Tag Archive | "Oman"

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The Gulf Revolutions Are Underway

Posted on 19 May 2011 by hashimilion

Omanis recently took part in massive demonstrations in the northern city of Sohar and were knocking on the doors of Abu Dhabi. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the last dictatorial powers in the region cannot ignore democracy. The people of the Gulf are fed up with the Gulf ruling elites and have awakened from their 40 year old slumber. It’s true that they’re not as poor as the Egyptians or Tunisians, but they are become increasingly more aware that a country’s wealth belong to the state and the state alone.

Some wikileaks documents suggest that peak oil production levels in the Gulf have already been met and that current supplies will only be sufficient for a couple more decades. These backward political regimes have lead to poor planning and corruption. The future for the youth is not so great.

Bahrain has given us a glimpse of what lies ahead in the future. Its oil reserves have diminished and its unable to change its fiscal policy or  turn itself into a modern state. For decades bahrainis have contributed towards the state but were denied any meaningful political representation by the ruling family. They were left with few options and hence took matters into their own hands. The Al Khalifa regime responded by using live ammunition and immediately unleashed their Pakistani mercenaries on the demonstrators. The regime had showed its true colours.

The regimes of both Saudi Arabia and UAE gave the Al Khalifa family unlimited moral support in crushing the protests by all means necessary. Both regimes tried to bribe their populations with financial incentives in order to stop the protests from spreading. The Saudi King Abdullah announced a 36 billion dollar spending program, which was promptly rejected by the protestors who felt insulted.

Saudi protestors chose the 11th of March as their day of rage, and openly called for overthrowing Al Saud’s regime. Had live ammunition been used on the protestors it would have catalysed protests in the Emirates. Thousands of UAE nationals are ignored by the oil rich states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and live in modest conditions in the poor Northern Emirates. The majority are angry at the huge economic gap in wealth between the different federations  and at being excluded from participating in major policy decisions. Some are curious why large coastal lands were sold to foreign investors.

Also, a large number of stateless people live in both the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. They were born and brought up in the country of their grandfathers, yet find it perplexing that the regime’s friends nationalises Indians and westerners.

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Distrusting America, Saudi Arabia Embarks on More Assertive Role

Posted on 19 May 2011 by hashimilion

As U.S. President Barack Obama seeks to reinvigorate his administration’s policy in the Middle East, he will have to contend with several issues where U.S. influence is less than overwhelming.

Chief among them, according to Middle East analysts, is the growing assertiveness of Saudi Arabia as it confronts Iranian influence in the region and tilts away from its historic bargain with the U.S.: oil for security.

In recent months, the Saudis have essentially taken the gloves off — sending troops into Bahrain to prop up the island’s Sunni monarchy against a rebellious Shiite majority; consolidating their relationship with Pakistan as a regional counterweight to Iran; and expanding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to reinforce the club of Sunni monarchies.

Through the GCC Saudi Arabia has also moved to resolve the crisis in Yemen, its neighbor to the south, where al Qaeda is establishing a foothold and where the Saudis suspect Iranian meddling.

Their core mission, says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, “is to ensure stability in their neighborhood.” Bremmer believes “the single most important long-term implication of the Arab Spring may be a consolidated GCC that is tacking away from the West.”

At the same time, the Saudi kingdom’s relations with the United States have deteriorated — in part over the Obama administration’s support for pro-democracy movements in the Arab world. On two occasions in recent months, according to well-placed sources in the Gulf, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia even refused to meet senior U.S. officials.

Earlier this week, Saudi grievances were laid out in a Washington Post op-ed by Nawaf Obaid, a consummate insider and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Describing a “tectonic shift” in the Saudi-U.S. relationship, he complained of an “ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable” for its settlement-building in Palestinian territories. On the latter issue, he said the U.S. “had lost all credibility.”

Obaid also echoed some of the criticisms made last year by Prince Turki al Faisal, a former ambassador to the United States who said that “negligence, ignorance and arrogance” had cost America the “moral high ground” it held after 9/11.

