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Sword of Justice? Beheadings Rise in Saudi Arabia

Posted on 05 May 2011 by hashimilion

On November 25, 2007, a Saudi man was beheaded by sword for committing homicide. His execution brought the country’s official number of beheadings to 151. This number was a new record, standing in stark contrast to the 2006 total of 38 and far exceeding the previous record of 113 beheadings in 2000. Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery, and drug trafficking are among the many crimes punishable by beheading in the oil-rich kingdom. Saudis point out that theirs is far from being the only country that maintains capital punishment. Yet, while it would be hypocritical as well as unreasonable to demand the kingdom to eliminate executions altogether, public beheadings are nonetheless cruel and unusual on a global scale. The discussion on this matter has shifted toward one on human rights–namely the right to die with dignity.

One of the primary reasons for the recent increase may lie in the psychological implications of beheadings. Some human rights experts argue that the kingdom’s powerful official clerics fear that they are losing their influence over the Saudi population. In order to achieve the fullest impact on the general populace, beheadings are often performed outside mosques in major cities after prayer services on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Much like the French use of the guillotine in the eighteenth century, a desensitized Saudi citizenry may have grown accustomed to and even expect beheadings. Repeated exposure to public beheadings has decreased their shock value and increased the public’s overall tolerance to them.

Social conditions also render the country particularly vulnerable to abrupt increases in fervor. Justification for capital punishment derives from the country’s conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Shariah, the set of Islamic religious laws. Yet these interpretations are by no means universally accepted in the Muslim world. Many clerics and scholars insist that the Quran makes no mention of the practice whatsoever. Of the roughly 57 Muslim-majority countries worldwide, only in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Qatar do national laws permit beheading. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is the only country that actually continues to behead its offenders, although both Iran and Saudi Arabia uphold the tradition of stoning adulterers to death.

Even with religious rationalization, significant ambiguity still surrounds the legal precedent for these execution practices. Although many of those beheaded are tried and convicted first, evidence suggests that many are neither explained their rights nor provided legal counsel. Most notable among this latter group are foreigners, typically migrant workers from South Asia, Africa, and the poorer areas of the Arab world. In November 2007 alone, those beheaded included citizens of Bangladesh, Yemen, Pakistan, and Ghana.

The imminent beheading of a 19 year-old Sri Lankan girl, Rizana Nafeek, received considerable international attention in 2007. Nafeek had left Sri Lanka to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia and was accused of murdering her employer’s infant child. She was tried without an attorney, apparently confessing to strangling the child under duress. Eventually, as the result of the efforts of international advocacy groups’ efforts, Nafeek received a lawyer in May, and the Sri Lankan foreign ministry attempted to intervene on her behalf. As of December 8, 2007, the country’s Appellate Court began hearing her case. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, Saudi police allegedly tortured a confession out of Nafeek, an accusation the Saudi judicial system has been forced to take seriously in light of international attention.

Despite this recent development, few outside Sri Lanka have maintained interest in the woman’s fate, and international attention to the case has waned. This is peculiarly indicative of Saudi beheadings as a whole. Since August 2007, there have been dozens of beheadings reported, but none have drawn any particular international outcry. The level of domestic criticism for beheadings, though not entirely negligible, is hard to assess given the kingdom’s tight control on media censorship. And while external human rights advocacy groups continue to demand an end to the practice, no one is encouraging Saudi Arabia to adopt a more structured, pragmatic approach–e.g., exercising greater discretion in choosing those to execute publicly or, better yet, transitioning toward a system of predominantly private, discreet capital punishment. With no end to beheadings in sight and with Saudi accusations of foreign critics’ moral relativism, promoting moderation is the only chance the international community has at swaying Saudi Arabia diplomatically.

By Jon Weinberg

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Befriending Saudi Princes: A High Price for a Dubious Alliance.

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

Nothing can justify the heinous terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Yet, some feel that U.S. policies have acted as the equivalent of poking hornets’ nests, turning Americans into targets for violence at home and abroad. Demanding reconsideration, therefore, is the promiscuous foreign intervention that has helped generate not just abstract hatred, but hostile passions intense enough to cause people to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings full of innocent people.

One of the worst aspects of U.S. foreign policy has been the tendency to prop up “friendly” autocratic regimes. Among Washington’s more-dubious allies is Saudi Arabia, a corrupt totalitarian regime at sharp variance with America’s most cherished values, including religious liberty.

The House of Sand has long leaned toward the West. Saudi Arabia grew out of the World War I defeat of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of the Central Powers, at the hands of Great Britain and various subject Arab peoples. King Abdul al-Aziz al-Saud, who briefly fought against the Turks and then defeated the Hashemite Dynasty and allied Arab families to take control of the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, proclaimed the modern Saudi Arabia in 1932. King Abdul al-Aziz, who fathered 44 sons before dying in 1953, was the fount of today’s royal family. His son, pro-American King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, suffered a series of strokes beginning in 1995, leaving another son, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, largely running the government.

