Tag Archive | "Shia"

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Saudi Arabia’s Missteps Into Bahrain

Posted on 21 April 2011 by hashimilion

On March 14, 2011, Saudi Arabia launched its own “Brezhnev Doctrine,” exercising the right to militarily intervene to prop up an unpopular governing order. In the process, the Saudis have demonstrated how little they understand their own region and their own country. Saudi rulers have made a major mistake in casting the crisis in Bahrain as a sectarian conflict in which Iran’s Shia proxies are battling a benign Sunni ruling class for sake of Persian aggrandizement. The rebelling in Bahrain, as indeed throughout the region, is about a disenfranchised and impoverished majority seeking political representation and economic justice. The proper path for Bahrain’s al-Khalifa dynasty is to renegotiate its national compact and appreciate that as the Middle East finally joins the twenty-first century it has limited options beyond a constitutional monarchy.

The aging Saudi rulers nurturing their own misconceptions and conspiracies are hopelessly behind the curve as the Arab Spring gradually suffuses the entire Middle East. The yearning for democratic reforms and economic equality cannot be repressed through police tactics in Riyadh or forceful intervention in Manama. It would be wise for Washington to have a frank and unpleasant conversation with its ally of long-standing. Too often the lure of Saudi oil wealth has caused successive American administrations to placate their truculence. The old Arab bargain whereby the state exchanges material rewards for political quiescence is no longer relevant. If the Saudi monarchy and its Sunni subsidiaries want to survive the turbulent politics of the new Middle East, they will have to opt for political modernization as opposed to offers of bribes mixed with threats of violence.

The Iranian angle is as interesting as it is intriguing. The Islamic Republic is itself beset by a democratic uprising that it has tried to contain at the risk of its own illegitimacy. The Saudi move this week could not have come at a better time for the guardians of Iran’s theocracy. Tehran will likely continue its unequivocal condemnations and portray itself as champion of democracy without actually practicing it at home. By highlighting the deficiencies of the Arab political order and Washington’s seeming passivity, the clerical state can try to capture the region’s political imagination irrespective of its own tarnished reputation. But don’t expect any regional show of force by the Iranian regime. Tehran understands that it benefits the most by limiting itself to rhetorical attacks as opposed to a direct military intervention that could allow the Saudis to portray their power play as part of the effort to contain Iran.

U.S. policymakers must grasp that the crisis in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East is not about Iran and should not be seen through the prism of U.S.-Iran confrontation. The sooner Washington emancipates itself from such flawed perceptions, the sooner it will be in position to craft a new, stable regional order.

Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

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Bahrain Escapes Censure By West As Crackdown on Protesters Intensifies

Posted on 19 April 2011 by hashimilion

Bahraini government forces backed by Saudi Arabian troops are destroying mosques and places of worship of the Shia majority in the island kingdom in a move likely to exacerbate religious hatred across the Muslim world.

“So far they have destroyed seven Shia mosques and about 50 religious meeting houses,” said Ali al-Aswad, an MP in the Bahraini parliament.

He said Saudi soldiers, part of the 1,000-strong contingent that entered Bahrain last month, had been seen by witnesses helping demolish Shia mosques and shrines in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

The attack on Shia places of worship has provoked a furious reaction among the 250 million Shia community, particularly in Iran and Iraq, where Shia are in a majority, and in Lebanon where they are the largest single community.

The Shia were already angry at the ferocious repression by Bahraini security forces of the pro-democracy movement, which had sought to be non-sectarian. After the monarchy had rejected meaningful reform, the wholly Sunni army and security forces started to crush the largely Shia protests on 15 and 16 March.

The harshness of the government repression is provoking allegations of hypocrisy against Washington, London and Paris. Their mild response to human rights abuses and the Saudi Arabian armed intervention in Bahrain is in stark contrast to their vocal concern for civilians in Libya.

The US and Britain have avoided doing anything that would destabilise Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, to which they are allied. They are worried about Iran taking advantage of the plight of fellow Shia, although there is no evidence that Iran has any role in fomenting protests despite Bahraini government claims to the contrary. The US has a lot to lose because its Fifth Fleet, responsible for the Gulf and the north of the Indian Ocean, is based in Bahrain.

Sunni-Shia hostility in the Muslim world is likely to deepen because of the demolition of Shia holy places in Bahrain. Shia leaders recall that it was the blowing up of the revered Shia shrine of al-Askari in Samarra, Iraq, by al-Qa’ida in 2006 that provoked a sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia in which tens of thousands died. They see fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, upheld by the state in Saudi Arabia, as being behind the latest sectarian assault and attempt to keep the Shia as second-class citizens. Mr Sadiq believes Saudi troops are behind the attacks on mosques and shrines. “What is happening comes from the ideology of Wahhabism which is against shrines,” he said. To the Wahhabi, the Shia are as heretical as Christians. Mr Aswad said soldiers in Saudi uniforms had been seen attending the destruction of Shia religious sites.