Saudi alienation from Washington predates the Obama administration. Riyadh saw the invasion of Iraq as a disaster because it unleashed Shiite influence in a country traditionally dominated by its Sunni minority. Several Saudi officials have described Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki — who leads a Shia-dominated government — as an “Iranian agent.”

The Saudis also complained that the Bush administration had “dropped the ball” on the Israel-Palestinian peace process by not endorsing King Abdullah’s plan for a two-state solution, with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. That, they argued, had only strengthened more radical forces in the region, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Above all, the Saudi establishment has long been anxious that the threat it perceives from Iran is not adequately acknowledged in Washington.

U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published last year showed growing Saudi impatience with U.S. caution toward Iran’s nuclear program, with King Abdullah quoted as urging Gen. David Petraeus to “cut off the head of the snake” during a meeting in April 2008. A year later, the King is quoted as telling President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, that he hoped the U.S. would review its Iran policy and “come to the right conclusion.”

So now, Obaid writes, “Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.”

One long-time observer of Saudi policy says the kingdom is preparing to use its wealth and economic growth (forecast at nearly 6% this year, thanks to the rising price of crude oil) to lead an expanded bloc as old certainties wither away.

The Saudis plan to spend $100 billion to modernize their armed forces, buy a new generation of combat aircraft and add 60,000 Interior Ministry troops. Like other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia also plans to expand its special forces.

Beyond its borders the kingdom wants to expand the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, until now a club of wealthy monarchies, by inviting Jordan and Morocco to join. They might not have much money, but they, too, are ruled by Sunni monarchs and have — by regional standards — cohesive and well-trained armies.

In return, Gulf largesse would help support their weak economies. Amid recriminations and confusion in the Arab League — whose planned Baghdad summit has just been postponed for a whole year — the Saudis see the GCC as the institutional antidote to the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

Saudi Arabia has already created a $20 billion fund to assist Bahrain and Oman. And the dispatch of some 1,000 troops to Bahrain in March served notice to Tehran that Saudi Arabia would not tolerate a Shiite-dominated state a few miles off its coast.

“Sending a force to Bahrain was a necessary evil for the GCC in order to protect the monarchy in Bahrain,” says Theodore Karasik of the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “If a monarchy falls in the region, this might create a domino effect.”

It was also a slap in the face to U.S. policy in the region, which was focused on coaxing dialogue in Bahrain. Just days before the Saudi intervention, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Bahrain urging King Hamad to take more than “baby steps” towards reform.

That followed alarm in Riyadh over the Obama administration’s desertion of long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, who had cultivated close ties with the Gulf states and who was regarded by the Saudis as another Arab bulwark against “Iranian expansionism.” The U.S. eventually told Mubarak it was time to go, but the Saudi royal family supported him to the end, even offering to make up for any cut in U.S. aid.

Bremmer of the Eurasia Group says the United States does hold important cards — through multi-billion-dollar arms contracts and long-established relationships in the oil industry. And regional analysts say that ultimately Saudi Arabia would likely appeal for and get U.S. help in any showdown with Iran.

Bremmer says that much in the Gulf revolves around personal relationships and loyalties, and he says the Obama administration needs to invest more in that, starting at the top. By contrast, senior executives in U.S. oil companies — by and large no fans of the president’s energy policy — do talk with the Saudis.

In the longer-term, a Saudi tilt to the East may simply reflect new economic realities. Some 55% of Saudi oil now flows to Asia, compared with about 10% that flows to the United States. The Saudi state oil firm has built refineries in China, and trade between the two countries was worth $40 billion in 2010.

As relations with the West fray, Bremmer concludes that “a far-reaching Saudi-China strategic partnership could well result alongside expanded Chinese contracts to buy long-term access to Saudi oil and Chinese investment in developing Saudi infrastructure.”