Saudi Arabia would be unimportant to the U.S. were it not for the massive oil deposits sitting beneath its seemingly endless deserts. The advent of an activist Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by Saudi Arabia, which supported the oil embargo of 1973-74 against America, helped to raise oil prices and enrich the Saudi monarchy. Tensions with the West grew, and, for a time, a few analysts even advocated invading the Persian Gulf region to seize the oil. The latest round of worrying about Saudi stability has led some people to recycle that idea.

However, in the post-World War II era, U.S. policymakers have focused primarily on defending the Gulf region from other potential invaders–the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Islamic revolutionaries who seized control of Iran in 1979, and, most recently, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. To deter Moscow, Pres. Jimmy Carter created a rapid deployment force; to block Tehran, the Reagan Administration aided Iraq in its bloody and lengthy war against Iran.

Finally, America went to war with Iraq, with preservation of the House of Sand of far more concern than the liberation of Kuwait, the formal public goal. The U.S. and its allies easily defeated Iraq, but left Saddam in power. Ten years of desultory United Nations weapons inspections, economic embargo, “no-fly zones,” and frequent U.S. bombing followed.

America backed its military units in Turkey and carrier forces in the Persian Gulf with about 5,000 Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia as part of the Southern Watch command, comprising aircraft ranging from F-15s and F-16s to C-130s and KC-135s. Another 1,300 military personnel and civilian contractors worked with the Saudi National Guard. No mere temporary response to Saddam’s aggression, America’s presence has a “permanent feel,” as Howard Schneider of the Washington Post put it in May, 2001.

Although the relationship between Riyadh and Washington is close, it has rarely been easy. For American administrations that loudly promote democracy, the alliance with Saudi Arabia has been a deep embarrassment. As the Human Rights Watch reported in 2001, “Freedom of expression and association were nonexistent rights, political parties and independent local media were not permitted, and even peaceful anti-government activities remained virtually unthinkable. Infringements on privacy, institutionalized gender discrimination, harsh restrictions on the exercise of religious freedom, and the use of capital and corporal punishment were also major features of the kingdom’s human rights record.”

Repression and corruption. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, an almost medieval theocracy, with power concentrated in the hands of senior royalty and wealth concentrated among some 7,000 al-Saud princes (or more, by some estimates). Political opposition and even criticism are forbidden. In practice, there are few procedural protections for anyone arrested or charged by the government. The semiautonomous religious police, or Mutawaa’in, intimidate and detain citizens and foreigners alike. The government may invade homes and violate privacy whenever it chooses, and travel is limited. Women are covered, cloistered, and confined, much as they were in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The Saudi regime’s apologists, such as Abdulrahman al-Zamil, a member of the official 120-member Shoura (Advisory) Council, consider the lack of popular accountability a virtue, arguing that it ensures selection “unrelated to the influence of special interest groups and financial contributions.” Ultimate control, though, rests with the 75,000-man National Guard (run by the Crown Prince), which is as large as the army, not with any group of advisors. Command positions are reserved for the royal family, thereby strengthening its influence and creating further resentments. “Nobody climbs up into the higher ranks,” one Saudi complained to the Wall Street Journal in November, 2001. “Those are reserved for the royal family.”

It is perhaps no surprise that such a regime has an unenviable reputation for corruption. Western business partners are occasionally imprisoned to resolve disputes. The problem is so great that the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has acknowledged tens of billions of dollars in abuse and theft. Indolence is even more widespread. For years, every college graduate could expect a government position that provided a good salary (and many tea breaks) for little effort. More than a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s nearly 23,000,000 people are expatriates, many of whom are domestic workers. During the Gulf War, many Saudis expected others to do the dirty work of military combat, likening America’s presence to hiring mercenaries.

Religious totalitarianism. Most ugly, however, is the religious totalitarianism enforced by Riyadh. Citizens and foreigners alike are prohibited from engaging in non-Muslim worship as well as proselytizing. According to former foreign service officer Tim Hunter, fired by the State Department for his criticism of its timidity in dealing with the Saudis, Christian clerics, if discovered, are arrested, beaten and brutalized, and eventually expelled from the country. Conversion means apostasy, which is punishable by death. Private devotion is theoretically allowed, but homes are raided if worshippers gather together. Christians have also been punished for blasphemy. In this regard, Saudi Arabia follows much of the same policy as the Taliban (which Riyadh recognized and funded until recently), that was assailed by Pres. Bush for prosecuting foreign aid workers Who were accused of proselytizing.

Thuggish behavior alone is rarely enough to preclude diplomatic relations, but it should discourage the U.S. from affirmatively embracing the Saudi regime, even in the name of stability. After all, repression is not the only path to security. Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Kuwait has gained legitimacy by creating an elected legislature and considering giving women the vote, while Bahrain plans on holding parliamentary elections in 2003, a move that, in the words of analyst Joseph Shattan, “appears to have seriously blunted the anti-American rage that is currently sweeping through the rest of the Arab world.” In fact, the quick dissipation of fundamentalist street protests during the war in Afghanistan would appear to offer a propitious moment for Arab governments to adopt political reforms. Those autocratic regimes should be strong enough to risk reaching for long-term stability through democratic means.

