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Saudi Diplomat Shot Dead in Pakistan

Posted on 16 May 2011 by hashimilion

 

Motorcycle-riding assassins have gunned down a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi, four days after a grenade attack on the Saudi consulate there.

The unusual spate of attacks raised questions about whether they were in reprisal for the death of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden or the consequence of regional Sunni-Shia tensions triggered by upheaval in Bahrain.

A senior police officer said the diplomat, named as Hassan al-Khatani and described as a security officer, was shot dead in his car on Monday morning by two men riding a motorbike who fired four shots from a 9mm pistol.

Television pictures showed a luxury sedan with gunshots through its windows. Police said a backup team of assailants rode alongside the killers, indicating a degree of professionalism in the hit.

On Thursday unidentified assailants threw two grenades at the front gate of the consulate, damaging the entrance but injuring nobody.

Attacks on diplomats from Saudi Arabia are rare in Pakistan, thanks to the country’s close relationship with the army and the widespread reverence towards the country as the home of Islam.

“We’ve always had sectarian tensions but rarely an attack on a Saudi diplomat like this,” said defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

But decades-old Shia-Sunni tensions in Karachi have been reignited by turmoil across the Arabian sea in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia deployed troops last March to help quell an uprising by mostly Shia demonstrators.

Pakistani Shias became angry when it emerged that a private security firm was urgently recruiting hundreds of former soldiers to work for the Bahrain security forces and help with the crackdown.

Newspaper advertisements sought Pakistanis with experience in “security” and “riot control”.

A senior police officer in Karachi told the Guardian the Bahrain connection was considered the most likely motive for the two most recent attacks. But they were investigating whether they may have been in reprisal for the US special force raid that killed Bin Laden on 2 May.

Riyadh stripped Bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 and has since co-operated closely with American efforts to crack down on al-Qaida, even though private Saudi citizens have been accused of sponsoring his network.

US intelligence is currently examining a trove of computer drives snatched from Bin Laden’s hideout, reportedly containing 2.7 terabytes of data, for further information about al-Qaida’s money pipeline.

A third possibility was that the attacks were linked to local criminal groups, the officer said. In recent years, he said, “some low-level officials at the consulate had been found to be involved in minor criminal activities with local mafias”.

The difficulty of investigating the killing is underscored by the general insecurity in the sprawling port city of 16 million people, where ethnic, political and Islamist militant groups hold sway in pockets of the city that are virtually out-of-bounds to the security services.

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The History of Hizbullah Al-hijaz

Posted on 09 May 2011 by hashimilion

 

From its inception in 1987, Hizbullah al-Hijaz was a cleric-based group aligned with Iran, modeling itself on the Lebanese Hizbullah. It advocated violence against the Saudi regime and carried out several terrorist attacks in the late 1980s. Due to an improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations, it shifted its activities more towards non-violent opposition. Although opposed to negotiations with the Saudi leadership, it benefited from a general amnesty in 1993. After Hizbullah al-Hijaz was blamed for the Khobar bombings in 1996, most of its members were arrested. The crackdown and the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement following the accession of Muhammad Khatami in 1997 led to the disappearance of the organization, although its clerical leaders continue to be popular in parts of the Eastern Province. While the Khobar bombings have been discussed widely, only a few academic studies deal partially with Hizbullah al-Hijaz. The founding of the organization, its ideology, its role in Saudi-Iranian relations, and the activities of its members before and after the Khobar bombings have never been the subject of a distinct study.

Saudi Shi’a Clerics in Qom: The Formation of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz

In the 1970s, a group of Saudi Shi’a, who were studying in Najaf with Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, became acquainted with Khomeini’s teachings. After the Iranian Revolution they moved to Qom, where, in the mid-1980s, they formed Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, which later became part of Hizbullah al-Hijaz. The clerical wing of the Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz operated out of the Hawza al-Hijaziyya (Hijazi seminary) in Qom. Their names indicate that, like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they used the term “Hijaz” for the whole of Saudi Arabia to undermine the legitimacy of the Al Sa’ud. They also called themselves Hijazin or Khat al-Imam, the line of Imam (Khomeini), the name by which the group is still referred to colloquially in Saudi Arabia. Although there is a small Shi’a community in Medina, the founders of Tajamu’ and Hizbullah come from the Eastern Province, mainly from al-Ahsa, Safwa, and Tarut.

Husayn al-Radi

 

The biographies of the founders of the movement share some similarities: Husayn al-Radi was born in 1950/51 in ‘Umran in al-Ahsa. He studied in Najaf with Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and after the latter was killed in 1980, he moved to Qom. There he continued his studies with Hossein Montazeri and then became the supervisor of the Hawza for the Saudi students (al-Hijazin). In this position, he developed what he calls “special relationships” with Ayatollahs Hossein Montazeri – at that time the designated successor of Ayatollah Khomeini – and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. Shahroudi was also a disciple of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and left Najaf for Qom in 1979 to teach in the Hawza. Another leader of Tajamu’, Hashim al-Shakhs, was born in 1957 into a famous clerical family in al-Ahsa. His relative, Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Shakhs, was an early politically active Shi’a cleric and co-founder of the “Society of ‘Ulama’ in Najaf” in 1959/60. This connection facilitated his move to Najaf in 1972, where he became a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Hashim al-Shakhs

 

In the late 1970s, al-Shakhs returned to Saudi Arabia and started preaching in the village of Qarah in al-Ahsa. In the early 1980s, he went to Qom to study with Hossein Montazeri and to teach in the Hawza. It was only in Iran in the 1980s that he became politicized. Crucially, al-Shakhs and several other cadres of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl and ‘Abd al-Jalil al-Maa, did not take part in the Shi’a uprising of 1979/80 in the Eastern Province and remained in Saudi Arabia for a while after the uprising. Just days after the occupation of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by a group of Sunni rebels led by Juhayman al-‘Utaybi, the Shi’a in the Eastern Province staged Muharam rituals in public, defying a ban on public Shi’a processions in place since 1913. The instigators of this uprising were a network of young Islamists led by Hasan al-Safar and Tawfiq al-Sayf. They were the leaders of the Saudi branch, founded in 1975, of the Movement for Vanguards Missionaries (MVM), which worked under the spiritual guidance of Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi (1928-2001). Tens of thousands took to the streets between November 26 and 30, 1979 and clashed with the National Guard, leading to around two dozen fatalities. On the eve of the demonstrations, the group adopted the name Munazama al-Thawra al-Islamiyya fi al-Jazira al-‘Arabiyya (Islamic Revolution Organization in the Arabian Peninsula: IRO). Although some later members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, such as ‘Ali ‘Abdallah al-Khatim from Tarut, participated in the uprising, the “Intifada,” as the uprising was termed by the IRO, does not feature heavily in the discourse of Hizbullah al-Hijaz.

After the uprising, several hundred young Saudi Shi’a were brought to the Hawza al-Imam al-Qa’im of the MVM in Tehran. Immediately after the Iranian Revolution, the MVM and its leaders such as Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrasi were very close to the new Iranian leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Muhammad al-Shirazi also had good relations with Khomeini, and he and the cadres of the MVM moved to Iran. Iranian support for the Shi’a movements in Iraq and the Gulf was implemented through the Office of the Liberation Movements, created in the early 1980s and first headed by Mohammed Montazeri and then Mehdi Hashemi. The political theory of Muhammad al-Shirazi and the MVM was quite close to Khomeini’s notion of velayet-e faqih (the guardianship of the jurisprudent), although al-Shirazi favored the theory that not a single cleric, but a council of scholars should govern the Islamic State (hukumat al-fuqaha’/shurat al-fuqaha’). Therefore, al-Shirazi had expected a bigger role in post-1979 Iran, and relations between him and Khomeini deteriorated in the early 1980s. He also continued to compete with Khomeini for the post of marja’ al-taqlid – the post of highest ranking authority for Shi’a Muslims.

Muhammad al-Shirazi

 

The MVM and its Iraqi branch, the Islamic Action Organization (Munazama al-‘Amal al-Islami), often acted rather autonomously, which led to conflicts with the Iranian government. The MVM saw armed struggle as a legitimate political tool and had a military wing, which was active in Bahrain until its coup attempt was foiled in December 1981, and in Iraq under Saddam. Although there was no such military branch for Saudi Arabia, the Iranian authorities repeatedly pressured the MVM and the IRO to intensify military efforts in the Gulf states. After the bloody crackdown on the “Intifada” in 1979/80, the MVM thought that military action was of little use in the Saudi case and rejected bombings and assassinations there. Yet, a number of Saudi Shi’a fought in the MVM’s military branches or opted to fight on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War.

