the Obama administration in Washington, have been slow to realise the limits of their influence. They are reacting to events, not driving them.

In Yemen, for example, the Americans initially supported President Ali Abdullah Saleh – but then, seeing the writing on the wall, began to distance themselves from him.

Even in Libya – the one place where the West has gambled on armed intervention – it is discovering it may not be able to determine the outcome.

However uncomfortable in the short run, in the end that may be no bad thing.

The Bush administration toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, with consequences the region is still living with.

This time the pressure for regime change is coming from within.

Democratisation will be destabilising. It always is. And getting rid of the dictator does not necessarily produce democracy.

But everywhere the mood has changed. In city after city, the barrier of fear has been breached. In that sense, at least, there can be no going back.

Roger Hardy is a visiting fellow at the Centre for International Studies at London School of Economics.

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Obama’s Dilemma Over Saudi Arabia

Posted on 08 April 2011 by hashimilion

There’s a crisis in U.S. policy in the Middle East — and it’s not about Libya. For weeks the Obama administration has been preoccupied with averting a humanitarian catastrophe in North Africa. But on the other side of the region, in the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula, a matter of vital, strategic importance awaits the urgent attention of policymakers.

Over there, the ailing 87-year-old king of Saudi Arabia probably isn’t getting much sleep. Abdullah, this Sunni monarch of monarchs, custodian of the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, can see the flames of instability and turmoil licking at all his borders. In the south, Yemen is imploding, to the advantage of his al-Qaeda enemies. In the east, Bahrain’s Shiite majority has been in such a state of revolt that Abdullah has already sent armed forces to prevent Iran from establishing a “cat’s paw” on the Sunni Arab side of the Persian Gulf. In the north, Abdullah sees Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government as nothing more than a front for the hated Persians. In the west, a Palestinian majority is demanding that the Hashemite king of Jordan become a constitutional monarch. Meanwhile, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, that other Sunni pillar of regional stability, has already been overthrown.

Historically, in times of trouble, Saudi kings have depended on American presidents to guarantee their external security. But at this moment of crisis, Abdullah views President Obama as a threat to his internal security. He fears that in the event of a widespread revolt, Obama will demand that he leave office, just as he did to Mubarak, that other longtime friend of the United States. Consequently, Abdullah is reportedly making arrangements for Pakistani troops to enter his kingdom should the need to suppress popular demonstrations arise.

This presents the Obama administration with a particularly thorny dilemma. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer and the only one with sufficient excess production capacity to moderate rises in the price of oil. Instability in Saudi Arabia could produce panic in the oil markets and an oil shock that could put an end to America’s economic recovery (and the president’s hopes for reelection). This would argue for granting an “exception” to Saudi Arabia from the Obama administration’s trumpeting of universal rights. Indeed, the soft criticism of Bahrain’s Saudi-dictated suppression of its people suggests that this has already become U.S. policy.

Yet helping the Saudi king effectively erect a wall against the political tsunami sweeping across the Arab world is not a long-term solution. If there’s one thing that we can now predict with some confidence, it’s that no Arab authoritarian regime can remain immune from the demands of its people for political freedom and accountable government. To be sure, $100 billion in subventions from the palace and the promise of 60,000 jobs can help postpone, for a time, the demands of unemployed Saudi youths. But political freedom, transmitted across borders via cable TV and the Internet, has proved to be a seductive idea. In the end, it will not be assuaged by economic bribes or police-state suppression.

And the Saudi system is fragile. Power is concentrated in the hands of the king and his brothers, who are old and ailing. The Saud family’s legitimacy depends in significant part on its pact with a fundamentalist Wahhabi clergy that is deeply opposed to basic political reforms, such as equal rights for women. The deep structural tensions generated by a 21st-century Westernized elite existing within a 15th-century Saudi social structure have been papered over for decades by oil wealth. If this strange social contract begins to fray, it might tear completely. And over in the eastern quarter, adjacent to Bahrain, where most of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves are located, sits a restive Shiite minority who have been treated as second-class citizens for decades.

Even if the Obama administration were understandably inclined to leave well enough alone, it cannot afford to do so for other reasons. The Saudis are attempting to erect the wall beyond their borders not only by suppressing the revolt in Bahrain but also by insisting that Jordan’s king not pursue the reform agenda he has promised his people. In effect, Abdullah intends to carve out an exception for all the kings and sheiks — Sunni to a man — in Saudi Arabia’s neighborhood. It might work for a time. But should this dam break, it could generate a sectarian Sunni-Shiite, Arab-Iranian conflict on one side and an Arab-Israeli conflict on the other. It could spell the end of Pax Americana in the Middle East.