American policies have identified Washington with the Saudi kleptocracy. As Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute observes, “We are associated with regimes that are corrupt and illegitimate.” Many average Saudis believe the U.S. is either serving as a pillar of the regime or taking advantage of its position to profit from the Gulf War. This has generated anger against America and support for sending home its troops, as well as the feeling that terrorism against the U.S. is legitimate. That phenomenon was evident after the bombing of the Khobar Towers military barracks in 1996, as well as after Sept. 11.

Americans are paying for Washington’s cozy ties with Riyadh. That association has made the U.S. a target of terrorists. Obviously, one must take Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden’s pronouncements with some grains of salt, but ending Washington’s support for the corrupt regime in Riyadh and expelling American forces from the Persian Gulf region appear to be his main goals. Since he lacks missiles, bombers, and carrier groups to achieve his end, he instead relies on terrorism.

Growing internal problems. The Saudi ruling elite is paying for its repression and links to Washington, especially when contrasted with its formalistic Muslim piety. With 70% of government revenues (and 40% of gross domestic product) derived from oil sales, the drop in energy prices since the early 1980s has caused economic pain in Saudi Arabia; per capita GDP has dropped from $28,600 in 1981 to less than $7,000 today. Unemployment is estimated at 15% overall and 20% for those under 30. That has helped generate deep undertones of unrest, but the discontented feel helpless to promote political change. Any criticism tends to be expressed through religious leaders. Novelist Abdelrahman Munif warns that the “situation produces a desperate citizenry, without a sense of dignity or belonging.” As Neil MacFarquhar of The New York limes observed in November, 2001, “In another country Mr. bin Laden might have become an opposition politician rather than a holy warrior. But Saudi Arabia brooks no dissent.”

Senior clerics live well on the government payroll and therefore lack credibility. Radical freelancers have developed a widespread following. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 were from Saudi Arabia, and in January, 2002, Riyadh acknowledged that about 100 of the 158 alleged Al Qaeda prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay were Saudi citizens. One Saudi businessman told the Wall Street Journal: “Many young people are disgruntled and disenchanted with our society’s openness to the West and U.S. foreign policy. These people are frustrated and have nothing to do. They fall prey to people with agendas of their own. They are time bombs. They’re like the Japanese kamikaze.” With roughly half of the population under the age of 15, the potential for further unrest is substantial.

Soaring dissatisfaction with the regime due to slumping revenues and a slowing economy has merged with criticism of America. Numerous Saudis are angry about U.S. support for the House of Saud, and many students irrationally blame America for Saudi Arabia’s economic woes. Additional irritants include Washington’s support of Israel, attacks on Iraq (which are paradoxically seen as anti-Muslim now, a decade after that nation’s defeat), and the invasion of Afghanistan. Admiration for bin Laden is evident even among those who dislike his austere Islamic vision. Richard Murphy, a onetime U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia currently with the Council on Foreign Relations, worries that, “After 11 years, we’ve worn out our welcome on the popular level, though not with the leadership.”

Saudi obstructionism

The Saudi leadership has proved wary of aiding the U.S. despite direct attacks on Americans. The 1996 bomb attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Dharan killed 19 Americans and wounded 372. It was the work of radical Islamists, who, like bin Laden, view Riyadh’s alliance with America as a defilement of holy lands. U.S. efforts to investigate the bombing were hamstrung by the Saudis, who refused to turn over relevant information or to extradite any of the 13 Saudis indicted by an American grand jury.

In the same year, the Saudis refused, despite U.S. urging, to take custody of bin Laden from Sudan. In 1998, he and several other extremist Muslim leaders issued a manifesto calling for a holy war to drive the U.S. from Islamic lands. Even so, American officials were unable “to get anything at all from King Fahd” to challenge bin Laden’s financial network, charged John O’Neill, a former FBI official involved with counterterrorism who died in the attack on the World Trade Center, where he was security chief.

Riyadh’s reluctance to risk popular displeasure by identifying with Washington continues, even after the deaths of several thousand Americans on Sept. 11. Observes Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum: “In 1979, when a group of extremists took over the Mecca Mosque, the Saudi regime called in French troops, infidels to go into Mecca and take it over. [In] 1990, when Saddam Hussein threatened, they called us in and we protected them. Now it’s our turn to call. We’re the ones who lost [more than 3,000] dead. We need them, they’ve got to be there.”

Privately, White House aides acknowledge that Saudi officials have not been as cooperative as the U.S. hoped. Riyadh has refused to run “traces,” involving background investigations, on its 15 citizens who committed the atrocities of Sept. 11, supply passenger lists of those on flights to America, and block terrorist funds flowing through supposed charities. (If the money goes awry, the regime explains, it does so outside of Saudi Arabia.) Riyadh has also pressed non-OPEC nations to cut oil production in an attempt to raise prices to buttress the cartel of which it is the leading member. It is no surprise, then, that Riyadh seemed to be one of the targets of Bush’s November, 2001, address to the UN General Assembly when he called for moving from “sympathy” to “action.” Publicly, however, Administration officials, including the President, laud Saudi cooperation.