In contrast to the MVM and the IRO, the Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz initially did not have a defined organizational structure and focused on religious activities and the propagation of the marja’iyya of Khomeini. From about 1985 onwards, members of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz came to Sayyida Zaynab, a shrine city outside Damascus, in addition to the Eastern Province, and started preaching the virtues of Khomeini. Sayyida Zaynab was an important transnational hub for the Gulf Shi’a, especially the ones following Ayatollah Shirazi. In 1987, they started their first publication, al-Fath, under the name of Hijaz Students Group (Jama’ min Talaba al-Hijaz). Some lay activists also started to work with Tajamu’, although its leaders remained clerics.

Sayyida Zaynab

 

Saudi-Iranian Rivalry over the Hajj and the Foundation of Hizbullah al-Hijaz

In the second half of the 1980s, Iran began to revise its policy of exporting the revolution, and the position of the MVM in Iran was severely weakened. The MVM was close to parts of the Iranian regime advocating the export of the revolution, namely Hossein Montazeri and Mehdi Hashemi. Yet, this faction was increasingly sidelined by people such as Sayyid ‘Ali Khamene’i and ‘Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who questioned the usefulness of this approach. The MVM was directly involved in the struggle between the different Iranian political factions, and a member of the MVM allegedly helped to leak the Iran-Contra Affair in late 1986. As a result, Mehdi Hashemi was executed in 1987, the Office of the Liberation Movements closed, and Hossein Montazeri was deposed in 1989 as the successor of Ayatollah Khomeini. Consequently, the MVM and the IRO had lost their main ally in Iran, and their leaders chose to leave Iran gradually. In addition, the Central Committee of the IRO made a decision in 1987 to soften its approach towards the Saudi regime after a general amnesty decreed by King Fahd. Thereafter, ordinary members of the MVM and the IRO began to be harassed by Iranian authorities. However, the IRO still had representatives in Tehran and Qom and maintained relations with the Iranians and with Hizbullah al-Hijaz.

On July 31, 1987, over 400 people, most of them Iranian pilgrims but also many Saudi policemen, were killed and many more injured at a demonstration that led to a stampede outside the Great Mosque in Mecca during the Hajj. Iran and Saudi Arabia blamed each other for the clashes, leading to a severe worsening of Saudi-Iranian relations. Although the incident mainly involved Iranians, some had alleged links to Saudi Shi’a organizations. As a result, both countries sought to influence Muslim public opinion abroad and discredit the other party. The weak relations of the MVM and the IRO to the new centers of power in the Iranian regime, their refusal to carry out military operations in Saudi Arabia, and the Hajj incident in 1987 were the main reasons for the formation and the strengthening of Hizbullah al-Hijaz. Iran wanted to have small, controllable organizations that could be used as pressure tools on the Al Sa’ud but would not endanger Iran’s foreign policy objectives.

1987 Mecca Demonstration

 

Founded in May 1987, Hizbullah al-Hijaz issued one of its first statements one week after the Hajj incident, vowing to stand up against the Saudi rulers. Among the founders of Hizbullah al-Hijaz were the leaders of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, Shaykh Hashim al-Shakhs, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl, and ‘Abd al-Jalil al-Maa. From the beginning, Hizbullah al-Hijaz had two wings: one for religious and political activities – Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz – and another one for military tasks. Some members of the movement came from Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, but others were members of the MVM that wanted to use violence against the Saudi regime and preferred the marja’iyya of Khomeini. Ahmad al-Mughasal, who came to be the head of the military wing of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, was a former member of the MVM and had studied at the Hawza Imam al-Qa’im in Tehran. Furthermore, some Saudi Shi’a students who had studied in the US, who belonged to later generations of members of the MVM, joined Hizbullah al-Hijaz. This led to tensions between Hizbullah al-Hijaz and the IRO, which had hitherto been the only Islamist Saudi Shi’a opposition group. Hizbullah al-Hijaz’s long-term political goal was the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Arabian Peninsula after the Iranian model, and it advocated the overthrow of the Saudi regime through violence.

Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl

 

Escalation , Violence, and a Gradual Improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations

After the Hajj Incident in 1987, “many supporters of the Islamic Republic among the Shi’a were willing to pursue military means to retaliate against the Saudi regime.” In August 1987, an explosion occurred at a petroleum facilty in Ra’s al-Ju’ayma. Although the government claimed that it was an accident, it was later ascribed to Hizbullah al-Hijaz. In March 1988, the Sadaf petrochemical plant in Jubayl was bombed, an incident for which Hizbullah al-Hijaz claimed responsibility. A Hizbullah cell with four members from Tarut had carried out the attack. One of them had been an employee at Sadaf, while another, al-Khatim, had fought with Hizbullah in Lebanon and had received military training. Several bombs also detonated at the Ra’s Tanura refinery and one allegedly failed to explode in Ra’s al-Ju’ayma. Widespread arrests occurred, and when the security forces confronted three members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, several Saudi policemen were killed and injured. These three and another member of the cell were later publicly executed. The execution of the four was enabled by a fatwa from the Council of the Assembly of Senior ‘Ulama’ (Majlis Hay’a Kibar al-‘Ulama’) allowing the execution of dissidents convicted of “sabotage.” The IRO argued that the bombings were a response to Saudi assistance to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and that, while it did not claim responsibility for them, bombings were a natural continuation of the opposition’s activities. In response, Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz issued one of its first public statements, entitled “the execution of four fighters (mujahidin) in the Arabian Peninsula” and so did Hizbullah al-Hijaz. In addition, Ayatollah Montazeri condemned the execution while the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying any links to the executed.

In response to this escalation, members of the IRO, leftist groups, and leaders of Hizbullah such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl and Ja’far al-Mubarak were arrested. Four members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz were released in 1990 as part of a royal pardon but at least four other leaders remained in prison until 1993. Some Shi’a apparently blamed the opposition movements for the crackdown, and this was a reason for the IRO to abandon its revolutionary discourse.

Some members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz wanted to avenge the beheadings and assassinated several Saudi diplomats and agents abroad. It is possible that they were killing security officials that were trying to arrest and extradite them to Saudi Arabia. One report argues that the killings in October 1988 and January 1989 and the attempted killing in December 1988 targeted members of the Saudi Arabian intelligence services, working under diplomatic cover, who had been pursuing a group of about 20 Shi’a for their involvement in the bombings of oil installations in the Eastern Province.

Two groups, the Soldiers of Justice (Jund al-Haqq) and the Holy War Organization in the Hijaz, claimed responsibility from Beirut for an assassination in Bangkok in January 1989. The Holy War Organization in the Hijaz claimed that the killing was revenge for the execution of four of its members in Saudi Arabia, and Risalat al-Haramayn reported that an October 1988 killing in Ankara was also in retaliation for the executions in Saudi Arabia. Some sources assert that this was a new front organization made up of Lebanese and Saudi Shi’ites with links to Palestinian groups and factions inside Iran that were opposed to an Iranian rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. These two groups, probably related to the military wing of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, claimed responsibility – or were blamed – for the assassination of a Saudi diplomats in Ankara in October 1988 and in 1989, of wounding a Saudi diplomat in Karachi in December 1988 in addition to several bomb attacks in Riyadh in 1985 and in 1989.

In September 1989, 16 Kuwaiti Shi’ites were beheaded for smuggling explosives and placing them in the vicinity of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in July 1989. They were members of the group Hizbullah al-Kuwayt but were all Shi’a of Iranian or Saudi origin. Indeed, the family links between Shi’a from al-Ahsa and Saudi Shi’a emigrants to Kuwait are usually strong and continue to play a role in the development of Hizbullah networks in the Gulf. Some Shi’a from al-Ahsa were also arrested and members of Hizbullah al-Kuwayt and Hizbullah al-Hijaz jointly announced vengeance at a press conference in Beirut. In November 1989, the Holy War Organization claimed responsibility for the assassination of a Saudi diplomat in Beirut in revenge for the beheading of the 16 Kuwaitis and the four Saudis.

From the late 1980s onwards, several members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz travelled to Iran and Lebanon, where they likely received military training. They used Sayyida Zaynab in Syria as a hub for their travels to Saudi Arabia and for the recruitment of new members, who visited the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab on pilgrimage. Some Saudi Shi’a also fought with Lebanese Hizbullah against Israel in southern Lebanon.

Ideology and Propaganda: Risalat al-Haramayn

Saudi-Iranian relations gradually improved after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in August 1988, the death of Khomeini in June 1989, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Iran had, however, an interest in continuing to promote anti-Saudi propaganda and establishing a hegemonic claim over Mecca and Medina as well as portraying itself as the patron of Saudi Shi’a. This caused Hizbullah al-Hijaz to focus more on political and propaganda activities, such as the publication of a journal, Risalat al-Haramayn (The Letter of the Two Holy Places [Mecca and Medina]), at the expense of assassinations and attacks. It was published by the al-Haramayn Islamic Information Center and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz from 1989 to 1995 in Beirut, although from 1991 it also had an office in London. The outreach of the journal was supposed to be the whole umma. It focused on the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, and published statements by Hizbullah al-Hijaz and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz. It was mainly written by a new group of non-clerical activists referred to as the effendiyya in Shi’a circles. Many of the activists behind Risalat al-Haramayn had been educated by the MVM in Kuwait and then in Tehran. Members of Iraqi and Lebanese Hizbullah also wrote in the journal.