For all of these reasons, President Obama urgently needs to negotiate a new compact with King Abdullah. He has to find a way to convince him that defining a road map that leads to constitutional monarchies in his neighborhood, and eventually in Saudi Arabia, is the only effective way to secure his kingdom and the interests of his subjects. Abdullah has been willing to undertake important reforms in the past. But if the king is to be persuaded to embark on this road again, he will need to know that the president will provide a secure safety net of support, rather than undermine him. And he will need to know that the United States will not make a deal with his Iranian enemies at Saudi expense.

Such a compact would be difficult to negotiate in the best of times. It cannot even be broached in current circumstances unless the basic trust between the president and the king can be reestablished. With a budget crisis at home and turmoil in the Middle East, it’s understandable that Obama has had little time for the personal engagement with potentates that does not come naturally to him. But it’s not just Abdullah’s survival that is at stake. A revolt in Saudi Arabia could sink his presidency.

By Martin Indyk is vice president and director of the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy program and convener of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, which meets in Washington next week.

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Guarding the Fortress

Posted on 06 April 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia, fortified by its oil wealth, Wahhabi ideology and blanket American protection, finds itself drifting in the uncharted waters of a new Arab awakening fashioned in revolt.

SAUDI ARABIA APPEARS FROM THE OUTSIDE AS A BEGUILING FORTRESS HOUSING A remote Kingdom guarded by robed, well-oiled royals. This desert fortress is sustained by unlimited hydrocarbon resources, bringing fabulous wealth to its intoxicated rulers and sedating the inhabitants. Minarets serve as watchtowers of orthodoxy and dogma. The fortress has also remained strong because of a protective alliance with a foreign power, the United States (US), that chooses a romanticised vision of a kingdom that offers harmonious exchange and a false sense of security.

But the waves of revolution, dissent and sedition are lashing against the fortress’s very foundations, deepening cracks of this political structure built on shifting sand. King Abdullah and his thousands of royal brothers, nephews and assorted hangers-on have watched the fall of fellow dictators, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Others in their death throes, like Muammar Al Gaddafi of Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, refuse to see the writing on the wall. The Saudi Royals’ younger brother King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain, kowtowing to Saudi diktat, has now made his choice by inviting Saudi military into his troubled land. Even the docile Jordanian monarch Abdullah II and his normally forgotten brotherly neighbour Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman are floundering.

No state in the Arab world is being spared the sudden wrath of its people. The old strategic criteria of dividing the region on the basis of oil versus non-oil states, or of alliances with the United States, now fails to hold water. There are no longer any guarantees, with or without American support, for protecting regional rulers from the legitimate demands of their people. The people have made common cause, rising from years of misrule and repression, through the use of new technologies in new media adopted by young people. The demographics of the population are simply too lopsided in favour of younger generations versus the old ruling oligarchy. All these factors are plentiful in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: a youthful majority, an abundance of computers, and deepening social and political resentments and alienation.

The Saudi Kingdom contains within its fortress walls a deeper rot: an arbitrary coercive and corrupt system that denies its subjects its fundamental political rights and social justice. The Saudi royals do not even grasp what it is that their people are demanding. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have all helped bring down the walls of opacity. The seventy percent of the Kingdom’s population who are under the age of thirty are predominantly Internet savvy.

They are asking for the creation of a constitutional monarchy, parliamentary elections, the release of thousands of political prisoners being held without trial or representation, an end to the endemic and massive royal corruption, reform of the judiciary and the minimising of perks and privileges afforded the 22,000 members of the House of Saud, as well as meeting demands to curtail the influence of the religious establishment.

Talk of a ‘Day of Rage’ scheduled for March 11 captured the world’s attention. To stop the increasingly corrosive developments, the Saudi state has equipped itself with the biggest carrot and largest stick in the Arab world. The carrot comprises the king’s promise of 37 billion dollars to his country’s agitated younger generations – a fifteen percent pay raise for government employees, aid for students and the unemployed, and access to sport clubs – something that only a Croseus-rich monarch like King Abdullah could hope to deliver. Nowhere are subjects offered such largess to buy off their loyalties.

Since thousands of voices using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube expressed ingratitude for such a ‘benevolent’ act, the state then decided to deploy its catch-all religious fall-back to warn its subjects that demonstrations and protests are un- Islamic. Using the pretext of the Saudi Kingdom as the ultimate guardian of the Islamic faith and custodian of the holy mosques, the state claimed to be protecting its population from the sins of other Middle Eastern youth. There have been in recent days mass arrests of those calling for reform, and multiple websites have been blocked. The Saudi bogeyman, thousands of security forces backed by armour on the street and helicopters hovering over city skies, act as an iron-fisted warning against any dissent. The Saudi rulers are beyond the reproach of their people.