The Saudis are, it is true, allowing use of the operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base, near Riyadh, but Saudi Arabia has joined its neighbors in attempting to keep its distance, ostentatiously announcing that no foreign troops would use Saudi facilities to stage attacks. One reason is concern about America’s strong support for Israel, but, more generally, Riyadh fears identifying with the U.S. By early November, 2001, some Saudi officials were at least willing to blame the Taliban and not America for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, though the Saudis failed to join other governments in marking the three-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Still, one anonymous official asked, “Does it matter what we are saying publicly?” Just as cooperation with the West generates unrest, the refusal to defend cooperation with the West aggressively encourages extremist sentiments to grow.

The lack of a public endorsement pales in comparison with Riyadh’s support for the very Islamic fundamentalism that threatens to consume the regime in Riyadh as well as to murder more Americans in future terrorist attacks. Al-Zamil criticized the U.S. for aiding Afghan guerrillas only in their fight against the Soviet Union, as if Washington could have subsequently imposed order on a land rent by warring, fratricidal factions, maintaining that “The Saudi volunteers, pure at heart and committed to high principles, could understand neither the opportunism nor pragmatism of U.S. foreign policy.” It is a curious criticisen for a Saudi official, given the rank opportunism and pragmatism of Saudi policy. Al-Zamil admits that “the U.S. military presence is very unpopular throughout Saudi society and is a liability rather than an asset,” raising questions about why American military personnel are there–other than as pragmatic protection from Iraq and perhaps Iran.

As MacFarquhar has observed in the Times, a charity telethon designed to channel funds to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers “perfectly mirrored the government’s way of doing business: throw money at nasty problems and leave the unpleasant details under the rug.” Riyadh’s strategy is to buy off everyone. It long subsidized Arab governments and guerrilla movements at war with Israel, and it opposed the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The regime was, along with Pakistan, the primary financial backer of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which provided sanctuary for bin Laden and his training camps. It is widely believed that even Saudi businessmen unsympathetic to his goals have made contributions to bin Laden in an attempt to purchase protection. There are serious charges of financial support from some members of the Saudi royal family itself for bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

The problem goes even deeper. The Saudi state, run by royals who often flaunt their libertinism, enforces the extreme Wahhabi form of Islam at home and subsidizes its practice abroad. Wahhabism derives from the practices of a fundamentalist 18th-century tribal leader whose followers helped the Saudi royal family consolidate power in the early 1900s. The practice is thought to dominate as many as 80% of the mosques in America. Within this sect, hostile to modernity, political extremism and support for terrorism have flourished in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the threat reaches beyond the Middle East to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. According to The New York Times, Riyadh “has also sponsored the fundamentalist academies known as madrassa in Pakistan. Many graduates of these madrassa have headed straight to Afghanistan, some to bin Laden training camps.”

In short, “these are SOBs who are barely even our SOBs,” complains National Review editor Rich Lowry. By any normal assessment, Americans should care little if the House of Saud fell, as have other illegitimate monarchies such as Iran’s Peacock throne, except for one thing: Saudi Arabia has oil. Quoted in Forbes in November, 2001, Saudi oil expert Nawaf Obaid worries that, if it fell to a fundamentalist revolution, the resulting government would be “ten times more powerful [than] Iraq or Iran.”

Contrary to popular wisdom, the Saudis’ trump card is surprisingly weak. Tree, with 262,000,000,000 barrels in proven reserves, Saudi Arabia has about one-quarter of the world’s resources and 8.7 times America’s supplies. Riyadh is not only the world’s leading supplier, but, as a low-cost producer, it can easily augment its daily exports, that totaled 9,100,000 barrels a day in 2001.

However, the reserves figure vastly overstates the importance of Middle Eastern oil to the U.S. (and Western) economy. Saudi Arabia accounted for about 12.3% of global production in 2000 (and closer to 10% in 2001); Riyadh plus Kuwait and the various sheikdoms came to 21.3%; and OPEC as a whole produced 41.5% of the world’s oil supplies.

By one estimate, zero Mideast production would push prices to $76 a barrel. The result in such a worst-case scenario would be severe economic pain in the short term, though the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which Bush has vowed to fill, would help moderate prices. With a one percent supply reduction estimated to influence a 10% price rise, zero Saudi production would push prices to $42 a barrel–a high, but hardly catastrophic, level. Moreover, the U.S. has survived high prices in the past. Between 1974 and 1985, real gasoline prices ranged between 1.4 and 2.3 times current prices.

The myth of the oil weapon

Were the Saudi regime to fail, prices would rise substantially only if the conqueror, whether internal or external, kept the oil off the market. That would be true especially if the other states in the region did not collapse as well.

Withholding oil, though, would defeat the very purpose of conquest, even for a fundamentalist regime. After all, the Iranian revolution did not cause Iran to stop exporting oil; production increased every year from 1990 to 1998 and rose again in 2000, almost returning to 1998 levels. In fact, even bin Laden urged his followers in late 2001 via videocassettes not to damage Saudi oil wells since oil is the source of Arab power.

If a new regime did halt sales, the primary beneficiaries would be other oil producers, who likely would increase exports in response to higher prices. A targeted boycott of only the U.S. would be ineffective, since oil is a uniform product available around the world. In fact, the embargo of 1973-74 had little impact on production. The global recession of 1975 caused a far-more-noticeable drop.