Anti-Saudi propaganda, the creation of a martyrdom mythology, and the links to other movements were some of the main focuses in the journal. The first martyrs of Hizbullah al-Hijaz were the four “mujahidin” that were executed in 1988. As three of the four and some of the Saudis who fought on the Iranian side in the Iraq-Iran War were from the village of al-Rabia’iya on Tarut Island, this village was frequently described in the journal as the archetypical revolutionary village. The four also entered the martyrdom discourse of the IRO, and certain contemporary oppositional publications and websites still remember them as the “four martyrs.” The publication also tried to promote the legacy of Shi’a clerics in Saudi Arabia, something which Hashim al-Shakhs continued in his four-volume work on the Shi’a clerics from al-Ahsa.

Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah

 

In autumn 1989, members from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (SCIRI) and Lebanese Hizbullah gave speeches praising the four martyrs in Sayyida Zaynab outside of Damascus while Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah delivered a similar speech in Qom. In Baalbek, one member of Tajamu’, Muhammad al-Mubarak, denounced the Saudi regime in the presence of a representative of the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. The journal also reported meetings between delegations of Tajamu’ with Lebanese Hizbullah and Khamene’i. This made clear that Hizbullah al-Hijaz was very well connected to and supported by Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah, among others.

A cleric of Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that there is no difference between the Hizbullah groups “in Hijaz, Kuwait, Lebanon or any other place.”

In addition, the organization accepted Sayyid ‘Ali Khamene’i as Khomeini’s successor, and the clerics began to assume a leading role in Hizbullah al-Hijaz, following Khomeini’s doctrine of velayet-e faqih. Furthermore, the journal stated that “there is no doubt that our links with the Islamic Republic are very strong, because it is a base for all the liberators and revolutionaries in the world.”

The discourse of the movement became increasingly anti-American from 1990 onwards. Hizbullah al-Hijaz and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz both declared in 1990 that the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia made jihad against the unbelievers a duty of Muslims. This discourse was, however, not unique to Shi’a Islamists; the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia was one of the main reasons for the rise of the Sunni Islamist opposition. To a certain extent, the discourse in Risalat al-Haramayn shifted more towards human rights and freedom of speech, although the IRO’s switch towards a discourse of democratization was much more pronounced.

“The Regime swallows the Opposition:” Hizbullah al-Hijaz Publicly Opposes the Agreement between the IRO and the Saudi Leadership in 1993

In autumn 1993, the Saudi regime and some leaders of the IRO reached an agreement to abandon the latter’s political activities in return for a general amnesty. On the regime’s side, the main reasons for this agreement were the regional crises which occured after the invasion of Kuwait and reports about a possible alliance of Sunni and Shi’a Islamists. The IRO negotiated in the name of all Saudi Shi’a opposition groups, including Hizbullah al-Hijaz and the leftists that were active in Syria and Iraq. Some argue that the negotiations were also intended to isolate Hizbullah al-Hijaz and that they were not asked to take part in the negotiations.They were informed about the negotiations by the IRO, but Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that it would only negotiate if there were an end to sectarian discrimination and real gains for the Shi’a. Although some in the IRO had voiced similar demands, al-Safar and other leaders of the IRO agreed that these things could not be done immediately by the government. Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that the opposition would lose its strength if it ceased its publications and returned to Saudi Arabia, where it would be under tight supervision by the security services. The movement stated that the negotiations were intended to play out the Shi’a opposition against the Salafis. In addition, Hizbullah al-Hijaz would only change its strategy if the Shi’a were to be recognized as an official sect by the government. It vowed to continue on the path of jihad and revolution and invoked the example of the four martyrs of 1988. A reason for this official opposition was the dissatisfaction of the Iranian regime with the negotiations.

Hasan al-Safar

 

Eventually, the agreement included the release of all Saudi Shi’a political prisoners, many of whom were members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, and thus most members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz returned to Saudi Arabia. They suspended the publication of Risalat al-Haramayn in 1995 but – unlike the suspension of the IRO’s publication al-Jazira al-‘Arabiyya – this was not a condition of the agreement as the government thought its impact was limited. Iran apparently tried to persuade the members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz that it had played a role in the release of their prisoners, and that it was a result of the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the following years, the Hizbullah trend gained in prominence amongst those former activists and ordinary Shi’a that were dissatisfied with the agreement or had opposed it from the beginning.

After their return to Saudi Arabia in 1993 and 1994, many members focused on religious and social activities. The clerics became imams in their local mosques and started teaching in the Hawza in Mubarraz or Qatif. Ja’far al-Mubarak was released from prison in the summer of 1993 but was subject to intense surveillance and was not allowed to perform Friday prayers. This was used as an example in the movement literature that the opposition should not trust the Saudi regime. He returned to a leadership role in Hizbullah al-Hijaz and eventually became an imam in Safwa. Hashim al-Shakhs also became imam in a local mosque in his native village of al-Qarah, and like other clerics of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, started to work as a local representative of Ayatollah Khamene’i, gaining an income from the religious khums tax.

Ja’far al-Mubarak

 

The Khobar Bombings: Accusations, Arrests, and the Disappearance of Hizbullah al-Hijaz

 

On June 25, 1996, a tanker truck filled with several tons of TNT exploded near the Khobar Towers housing compound for the US Air Force in Dhahran, killing 19 US soldiers and injuring hundreds of others. Shortly afterwards, the Saudi government started to blame Hizbullah al-Hijaz for the attack and arrested hundreds of Islamists, both Sunni and Shi’i. Nearly everyone who was loosely affiliated with Hizbullah al-Hijaz was arrested in the crackdown. The prisoners included its main religious and political leaders such as Hashim al-Shakhs, Ja’far al-Mubarak, ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl, and Husayn al-Radi. Many were tortured and remained imprisoned for years. Sympathizers with the movement were arrested for the possession of books by Khomeini or Fadlallah or because they had attended mosques where Hizbullah clerics preached. Although several reports of the investigation were published, there were tensions between Saudi and American investigators. Some claim that strong evidence for Iranian involvement would have been used as a pretext for war against Iran, something the Saudis did not want. This would have destabilized the whole region and probably involved the redeployment of more American troops to Saudi Arabia. It took several years before the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was granted access to the suspects and almost five years until they were indicted in the US. The accused included Ahmad al-Mughasal, the alleged head of the military wing of the Saudi Hizbullah, Hani al-Sayigh, and ‘Abd al-Karim al-Nasir, whom the indictment described as the leader of Saudi Hizbullah. Especially after September 11, 2001, the theory that al-Qa’ida was involved in or responsible for the attack gained in prominence. Although Usama bin Ladin has repeatedly applauded the Khobar attacks, he did not take responsibility for them, and Thomas Hegghammer states that al-Qa’ida did not have the technical skills at the time to carry out such a large-scale attack. He also dismisses the idea of cooperation between al-Qa’ida and Iran.

In June 2002, a Saudi official said that a number of Saudis arrested after the Khobar bombings had been convicted110 and that nine Shi’a blamed for involvement in the preparation and the execution of the bombings remained imprisoned in SaudiArabia.

As a response to the indictment and the trials, al-Haramayn Islamic Information Center published a long report on the Khobar Bombings in June 2002. It attempts to prove that the investigations were flawed and implies that Hizbullah al-Hijaz was not responsible. In addition, it claims that blaming Saudi Shi’a and Iran was part of the American and “Zionist” agenda. The report implies that statements by Hizbullah al-Khalij, or “Saudi Hizbullah,” claiming responsibility for the attack, which appeared in Western and Arab media, are forgeries. The report states that although Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah had expanded to the Gulf countries, an organization called Hizbullah al-Khalij is not known. It adds that two other organizations also claimed responsibility for the bombing, while reproducing statements by Iran, Lebanese Hizbullah, and Hizbullah al-Hijaz rejecting any involvement in the attack. According to the report, the absence of Ja’far al-Shuwaykhat from the indictment is another major flaw. Al-Shuwaykhat was a student in the Hawza in Qom and was arrested in 1988 upon his return to Saudi Arabia. After six years in prison, he was released and went to Syria. A biography of the “martyr” al-Shuwaykhat posted on a homepage associated with the Hizbullah networks claims that he was involved in a number of military operations, that his main enemy was the Americans, and that he rejoined his former group in Syria after being released from prison. After the Khobar bombings, he was arrested by Syrian intelligence, apparently on the request of the Saudi government, but died in a Syrian prison only days later. Several interviewees pointed out that he could have provided vital information and that his sudden death and the absence of his name in the indictment were suspicious.