Meanwhile the United States, traditional protector and ‘custodian of the holy oil fields,’ has lapsed into diplomatic torpor. The US has guarded the Kingdom from external threats through the sales of hundreds of billions of dollars of high-tech arms. Since 1945, the stationing of American forces in Dhahran near the critical oil fields have been crucial for Saudi security and are the lifeblood of American and world economy. The US never alluded to the subject of democracy in its support of the Saudi rulers and deliberately did not deal with the people, remaining constant in their policy for the survival of the Al Saud. The pact between Riyadh and Washington was to always protect the Kingdom’s fortress and not to get embroiled with the multitude of tribes, sects, regions, and ethnic groups.

The big carrot and stick have bought the Saudi rulers a temporary sense of control. But the faces of millions of screaming, self-liberated Arabs beaming at them on the screens of Al Jazeera have increased the tension. Prince Naif, interior minister and crown prince in waiting, may continue to repeat the Kingdom’s slogan: “What we took by the sword, we will hold by the sword.” But the traditional sword is dull, limited, and unable to meet the challenges of the moment. The Saudi rulers are also using the sectarian discourse both for the US and for their Sunni populations, portraying the Shi’a as the scary spectre seeking dominance and a dangerous alliance with Iran. They also are using the divide and rule policy to warn their Sunni population against the internal Shi’a enemy.

The most challenging group to the Saudi rulers is currently the Shi’a, who constitute 75 percent of the population in the Eastern Province, the Kingdom’s main oil-producing region. The Shi’a were also the first to respond to the eruptions of demonstrations in the Arab region despite the legal ban on demonstrations. The Shi’a have experienced loss of lives and imprisonment since 1979 because of their defiance.

The strategic regional predominance of Saudi Arabia through its oil wealth has allowed the country’s rulers to freeze reform. This policy offers temporary political respite for the kingdom, but the frozen body politic is brittle and can easily break. The danger is that continued repression of peaceful protests can lead to violence and radicalisation. At the moment, Islamic extremism and Al Qaeda have no space in the Arab movements of the people, but if this desperation continues to be confined to computer screens while political representation and expression is forbidden, then Al Qaeda will find renewed space.

By Dr Mai Yamani

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Saudi Arabia is Losing Its Fear

Posted on 09 March 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gaddafi’s Sons Tried To Get Saudi Cleric Help

Posted on 01 March 2011 by hashimilion

Sons of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have failed to persuade prominent Saudi clerics to issue religious rulings against a revolt that is threatening to bring down the veteran leader, Al Arabiya television said on Monday.

The Saudi-owned channel said on its website that Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam had contacted one cleric, Salman al-Awda, and Saadi Gaddafi had reached out to a second, Ayedh al-Garni, but both rejected their calls.

“You are killing the Libyan people. Turn to God because you are wronging them. Protect Libyan blood, you are killing old people and children. Fear God,” Garni said he told Saadi.

Garni made the remarks on air on Sunday, the website said, adding Awda gave the same message to Saif al-Islam.

Awda has a weekly television show on Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel MBC1 and has been praised by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before as a religious scholar he felt did not toe the government line. Garni gave lectures in Libya last year.

Gaddafi’s forces have been trying for days to push back a revolt that has won over large parts of the military and ended his control over eastern Libya. Gaddafi has accused followers of al Qaeda of staging the protests in the east, where Islamists have clashed with government forces in the past.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and the ruling al-Saud family see the clerical establishment, who have wide powers in society, as the leading authority in mainstream Sunni Islam.

The world’s top oil exporter is nervous that protests sweeping the region, which have included its neighbours Bahrain, Oman and Yemen, could ignite dissent on its own territory.

Activists have set up Facebook pages calling for protests on March 11 and 20 in Saudi Arabia. These have attracted over 17,000 supporters combined. Last week King Abdullah, a close U.S. ally, ordered wage rises for Saudi citizens along with other benefits in an apparent bid to insulate the kingdom from the wave of protests.

Gaddafi has long been an unpopular figure in Saudi Arabia, which once accused him of plotting to assassinate the king.

Clerics close to the government have said it is not the place of religious scholars to back protests or otherwise. But others have said Gaddafi is an illegitimate ruler and denounced him as an apostate.

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