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For US, More at Stake in Bahrain Than Base Alone

Posted on 21 February 2011 by hashimilion

As political unrest shakes its tiny Gulf ally Bahrain, much more is at stake for the United States than just the fate of the US Fifth Fleet’s base, analysts said.

Also in play are Washington’s extensive strategic ties with Bahrain’s influential oil-rich neighbor Saudi Arabia and efforts by US arch-foe Iran to spread its influence from across the Gulf, they said.

In many ways, the unrest in Bahrain “is much more dangerous” for the US than the current state of affairs in Egypt, more than a week after mass protests forced president Hosni Mubarak to step down, said analyst Aaron David Miller.

To be sure, Egypt has greater weight than Bahrain, said Miller, a former State Department analyst and negotiator who is now an analyst with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

It is the largest and most powerful Arab state, has a peace treaty with Israel and receives $1.3 billion in US military aid each year.

And the Egyptian-US alliance remains intact, at least for now.

However, Bahrain’s vulnerability “to more convulsive change and the impact that it could have vis-a-vis Arab policy for Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf makes it … a more hot-button issue right now,” Miller told AFP.

The Sunni Arab leaders of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, who govern over restive Shiite Arab populations near Shiite but non-Arab Iran, fear Washington’s push for reform will sow greater instability, said analyst Patrick Clawson.

They strongly opposed Washington’s pressure on Egypt for a transition to democracy to ease out Mubarak, according to Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The perception in the (Gulf) region is that democracy means either the complete chaos you had in Iraq or else the stasis and bickering you had in Kuwait,” he said.

And if needed, the Saudis may be prepared to repeat their intervention in Bahrain in the 1990s, when they sent armored personnel carriers across the causeway linking the neighbors.

“So the Saudis are in a position to ensure that things don’t get out of hand in Bahrain and they are of a mind to do that. That is a powerful constraint to what the United States can do under these circumstances,” Clawson said.

The course of events could put a strain on the US-Saudi strategic relationship, which involves US military bases and billions of dollars in US weapons sales, as well as close cooperation on regional diplomacy and counter-terrorism.

Bahrain, fearing Iran’s meddling, may continue taking a tough line toward unrest, although Bahraini security forces withdrew Saturday from a Manama square that had been the focal point of bloody anti-regime protests.

The implications of the apparently conciliatory move were not immediately clear.

“The Gulf rulers will be petrified that there is an Iranian influence in all of this, but I think the Iranians will be pretty incompetent” in trying to gain influence in the region, Clawson said, noting that will not prevent them from making a “good attempt” to do so.

What’s more, he said, Arab Shiites increasingly look to their own leaders rather than Iran for guidance.

Nonetheless, analysts expressed concern about Iran.

“The issue of Iran is critical. What is a good outcome for us?” Miller asked.

“Here you have Iranian access to that Shia majority. You could argue that an Iraq-like outcome is not out of the question,” he continued, referring to how Shiites now dominate affairs in Baghdad with some backed by Iran.

Michelle Dunne, a former Middle East specialist at the State Department, agreed that the Saudis would have a hard time accepting political change in Bahrain and that the Iranians would try to exploit instability there.

“The Bahraini problem is definitely a home-grown problem,” said Dunne, now a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“This is not Iran manipulating the politics of an Arab state, but the Bahraini Shia are desperate. They will accept support from where they can get it.”

As for the naval base, analysts said its presence is not currently the focus of Shiite-driven protests, though it could develop as such if protesters eventually succeed in changing the government.

“At some point, that’s going to be rethought… whether it’s appropriate to have a US naval base there or not,” said Dunne.

Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department intelligence analyst, said the US base in Bahrain is “very important” in light of the “steady buildup” by the naval branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards over the past decade.

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Saudi Arabia Jolted by Egypt, Alarmed by Bahrain

Posted on 18 February 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia, shaken by the loss of a key ally in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, must now worry that protests in neighbouring ally Bahrain may embolden its own Shi’ite population to push for reform.

Thousands of overwhelmingly Shi’ite protesters, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to Bahrain’s streets this week demanding more say in the Gulf Arab kingdom where a Sunni Muslim family rules over a majority Shi’ite population.

Bahraini police stormed a protest camp in the island state’s capital early on Thursday, killing three people. Soldiers in armoured vehicles then fanned out across Manama.

Risks of instability in Saudi Arabia, where Shi’ites make up about 15 percent of the population, would soar if the opposition in Bahrain toppled the ruling al-Khalifa family, analysts said.