Yousif al-Khoei, who heads a Shia charitable foundation, said he could “confirm that reports of desecration of Shia graves, shrines and mosques and hussainiyas [religious meeting houses] in Bahrain are genuine and we are concerned that Saudi troops, who believe that shrines are un-Islamic and are trying to enforce that Wahhabi doctrine on the Shia of Bahrain, will undoubtedly result in heightened sectarian tensions.”

Some 499 people in Bahrain are known to have been detained during the current unrest and many are believed to have been tortured. Four who died in detention this month showed signs of severe abuse and appeared to have been beaten to death.

In the case of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, who had turned himself in to the security forces after threats to detain his family if he did not do so, photographs showed signs of whipping and beating. The Bahraini human rights activist who photographed the body was later detained and accused of faking the picture, but the same injuries were witnessed by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

There are continuing arbitrary arrests of people who took part in the pro-democracy protests that began on 14 February. Even waving a Bahraini flag is considered an offence, and a doctor who was shown on television shedding tears over the body of a dead protester was detained.

The aim of government repression is evidently to terrorise the Shia and permanently crush the protest movement. Doctors who treated injured demonstrators have been arrested and on 15 April the authorities detained a lawyer, Mohammed al-Tajer, who defended protesters in court. Human Rights Watch says the families of many of those detained have no word on what has happened to them. The authorities do not seem concerned about providing plausible accounts of how detainees died. In the case of Mr Saqer, who was detained on 3 April and whose body was released six days later, the government said he had “created chaos” in the detention centre and had died while the disturbance was being quelled.

Human Rights Watch, which saw his body during the ritual before he was buried in his home village of Sehla on 10 April, said “his body showed signs of severe physical abuse. The left side of his face showed a large patch of bluish skin with a reddish-purple area near his left temple and a two-inch cut to the left of his eye. Lash marks crisscrossed his back, some reaching to his front right side. Blue bruises covered much of the back of his calves, thighs, and buttocks, as well as his right elbow and hip. The tops of his feet were blackened, and lacerations marked his ankles and wrists.”

The fighting in Libya and unrest elsewhere in the Arab world has drawn attention away from Bahrain, and the authorities have also arrested pro-democracy journalists and prevented several foreign journalists entering the country.

Timeline of unrest

14 February Anti-government protests dubbed the “Day of Rage” attract thousands, prompted by demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia. One person is killed.

15 February Bahrain police open fire on crowds at the dead protester’s funeral. King Hamad attempts to appease the demonstrators, pledging to hold an investigation into the “regrettable” deaths.

26 February The ruling al-Khalifa family makes concessions to Bahrain’s majority Shia population. Hardline Shia dissident Hassan Mushaima is allowed to return from voluntary exile.

3 March First clashes between the Sunnis and Shia Muslim communities since February’s protests.

15 March Martial law is declared one day after Saudi troops enter Bahrain in an attempt to end the unrest. The United Arab Emirates vows to send 500 police.

16 March Bahraini forces arrest six opposition leaders and crack down on protesters.

18 March The geographical focal point of the mainly Shia protests, Pearl Roundabout in Manama, is demolished in an attempt to quash the rebellion. At least seven people die.

3 April Authorities lift a ban on the main opposition newspaper.

4 April Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls on Saudi Arabia to pull out of Bahrain.

10 April The body of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer is buried, seven days after he was taken into custody. His body showed signs of whipping and beating.

13 April A Shia opposition party claims that another protester has died in police custody – the fourth so far.

16 April Tensions rise further with new arrests and the alleged death of a female student.

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The Arab Spring and the Saudi Counter-Revolution

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

We return from a recent trip to the region persuaded that the main question engaging people with respect to the “Arab spring” is no longer “who’s next,” but rather “how far will Saudi Arabia go in pushing a counter-revolutionary agenda” across the Middle East? Whether Saudi Arabia is really capable of coping with the momentous changes going on in the region — not just with respect to demands for political change in a number of Arab states, but geopolitically, as well — is a truly profound and important question. To unpack this, it is helpful to take a historical perspective on Saudi Arabia and its traditional national security strategy.

Unlike Iran and Turkey, many Arab states are not, within their current boundaries, “natural” states. Most, in fact, are the creations of colonial powers, at least within their present borders — e.g., Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the smaller GCC states all fit this bill.

Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, is an important exception to this generalization. But, in contrast to Egypt, Saudi Arabia is not a historically “natural” state. The Saudi state was definitely created — but by indigenous actors, not outsiders.

Saudi Arabia is the product of hard-fought tribal wars and alliances, legitimated by an indigenously generated ideology — that is, the particular form of Islam that has been championed by the al-Saud since the mid-18th century, commonly known in the West as wahhabi (though many Saudis resist the term), and described by many of our Iranian interlocutors as salafi (though that strikes us as a more general term that can apply to Sunni Muslims who do not follow a Saudi-prescribed religious line). Buttressed by its massive oil wealth, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has emerged as a formidable, “home grown” political entity.

Since the consolidation of the modern Saudi state in the 1920s and 1930s, the Kingdom has turned to the United States as its principal external security partner. There were two main reasons for the Saudis’ original alignment with Washington: America had no legacy of colonial entanglements in the Middle East, and it was not Britain. At least some Saudi princes believe, to this day, that, but for the British, the al-Saud would have ended up controlling the entire Arabian peninsula, including territories now occupied by the smaller Gulf Arab states. And, in the 1930s, King ‘Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud was worried that London would try to weaken his autonomy and bring the new Saudi state firmly under British influence, along with its Bahraini, Kuwaiti, and other Gulf Arab wards.

The United States seemed the best available hedge against that — so, American oil companies received the first major oil concession in Saudi Arabia, in 1933. After World War II, the Kingdom developed a deep and multi-faceted strategic relationship with the United States. In essence, America and Saudi Arabia both wanted to cooperate in balancing against other external powers seeking to expand their influence in the Persian Gulf — but, during the Cold War, the major external power of concern was no longer Britain but the Soviet Union.

This record helps us understand the principal objectives and major elements of Saudi Arabia’s current national security strategy. The Kingdom wants to have at least a quasi-hegemonic status on the Arabian peninsula; at the same time, it does not want another regional state to attain what it would see as hegemony over the Middle East as a whole. And, even in the post-Cold War period, the Saudis have wanted to see their relationship with the United States as the ultimate guarantee of their security and survival.

Today, that strategy is in crisis on all fronts — and the Saudis are not handling it well.

The strategy is in crisis, first of all, because of Riyadh’s plummeting confidence in the reliability and competence of the United States as a security partner. This dynamic is not, per se, new. The Kingdom grew increasingly disenchanted with various aspects of America’s Middle East policy during the 1990s — disenchantment intensified by the various traumas that fallout from the 9/11 attacks inflicted on U.S.-Saudi relations. (The militancy associated with the religious ideology promoted by Saudi Arabia over decades has generated a number of significant security problems for the United States.)

But the Saudi leadership — including, it would seem, King Abdullah himself — is both enormously angry and deeply unsettled by what it sees as Washington’s abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is a critically important state for the Saudi — and it has not always been a friendly one. Mubarak’s predecessors, Nasr and Sadat, both challenged Saudi Arabia, in diametrically different but powerful ways. And now that Egyptian political order, the orientation of which is so strategically consequential for Saudi Arabia, is again up for grabs. So, while Western assessments have tended to criticize President Obama and his Administration for being too slow in supporting “forces of change” in Egypt, from a Saudi perspective the Obama Administration dropped Mubarak much too quickly, squandering opportunities to support him in pushing back against those demanding his removal.

On the regional front, the Saudis are discombobulated by what they see as a rising tide of Iranian influence across the Middle East. The Islamic Republic’s allies have been winning, politically, in key venues — Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine. Historically, the Saudis have never been big fans of pan-Arabism. But, in recent years, senior Saudi princes have, with increasing frequency, denounced what they have come portentously to call Iranian “interference” in “Arab affairs.” Now, with the Arab spring, the Saudis are alarmed that the influence of the Islamic Republic and political forces friendly to it will rise even more dramatically. The Saudis are even more alarmed about the potential geopolitical consequences of these developments — e.g., the high likelihood that post-Mubarak Egypt will enjoy improved relations with the Islamic Republic.

So, as the Saudi state sees itself increasingly “encircled” by multiple and expanding threats, Saudi leaders are doubling down on the fundamentals of their traditional national security strategy — military force to ensure its dominance on the Arabian peninsula, the use of religious ideology to raise sectarian concern about rising Shi’a influence, and putting enormous financial resources on the table (e.g., $30 billion for Bahrain) to further its goals. This approach is clearly reflected in the Kingdom’s response to recent events in Bahrain, culminating in the dispatch of Saudi military forces to repress popular protests there.