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Frustrations with GCC Trade Negotiations

Posted on 13 May 2011 by hashimilion

C O N F I D E N T I A L RIYADH 000935

SIPDIS

STATE FOR NEA/ARP (HARRIS)
DEPT PASS USTR FOR JASON BUNTIN

E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/12/2010
TAGS: ETRD ECIN PREL GCC SA AS NZ JA
SUBJECT: GCC TRADE NEGOTIATIONS DOWN UNDER: STICKING POINTS
AND FRUSTRATION WITH THE GCC

Classified By: DCM David Rundell reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

SUMMARY
——-

¶1. (C) At a diplomatic roundtable on free trade agreement
(FTA) negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),
the Australian and New Zealand DCMs expressed fatigue and
frustration with their respective experiences. The New
Zealand DCM said his government is prepared to pull out after
the next round if the two sides cannot make significant
progress. Both said their governments are frustrated with
the GCC as a negotiating partner, and both agreed the GCC
consultations between negotiating sessions has proved to be a
major barrier to progress. End summary.

STICKING POINTS AND FRUSTRATION WITH THE GCC
——————————————–

¶2. (C) According to Australian DCM Roy Clogstoun, his
country’s trade agreement negotiations with the GCC are hung
up on the issue of the GCC’s current five percent tariff on
automobile imports (which Australia would like to eliminate)
and unresolved issues with the services and investment
sections of the agreement. While the current tariff is
relatively low, Australians fear another country (i.e. Japan)
could gain an advantage by negotiating a lower tariff
subsequently. New Zealand’s negotiations are stuck on the
issue of dairy products, though New Zealand DCM Peter Noble
also noted the services and investment portions of their
agreement were sub-optimal (Note: Reportedly, dairy and
sheep products account for 80 percent of New Zealand’s
exports to the GCC.). He described the dispute mechanism and
arbitration sections of the agreement as “acceptable,” but he
said his country was preparing to abandon the process after
the next round in October if negotiators did not make
substantial progress towards reaching an agreement by then.

¶3. (C) Both DCMs expressed frustration with the GCC, going so
far as to question the GCC’s motivation for negotiating the
agreements. Noble implied the Saudis may be using the
negotiations as a training exercise for future agreements
with larger trading partners, noting the Chinese had openly
done so with his country in bilateral trade negotiations.
Both emphasized repeatedly that the GCC’s lack of interim
consultations between member states seriously hampered
progress that otherwise might be easy to achieve. “They
don’t talk to each other between rounds of meetings,” one
said, “they just return to their capitals until the next
round.” The two DCMs asserted that Saudi Arabia controls the
GCC in negotiations and has used smaller GCC members as pawns
in the process — convincing other individual members to
pretend to be the lone holdout opposing a proposal, when in
fact all six member governments actually were in opposition.
Our contacts have said the members tend to act in concert to
distract attention from controversial issues like the human
rights records of individual GCC countries.

¶4. (C) Japanese DCM Fumio Iwai told Econoff in a separate
meeting that the GCC postponed the July round of its free
trade negotiations with Japan. “We are in the same boat as
the Australians,” he said, in that the sticking point in
their negotiations is the five percent auto tariff. Iwai
said the Saudis had the strongest opposition to lowering the
tariff, and he noted that the issue had been raised at the
highest bilateral levels.

COMMENT
——-

¶5. (C) Given GCC officials previously have told us they also
are in FTA negotiations with China, Japan, and Turkey, it
seems likely the New Zealand DCM’s fears that the GCC is
using its separate negotiations with Australia and New
Zealand as a training round may be well-founded.
Nevertheless, that does not mean the GCC wants them to fail.
The failure of EU – GCC negotiations in late 2008
demonstrated an inflexibility which also seems underway here.
One bright spot: both DCMs noted the successful conclusion
of U.S. FTAs with Bahrain and Oman had positively influenced
the negotiating atmosphere.
ERDMAN

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Monarchy Club to Extend Saudi Influence

Posted on 12 May 2011 by hashimilion

The Gulf Co-operation Council could be turning itself into the club of Arab monarchies as it considers bringing Jordan and Morocco into its fold, a move that would strengthen the political and economic capacity of the two countries’ leaders to fend off any popular challenge.

In a surprise announcement late on Tuesday, the GCC, which joins six oil-producing Gulf Arab states, said it was considering a request by Morocco and Jordan to join the bloc, even though the two poorer countries have little in common with existing members.