Ja’far al-Shuwaykhat

 

The report sees the American troops as occupiers and implies that the authors see American troops as a legitimate target. It urges the Americans to think about the reasons for the bombings, namely their occupation of Muslim lands and their arrogance towards other people. In a statement released in late 1996, Hizbullah al-Hijaz rejects any responsibility for the bombings but calls the US the “biggest satan.” A statement published after the US indictment in 2001 argues that “although we refute this indictment as a whole and in detail, we will continue on the path of Jihad until the expulsion of all occupiers from the land of the Arabian Peninsula.”

Hizbullah al-Hijaz’s ideology would, therefore, have permitted an attack on American soldiers in Saudi Arabia. In addition, members of Saudi Hizbullah wanted to continue an armed struggle against the Saudi regime as well as against its main backer, the US. They also may have wanted to demonstrate their strength and disapproval of the 1993 accord, hoping that the repression after an attack on a US target would be less harsh than after attacking the Saudi government directly. However, the Khobar bombings were much more sophisticated than earlier operations by the group. It is also puzzling why the group should, after an absence of attacks for over six years, return to violence as a political tool. Given the close relations with Lebanese Hizbullah, it seems plausible that, if Hizbullah al-Hijaz was behind the attack, it would have needed Lebanese technical assistance. The connection to Iran is impossible to assess through an analysis of open source material, but a faction inside Iran opposed to the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could have masterminded the attack. It is also possible that the military wing of Hizbullah al-Hijaz acted with Iranian or Lebanese support but without the knowledge of the clerics of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al- Hijaz.

After the Khobar Bombings: Online Propaganda, Social Activism, and Clerical Authority

The virtual disappearance of Hizbullah al-Hijaz as an organization after 1996 is due to the arrest of most of its members and a general Saudi-Iranian rapprochement leading to a security agreement in 2001. After the Khobar bombings, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed that while Saudi Arabia would not permit the US to launch attacks on Iran from the Kingdom, Iran would stop supporting Saudi Shi’a opposition activists. Although several of those accused in the indictment are believed to be in Iran, the agreement did not include the extradition of fugitives. On his historic visit to Saudi Arabia in 1998, ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani planned to call for the release of the Shi’a arrested after the Khobar bombings.It is not clear whether this influenced the gradual release of many high- and middle-ranking members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz. Thereafter, they refrained from openly political activities and renounced violence as a political tool.

They focused more on social and religious activities such as the organization of marriages, pilgrimages to Mecca, and public festivities during Muharam and the birthdays of the Imams. Young Qatifis point out that former movement members are active in schools and other gathering places for the youth. Its current leaders include Shaykh Hashim al-Hubayl, Sayyid Kamal al-Sada, and Shaykh Hasan al-Nimr, who hosts a diwaniyya in Dammam. Due to the improvement of Saudi-Iranian relations, the religious activities of the pro-Iranian clerics are increasingly tolerated. There continue to be roughly 200 Saudi students in Qom, although the majority of them do not follow Khamene’i, but rather follow Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani. The religious connection to Iran, however, does not imply membership in the political organization Hizbullah al-Hijaz. Until 2008, Dr. ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Fadli was considered the main representative of Ayatollah Khamene’i in Saudi Arabia. Originating from al-Hasa, Al-Fadli had been one of the founding members of the Dawa Party in Iraq. He later became the head of the Arabic language department at King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz University in Jeddah and a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini. He is a mujtahid and a prolific writer and some consider him to have been a candidate for a local marja’iyya.

Dr. ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Fadli

 

Some former leaders of Hizbullah al-Hijaz such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl have started a gradual rapprochement with the government, emulating the IRO. Hasan al-Nimr encouraged some supporters of Hizbullah al-Hijaz to stand in the municipal elections of 2004/5, although they failed to win a seat. Other former leaders of the Hizbullah, such as Husayn al-Radi, have participated in the National Dialogue. Contrary to the IRO, the Hizbullah has always emphasized the role of the clergy and lacks a mass following. On the other hand, some of the highest ranking Saudi Shi’a scholars such as ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Fadli and Hashim al-Shakhs – both considered to be mujtahids – are leaders of the Hizbullah. When the system of the Shi’a courts in the Eastern Province was reorganized in 2005, a former supporter of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, Ghalib al-Hamad, was briefly appointed as the Shi’i judge of Qatif. This shows that the Saudi regime thought it was useful to co-opt certain members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz with public posts and to allow its religious activities, including the collection of khums money for Khamene’i. The “al-Fajr cultural website” serves as a platform for their moderated discourse and the propagation of the marja’iyya of Khamene’i. It publishes the Friday prayers of Hashim al-Shakhs and others, provides guidance on religious matters and, since early 2008, publishes a journal dedicated to the spirit of Imam Husayn and Imam Khomeini.

The confrontational discourse of Hizbullah al-Hijaz is only present on the website of al-Haramayn Islamic Information Center. It seems that those people responsible for this website are outside of Saudi Arabia and that they no longer form one group with those former leaders that returned to Saudi Arabia. The Center, however, continues to issue statements by, amongst others, Hizbullah al-Hijaz, Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, and the “Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula,” while also digitizing Saudi Shi’a opposition publications such as Risalat al-Haramayn.

Recent Hizbullah al-Hijaz statements dealt with Saudi Arabia’s condemnation of Lebanese Hizbullah’s activites in 2006 or the assassination of ‘Imad Mughniyya, the military leader of Lebanese Hizbullah. Some supporters of Hizbullah al-Hijaz started to express themselves through support for Lebanese Hizbullah. In July and August 2006, several demonstrations in support of Lebanese Hizbullah occurred in Qatif and surrounding areas and security forces arrested dozens. However, the demonstrations did not only involve supporters of Hizbullah but also other political groupings.

But the group also comments on domestic Saudi matters. In 2005, Hasan al-Safar implied in an interview that Hizbullah al-Hijaz had been part of the 1993 agreement and that it had abandoned its revolutionary discourse and organizational activities thereafter. Hizbullah countered with a long statement condemning the rapprochement between the IRO and the Saudi government and stating that its main political goals were “the military, economic and political liberation of our homeland (the Arabian Peninsula) from the American-Western Occupier” and the downfall of the Al Sa’ud. From spring 2008 onwards, a new weekly news survey – al-Rasid al-Sahafi – concerning Saudi Shi’a issues was published on the website. It also focuses on, for example, Saudi involvement in Lebanon, praising Hizbullah’s activities there, while reproducing statements by Khamene’i and Fadlallah.

Conclusion

From its inception, Hizbullah al-Hijaz has advocated armed struggle against the Saudi regime. After the Hajj in 1987 Iran wanted to retaliate against Saudi Arabia and created Hizbullah al-Hijaz as a pressure group that was integrated into the Hizbullah networks. Therefore, it was subject to changes in Saudi-Iranian relations, which partially explains the absence of attacks between 1989 and 1996 and its virtual disappearance after the Khobar Bombings. With the accession of Khatami as Iranian President, Saudi-Iranian relations ameliorated considerably, leading to a security agreement in 2001. Thereafter, most former members have abstained from politics but many are still deeply suspicious of the regime. In the local context, Hizbullah al-Hijaz has always positioned itself as the most radical Saudi Shi’a opposition group. So far, the Hizbullah trend has not managed to integrate itself into local Shi’a politics in the way the former leaders of the IRO have. Its former advocacy of violence, the political theory of velayet-e faqih, and the uncritical endorsement of the Iranian political system are the main reasons for its limited influence in contemporary Saudi Shi’a affairs. The Iranian model does not have the same appeal for Saudi Shi’a as it did in the 1980s. Yet, sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia have increased following the clashes between Shi’a and Sunni pilgrims and riot police in Medina in 2009 and the subsequent demonstrations and arrests in the Eastern Province. It is not inconceivable that this broadens the appeal of groups like Hizbullah al-Hijaz that advocate an uncompromising approach towards the Saudi state.

By Toby Matthiesen

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U.S. Backing Enables Saudi Arabia to Crush Dissent in Bahrain

Posted on 09 May 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia, the oil rich kingdom that is the birthplace and former home of Osama bin Laden, has staved off the widespread popular protests that have swept across the region since January. The country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, bordering Bahrain, has witnessed protests from the minority Shia Muslim population. In March, Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support its royal family after a month of protests. We speak with Toby Jones, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, on the role of Saudi Arabia in suppressing the Bahrain uprising, as well as its own. “We shouldn’t assume that there is a lack of interest on the part of Saudi citizens in achieving some sort of democratic or political reform. There are deep frustrations in Saudi society,” says Jones.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich kingdom that is the birthplace and former home of Osama bin Laden. On Thursday, a senior extremist linked to al-Qaeda surrendered to Saudi authorities. Khaled Hathal al-Qahtani is thought to be the first operative to turn himself in after U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday in Pakistan.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has staved off the widespread popular protests that have swept across the region since January. The country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, bordering Bahrain, has witnessed some protests from the minority Shia Muslim population. In March, Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support its royal family after a month of protests.