A new regime might decide to pump less oil in order to raise prices. Such a strategy would require international cooperation, yet the oil producers have long found it difficult to coordinate price hikes and limit cheating on agreed-upon quotas. Even if effective, restricting sales would have just a limited impact. A decade ago, when oil was selling for about $20 a barrel, David R. Henderson, former senior energy economist with Pres. Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers and now with the Hoover Institution, calculated that the worst result of an Iraqi seizure of the Saudi oil fields would be about a 50% price increase, which would cost the U.S. economy approximately one-half of one percent of GDP.

In any case, the economic impact would decline over time. Countries such as Kuwait, Iran, Nigeria, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates have the ability to pump significantly more oil than they are currently producing. As economist Susan Lee puts it, should Riyadh turn off the pumps, “the U.S. would find itself plenty of new best friends.”

Sharply higher prices would bring forth new energy supplies elsewhere. Total proven world oil reserves were 660,000,000,000 barrels in 1980, 1.009 trillion in 1990, and 1.046 trillion at the end of 2000. Yet, in the last decade alone, the world’s people consumed 250,000,000,000 barrels of oil. How could this be? A combination of new discoveries and technological advances increased the amount of economically recoverable oil. Reserves rose even as oil prices dropped. Between 1980 and 1990, proven oil reserves jumped by 62%, while prices for Middle Eastern petroleum were falling 43%. Prices eventually hit a dramatic low in 1998, down another 41%, before rising over the next two years.

America’s oil options. The U.S. is dotted with high-production-cost wells that could be unplugged. The nation’s outer continental shelf alone is thought to contain more than current proven reserves, though, since so little of the outer continental shelf–barely six percent–has been leased, those resources have not been proved. Some 15,000 acres of the 19,600,000-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could contain a similar amount of oil (as well as supplies of natural gas). Even the modest estimate of 5,000,000,000 barrels of recoverable reserves would be a significant addition to current supplies. However, it won’t be known how much is there without drilling, which could be conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner. Although some people might think the desire to lower the cost of gasoline an inadequate reason to develop those supplies, the prospect of terrorism and war related to America’s access to Persian Gulf oil should change the cost/benefit ratio considerably.

Further, approximately 300,000,000,000 barrels of unrecovered oil–10 times our proven reserves and more than known Saudi resources–lie in beds of shale under the U.S. They are not counted because they are not currently worth developing, but, as prices rise and new techniques are developed, they may become economically recoverable.

Moreover, energy companies are looking for new oil deposits around the world, including in the Caspian Basin, Russia, and West Africa. Estimates of as yet undiscovered potentially recoverable oil range from one trillion to six trillion barrels. The Energy Information Administration estimates that, at current consumption rates, we have enough oil for another 230 years and that “unconventional” sources, such as shale, could last 580 years. Even those figures are based on existing prices and technologies. Higher prices would stimulate exploration, as well as production of alternative fuels and conservation, reducing oil consumption.

In short, an unfriendly Saudi Arabia might hurt America’s pocketbook, but would not threaten America’s survival. Different would be the ascension of a truly terrorist regime, one dedicated to using oil revenues to undertake a campaign against the U.S. That is unlikely, however, if for no other reason than that Washington’s campaign against Afghanistan demonstrates that, in such a case, the new ruling elites would not long remain the new ruling elites. (Control of the Gulf region by a hegemonic rival, notably the Soviet Union, would have posed a significantly different, and greater, security threat, but that prospect disappeared with the end of the Cold War.)

Although in an unlikely worst case (the loss of most Persian Gulf oil) the cost hike might be significant, that risk must be balanced against the annual cost of maintaining forces to protect Saudi oil, estimated at $50,000,000,000. On top of that come the expenses of fighting terrorism, exacerbated by U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. The war in Afghanistan costs at least $1,000,000,000 a month, and then there are the likely civilian casualties from future attacks should the war on terrorism fail or prove just partially successful.

Severing the tie

Mentioning Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings or suggesting that the regime’s survival is not vital to the U.S. makes policymakers in Washington and Riyadh nervous. In particular, the House of Saud doesn’t take criticism well. Crown Prince Abdullah denounced the American media in a speech on state television, charging that they were damaging his nation’s reputation and driving a wedge between his government and Washington. In the Arab News, he blamed the American media campaign for expressing “its hatred toward the Islamic system.” His government diplomatically suggested that Riyadh’s problems were with the press, not the Bush Administration. (In November, 2001, the Saudi government bought a four-page advertisement in leading newspapers extolling the accomplishments of King Fahd, “a doyen of world statesmen.”)

In fact, there are rumors that policymakers in Riyadh, worried about domestic criticism of their ties to Washington, are considering ending America’s military presence. That naturally has been denied by Saudi and U.S. officials alike, but serious tensions obviously remain. In his letter to the President, Crown Prince Abdullah wrote, “It is time for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests.” Al-Zamil suggested that “Saudi Arabia might well find it necessary to reassess its 70-year special relationship with the United States,” including pulling its students out of American universities, withdrawing financial investments from the U.S., and “playing a different role within OPEC.”

Those are empty threats, however, since America would not notice the departure of Saudi university students, and arbitrarily pulling out investments would hurt Saudi Arabia more than the U.S. Moreover, even in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Riyadh was lobbying non-OPEC oil producers to cut production, to America’s detriment. The House of Saud sets, and will continue to set, oil production on the basis of Saudi, not American, interests.