Following a GCC summit in Riyadh, Abdullatif al-Zayani, the secretary-general, said foreign ministers would be holding talks with the two non-Gulf countries to complete the procedures required for membership. It is not yet clear if membership will be granted or in what form.

Abdullatif al-Zayani

The GCC was formed in 1981 in the wake of the Iranian revolution as an alliance of oil-producing monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.

Efforts at economic integration have been only partly successful, undermined by rivalries and political divisions.

As republics dominated by family rule have proved most vulnerable to popular revolts this year, however, the GCC has been asserting itself, closing ranks to protect its members from the changes sweeping the region. GCC troops were sent to Bahrain to support the ruling Sunni family, helping it crush a Shia uprising. Meanwhile, the organisation pledged $20bn in financial aid to Bahrain and Oman, another Gulf monarchy that was hit by protests.

Saudi Arabia, the heavyweight in the GCC, has also been dismayed by the willingness of the US to abandon long-time allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted this year, and to criticise a Bahraini intervention, which Riyadh insists was needed to counter Iranian meddling.

Diplomats say GCC states have been sending the message that no Gulf ruling family will be allowed to fall – nor will Iran, which is seen as the biggest regional threat, be permitted to take advantage of the unrest in the region.

Khalid al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, said on Twitter that Jordan and Morocco were “clear examples of good, wise governance and real political development”. The GCC, he added, had “a vital interest in joining together with them”.

Mustafa Hamarneh, a Jordanian political analyst, said the GCC move was a sign that Jordan belonged to the “conservative monarchy club”. What all the countries had in common, he said, was that “they see eye to eye on all the main issue: on Iran, on Bahrain and on the question of political reforms”.

Membership in the GCC would be a boost for the Jordanian monarchy, if it went ahead, but would prove a setback for groups seeking reform, he added.

Hassan al-Mostafa, a Saudi writer, said the possible integration of the two countries into the GCC was an attempt to “reshape the region” by creating new alliances at a time when a democratically elected Egyptian government was likely to follow a more independent foreign policy, possibly becoming friendlier with Tehran.

“The GCC will also help Jordan and Morocco to avoid pressure or collapse of these regimes,” he said. “But Moroccans and Jordanians are more politically active and won’t accept the GCC dictating foreign policy.”

Dris Ben Ali, a Moroccan economist who has been advocating political reforms, said he was concerned about the political rationale behind a potential membership in the GCC, which might be aimed at halting Morocco’s move towards a “democratic, parliamentary monarchy” that could become a model for others in the region.

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Gulf Bloc Welcomes More Kings

Posted on 11 May 2011 by hashimilion

The six Gulf monarchies Tuesday responded to Arab uprisings by agreeing to expand their regional grouping to include pro-Western Jordan and Morocco and urged a quick political deal in Yemen.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) welcomed bids by the two Arab kingdoms to join the six-nation grouping of Gulf monarchies, its secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayani said.

“Leaders of the GCC welcomed the request of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to join the council and instructed the foreign ministers to enter into negotiations to complete the procedures,” Zayani told reporters.

He said the same procedure would be followed with Morocco.

His remarks came after a summit in Riyadh of the GCC, which groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, discussed relations with Iran, the unrest in Yemen — the Arabian Peninsula’s only republican state — and the tensions sweeping the region.

The heads of state demanded that all sides in Yemen, which has limited observer status in the GCC, sign a transition plan brokered by the bloc.

“The council urged all parties in Yemen to sign the agreement which is the best way out of the crisis and spare the country further political division and deterioration of security,” the GCC leaders said in a joint statement.

It said their transition plan for Yemen was a “comprehensive agreement that would preserve Yemen’s security, stability and unity.”

GCC heads of state discussed the bloc’s mediation efforts which stalled this month in the face of veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s refusal to sign up to proposals which would require him to stand down.

He has been insisting that any transfer of power should be in line with the constitution which would allow him to serve out his term until 2013.

The GCC plan proposes the formation of a government of national unity, Saleh transferring power to his vice president and resigning after 30 days, a day after parliament passes a law granting him and his aides immunity.

GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani travelled to Sanaa last week to invite members of the government and the opposition to sign the transition plan in Riyadh and to obtain the president’s signature but he returned empty-handed.

At Tuesday’s summit, the Gulf monarchies also criticised Iran’s “continued interference” in their internal affairs.

Relations between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbours have deteriorated sharply, with the bloc accusing Tehran of seeking to destabilise Arab regimes by stoking the unrest that has rocked the region.

Shiite-dominated Iran strongly criticised Saudi Arabia’s mid-March military intervention in Sunni-ruled Bahrain which was aimed at helping crack down on a Shiite-led uprising.

Iran says it gives “moral support” to Bahrainis but is not involved in the protests. Bahrain and Kuwait have expelled Iranian diplomats, accusing them of espionage.

 

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Saudi Arabia’s Halal and Haram Revolutions

Posted on 06 May 2011 by hashimilion

Generally speaking, Saudi Arabia opposes any radical political change in any part of the world. Not only did it show hostility to the revolutions in the Arab world, but it also fought revolutions in Latin America (e.g. supporting the Contra rebels). Furthermore, the saudi royal family has continually funded the election campaigns of right wing conservatives in France and Italy, against their socialist rivals.

We already know from history that Saudi Arabia stood against the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, and the coups and revolutions that followed in Iraq and Syria. They were also hostile to the 1962 Yemeni Revolution, and the revolutionary regime in Southern Yemen and the radical political transformations in Libya, Sudan and Iran. Saudi Arabia perceives all forms of change to be dangerous, which must be stopped at all costs.

In the broader context Saudi Arabia has never supported any revolution or liberation movement, even those that were carried out by muslim minorities in the Philippines and Thailand, whose political leaders studied in Medina’s Islamic University in Medina!

One needs to differentiate between supporting a revolution and conspiring against a regime.In the late 1950s King Saud of  Saudi Arabia paid huge sums of money in order to get Gamal Abdel Nasser assassinated and hence divide the United Arab Republic. In recent years Saudi Arabia has sought to overthrow the regimes in Qatar and Oman who reject Saudi domination.

The Saudi royal family strives to give its anti-revolutionary policies religious legitimacy. Demonstrations and revolutions are forbidden, haram, whilst obedience to the rulers is obligatory! Their philosophy does not need much explanation: Every Saudi policy takes into consideration the local political situation into account, so that dissent is quietened.

Recently this religious anti-revolutionary principle was violated. The state prohibited demonstrations during the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and threatened to crush the skulls of Saudi demonstrators (Sheikh Borake on Saudi State T.V). Half a million copies of fatwas, which prohibited “evil” demonstrations in the kingdom were handed out.

Today there’s a new classification to revolutions: Halal (permissible)  revolutions  which are desirable in Syria, Libya, Iraq,  Iran, Sudan and Algeria. And Haram (forbidden) revolutions in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia! This clearly shows that the religious justifications that prohibit demonstrations is ill founded and relies on the whims of those in power (i.e. the Saudi princes).

The halal revolutions are useful in removing any regime that the Saudi royal family dislikes or doesn’t serve their interests, as is the case in Syria and Libya. On the other hand, the haram revolutions are detrimental to the rulers of Riyadh and to their Wahhabi doctrine, as is the case with Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

There is no religious basis for classifying revolutions as either halal or haram, harmful or beneficial. These classifications are there to serve the interests of the Saudi ruling family.

Sectarian rhetoric was used during the Bahraini revolution in order to justify the Al Khalifa’s tyranny and reduce public sympathy for the revolution. Saudi Arabia’s military intervention succeeded in dividing political opinion in the Arab World.

The Bahraini protesters did not need to use sectarianism to unify their position because they represent the majority of the population. The Bahraini Government wanted to provoke sectarianism in order to lower its  political concession, and they have temporarily succeeded with the help of Saudi’s military intervention.

On the other hand Saudi’s sectarian sheikhs and media army killed the embryonic protest movement in Syria by emphasising the sectarian identity of the protest movement. The saudi media gave the impression that the conflict was between the suuni majority on the one hand and a minority Alawi government on the other hand. The aim of this sectarian incitement was to rally the sunnis against the Alawis, but this pathetic sectarian rhetoric scared all the other minorities, including the Christians and Ismailis against the protesters. The Saudi princes were late in realising the damage that their sectarian discourse had on the protest movement, it was too late.