Seventy percent of Saudi Arabia’s almost 19 million people are under the age of 30, and last year unemployment was at 10 percent. In a bid to pacify Saudi citizens, King Abdullah, the 87-year-old head of state, has distributed over $100 billion in social handouts since February.
Municipal elections are planned for September. Women will not be able to run for seats or vote in the elections, and there have been some protests organized by women to end the Kingdom’s discriminatory laws. Saudi Arabia has no political parties.

To discuss the situation there, we’re joined by Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University. He was previously Persian Gulf analyst for the International Crisis Group. He’s the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia and is working on a new book project, America’s Oil Wars.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

TOBY JONES: Thanks for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, why has Saudi Arabia escaped the widespread popular movements that have swept through the Middle East and the Arab world?

TOBY JONES: Well, for a number of reasons. The first is that it possesses the incredible ability to police its own population, which is not dissimilar from other autocratic regimes in the region. But it also has oil wealth and an almost unlimited ability to pay out, and to co-opt potential dissidence, which we saw the King and the royal family attempt to do in early and mid-March by passing out, as you noted, over $100 billion in inducements to encourage people not to take to the streets.

But we shouldn’t assume that there is a lack of interest on the part of Saudi citizens in achieving some sort of democratic or political reform, that there is absent in Saudi Arabia the political will for precisely the kind of thing that happened in Egypt or Tunisia, Yemen, Syria or Bahrain. There are deep frustrations in Saudi society. There are anxieties about the ailing nature of the political system, corruption within the royal family, and a deep desire to see fundamental change.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how Saudi Arabia has repressed its own protests as well as moved into Bahrain to support the government in the fierce repression of the pro-democracy movement there?

TOBY JONES: Well, in addition to using financial and other kinds of social inducements to convince its citizens not to take to the streets, at least not for now, the Saudis have also rolled out a series of other measures, some security-based, initially responding to the possibility of a popular uprising in mid-March. The Kingdom blanketed its streets with heavy security presence, discouraging people from gathering publicly.

But they’ve also done another thing, which is very important and has not totally escaped notice but is important to keep in mind, particularly in light of the demise of Osama bin Laden and the continuing concern about the global war on terror: Saudi Arabia has also renewed a set of relationships with the religious establishment, empowering Islamists, as part of this wave of responding to popular mobilization, using the religious clergy and religious scholars to attempt to delegitimize popular protest and also to basically encourage citizens to remain quiescent. The reestablishment or the re-empowerment of the religious clergy is a new thing under King Abdullah. When he came to power in 2005, he actually took fairly serious measures to roll back the authority of the religious establishment, which he saw both as a source of embarrassment but also as a potential threat to Saudi power, to the power of the royal family. So the fact that some of his early efforts or some of his most recent efforts are being systematically undone and that the clergy are enjoying a kind renaissance, if you will, should be a source of concern.

The decision to intervene in Bahrain is linked directly to anxieties on the part of the Saudis about the potential for a democratic demonstration effect. They worry that if there were popular uprisings or if there was a successful regime change in Bahrain, that that might somehow sweep across the Saudi borders and encourage Saudi citizens to pursue a similar path. But there’s also another element, and that is something that is perhaps particular to the Saudis and the Bahrainis. There is a deep sense of anti-Shiism and sectarianism in the Kingdom. So, the specter of Shia political power in Bahrain, so soon after Iraqi Shias came to enjoy predominance and power in Saudi Arabia’s most powerful northern neighbor, was too much for the Saudis to bear. And so, they preemptively intervened, militarily occupied Bahrain, in order to stamp out the possibility of Shia empowerment there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the issue of the U.S. relations, especially in view of the fact that the continuing total lack of rights for women in Saudi Arabia, that our government never mentions a word about or talks about that—how is the Kingdom able in this age, with all the modern communications that we have, to continue to suppress the rights of women and yet receive virtually no condemnation anywhere in the rest of the world?

TOBY JONES: Well, they certainly don’t receive political condemnation from the powers that be here in the United States or elsewhere. And it has to do with the Kingdom’s ability to supply the quintessential industrial resource—right, its role—and not only just providing oil, but in being the most important global producer of oil on the planet. It has the ability to shape markets, to make up for shortfalls, to exceed capacity, everywhere, makes it more vital than lots of other places. And this has long been most important and the single most important political priority for American policymakers, and for Western policymakers more broadly. Women’s rights, in the grand scheme of things, then, from the perspective of the State Department or the White House, they almost hardly matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Osama bin Laden and Saudi Arabia? You were talking about the empowerment of the clergy. Talk about his history. He is from Saudi Arabia.

TOBY JONES: Right. Well, his citizenship is contested by the Saudis, who claim that he’s actually Yemeni in origin. But his father was an important contractor in Saudi Arabia, ran a major construction business. He first came of age working for Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, in Saudi Arabia, but then became a main contractor to the Saudi state. And bin Laden was one of his many children and sort of came of age in the Saudi political system and education system, grew up in the 1970s and in the 1980s, in a moment when Saudi Arabia was renewing its Islamic credentials, partly in response to a crisis in late ’70s, re-empowering the religious establishment and encouraging a certain interpretation of Islam, a particularly kind of virulent one. Bin Laden took note, traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to participate in the anti-Soviet jihad there, or at least to provide services, and was radicalized in the context of the Afghan jihad, returned to Saudi Arabia shortly after the conclusion of that war. In 1990 and 1991, actually offered his services and the services of the Mujahideen to the Saudi royal family to defend the Kingdom from Saddam Hussein, who had just invaded Kuwait. He was politely rebuffed, and then left the Kingdom and went to Sudan, eventually on his way to Afghanistan, where he formed al-Qaeda and began fighting the global crusade against—the global war against the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the U.S. support for the Mujahideen and Osama bin Laden, when they were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then, of course, they set their sights back on the United States.

TOBY JONES: That’s right. I mean, al-Qaeda, bin Laden and the phenomenon of global terrorism and global jihad is the direct outgrowth of the Afghan jihad. So the United States made a strategic decision in the late 1970s under the Carter administration, and then a set of policies that was accelerated under Reagan, to equip and aid the Mujahideen in rolling back the Soviets and pushing them back out of Central Asia, for lots of reasons, but most importantly, as Carter articulated in 1980, because they were too close to the Persian Gulf. That was the site of our vital interests, and we were willing to do whatever necessary to protect them. So the decision to support the jihad and the Arab Afghans, as well as the Afghani Mujahideen, is the context from which al-Qaeda and bin Laden emerged, along with a whole host of other folks.

That first generation of al-Qaeda jihadis, beyond 9/11, who began carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco and elsewhere, were trained on the battlefields in Afghanistan and in the camps there. It would be—it’s not entirely right that the United States directly armed bin Laden. They armed lots of other bad guys who had relationships with bin Laden. It is entirely appropriate to see bin Laden—to understand both his credibility, his legitimacy and the sources of his radicalization as being a product of American policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to go back to Saudi Arabia for one moment to talk about this whole issue of the government’s attempt to rehabilitate former fighters. Basically, it provides enormous leniency to those who turn in their weapons and agree to reintegrate into Saudi society. Could you talk about that, especially the numbers who have come from—those who have been released from Guantánamo that Saudi Arabia has accepted back and put into these reeducation programs?

TOBY JONES: Well, it’s remarkable. The Saudis, on the one hand, do in fact have—they fear the power of al-Qaeda to do harm, and they were confronted with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2003, 2004 and 2005, began a campaign inside Saudi Arabia. AQAP now continues to exist in Yemen and would like very much to do harm to the Saudis. So the Saudis are nervous about the power of terrorists to continue to do damage inside the Kingdom, both to threaten the royal family but also to potentially undermine its economy.

But it’s taken the path of dealing with these forces and these individuals by—precisely by rehabilitating them, by putting them in facilities that attempt to indoctrinate them. They bring in established clergy to essentially reeducate these folks, rehabilitate them. They’re provided with various subsidies and services, and then they’re reintegrated into family life, and into social life more broadly. So it’s a kind of catch-and-release program for suspected or for real terrorists.

One of the interesting paradoxes here is that when the Saudi state arrests liberals—not terrorists, but folks who demand things like constitutional monarchy, the creation of a constitutional monarchy, women’s rights, an end to corruption—those folks are imprisoned, and they’re left to stay there.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what Saudi Arabia is doing now? In the piece you wrote, “Counterrevolution in the Gulf,” you talk about it pursuing policies that could destabilize the whole Persian Gulf.