But Bahrain is not the only place in the region where the Saudi counter-revolution is being felt. Saudi initiative was critical to bringing about the Arab League’s quasi-endorsement of international military intervention in Libya. That amounts to Saudi endorsement of coercive regime change in another Arab state. Regime change is unacceptable in Bahrain, but OK in Libya — the main thing is, the Saudis have reaffirmed their ability to suck the United States onto their side in regional disputes (at those in which Israel is not taking a position at odds with the Saudis).

Washington’s deference to Saudi anxieties could prove almost as corrosive to the possibility of America making critically necessary adjustments in its own Middle East policies as Washington’s deference to Israel.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Saudi Cleric Attacks Iranian “Hypocrisy and Deception”

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric accused Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and attacked its “hypocrisy and deception”, a Saudi newspaper said on Friday.

Gulf Arab countries are concerned over what they see as the ambition of non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran to extend its influence in Arab countries mostly under Sunni rule. Saudi Arabia follows a brand of Sunni Islam that views Shi’ites as heretics.

“We must guard against their (Iranian) intrigues and we have to be wary of them and be careful of their deceits and not fall for their claims about Islam, which are all hypocrisy and deception,” Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh was quoted as saying in the daily Okaz.

The paper said he condemned “Iranian interventions” in the GCC and described Iranians as “Zoroastrians” — followers of the pre-Islamic Persian religion — in language Saudi clerics often use to attack Iranians and Shi’ites.

Bahrain’s Gulf Arab allies accused Iran of interfering in their affairs after Tehran objected to the dispatch of Saudi troops to help Bahrain put down protests last month.

Bahrain, a Sunni Muslim monarchy, received help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help break up the pro-democracy protest movement.

The Bahrain crisis has accentuated tensions between Iran and the GCC countries, which Washington sees as counterweights to the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s official IRNA news agency said on Friday Tehran had called on the U.N. Security Council to protect opposition activists in Bahrain, where it said unrest and suppression could destabilise the entire region.

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

Posted on 14 April 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Soumaya Ghannoushi

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Obama Dispatches Top Aide To Saudi And UAE

Posted on 11 April 2011 by hashimilion

US President Barack Obama is sending a foreign policy aide to key Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week amid concern over the turmoil sweeping the Middle East.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will leave on Monday on a three-day trip during which he will meet Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan in Abu Dhabi, the White House said.

“The National Security Advisor’s visit underscores the importance of our relationship with these two key partners,” a written statement said.

Saudi Arabia’s intervention last month in Bahrain amid Shiite-led opposition violence has exposed festering political differences between Riyadh and the United States over the revolts rocking the Arab world.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates held talks in Riyadh on Wednesday with King Abdullah, with both sides concerned as well by Iranian intentions in the region and spiraling unrest in Yemen.

Boosted by the arrival of a Saudi-led Gulf forces contingent, Bahraini security forces smashed a month-old protest mid-March in central Manama by Shiites, leaving three protesters and two police dead.

The surprise Saudi decision to lead a regional mission into the strife-torn and strategic kingdom ruled by a Sunni minority also reflected the deep shadow cast by Iran in the instability testing US-allied leaders across the Gulf.

Washington appeared to have had little if any advance notice of what was a potentially embarrassing move for the United States, which has led a prolonged effort to prod Bahrain towards political reforms.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states have traded accusations with Iran of meddling and interference, especially over Bahrain, which lies off the eastern Saudi coast and is home to the US Fifth Fleet.

“We already have evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain and we also have evidence that they’re talking about what they can do to create problems elsewhere,” Gates said after Wednesday’s meeting in Riyadh.

King Abdullah’s return home in February after months of treatment abroad for a back ailment came amid mounting international anger over bloodshed in the kingdom’s southern neighbor Yemen.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a close US and Saudi ally, has faced months of protests calling for his departure, in which around 125 people have been killed.

Dozens of anti-regime demonstrators were shot Sunday in the latest clashes with security forces, sparking charges of “massacre,” as Yemen’s worried Gulf neighbors gathered in Riyadh to work out a transition plan.

The United States announced last year that it plans to offer Saudi Arabia $60 billion worth of hi-tech fighter jets and helicopters, in the largest US arms deal ever.

 

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Saudi Arabia: There Has Been ‘No Crackdown’ in Bahrain

Posted on 11 April 2011 by hashimilion

I just attended an eye-opening roundtable discussion with several members of Saudi Arabia’s Majlis al-Shura, the advisory council to King Abdullah, at the New America Foundation here in Washington.