Sectarian language was used widely in the Arabian Peninsula  and the source is almost always Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Iraq is a good example. The protests in Iraq were not designed to overthrow the government who was democratically elected, but the Al Jazeera channel placed these protests in the context of the Arab Spring. Al Jazeera lost alot of sympathy, especially when it chose to ignore the situation in Bahrain.

Sectarianism delegitimises revolutions  and ultimately leads to their collapse. The Bahraini protests were non-sectarian in nature, but were encircled by sectarianism. In Syria, sectarianism killed the revolution. In Saudi Arabia, the protestors were classified as shiite and belonging to Iran, and those who oppose the protests are proper muslims. Saudi Arabia has sought to play the sectarian card over and over again in Yemen, where the majority of the population belongs to both the Shafi’i and Zaidi sects. Their legendary wisdom has foiled Saudi Arabia’s plans in killing the revolution.

The revolutions in both Egypt and Tunisia were inspired by nationalist sentiment, which succeeded in bridging religious and regional gaps between their citizens. On the other hand, sectarianism is the most important driving factor in the Arabian Peninsula and its people are blinded by it. With it, Saudi Arabia has succeeded in suppressing the revolution in Bahrain by using Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Saudi Arabia’s goal is to bring the curtain down on democracy in the Gulf.

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God save the Arab kings?

Posted on 27 April 2011 by hashimilion

One of the less-discussed facts about the wave of uprisings in the Middle East is that the Arab monarchies are still relatively unscathed. The regimes most seriously challenged by popular protests – in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria – have all been republics. This may seem odd to Europeans whose revolutions over the centuries have been mainly about overthrowing kings.

To some extent, the apparent resilience of Arab monarchies may be a matter of luck. Most of them are in the Gulf and they have oil, which means they can (and do) use their money to buy off discontent. That does not apply to the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco, however, and oil wealth has not saved the Gaddafi regime from trouble in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

Another possible explanation is that Arab monarchs, in the eyes of many of their citizens, have a stronger claim to legitimacy than republican leaders who came to power – or clung on to it – in dubious circumstances.

The monarchies base their legitimacy on religious or tribal roots. The rulers of Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the Emirates all came from old and prominent tribes and the “right” to rule was derived from their families’ status.

The Sabah family, for instance, was a clan of the Anizah tribe which migrated from Nejd – the central plateau of Saudi Arabia – to Kuwait in the 18th century and has ruled locally ever since. The Khalifa family was another clan from the same tribe that had arrived in Bahrain about the same time. The Thani family that rules Qatar is a branch of the Bani Tameem tribe and also arrived from Nejd in the 18th century.

The Saudi royal family has tribal roots too, though its main claim to legitimacy today is religious – so much so that the king’s religious title, Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines (Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam) takes precedence over his royal title.

Similarly, the king of Jordan is official guardian of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, regarded as Islam’s third holiest site. Jordan’s current monarch, Abdullah II, also boasts of being a “43rd generation direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad”. Meanwhile the king of Morocco embodies both “spiritual and temporal authority” and is known as Amir al-Mu’mineen – the prince (or commander) of the believers.

Although rule by birthright might seem an inherently objectionable form of government, the tribal and religious background makes it difficult to challenge in what are often highly traditional and patriarchal societies. In the monarchies where there have been significant protests, such as Morocco, Oman and Jordan, demonstrators have been demanding reform but without questioning the ruler’s right to govern – which is still very much a taboo. (Bahrain is a special case, where a Sunni Muslim minority rules over a Shia majority, making the legitimacy question much more obvious.)

While the legitimacy claims of Arab monarchs might not seem particularly convincing, especially to outsiders, those of the republics are even less so.

A number of revolutionary Arab regimes emerged in the 20th century whose credentials were based primarily on nationalism: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, the separate states of North and South Yemen – plus the Palestinian liberation movement, which fitted a similar mould.