TOBY JONES: Right. Well, the intervention in Bahrain has got to be one of the most deeply troubling things that the Saudis—and they’ve done a lot of troubling things, right? But the decision to intervene, to militarily occupy Bahrain, has been justified. Although there are lots of different motives, it’s been justified as a response to what the Saudis claim is Iranian meddling. Much of the assumption—many Gulf Arabs assume, as do many American policymakers, that there are preternatural connections between Shias in the Arab world, whether they’re in Iraq, Bahrain or Iran, that because they’re co-religionists, they share a single political objective, and because we view Iran as the single most important bogeyman in the region, this matters. The Saudis have used this precisely to frame their intervention in Bahrain, that we’re taking out—we’re checking the possibility of Iran to establish either a fifth column or a front line so close to Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing region in the Eastern Province. So, by framing things both in sectarian terms and as a response to Iranian power, for which there is no evidence, the Saudis are in fact escalating and provoking a potential regional crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, I want to thank you for being with us, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, previously with the International Crisis Group, a political analyst of the Persian Gulf, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.

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Saudi and Iranian Interests In Bahrain Conflict

Posted on 05 May 2011 by hashimilion

Rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia date back to the first Pahlavi monarch. Following the Islamic Revolution in the 1980s, Iraq waged war against Iran with the obvious support of the Saudis. At that time, tension in the bilateral relations was high.

Tensions decreased in the following two decades, but it seems that political rivalries between these regional players has entered a new phase following 9/11 terror attacks and the occupation of Iraq.

There are three main areas of competition between Tehran and Riyadh after 2003, which include Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf.

Areas of rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia

The Iraqi Baath party controlled Iraq for decades and posed a threat to the entire region, but the Saudis considered them a counterweight to Iran’s regional influence. Following the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Baathist rule, new conditions were created. The shiites enjoyed a special position in the new political system because of democracy and the fact that they were the majority inside the country.

The Saudis could never accept the shia ascension to power. Therefore, Riyadh took a negative approach towards the new Iraqi government. Saudi officials believed that if the new relations between Iran and Iraq became powerful enough, the balance of regional power would be disturbed to their detriment. Therefore, they held a negative view of the Iraqi government and have never offered firm political support for the new government in Baghdad.

As for Lebanon and Palestine, new developments have quickly unraveled. In Saudi Arabia’s view, those developments both in were influenced by Iran and Riyadh spared no effort to thwart that influence. The war between the Hezbollah and Israel broke out in 2006 and was followed by the invasion of Gaza in 2008. The end result was the strengthening of the resistance axis. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia conducted clandestine efforts both in Lebanon and Palestine to undermine Iran’s role and influence.

The third area of rivalry, which is geographically closer to both countries and more sensitive, is the Persian Gulf. During the past few decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia have taken different approaches to the security arrangements in the Persian Gulf. While Iran has called for local security arrangements through the cooperation of regional players and opposes the presence of transregional powers like the United States, Saudi Arabia welcomed transregional powers to the Persian Gulf and signed various agreements allowing the establishment of new military bases in the region.

The crisis in Bahrain and Iran-Saudi rivalry

Given new developments and the popular uprisings, Bahrain has gained special prominence both for Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The small island is now an important arena in which Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for control. Although popular uprisings in Bahrain against Al-Khalifa regime were natural result of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, they were also rooted in the discriminatory policies adopted by the Bahraini government towards the Shia.

The Al-Khalifa proved incapable of curbing the street protests and turned to the Saudis for assistance. More than 1,000 security forces arrived in Bahrain to suppress its people in collaboration with Bahrain’s own security forces. At present, Saudi Arabia plays an axial role among the  Gulf Cooperation Council states and it seems that the recent espionage charges leveled against Iran by Kuwaiti government were a result of Saudi pressures.

The majority of Saudi Shias are concentrated along its eastern borders, which is close to Bahrain and is rich in oil reserves. Riyadh considers the collapse of the Al-Khalifa regime a red line. Saudi officials believe that regime change in Bahrain will increase Iran’s regional influence in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain’s uprising was a popular development with local causes, but the saudis talk about Iran’s influence in fostering unrest in Bahrain and try to depict it as a sectarian war. This policy aims to facilitate the suppression of people’s uprising while gaining regional and international support.

It seems that Saudi Arabia will continue to support the Al-Khalifa regime. Of course small concessions will be given to the Shia in Bahrain, but real reforms will not take place and the Al-Khalifa regime will remain in tact.

The way out

The crisis in Bahrain needs a broad-based solution which goes far beyond diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It seems that both regional and international mechanisms are needed to manage the crisis. Such mechanisms may involve Turkey, Qatar, and even the European Union. Therefore, to reduce the tension a broad-based mechanism is required.

By Dr. Ali Akbar Asadi, Researcher; Center for Strategic Research

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Saudi is Spreading Poison Throughout the World. Can Reform Save it?

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

At the end of last month, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, son of the founder of Saudi Arabia and half-brother to its present king, made an astonishing call for reform. “We cannot use the same tools we have been using to rule the country [from] a century ago,” he told the Financial Times. “This region is roiling with turmoil and radicalism and the aspirations of a young population, and I’m afraid we are not prepared for that.”

The prince has long been a dissonant voice in a family that frowns on public dissidence, and has no decision-making power. But his words speak to a fundamental battle taking place behind the guarded walls of the kingdom’s palaces. Will King Abdullah’s tentative steps towards reform, attempting to take back control of the judiciary, education and the religious police (the notorious mutawa) from reactionary clerics, continue? Or will the king’s recent appointment of Prince Nayef, the arch-conservative interior minister, as deputy prime minister and third in line to the throne, bring them to a halt?

For the problem facing this absolutist monarchy, which has managed to function both as the custodian of the birthplace of Islam and as a US ally sitting on a quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves, is not its immediate overthrow. (It has already seen off a proto-insurgency by al-Qaeda followers.) It is that the very basis of the House of Saud’s legitimacy, the fusion of temporal and religious power which forms the bedrock of the Saudi state, rests on its alliance with the House of Ibn Abdul Wahhab. And Wahhabism, the puritan faith formulated by this 18th-century religious reformer, is, in its essentials, the totalitarian creed espoused by Osama Bin Laden to justify his murderous jihad.

For many years the Saudi ruling family, which is also dependent for survival on its 64-year-old alliance with the US, managed to keep any difficulties caused by its reliance on these two radically opposed sources of support concealed behind a brittle facade of modernity. All this began to change, however, after 11 September 2001.

At first the al-Saud were in denial that 15 of the 19 hijackers were their countrymen, and that the attackers had been inspired by Bin Laden, a member of one of the kingdom’s leading merchant families. A year later, Prince Nayef was still insisting to a Kuwaiti newspaper that the attacks were a Zionist plot. When five western oil executives were killed at Yanbu, the Red Sea port, on 1 May 2004, then Crown Prince Abdullah said he was “95 per cent certain” that Zionists were behind it. Such attacks turned international opinion against Muslims: so, what other explanation could there be?

Once the jihadis turned their gunsights on the heart of the kingdom, however, the al-Saud began to accept the possibility of there being other culprits. The turning point came with the 29 May 2004 attack at al-Khobar in the Eastern Province. This is the region that contains the largest oil deposits in the world and is, in addition, the homeland of Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shia minority. Islamist gunmen attacked two foreign oil company office blocks and an expatriate enclave, killing three Saudi and 19 foreign civilians as well as nine Saudi policemen. They sought out Christian, Hindu and Buddhist “infidels” to murder, while setting Muslim hostages free. As in Yanbu that same month, they were able to mount the spectacle of dragging the body of a westerner for more than a mile, spitting slogans as they went. Even though the attack turned into a siege, with Saudi security forces ringing the compound and commandos landing on the roof of a building where the gunmen were holding more than 40 hostages, three of the attackers were able to, or allowed to, escape.

The authorities finally had to acknowledge that al-Qaeda, incubated in good part by the fanatical Wahhabism the al-Saud imposed as the kingdom’s sole creed, was their problem, too. As the slaughter at al-Khobar was continuing, the then crown prince, now King Abdullah, vowed to crush “this corrupt and deviant group” in Saudi society. “Those who keep silent about the terrorists will be regarded as belonging to them,” he warned. The implication was that nothing less than a seismic reformation of the House of Saud’s relationship with the Wahhabi clerical establishment was required–a reforging of the historic agreement that is the foundation stone of the Saudi state.

This is, in fact, the third time the House of Saud has set up a state in peninsular Arabia. The epic begins in the mid-18th century, when an emir from the Nejd in central Arabia, Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Saud, took in an itinerant preacher by the name of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. In 1744, the compact between the two houses was sealed by the marriage of al-Saud’s son and Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s daughter. This combination of Islam and the al-Saud has formed the basis of the Saudi kingdom ever since. Its essential promise is to banish chaos and darkness–an echo of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya, or epoch of ignorance, that God sought to end through his revelation to the Prophet Muhammad–and substitute order, both human and divine.

