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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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U.S. May Lose Either Way In Bahrain Crisis

Posted on 16 March 2011 by hashimilion

Reporting from Washington As a standoff between troops and protesters in Bahrain teeters near violence, the Obama administration is facing a difficult choice between maintaining support for an increasingly unpopular monarchy or pushing for change that could weaken the U.S. strategic position in the vital Persian Gulf.

Administration officials have been struggling for a month to persuade Bahrain’s royal family and its Saudi backers of the need to enact political reforms in the island nation that would offer greater standing to the impoverished Shiite majority but also keep the Sunni royal family in power. Jeffrey Feltman, the chief U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, arrived in Bahrain on Monday for a new round of talks.

But Bahrain’s decision to invite in hundreds of Saudi troops on Monday signaled that the two governments have grown impatient with the U.S. approach and are focused on reasserting control over the streets. Much of the Bahraini opposition, meanwhile, has spurned the monarchy’s American-backed offer of a dialogue and remains suspicious of the government’s intentions.

The hardening of the two sides’ positions suggests that the Obama administration may face a setback no matter how the crisis is resolved. If the Bahrainis suppress the protesters, the United States may be seen as siding with an autocrat against his people. If the government falls and the Shiite majority takes control — which appears to be the less likely outcome — Washington will lose a key ally and Shiite-led Iran may gain one.

U.S. officials acknowledge that they are worried about the increasingly sectarian cast of the conflict, which deepened when the troops of Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and police forces from the Sunni-led United Arab Emirates entered the island kingdom.

On Tuesday, Iran sharpened the tensions, condemning Bahrain for inviting the Saudi troops. Bahrain recalled its ambassador to Iran and complained that Tehran was meddling.

U.S. officials are trying to avert a struggle between Shiites and Sunnis that could spread, potentially threatening the stability of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The Obama administration is taking pains not to alienate the Bahrainis, who provide a home for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, or the Saudis, a strategic partner on oil, counter-terrorism and regional diplomacy, such as the containment of Iran.

Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, said the administration already is perceived as supporting the Bahraini and Saudi governments’ approach, a perception that would be strengthened if the protests were snuffed out.

As the Saudi troops moved in this week, “the perception on the street has been, ‘This would not be happening without U.S. support,’ ” he said.

The White House stepped up its criticism of the military intervention Tuesday but stopped short of condemning Saudi Arabia.

“There is no military solution to the problems in Bahrain,” Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. “A political solution is necessary, and all sides must now work to produce a dialogue that addresses the needs of all of Bahrain’s citizens.”

Despite the cautious U.S. language, the crisis comes at a time when the historically close American relationships with the Saudi and Bahraini governments are under stress.

Saudi King Abdullah was angry with the Obama administration for pushing former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign in February. Saudi officials also have been displeased that the White House has prodded them to accelerate their own reforms, a process they insist cannot be rushed because of the kingdom’s change-resistant clergy.

The Saudis appear to have again signaled their displeasure this month, cancelling planned visits to the kingdom by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Saudi officials said the king was too ill, but U.S. officials acknowledged that the recent tensions may have prompted the move.

The Saudis, like the Bahrainis and other governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council, also are “angry that Washington has let staunch allies such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt be forced from power, while doing little to push Col. Moammar Kadafi of Libya from his position,” wrote Simon Henderson, a specialist on the Arabian Peninsula at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Last month, U.S. officials said the Saudis were supportive of their plans for political change in Bahrain, and appeared willing to provide massive financial aid to help relieve the poverty of its Shiite population. But the Saudi government changed course as the protests continued and the opposition’s demands increased.

On Saturday, Gates had made a public appearance in Bahrain and called for an acceleration of the reform effort, saying “baby steps” weren’t enough.

Two days later, Bahraini authorities asked the Saudis to send military help.

Pentagon officials said Gates had no advance notice of the move. In a clear sign of the Saudi willingness to ignore U.S. advice, State Department officials said they were “advised but not consulted” on the intervention.

With the political complexion of Egypt’s new government uncertain, it may become even more important to the United States to be able to rely on its partnership with Saudi Arabia.

But “there are clear signs that a Washington-Riyadh rift is emerging,” said Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group risk analysis firm.