“(Saudi) Shi’ites will seek greater social, economic, and religious equality,” said Ayham Kamel, an analyst at Washington-based Eurasia Group. “This will present serious long-term challenges to the (Saudi) royal family, particularly as they prepare for a generational transition of power.”

Bahrain was to host a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers on Thursday, showing the region’s alarm that popular unrest rocking other Arab states could spread even to Gulf oil producers.

Most of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites live in the Eastern province, home to most of the kingdom’s oil wealth.

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia and the United States, which bases its Fifth Fleet in Manama, both view Bahrain and the al-Khalifa family as a bulwark against Shi’ite Iran.

“We would expect Saudi Arabia to provide logistical and military support to the Bahraini monarchy if needed,” said Farouk Soussa, Middle East chief economist at Citi in Dubai.

BAHRAIN REGIME CHANGE UNLIKELY

He said Bahrain could see prolonged confrontation but regime change was highly unlikely because of Saudi backing for the ruling family in a close neighbour in which it has key interests.

“Economically, Saudi has enormous leverage as it is custodian of most of Bahrain’s oil production, which is derived from the shared Abu Saafa oil field,” Soussa said, of the offshore oil produced by Saudi Aramco and shared with Bahrain’s refiner.

The U.S. naval base in Manama is vital for Riyadh, providing U.S. military protection of Saudi oil installations and the Gulf waterways on which its oil exports depend, without any Western troops present on the soil of the kingdom, Islam’s birthplace.

Saudi Arabia is unlikely to move quickly and will wait to see how Bahrain, accustomed to low-level unrest, handles the latest protests. Bahraini security forces have clashed sporadically with young Shi’ite protesters since the mid-1990s.

“Beneath it all, they are likely to be giving the Bahrain monarchy any support that it needs,” said Gala Riani, senior Middle East analyst with IHS Global Insight in London.

“Should it become clear that the regime is in danger, the Saudis will step in.”

The two states, linked by a 15-mile causeway, have close political and economic ties and the kingdom is Bahrain’s largest financial backer. Many Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province have family ties with Bahraini co-religionists.

“Saudis consider themselves the godfather of the Bahraini regime,” said Ibtisam al-Qitbi, a UAE-based political analyst.

“There are seeds for disturbance (in Saudi) but you have that security apparatus which is very strong, and the political environment is very, very tight.

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Saudi Sends It’s Security Forces Into Bahrain

Posted on 16 February 2011 by hashimilion

Sources said yesterday that Saudi Arabia had sent it’s security forces into Bahraini territory in order to suppress the pro democracy demonstrations. The numbers of those injured and killed by riot police has increased substantially, especially since internationally banned weapons were used. At least three people were killed and more than a dozen injured.

Many Saudi military vehicles were seen crossing the King Fahad Causeway, which connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.

Thousands of demonstrators have gathered in the capital Manama, in the Pearl Roundabout. They renamed the Roundabout to Martyrs Square.

Some Bahraini websites said that the Bahraini authorities had cut the internet service from most parts of the country, especially those areas that held demonstrations. Facebook seems to be working as normal.

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Bahrain Protests Swell With Second Death as Yemen Riots Persist

Posted on 16 February 2011 by hashimilion

Protests against Bahrain’s government escalated today as a second demonstrator was killed and in Yemen anti-government marchers clashed with police as unrest spreads through the Middle East.

Thousands of Bahrainis joined a procession near the capital, Manama, carrying the coffin of Ali Abdul Hadi Mushaima in the biggest demonstration so far in the Persian Gulf kingdom. Mushaima was killed during clashes yesterday with police, who fired bird-shot and rubber bullets and used tear gas. A second protester died today in fighting at the funeral, the official Bahrain News Agency said. The Shiite Muslim Al-Wefaq group suspended participation in parliament to protest the violence.

In Yemen, stone-throwing protesters clashed with police as they marched toward the presidential palace, the fifth day of demonstrations calling for an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule. Iranian security forces yesterday used tear gas to break up the biggest anti-government protests since the aftermath of the disputed presidential election in June 2009.

Popular demands for democracy and civil rights, invigorated by the mass protests that toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak last week, are rattling the autocratic rulers of a region that holds about three-fifths of the world’s oil reserves. Brent crude futures rose for a second day after closing yesterday at the highest level since September 2008.