Typically, these revolutionary regimes pursued populist or socialist strategies – nationalisation, land reform and so on – which held out the promise of a better future for the masses. At the same time, they presented themselves as defenders of the nation’s independence, resisting the corrupting, exploitative effects of western imperialism and in particular generating unfulfillable popular expectations regarding the conflict with Israel.

In the wake of successive defeats by Israel, and amid high unemployment, poverty and rampant corruption, it became all too obvious that they were failing to deliver.

Some of the republican regimes further undermined their credibility by starting to resemble monarchies. It began in 2000, when Bashar al-Assad inherited the Syrian presidency from his father. The dictators of Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen also showed signs of intending to hand over power, eventually, to sons or other relatives.

Arabs mockingly combined the words for “republic” and “monarchy” to coin a new term for this type of state: jumlukiyya.

The republics – and especially the jumlukiyyas – thus found themselves scrabbling around for reasons to justify their existence. The problem was apparent even in 2004 when the UN’s Arab Human Development report spoke of a “crisis of legitimacy”:

“Most regimes, nowadays, bolster their legitimacy by adopting a simplified and efficient formula to justify their continuation in power. They style themselves as the lesser of two evils, or the last line of defence against fundamentalist tyranny or, even more dramatically, against chaos and the collapse of the state … ”
“Sometimes,” the report said, “the mere preservation of the state entity in the face of external threats was considered an achievement sufficient to confer legitimacy.”

Strangely, it does not seem to have occurred to them that there was one way they might have re-established their legitimacy: by governing the country justly and well.

So it’s not very surprising that the regimes already toppled or currently under threat are republics of the family-run jumlukiyya variety. This does not mean the others are immune – and it’s worth recalling monarchs were overthrown in Egypt, Yemen and Libya during the 1950s and 1960s.

For now, though, the remaining monarchs are sitting on their thrones fairly comfortably. After a rocky moment, even the king of Bahrain seems to have won more time in power, thanks to support from the royals in neighbouring countries.

This gives them a breathing space in which to reform – if they choose to do so. Whether they will seize the opportunity is another matter. At present, Morocco and Kuwait are the only two that look as if they might, possibly, turn into constitutional monarchies with accountable government. But if they don’t change, their turn will surely come.

By Brian Whitaker

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While the Saudi Elite Looks Nervously Abroad, A Revolution Is Happening

Posted on 14 April 2011 by hashimilion

The Saudi regime is under siege. To the west, its heaviest regional ally, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, has been ousted. To its north, Syria and Jordan are gripped by a wave of protests which shows no sign of receding. On its southern border, unrest in Yemen and Oman rages on. And troops have been dispatched to Bahrain to salvage its influence over the tiny kingdom exerted through the Khalifa clan, and prevent the contagion from spreading to Saudi Arabia’s turbulent eastern provinces, the repository of both its biggest oil reserves and largest Shia population.

Such fears of contagion no longer seem far-fetched. Shortly after the toppling of the Tunisian dictator, an unidentified 65-year-old man died after setting himself on fire in Jizan province, just north of the border with Yemen. Frequent protests urge political reform, and internet campaigns demand the election of a consultative assembly, the release of political prisoners, and women’s rights – one that called for a day of rage on 11 March attracted 26,000 supporters.

The government’s response was in keeping with a country named the region’s least democratic state by the Economist Intelligence Unit last year. Tear gas and live bullets were fired at peaceful demonstrators as helicopters crisscrossed the skies. One of the 11 March organisers, Faisal abdul-Ahad, was killed, while hundreds have been arrested, joining 8,000 prisoners of conscience – among them the co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, Mohammed Saleh al-Bejadi. Many Saudis have even been detained when seeking news of relatives at the interior ministry, like Mubarak bin Zu’air, a lawyer whose father and brother have long been held without charge, and 17-yearold Jihad Khadr whose brother Thamir, a rights activist is also missing. A short video tackling the taboo of political prisoners attracted over 72,000 views since its release 4 days ago.