By this time, the al-Saud had become oasis settlers. Increasingly populous and “detribalised”, they were obliged to find an alternative formula to build up their political and military strength, both to resist the predatory tribes and to press their ambitions. The alliance with Ibn Abdul Wahhab gave them just that: the magic ingredients of religious reform and jihad -a holy war to reclaim the peninsula of the Prophet Muhammad and the birthplace of Islam for true believers.

Abdul Wahhab espoused probably the most literalist, rigorous, antique and exclusivist interpretation of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy ever attempted as a form of governance. The Wahhab-Saud forces came to be known as Wahhabis, but often refer to themselves as the Ahl al-Tawhid, people of the oneness (of God). They regard any apparent deviation from monotheism–particularly evident to them in the practices of the Christians and the “idolatrous” and “rejection-ist” (Rafadah) Shia Muslims, for whom they reserved the lowest circle of hell–as infidel or apostate. This (in the strict sense of the word) totalitarian creed anathematised all other beliefs as illicit. It defined everyone else as “the Other”, drawing up as broad a definition of “non-believers” as has ever been devised. Wahhabism thus provides limitless sanction for jihad (making it hard for jihadis or their victims to understand how al-Qaeda, as the al-Saud insist, is in any way “deviant” from this orthodoxy).

The Wahhabi claim is to have found Arabia in a tribal stew of idolatry and chaos, war and pillage, ignorance and vice. In effect, the Wahhab-Saud forces claim to have ended the second Arabian jahiliyya or age of ignorance. If true, that would put them on a par with the Prophet himself- a heady boast indeed. In fact, Saudi-Wahhabi propaganda is a mirror image of the orientalist discourse about the Hobbesian fate from which the west saved the east. It is a self-serving myth to justify the hegemony of the al-Saud and the Nejd over a regionally and religiously diverse nation, which was unified by force only after King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud fought 52 battles across a 30-year war of conquest, ending in 1932. Tawhid came to mean not just the “oneness” of God but the oneness of Arabia under Saudi hegemony.

In return for this religious cover, the Wahhabi clerical establishment was given decisive social control, not only over religion and public comportment, but also over education and justice. Above all, it derived power from conferring legitimacy on the Saudi rulers, who had now named the land of the Prophet after themselves. The politico-religious symbiosis of the House of Ibn Saud and the House of al-Sheikh, as it is now known, built the world’s first modern Muslim fundamentalist state.

The state created by Ibn Saud has remained essentially static, while its subjects have been dragged into a modernity that rests on the shakiest foundations, imported like the air-conditioners that cool the gleaming malls and gated residential compounds. Within loudspeaker distance of a fire-and-brimstone mosque in Riyadh, close to the hotels where I have stayed many times, a shimmering mall houses a Harvey Nichols emporium with an outlet for La Senza, the lingerie chain. It is identical, in all respects except the gaudier range, to a similar shop anywhere else. But there is one fundamental difference. Because women may not mix with men outside their family and are kept in a mixture of seclusion and segregation, it follows that they cannot work in a lingerie boutique–which is therefore staffed entirely by men.

Saudi businesswomen, who operate with signal success but in a more or less separate environment from men, have increasingly been calling for a boycott of these kinds of arrangements, which are beyond satire.

A similar absurdity arises from the ban on women driving, which in practice has required the importation of more than a million foreigners to serve as drivers. In other words, a prohibition supposedly intended to keep women from temptation by denying them any independence leads to them being thrown into. daily contact with male strangers. Only a society that has living memory of the social conventions of slavery could be capable of countenancing such a paradox.

But it is probably in the field of education that this schizophrenia is most vividly and wrenchingly lived out. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia has an educated middle class, almost one million of whom have studied abroad. The kingdom has schooled its girls for nearly two generations. Saudis often have an intellectual depth to them that is less readily encountered in many Arab countries, where political and commercial pressures have debased and ground down the currency of ideas to convenient and remunerative cliche and myth. “There is something curiously uncalloused about the Saudis,” says a veteran diplomat to the kingdom.

But then turn to school textbooks, drawn up under the authority of the Wahhabi establishment. These drill into impressionable young Saudi minds the religious duty to hate all Christians and Jews as infidels, and to combat all Shias as heretics. A theology text for 14-year-olds, for instance, states that “it is the duty of a Muslim to be loyal to the believers and be the enemy of the infidels. One of the duties of proclaiming the oneness of God is to have nothing to do with his idolatrous and polytheist enemies.” The history textbooks typically emphasise the al-Saud hegemonic myth, burying any attempt to weave regional specificity or religious breadth into national identity under a suffocating narrative of Nejdi supremacy and Saudi redemption.

“It is really not very difficult to understand how we got to where we are,” says one reformist intellectual, asking rhetorically if there was any difference between the sectarian bigotry of Osama Bin Laden and the intolerant outpourings of the Wahhabi establishment. Saudi Arabia is a laboratory for jihad–that is its strategic dilemma.

While mosques and classrooms continue to spew out this fanaticism, Saudi Arabia has also been exporting these ideas for decades. Just during the reign of the late King Fahd, Riyadh claimed to have established 1,359 mosques abroad, along with 202 colleges, 210 Islamic centres and more than 2,000 schools. In addition, it episodically supported pan-Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and sponsored jihad abroad from Afghanistan to Bosnia. Jihadis were able to establish a base in Iraq partly because Wahhabi proselytisers had established bridgeheads in cities such as Mosul in the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

As king, Abdullah has introduced some incremental change. He has started rewriting textbooks, changing teaching methods and vetting teachers. He demanded the active co-operation of the clerical establishment in curtailing the flow of Saudi volunteers to Iraq. He has instituted de-radicalisation programmes for groups of jihadi prisoners who are willing to reintegrate into Saudi society. The king has also built tentative bridges to the Shias, and tried to foster a more pluralist conception of Islam.

In 2003, he launched a “national dialogue”, which held out the prospect of more open government, tighter financial controls on the royal family’s share of national wealth, greater rights for women, even the gradual introduction of elections. The king at least appeared to recognise the need for a more open society. But his brothers (the succession has always passed along the line of King Abdul Aziz’s elderly sons) did not share this view at all. No sooner was the national dialogue under way than Prince Nayef summoned dissidents to his office where, according to one reformer present, they were told: “What we won by the sword, we will keep by the sword.” Crown Prince Sultan said publicly, in March 2004, that the kingdom was not ready for an elected parliament, because voters might choose “illiterates”. Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, then minister of Islamic affairs, rejected even the term “reform” as being pregnant with liberalism and licentiousness.

It is inescapable, however, that the al-Saud need to curb the corrosive power of the religious establishment and lead the kingdom towards a form of modernity that its religious heritage can sustain. And the most feasible way forward is to enlist Islamist progressives.

This loosely connected group of Islahiyyun or “reformers” has rediscovered the thinking of Islamic revivalists and reformers of more than a century ago, and turned it into a devastating critique of Ibn Abdul Wahhab.

Encouraged by Abdullah, the newspaper al-Watan (the nation, or homeland) became a forum for this debate, as did internet discussion groups, such as Muntada al-Wasatiyya, set up by the dissident Islamist Mohsen al-Awajy.

This still embryonic force has already achieved three major changes. First, the groups have presented their demands collectively, instead of petitioning individually at the majlis or court of the prince. The turning point was a 2003 petition signed by leading Islamist reformers and liberals. Second, the document proposed allowing diversity in matters of faith and politics–in a country where uniformity on both has long been imposed. And third, it broke the taboo about speaking against Wahhabism, and implied that it was this distorted form of Islam that was preventing Saudi Arabia from becoming a successful modern state all its citizens could easily support.

It is important to realise that the petition, titled “A vision for the present and future of the homeland”, draws on sources of renewal that are and will remain Islamic and, in important ways, Islamist. However alien this fusion of religion and politics may seem to secular westerners, it is key to any possibility of change, because it provides reformers with an authenticity and a legitimacy that deflects charges of foreign influence and intrusion. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Qassim, a former Saudi judge and reformer, is an authority on this. “Al-Qaeda and the clergy are essentially doing the same thing in different ways–putting pressure on the House of Saud for being less devout than it should be. This paralyses reform,” he tells me. “The only way out is to dilute the link with Wahhabi fanaticism.

“The only way forward is to win the legitimacy of society itself- through political reform that does not depend on the approval of the clergy. If you make society part of reform you can overcome the clergy. It is the only way.”

The demands of the Islamist reformers include free elections, freedom of expression and association, an independent judiciary, a fairer distribution of wealth, and a clearer foreign policy arrived at through open debate–in short, a constitutional monarchy, if nowhere near a bicycling monarchy. “We are limiting our demands to very specific issues, and reiterating the al-Saud’s right to stay at the top of the tree,” says Mohsen al-Awajy. “They think it’s for tactical reasons, but the fact is there is no real alternative.”