Gulf Regimes

The protests in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Iran mark the spread of unrest into the Persian Gulf, the area where most Middle Eastern oil is produced. Many Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are U.S. allies. All of the region’s governments are classified as autocratic regimes in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index.

Shiites who represent as much as 70 percent of Bahrain’s population say they face job and housing discrimination. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a Sunni Muslim, has ordered an increase in food subsidies and social welfare payments, and a grant of 1,000 dinars ($2,653) to each Bahraini family.

Mushaima’s funeral cortege was carrying the coffin, draped with Shiite flags, to the dead man’s village as demonstrators shouted “Down with Khalifa.” They were referring to Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has held the premiership for four decades.

“Clearly events are spiraling downwards as violence mounts,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “ More people may be killed and this will likely bring more protesters onto to the streets. If pressure mounts too much and the Kingdom is in danger, there may be outside intervention.”

‘Sanctioned by Law’

Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Khalifa said in an interview yesterday that protests are “sanctioned by the law” in Bahrain and won’t have the same effect as the popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia.

Bahrain’s dollar bonds due in 2020 fell, sending yields up 6 basis points to 6.21 percent, the highest level since the debt was issued in March, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The cost of insuring Bahrain’s bonds against default jumped 10 basis points to 253, the highest in a week, according to CMA prices for credit-default swaps.

Brent crude for April settlement climbed as much as 96 cents, or 0.9 percent, to $104.04 a barrel in London.

“Fear that civil unrest could spread into oil-producing states in the Middle East is keeping investors nervous,” said Andrey Kryuchenkov, an analyst with VTB Capital in London.

Iran Output

Iran is the second-largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries, producing about 3.7 million barrels a day, according to Bloomberg data. Bahrain pumped about 32,000 barrels a day of crude in 2009 and 1.49 billion cubic feet of gas, according to the national oil and gas authority.

Bahrain experienced clashes between Shiites and police before parliamentary elections in October. The royal family has close ties with Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy. Many among Bahrain’s populace retain cultural and family links with Shiite-dominated Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival.

Al-Wefaq won 18 of 40 parliament seats in an October election. The assembly can only pass laws with the consent of an upper chamber whose members are chosen by the king.

The group will suspend its parliamentary role until the protesters’ demands are met, senior lawmaker Abduljalil Khalil, said in an interview today. “No one will accept cosmetic changes,” he said, adding that al-Wefaq’s demands aren’t influenced by Iran.

Protesters in Yemen are demanding that Saleh quit after 32 years in power. The president said on Feb. 2 that he won’t seek to extend his term when it expires in 2013 and that his son wouldn’t succeed him as president. At least 17 people were injured and 165 detained in the capital, Sanaa, Xinhua news agency reported yesterday, citing witnesses.

$2 a Day

Unlike Bahrain, the Yemen government — which is struggling to quell separatist movements and halt al-Qaeda operations based in the country — can’t afford to try to buy calm by offering economic benefits. Yemen faces serious water shortages, declining oil output and a society where more than half the population of 23 million is under 20 years old. About 40 percent of Yemen’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

Petroleum production and refining account for 60 percent of Bahrain’s export receipts, 70 percent of government revenue and 11 percent of gross domestic product, which was about $22 billion last year, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Iran’s opposition movement says it has drawn inspiration from the Arab revolts that removed Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. It accuses Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of meeting popular demands for change with violent repression.

Tear Gas, Batons

Yesterday’s demonstration in Tehran was backed by opposition leaders including Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi who challenged Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election and said the result was rigged. Tens of thousands of protesters were dispersed by security forces using tear gas and baton charges, al-Jazeera television said. Iranian officials said one person, a government supporter, was killed, the Associated Press reported.

In Egypt, the army took control after Mubarak’s resignation on Feb. 11 and has pledged to oversee a rewriting of the constitution to prepare the ground for free elections. Tunisia is also preparing for elections under an interim government after Ben Ali’s Jan. 14 ouster, and opposition groups including the main Islamist movement are competing with representatives of the former ruling party to steer the transition.

–With assistance from Claudia Maedler and Inal Ersan in Dubai, Terry Atlas in Washington, Robert Tuttle in Qatar, Ben Sharples in Melbourne and Abigail Moses, Grant Smith and Stephen Kirkland in London. Editors: Ben Holland, Louis Meixler.