Although demands for change date back to 1992’s Advice Memorandum – a petition for reform submitted by scholars to the king – the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have accelerated them. In an unprecedented move, a group of activists and intellectuals defied the official ban on political organisation to announce the formation of the kingdom’s first political party (all 10 founding members have since been arrested). And calls for reform have even come from the royal family, with Prince Turki Al Faisal appealing for elections to the Shura, the appointed parliament, at the Jeddah Economic Forum two weeks ago.

What had been whispered behind closed doors for years is being discussed openly not only in social networking sites, but even in front of cameras – as Khaled al-Johani did to a BBC crew in defiance of the hundreds of police, disappearing soon after. And although the regime seeks to appeal to sectarian divisions and invoke the threat of Iran in order to delegitimise dissent, the truth is that the discontent is found across Saudi society, fed by political repression and developmental failure, as a result of corruption, government malfunctioning, and the squandering of billions on arms. You need look no further than ravaged Jeddah after the floods of 2009 and 2011 to see that marginalisation is not unique to the kingdom’s Shia.

Along with the visible political threats facing the regime, it is beset by a more potent social challenge. This is the product of the advancing process of modernisation in Saudi society, with growing urbanisation, mass education, tens of thousands of foreign-taught students, and widespread communication media, with one of the region’s highest percentages of internet users (almost 40%, double that of Egypt). The country’s gigantic oil wealth has taken the society from a simple, predominantly desert existence to a model of affluent consumerism in the space of a few decades. Yet this rapid transformation has not been matched at the culture level, causing a yawning gap between social reality and a conservative ideology imposed by the regime and justified via an intimate alliance between the ruling clan and the Wahhabi clerical establishment with its austere Hanbali interpretation of Islam. This is not to say that the clerical council and its religious police are the decision-makers in Saudi Arabia. They are mere government employees who provide a divine seal for choices made by the king and his coterie of emirs. Their role is to issue the monarch with edicts like the one that sanctioned the “appeal to infidels for protection” when US troops were summoned to the Gulf in 1991.

As a price for political quietism, the clerics’ hands are left untied in the social realm, where they are granted unlimited authority over the monitoring and control of individual and public conduct. No one has paid a greater price for this ruler-cleric pact than women. While turning a blind eye to the monarch and his elite’s political authoritarianism, financial corruption, and subordination to American diktats, these divine warriors turn their muscle on women instead. Every minutia of their lives is placed under the clerics’ watchful gaze, rigorously monitored by draconian religious edicts rejected by the majority of Muslims; they are denied the right to drive, enter into any form of legal agreement, vote, or even receive medical care without a guardian’s consent. But as Hanadi, a Saudi friend, put it: “It’s all hypocrisy. While we are forbidden from baring any flesh in public, including our faces, the TV channels funded by the emirs are the most promiscuous ones around. You don’t see any black robes or niqabs there, only half-naked young girls gyrating to the beat of cheap pop music. It’s a shameless exploitation of religion.”

Now Saudi Arabia finds itself in the eye of the Arab revolutionary storm, its religious and financial arms have been deployed to fortify the status quo. As well as made-to-fit fatwas prohibiting dissent as fitna (division and social strife) and demonstrations and pickets as forms of “insurrection against rulers”, the regime has resorted to bribing its subjects in return for allegiance and acquiescence. On his return from a three-month medical trip in US, the ailing 87-year-old King Abdullah announced financial handouts worth an astonishing $129bn – more than half the country’s oil revenues last year – including a 15% rise for state employees, reprieves for imprisoned debtors, financial aid for students and the unemployed, and the promise of half a million homes at affordable prices – not to mention increases to the religious police budget.

Externally the regime draws sustenance from its “special relationship” with the US. In return for keeping the oil supply steady and pouring billions into the American treasury through arms deals, the Al-Saud family gets a US commitment to complete protection.

Does this mean that the country’s fate is to remain ruled by an absolutist system where the notion of the citizen is non-existent and power is monopolised by an ageing king and his clan? That is unlikely, for Saudi Arabia is not God’s eternal kingdom on Earth and is not impervious to the change that is required internally and regionally. The question is not whether change is coming to Saudi Arabia, but what its nature and scope will be.

By Soumaya Ghannoushi

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