Just how fundamental it is that liberals and Islamists take on Wahhabism cannot be overstated. But the liberals are an infinitesimal minority, tainted in the eyes of the masses with corruption and decadence. As one senior prince puts it, with a certain melancholy: “We liberals sit around a bottle of scotch and complain to each other, and then, the next morning, do nothing. Yet if we don’t get real progress, economically, socially and politically, we are going to be in a terrible mess in five to ten years.”

He, at least, shows an awareness alien to much of a bloated royal family that affects not to understand where a privy purse ends and a public budget begins, and continues to squander fabulous public wealth. Military spending, for example, is about three times the average for a developing country and is used as a mechanism for distributing power and wealth within the top ranks of the House of Saud–which is more than 5,000 princes strong.

No wonder that it is the Islamist reformers, numerically and ideologically, who are the real force for change. They can credibly argue that they intend no separation between mosque and state, but a redefinition of the relationship between the al-Saud and the al-Sheikh.

“Saudi Arabia has to be an Islamic state; it is the birthplace of Islam. The question is which Islam?” says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of al-Watan and adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington and London. “The alliance should be between the state and Islam, not between the House of Saud and the House of al-Sheikh.”

Awajy, whose candour lost him his job as a university professor, argues: “The contract between the two houses is no longer in the interests of the Saudi people; if we tolerated it in the past it does not mean we will in the future. Real reform cannot take place within the Wahhabi doctrine.”

The Wahhabi establishment has pumped the poison of bigotry into the Saudi mainstream throughout the existence of the kingdom. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, it became impossible to ignore that its ideas and al-Qaeda’s were pretty much the same. It is hard to imagine how the House of Saud will survive unless it breaks decisively with these ideas. Or, as one Saudi reformer put it: “If this clerical establishment is incapable of imagining the solutions we need to modern problems, then the answer is clear-we have to find another establishment.”

By David Gardner

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Saudi Arabia’s New Role In The Emerging Middle East

Posted on 28 April 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia is once more seeking to shape events in the Arab world, encouraged by a regional upheaval that is threatening to bring down regimes in neighbouring territories and to harm national security in the process.

When King Abdullah acceded as monarch in 2005, hopes were high in the kingdom, as well as in the US administration, that the vacuum in the Arab world could be filled with a more activist Saudi leader, able to improve the regional situation to the benefit of the US-allied Arab “moderates” and to the disadvantage of Iran.

But those hopes were soon dashed.

The inadequacies of the Saudi foreign policy-making machine, a lack of Saudi political will partly due to the king’s age and inclinations, and regional and US obstruction, saw efforts to promote intra-Palestinian peace run into the sand.

Mediation on other fronts – Lebanon, Sudan and Somalia – came to naught.

Backbone of Bahrain

This year, the Saudi leadership has watched with horror as the US has in effect rerun 1979 by abandoning a strategic ally – in this case President Mubarak of Egypt instead of the Shah of Iran.

Washington even appeared to sympathise with what Riyadh considers to be Iran’s de facto allies – the Shia opposition in Bahrain.

The Saudi response to events in Bahrain – located a short drive from the Eastern Province where Saudi Shia are relatively populous – has been to stiffen the al-Khalifa regime’s backbone by once again sending its troops into the Bahraini fray. The Saudi Arabian National Guard last intervened in 1995.

Saudi Arabia has come to the aid of the Bahraini ruling family

The Saudi mission is dressed up in a flimsy flag of convenience, that of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose assent has seen nominal UAE and Kuwaiti military contributions too.

However, it is Saudi troops that are underpinning al-Khalifa control in the Gulf island, just as Saudi money lubricates the al-Khalifa patronage power.

Yemen has for several years been Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent security concern. This is due to al-Qaeda’s presence there, as well as perceived Iranian penetration and the threat of internal Yemeni secessionism.

Yemen face-off

The Saudi alliance of convenience with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has however recently collapsed. Saudi Arabia has once again given heft to an apparent GCC initiative – a “peace plan” that requires the Yemeni leader to hand over power to his vice-president.

As both Yemeni government and opposition party representatives are expected to gather shortly in Riyadh to explore the deal, the determining issue will be whether there is a Yemeni will to agree to its terms.

Without such domestic agreement, there will be no Saudi-led breakthrough, even allowing for Riyadh’s political influence, resources and ability to talk to an array of challengers to Mr Saleh’s rule, including Islamist, tribal and secessionist elements.

Yemeni opposition leaders and the GCC have called for President Saleh to step down
Riyadh’s view of the Arab uprisings is shaped by the kingdom’s long-standing concern of maintaining stability in the face of internal and external threats.

Saudi military options have been exercised in Bahrain just as they were 18 months ago in Yemen, in facing down a Yemeni Shia group that had crossed its borders.

As Arab uprisings threaten to increase Iranian and al-Qaeda opportunities in neighbouring territories, Saudi Arabia will attempt to counter them with force, or diplomacy and largesse, as appropriate.

Syrian alternatives

Baathist Syria is not, however, a neighbouring concern. It has long been distrusted as an Iranian ally that has proven unwilling to work with perceptible “Arab” interests.

The Saudi government cannot hope to try to directly influence the regime or events on the ground. In common with the US and Israel, it is not sure that the alternative would be to its advantage, even if it disadvantaged Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s internal authority appears firm because of a mixture of patronage, security and a concern among many nationals – Sunni and Shia – that they stand to lose if the regime is directly challenged.

However the “virus” of popular demands is an uncomfortable spectacle for the al-Saud, seeing, as it does, regional events through the prism of national security and strategic competition.

Saudi Arabia shares with the US a desire to ensure that Iran is also affected by regional popular protests.

But Riyadh does not see Washington as a decisive upholder of this shared interest.

As a result, Saudi Arabia will act unilaterally where it can in order to further its interests. But it is liable to be stymied by a mixture of its own political inadequacies and the force of local events that have a life of their own.

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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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Is The Tide Turning Against Arab Freedom?

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

Is a counter-revolutionary tide beginning to favour the “strongmen” of the Arab world, whose regimes appeared a couple of months ago to be faltering under the impact of the Arab Awakening?

From Libya to Bahrain and Syria to Yemen, leaders are clinging on to power despite intense pressure from pro-democracy protesters. And the counter-revolution has so far had one undoubted success: the Bahraini monarchy, backed by troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, has brutally but effectively crushed the protesters in the island kingdom. Pro-democracy leaders are in jail or have fled abroad. The majority Shia population is being terrorised by arbitrary arrests, torture, killings, disappearances, sackings, and the destruction of its mosques and religious places.

In three other countries despots under heavy assault have varying chances of survival. A month ago in Yemen it seemed likely that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was on his way out, but he still has not gone and has mobilised his own demonstrators, gunmen and security forces. Nevertheless the army has publicly split and the probability is that he will finally depart.

In Syria protests are continuing across the country despite frequent shootings, but President Bashar al-Assad will take a lot of displacing because of his determination to stay, the strength of his security apparatus and the tight grip on power of the minority Allawi community.

In Libya Muammar Gaddafi teetered on the verge of defeat two months ago when rebels had seized the east of the country and there were demonstrations in Tripoli. Since then he has rallied a core of support and the rebels in Benghazi would collapse if they did not have the backing of Nato airpower. Nevertheless he is likely to go simply because Britain, France and the US are committed to his departure.

All this is very different from what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, where the military and political establishments believed they could get rid of the regime but keep the rest of the state intact. This could not be done in Libya or Syria because the regime and the state are too intertwined.

In Yemen the state is too weak to get rid of the leader, while in Bahrain democracy means a revolutionary transfer of power from the minority Sunni to the majority Shia. The counter-revolution has other advantages. Its leaders are no longer being caught by surprise. Defenders of the status quo no longer think their defeat is inevitable and have recovered their nerve. They can draw on the loyalty and self-interest of state employees and on sectarian allegiances.

The attitude of outside powers to the overthrow of the status quo differs from country to country. The US was in two minds over support for Mr Mubarak, but did not condemn the Saudi armed intervention in Bahrain or the subsequent terrorising of the Bahraini Shia. Washington has a very different attitude to Arab autocracies in North Africa and far more strategically important Gulf oil states allied to the US. Unspoken also as a factor in US thinking is the degree to which revolution or counter-revolution will help or hinder America’s traditional enemy in Iran.

Only in Libya has the struggle between rebellion and the state turned into outright war. The rebels have plenty of support, but they still only control a quarter of the population and they remain militarily weak. Their most important card is Nato air strikes and even these have not enabled the anti-Gaddafi forces to advance beyond Ajdabiya or break the siege of Misrata.

The counter-revolution is showing that it has more going for it than seemed likely two months ago. This only appears surprising because well-established authoritarian regimes went down so swiftly in Tunisia and Egypt. Police states have had time to rally their formidable forces of repression, but even this may not be enough to quell newly politicised populations which believe they can end autocratic rule.

By Patrick Cockburn

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