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Protests in Bahrain, Yemen Beset by Violence

Posted on 15 February 2011 by hashimilion

Bahraini riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters Monday, killing at least one, according to eyewitnesses, while hundreds of Yemenis—regime supporters and antigovernment protesters—faced off violently in the capital, San’a.

The clashes in Bahrain represent a significant escalation of the Arab unrest that has fanned out from Tunisia, culminating in the resignation of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak Friday. Bahrain is the only Arab state so far in the oil-rich Persian Gulf beset by unrest amid protests across much of the rest of the Mideast.

Bahrain, a small island kingdom in the Gulf, has little oil wealth of its own, but is home to a thriving regional banking and financial-services sector, and hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the American naval command in charge of patrolling the Persian Gulf and the surrounding region.

Sunni rulers have struggled for years with a restive Shiite population. In recent days, the Shiite-led opposition has capitalized on the regional unrest to renew its own calls for political reform. Besides regime-toppling protests in Tunisia and Egypt, large demonstrations have rocked Algeria, Jordan and Yemen.

A doctor at Salmaniya Medical Complex, a hospital in the capital, Manama, where wounded protesters were being sent, said one man died of wounds from pellets, apparently fired at his back at close range. Eyewitnesses said the man was shot by security forces.

The Bahraini government said it was saddened by Monday’s events, but stressed that government’s policies were “on track” and wouldn’t be derailed.

“This is shocking, it shouldn’t have happened. Maybe the police presence should stay high so this doesn’t escalate,” said Nada Haffadh, member of the Shura council, the appointed upper chamber of Bahrain’s parliament.

In a midday interview, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid al Khalifa said the kingdom welcomed peaceful protests, but said protesters must obey the law.

“Bahrain is used to having protests…but we need to make sure this is done with law and order—there should be no violence,” he said.

In a main traffic circle on the outskirts of Manama, a gathering of around 200 male and female protesters stood waving Bahraini flags and chanting “our demand is a constitution written by the people… We demand the release of all political prisoners.” Some held posters of prisoners.

Riot police stood on another corner of the roundabout, then charged, firing tear gas and rubber bullets. The crowd dispersed, then reformed several times. Each time, the police closed in, chasing protesters into side streets.

In Yemen, thousands of antiregime protesters marched through San’a on Monday, demonstrating against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Pro-government demonstrators also gathered in the capital, according to eyewitnesses, and scuffles broke out between security forces and pro-government demonstrators and protesters.

At one point, pro-government demonstrators, armed with sticks and knives, hurled rocks at protesters, who had gathered at San’a University, chanting: “Peaceful, peaceful protests is our path.”

Security forces intervened. There were dozens of arrests and injuries, according to eyewitnesses. But by midafternoon, the streets of San’a were quiet again. Officials from the government and Mr. Saleh’s ruling party weren’t reachable for comment late Monday.

In Bahrain, by contrast, protests gained momentum through the day with larger groups simultaneously protesting in several locations on the outskirts of the capital as people finished work midafternoon. Protesters continued to gather after nighfall, with police units maintaining a heavy presence and helicopters circling the capital.

Security forces had stepped up their presence across the capital and in the Shiite Muslim-dominated villages that surround it, as the country’s opposition called for Monday demonstrations.

Protests in some Shiite villages started immediately after morning prayers on Monday, eyewitnesses said. Checkpoints sealed off villages, while police units patrolled shopping malls and other public areas Sunday.

At the Pearl roundabout in Manama, cited by protesters as a possible place of protest, police manned each corner in a show of force.

In the Shiite village of Sitra, a few miles from the capital, armed riot police patrolled networks of side streets. Local men, women and children marched to protest immediately after morning prayers but were blocked before they reached a nearby highway, eye witnesses said.

Those who refused to disperse were shot at with tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets, with some exhibiting injuries, witnesses said.

Jafer Hassan, a 25-year-old man from Sitra, showed a wound on his leg he claimed was from a rubber bullet.

“The police started shooting and I was hit… But I will protest again this afternoon.”

Abdul Wahab Hussain, a prominent opposition figure, attended the protest Monday, then retreated to his house in Sitra, where he received locals in a room covered in posters of jailed activists.

“The number of riot police is huge, but we have shown using violence against us will only make us stronger… This is just the beginning,” he said.

In Beni Jamra, another Shiite district a few miles west of Manama, 300 to 400 people, mainly young men and women, walked up a long street chanting “Release the Prisoners.” They were stopped by police, firing tear gas. Most darted into nearby houses or side streets to escape, but many then regrouped.

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