Washington should take the initiative. The country that should reassess the current Washington-Riyadh axis is the U.S. As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby observed on Nov. 18, 2001, “For years the United States has had an arrangement with Saudi Arabia’s rulers: They would sell us oil and we would pretend not to notice that they were intolerant dictators who crashed dissent at home while nurturing some of the world’s most violent fanatics abroad. But now we are at war with those fanatics and the old bargain cannot continue.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) has broken with the Washington consensus to make much the same point. The American commitment to the Saudi royal family is a moral blemish and a practical danger. It has already drawn the U.S. into one conventional war and has helped make Americans targets of terrorism, which generated far more casualties in one day than did the Gulf War, Kosovo conflict, and Afghanistan campaign (so far) combined.

The most important reason to withdraw U.S. troops is to eliminate a source of antagonism that has fostered the sort of virulent terrorism seen on Sept. 11. Nevertheless, Washington can ill afford to cite that as its justification, and it cannot pull out precipitously, lest the lesson learned abroad is that the way to change U.S. foreign policy is to slaughter innocent Americans.

Nevertheless, America has ample reason to make such a change on other, public grounds–Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian regime that has simultaneously fostered terrorism abroad and undercut long-term stability at home. The survival of the House of Saud should be left to itself.

Saudi Arabia’s oil is important, but who sells it to America is not. Indeed, although stability in the Persian Gulf is of value, the benefits of the U.S.’s presence are not so obvious. It is not clear that it increases Saudi stability. It is certain that the royal family will do whatever it takes to maintain its power and privileges against internal opposition. As analyst Simon Henderson puts it, “The House of Saud will be ruthless in preserving itself.” If that ruthlessness is inefficient, the American presence’ is not likely to help, unless the U.S. is prepared to commit ground forces–in addition to those presently on station–to prop up the monarchy, creating the prospect of a lengthy occupation and increased terrorist activity.

Of greater concern is the possibility of renewed external aggression, most obviously by Iraq, though it remains in a greatly weakened condition. Even before Sept. 11, the Gulf states were working to resolve conflicts and improve their ability to defend themselves without Washington’s help. Saudi Arabia spends more on its military than do Iran and Iraq combined, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, has a larger population than Iraq, but has yet to field a comparable military. The prospect of American disengagement would, like the prospect of a hanging, help concentrate the mind. Such a prospect would also increase pressure on the Gulf states to forge defensive relationships with surrounding powers–most notably Iran, Syria, and Turkey–and to inaugurate serious political reform to generate a popular willingness to defend the incumbent regimes.

If it fails to act, however, the U.S. shouldn’t worry unduly about the future of the Saudi regime. As National Review’s Lowry observes, “Dealing with these allies will require more cold-bloodedness and calculation than the U.S. has been capable of since the height of the Cold War.” Although Lowry opposes withdrawal of U.S. troops, that is the logical result of cold-blooded analysis. Badgering the Saudis to be more cooperative and to democratize, as has been proposed, is unlikely to succeed, since they would have done so already if they thought it was in their interest.

Expanding America’s military, going to war, and risking civilian casualties as a result of terrorism in order to defend Riyadh costs far more than stability in the Gulf region is worth. Forcibly ousting the House of Sand and imposing a puppet regime, whatever such a strategy’s apparent short-term virtues, would further entangle the U.S. in a virulent, hate-filled region made even more volatile by America’s action. The hysterical international reaction, by friend and foe alike, can easily be imagined.

Should the House of Saud fall or be overrun, Washington would finally be relieved of the moral dead weight of defending that regime. Consumers almost certainly would continue to purchase sufficient oil, if not directly from a hostile Saudi regime, then from other producers in a marketplace that would remain global. Americans would adjust to any higher prices by finding new supplies, developing alternative energy forms, and reducing consumption.

There were many causes of the Sept. 11 atrocity. Some, such as America’s status as a free society whose influence permeates the globe, reflect the country’s very being and cannot and should not be changed. Others–such as Washington’s willingness to make common cause with the morally decrepit, theocratic monarchy in Riyadh–would be of only dubious benefit even if they did not put Americans at risk. The U.S. must not retreat from the world, but it should stop intervening militarily and supporting illegitimate and unpopular regimes where its vital interests are not involved, as in Saudi Arabia.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.

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Al-Qaeda’s Affiliate Groups

Posted on 02 May 2011 by hashimilion

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a firefight with U.S. forces in Pakistan on Sunday, President Barack Obama announced.

Here are some details on Al Qaeda’s main affiliate groups in the Arabian peninsula, Iraq and North Africa.

* AL QAEDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA (AQAP)

– Al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi wings merged in 2009 into a new group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen. They announced this three years after a counter-terrorism drive halted an al Qaeda campaign in Saudi Arabia.

– AQAP’s Yemeni leader, Nasser al-Wahayshi, was once a close associate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, whose father was born in Yemen, a neighbor of top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.

Nasser al-Wahayshi

 

– Yemen’s foreign minister has said 300 AQAP militants might be in the country.

– Nearly a year before the September 11, 2001 attacks, al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole warship in October 2000 when it was docked in the southern Yemen port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors.