LA Times

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Royal Rift, Absent Saudis Beset U.S.

Posted on 19 February 2011 by hashimilion

U.S. efforts to stabilize Bahrain, another key Arab ally roiled in popular uprising, is being threatened on several fronts—including apparent splits in Bahrain’s royal family and a sense of disengagement by Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest power.

Whether the U.S. can halt the unrest in Bahrain is viewed as critical to stabilizing the Persian Gulf and checking Iran’s influence. But there is growing uncertainty in Washington over who in the tiny Middle East sheikdom’s royal family ordered the use of increasing force against unarmed protesters, according to officials briefed on the diplomacy.

Successive U.S. administrations have cultivated closed relations with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his son, the crown prince, both of whom are viewed as modernizers. But the island-state’s security forces are under control of the king’s uncle, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who also serves as prime minister.

Previous U.S. administrations have sought to convince King Hamad to remove his 76-year-old relative, according to former U.S. officials, following charges of corruption and his opposition to political liberalization. These officials said there is a growing likelihood Prince Khalifa is overseeing the crackdown, with the king and crown prince relegated to the sidelines.

“Our influence is largely with one part of the ruling family, and not with the prime minister,” said an American official in close contact with Bahrain’s government.

The situation in Bahrain is complicated by U.S. uncertainty over Saudi Arabia’s position on the growing regional turmoil. Riyadh has enormous influence over Bahrain’s royal family due to the financial and energy aid it provides. Riyadh has in the past sent its own security forces into Bahrain to quell unrest, concerned that Bahrain’s Shiite majority could fuel instability inside Saudi Arabia.

Still, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and many of his closest advisers have been in Morocco in recent weeks as the Saudi monarch recovers from surgery. That has been seen as limiting the ability of other Saudi royals to make decisions. Other leading members of the Saudi royal family are also said to be in decline physically, particularly the second-in-line, Crown Prince Sultan, who is believed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Saudi officials voiced disapproval of the Obama administration’s handling of Egypt, in particular its decision to pull its support for President Hosni Mubarak, according to Arab diplomats. There has been little high-level contact between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, U.S. officials said.

“There’s a leadership vacuum in Saudi Arabia, which is clouding the decision-making process,” said Simon Henderson, who tracks Saudi politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Washington’s strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia has faltered in other theaters in the Middle East as well this year.

Last month, the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah overthrew the U.S.- and Saudi-backed government in Beirut, greatly enhancing Iran’s and Syria’s influence in the Mediterranean nation. Successive U.S. administrations had since 2005 worked with Riyadh to try and bolster former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri as a counterweight to Hezbollah’s backers in Tehran and Damascus. But Saudi Arabia ultimately pulled out of mediating efforts on behalf of Mr. Hariri, as Hezbollah threatened to sow unrest.

The fate of Bahrain, as Egypt before it, is crucial to U.S. strategic interests, and the unrest is showing up the administration’s inability to influence the course of events. Bahrain has been a crucial partner in Washington’s efforts to combat nearby Iran as well as al Qaeda. It sits in a key strategic position in the Persian Gulf and hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet—a home to 3,000 military personnel who oversee the 30 naval ships and some 30,000 sailors.

“If the U.S. loses Bahrain, they risk losing the Persian Gulf,” said a senior Arab diplomat Friday.

President Barack Obama made his strongest call Friday for an end to the violence in Bahrain, urging the government “to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.”

King Khalifa announced Friday he had appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, to engage in a dialogue with the opposition once calm had returned. U.S. officials in Washington acknowledged this likely wouldn’t quell the protesters.

Officials wouldn’t comment on whether the Obama administration was directly seeking the removal of Prime Minister Khalifa. But the official said the prime minister “is hated by the majority in Bahrain.”

The prime minister, on his website, says he has supported the king’s reforms, specifically his press reforms.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), chairman of a Senate panel that oversees foreign aid, has asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to review whether units of the Bahrain’s security forces used lethal force against civilians in violation of U.S. law, a finding that could prompt the U.S. to freeze assistance to those units.

The law, known as the Leahy Amendment, requires the U.S. to cut off aid to foreign security forces that are found to have committed gross human rights violations, and could provide a point of leverage for the Obama administration.

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