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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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Relations Between Qatar and Syria Deteriorate

Posted on 19 April 2011 by hashimilion

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad reacts to Qatari threats by refusing to meet with the Qatari Foreign Minister.

According to semi official Syrian sources, the Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, informed the Syrian leadership that “Bahrain is equal to Syria”. Hence, any protests taking place in Bahrain would be countered by a large scale campaign of incitement against the Syrian regime by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya TV channels.

Syrian officials believe that Qatar has changed its political position and adopted a policy that is more in line with Saudi Arabia. They believe that the change was brought about by an internal struggle inside the Qatari ruling family.

The Syrian leadership is trying to repair the damage caused by the protests. Leading Syrian officials believe that there is a high level of coordination between the GCC Governments, Isreal and the United States. All three parties want to sabotage the political situation in Syria, as a first step to overthrowing the regime.

The Syrian leadership realized weeks ago that the Qatari Foreign Minister had became the broker for opportunistic trade-offs in the region, which prompted a firm response.

The sectarian tendencies of  the Saudi and Qatari officials lead to annulment of the meeting between the Syrian President and the Qatari Minister in Damascus. President Assad will not meet with any official until the threats stop.

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Yemen President Offers Opposition Dialogue

Posted on 20 February 2011 by hashimilion

Yemen’s embattled president on Sunday sought a way out of the political crisis gripping his impoverished Arab nation, offering to oversee a dialogue between his ruling party and the opposition to defuse the ongoing standoff with protesters demanding his ouster.

The offer by the U.S.-backed Ali Abdullah Saleh came as protests demanding that he step down continued for the 11th straight day, with 3,000 university students demonstrating Sunday at Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.

The protests pose the most serious challenge to Saleh’s rule to date.

He has already made a series of concessions, pledging that his son would not succeed him and that he would not seek another term in office. On Sunday, he repeated his offer for negotiations.

“Dialogue is the best means, not sabotage or cutting off roads,” Saleh, in office for more than 30 years, told a news conference. “I am ready to sit on the negotiating table and meet their demands if they are legitimate,” said the Yemeni leader, who warned against “infiltrators” seeking to divide Yemenis and sabotage their country.

Saleh’s rule continues to show signs of resilience in the face of the sustained protests, that have seen security forces and regime supporters battling demonstrators, mostly university students.

The Yemeni regime, however, is not doing as well in the south of the country, where resentment of Saleh’s rule is far more entrenched and a secessionist movement is steadily gaining strength.

There have been deadly clashes there between protesters and security forces using live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. South Yemen used to be an independent nation, but became united with the north in 1990. An attempt to secede by the south in 1994 was brutally crushed by Saleh’s army and allied tribesmen.

Yemen is a tribal society where almost every adult male has a firearm. A decision by the country’s major tribes to take sides in the standoff between Saleh and his critics could decide the president’s fate.

On Saturday, riot police fired on marchers in Sanaa, killing one and wounding five.

A total of seven people have been killed since the unrest began.

The protesters seek to oust Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida, and have been inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Marching students on Sunday chanted and carried signs reading “Get out Ali for the sake of future generations.” Riot police watched the march but did not intervene.

Past protests were often attacked by government supporters, degenerating into riots.

Saleh’s regime is one of several in the Arab world currently coming under popular pressure to reform or step down. Since uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt toppled the two nation’s autocratic leaders, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and Algeria have been gripped by anti-government protests.

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Thousands Rally in Yemen Anti Government Demonstration

Posted on 14 February 2011 by hashimilion

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in the Yemeni capital, calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

Clashes broke out in Sanaa between groups supporting and opposing the government after men armed with knives and sticks forced around 300 anti-government protesters to end a rally, the Reuters news agency quoted witnesses as saying on Saturday.

The Associated Press news agency reported that troops beat some anti-government protesters.

Inspired by the Egyptian uprising which toppled Hosni Mubarak, protesters chanted “After Mubarak, it’s Ali’s turn” and “A Yemeni revolution after the Egyptian revolution.”

Eyeing protests elsewhere in the Middle East, Saleh, in power since 1978, last week promised to step down when his term ends in 2013. He has also promised not to pass power to his son.

His move followed sporadic anti-government protests, and the opposition has yet to respond to his call to join a unity government. The opposition wants talks to take place under Western or Gulf Arab auspices.

Yemeni authorities detained at least 10 people on Friday night after anti-government protesters in Sanaa, the capital, celebrated Mubarak’s downfall, US-based Human Rights Watch said.

The group said the celebrations turned to clashes when hundreds of men armed with knives, sticks, and assault rifles attacked the protesters as security forces stood by.

Witnesses told the AP that police drove several thousand pro-government demonstrators away from Sanaa’s main square on Friday night.

Also on Friday, the separatist Southern Movement said police broke up hundreds of Yemenis celebrating in the streets of Aden, where police had been heavily deployed since morning to clamp down on planned separatist protests earlier in the day.

Around 3,000 protesters across southern Yemen protested on Friday afternoon to demand secession, though most of the protests were quickly broken up by security forces.

Unconfirmed reports said police had opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least one person.

Pay raise discussed
Reports said Saleh held a meeting with his senior defence, political and security officials on Friday night.

They discussed plans to raise salaries for civil servants and the military – a second planned wage increase since last month, when Saleh planned a raise of about $47.

Opposition leaders said Saleh’s latest efforts could not quiet discontent.

“This is a quick move to try and get rid of popular anger, but Yemenis are not mad about a lack of spending on wages,” Mohamed al-Sabri, a leader of Yemen’s opposition coalition, said.

“This decision misreads the situation and is a simplification of what’s happening in Yemen.”

About 40 per cent of Yemen’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day, while a third face chronic hunger.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out on February 3 to protest against Saleh’s rule. An equal number of pro-government demonstrators also took to the streets on the same day.

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