– AQAP claimed responsibility for an attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner on December 25, 2009, and said it provided the explosive device used in the failed attack. The suspected bomber, a young Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had visited Yemen and been in contact with militants there.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

 

– AQAP staged several attacks in Yemen in 2010, among them a suicide bombing in April aimed at the British ambassador, who was not injured.

– The group also claimed responsibility for a foiled plot to send two air freight packages containing bombs to the United States in October 2010. The bombs were found on planes in Britain and Dubai. Last November AQAP vowed to “bleed” U.S. resources with small-scale attacks that are inexpensive but cost billions for the West to guard against.

* AL QAEDA IN THE ISLAMIC MAGHREB (AQIM)

Abdelmalek Droukdel

 

– Led by Algerian militant Abdelmalek Droukdel, AQIM burst onto the public stage in January 2007, a product of the rebranding of fighters previously known as Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).

– The Salafists had waged war against Algeria’s security forces but in late 2006 they sought to adopt a broader jihadi ideology by allying themselves with al Qaeda.

– AQIM scored initial high-profile successes with attacks on the government, security services and the United Nations office in Algiers in 2007. Since 2008, attacks have tailed off as security forces broke up AQIM cells in Algeria.

– Although concrete intelligence is scant, analysts say there are a few hundred fighters who operate in the vast desert region of northeastern Mauritania, and northern Mali and Niger. AQIM’s most high-profile activity is the kidnapping of Westerners, many of whom have been ransomed for large sums.

– AQIM has claimed responsibility for the abduction of two Frenchmen found dead after a failed rescue attempt in Niger last January and it is also holding other French nationals kidnapped in Niger in September 2010. A tape, released on Islamist forums late last month, showed pictures of each of the hostages.

* AL QAEDA IN IRAQ (AQI):

– The group was founded in October 2004 when Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged his faith to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

 

– An Egyptian called Abu Ayyab al-Masri but also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir is said to have assumed the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after Zarqawi was killed in 2006.

– In October 2006, the al Qaeda-led Mujahideen Shura Council said it had set up the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella group of Sunni militant affiliates and tribal leaders led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. In April 2007 it named a 10-man “cabinet,” including Masri as its war minister.

– Fewer foreign volunteers have made it into Iraq to fight with al Qaeda against the U.S.-backed government but the group has switched to fewer albeit more deadly attacks.

– Militants linked to al Qaeda claimed bombings in Baghdad on December 8, 2009 near a courthouse, a judge training center, a Finance Ministry building and a police checkpoint in southern Baghdad. At least 112 people were killed and hundreds wounded. — On April 18, 2010 Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in a raid in a rural area northwest of Baghdad by Iraqi and U.S. forces.

– A month later the ISI said its governing council had selected Abu Baker al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi as its caliph, or head, and Abu Abdullah al-Hassani al-Qurashi as his deputy and first minister, replacing al-Baghdadi and al-Masri.

– Last October gunmen linked to the Iraqi al Qaeda group seized hostages at a Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday mass. Around 52 hostages and police were killed in the incident, which ended when security forces raided the church to free around 100 Iraqi Catholic hostages.

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Warmth is Back in Pakistani-Saudi Relations?

Posted on 26 April 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WAR OF WORDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women Assert Place in Yemen’s Protests

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the beleaguered president of Yemen, should have known better. Fighting for his political life (and perhaps for his physical life too), he played the woman card. After last Friday’s prayers, he tried to dampen down the escalating protests against his rule by admonishing women to stay home. He claimed that their presence in the streets, “mingling with men,” was against Islam.   His ploy backfired. Within hours of his speech, text messages raced around the capital demanding a “women’s march” as a rebuttal.  The following day, 10,000 abaya-clad women, almost all wearing the face-covering niqab, marched in protest. Many of the women had never before participated in any political activities. They were there to avenge the honor of all Yemeni women. As one woman shouted into a microphone, “If Saleh read the Quran, he wouldn’t have made this accusation.”

Perhaps if he knew his history better, he would have avoided kicking this hornet’s nest altogether. Throughout the 20th century, women played an important role in revolutions and wars of independence across the Islamic world. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan, well understood the critical role that women could play in the independence movement – as actors and as symbols. He purposefully addressed women’s gatherings and encouraged their participation in meetings and street demonstrations.  The women’s wing of Jinnah’s Muslim League – comprised mostly of wives, daughters and sisters of prominent Muslim League men – proved crucial in getting Muslim women out of their homes for the first time to advocate for an independent Pakistan.  Although conservative Islamic leaders condemned these actions on the part of women, the Muslim League defended women’s mobilization as a religious duty. Women’s mobilization, even in the conservative North-West Frontier Province, was so successful that the British governor, upon seeing the mass of burqa-clad women in the streets, supposedly exclaimed, “Pakistan is made.”

Ayatollah Khomeini was also a master of mobilizing women.   One of the turning points of the Iranian Revolution occurred on September 8, 1978, a day that is remembered in Iran as Black Friday. A number of revolutionary groups planned a large demonstration in Jaleh Square in downtown Tehran. By early morning, thousands of people from across the Iranian political spectrum–from Khomeini’s Islamist supporters to intellectuals to Communists–had gathered.  Among them was a sizeable group of women covered from head to toe in their dark chadors. These revolutionary “sisters,” as they came to be known, heeded Ayatollah Khomeini’s calls to leave the confines of their homes to support the protesters–an act previously considered blasphemous in traditional homes, but now legitimized by Khomeini.

As the demonstration progressed, the Shah’s troops closed in on the square. Suddenly, the security forces began firing indiscriminately on the crowd. Hundreds were killed and many more wounded. The Black Friday Massacre was the first time the Shah had used such a heavy hand in stopping a public protest. The fact that women were among the casualties inflamed public opinion. For many protesters, the Shah irrevocably crossed the red line on that Friday.

In some ways, it seems Saleh’s cynical comments about women (he is hardly known for his piety) crossed a red line for Yemenis. Women are now more engaged than ever in Yemen’s struggle for a better government. When I was in Yemen in January, I spent a day with Tawakul Karman, one of the most vocal and active leaders of Yemen’s youth movement who has been leading student demonstrations against Saleh’s corrupt rule for two years now.   Karman, a young mother of three and a member of the Islamic Islah party, has developed a high profile in Yemeni opposition politics. Her name has been bandied about as a possible presidential candidate to succeed Saleh. A female president is unlikely in a country that suffers from some of the worst gender statistics in the world. Then again, so does Pakistan, which has elected a woman leader twice – albeit the same woman.

Saleh, who has lost the backing of both the Saudis and the United States, seems to be in the process of trying to negotiate a handover of power.  Women have made it clear that they are determined to be part of Yemen’s transition. Undoubtedly, conservative forces will try to sideline women once the goal of overturning Saleh is achieved, much as they did in the Iranian revolution and in post-Independence Pakistan (and as some are trying to do in Egypt today). But Yemeni women, like Tawakul Karman, are not about to take a back seat.

By Isobel Coleman

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Pakistanis Urge Saudi Arabia To Release Murder Suspects

Posted on 15 April 2011 by hashimilion

Legislators in northwestern Pakistan have demanded Saudi Arabia release three Pakistani citizens who have been kept in Saudi jails for 13 years, RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal reports.

The issue of jailed Pakistanis was raised in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial assembly on April 13 after several of the relatives of those jailed in Saudi Arabia held a demonstration in Peshawar on April 11.

Relatives of the jailed Pakistanis said they were arrested on murder charges but, although not convicted, have still paid “blood money” to the victims’ relatives in an effort to be released. They said that under Saudi law they are supposed to be freed after paying the relatives.

Addressing an assembly session, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said the Pakistanis “were arrested on charges of [murder]…but the Saudi authorities have failed to prove the charges. [The investigators] extracted their fingernails and hair, and kept them in solitary confinement, but could not prove the charges [against them].”

Hussain told RFE/RL that the harsh investigation practices used by the Saudis are a gross violation of human rights and he demanded the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia ensure justice to the three Pakistanis.

Hussain said in parliament that “we request the Pakistani government discuss the issue with the Saudis. And we request that the Saudi authorities — in the name of humanity — release the three men on the basis of Islamic laws and human rights.”

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Obama’s Dilemma Over Saudi Arabia

Posted on 08 April 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saudi Response Reveals Fear That Sunni Power Is Fading

Posted on 17 March 2011 by hashimilion

There is growing anger in the Shia community, estimated to number at least 250 million world-wide, at the intervention of troops from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in Bahrain to help repress the Shia majority which has been demanding political and civil rights.

“There is a general campaign against the Shia,” said Yusuf al-Khoei of the al-Khoei Foundation, a leading Shia charitable organisation. “The best way for these [Sunni Muslim] states to gain the allegiance of the Shia is to treat them nice and stop accusing them of being Iranian spies.”

Mr Khoei said it was significant that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only two Arab states to recognise the Taliban government of Afghanistan which was notorious for persecuting Shia as heretics. He added that suicide bomb attacks on Shia in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq are justified according to Wahhabism, the fundamentalist version of Islam predominant in Saudi Arabia.

“The Bahraini army is wholly Sunni and the police almost entirely so, apart from some community policing officers,” said Mr Khoei. The Shia make up some 60 per cent of Bahrain’s 600,000 population.

Bahrain is one of only four countries in the world where there is a Shia majority, the others being Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan. The Shia make up only 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population.

The protests in Bahrain started in February as non-sectarian demands for political, civil and legal reform. But the killing of demonstrators by the police has led to radicalisation, demands for an end to the monarchy, and growing sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shia.

The al-Khalifa royal family has previously claimed that reformers and protesters are agents of Iran. But, according to cables from the US embassy, it has never been able to produce evidence of this. The Shia demonstrators, supported by some liberal Sunni, have continually emphasised that they are peaceful.

The Gulf monarchies along with Jordan, Egypt and other Sunni Arab states have always been paranoid about a Shia threat. This paranoia has grown deeper since the Shia majority in Iraq has taken power after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In practice the Shia have only gained influence where they make up a substantial portion of the population. By opting for military intervention to quash the movement of mainly Shia protesters in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia is likely to deepen sectarian division.

By Patrick Cockburn

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