It was a great chance to assess the Saudi government’s take on the change sweeping the Arab world, and where it is positioning itself. It was hard to conclude that its location is currently on the wrong side of history.

The level of denial about Bahrain, which is the kingdom’s key concern in the region, was startling. One delegate said there was “no major crackdown” in Bahrain, despite the fact that the security forces opened fire in Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, You-Tube footage can be seen of protestors being shot at point blank range, the main opposition newspaper has just been shut down amid the emergency rule imposed a month ago. Not forgetting that Gulf Co-operation Council forces agreed to a cry for help from Bahrain’s royal family, resulting in the Saudi-led intervention of 1,000 troops.

Another shura member said that Bahrain’s Shia community, which is 60 percent of the population ruled by the Sunni monarchy, was essentially content and enjoyed a decent standard of living. “Bahrain is a very serene island,” he said. “What was happening in Bahrain was instigated by foreign forces”.

This is, of course, the sort of blind, blame-all-others approach that was allocated by Tunisian and Egyptian leaders as their regimes were crumbling.

The conversation revealed a level of concern, or some might say paranoia, about the Shias and Iranian influence that is rarely appreciated outside the region. From the Saudi point of view, a serious challenge to a quasi-absolute Sunni monarchy with a Shia majority is anathema – a “thick red line” as one speaker called it.

That is understandable, but the Saudis’ failure to accept that Bahrainis had any legitimate claims for political reform and greater equality was alarming. There was an admission from one panelist “something must be done” about Bahrain’s unpopular prime minister, who initially at least was the chief target of protesters’ anger. But that was as far as it went, and that panelist stressed that his was not the majority view in Saudi Arabia.

Failure in Bahrain to address Shia grievances will only aggravate Shia populations elsewhere in the region and aid Iran’s ambition of becoming a true regional power.  That would be against not only Saudi Arabia’s interests, but the West’s.

By Alex Spillius

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Guarding the Fortress

Posted on 06 April 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia, fortified by its oil wealth, Wahhabi ideology and blanket American protection, finds itself drifting in the uncharted waters of a new Arab awakening fashioned in revolt.

SAUDI ARABIA APPEARS FROM THE OUTSIDE AS A BEGUILING FORTRESS HOUSING A remote Kingdom guarded by robed, well-oiled royals. This desert fortress is sustained by unlimited hydrocarbon resources, bringing fabulous wealth to its intoxicated rulers and sedating the inhabitants. Minarets serve as watchtowers of orthodoxy and dogma. The fortress has also remained strong because of a protective alliance with a foreign power, the United States (US), that chooses a romanticised vision of a kingdom that offers harmonious exchange and a false sense of security.

But the waves of revolution, dissent and sedition are lashing against the fortress’s very foundations, deepening cracks of this political structure built on shifting sand. King Abdullah and his thousands of royal brothers, nephews and assorted hangers-on have watched the fall of fellow dictators, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Others in their death throes, like Muammar Al Gaddafi of Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, refuse to see the writing on the wall. The Saudi Royals’ younger brother King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain, kowtowing to Saudi diktat, has now made his choice by inviting Saudi military into his troubled land. Even the docile Jordanian monarch Abdullah II and his normally forgotten brotherly neighbour Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman are floundering.

No state in the Arab world is being spared the sudden wrath of its people. The old strategic criteria of dividing the region on the basis of oil versus non-oil states, or of alliances with the United States, now fails to hold water. There are no longer any guarantees, with or without American support, for protecting regional rulers from the legitimate demands of their people. The people have made common cause, rising from years of misrule and repression, through the use of new technologies in new media adopted by young people. The demographics of the population are simply too lopsided in favour of younger generations versus the old ruling oligarchy. All these factors are plentiful in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: a youthful majority, an abundance of computers, and deepening social and political resentments and alienation.

The Saudi Kingdom contains within its fortress walls a deeper rot: an arbitrary coercive and corrupt system that denies its subjects its fundamental political rights and social justice. The Saudi royals do not even grasp what it is that their people are demanding. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have all helped bring down the walls of opacity. The seventy percent of the Kingdom’s population who are under the age of thirty are predominantly Internet savvy.

They are asking for the creation of a constitutional monarchy, parliamentary elections, the release of thousands of political prisoners being held without trial or representation, an end to the endemic and massive royal corruption, reform of the judiciary and the minimising of perks and privileges afforded the 22,000 members of the House of Saud, as well as meeting demands to curtail the influence of the religious establishment.

Talk of a ‘Day of Rage’ scheduled for March 11 captured the world’s attention. To stop the increasingly corrosive developments, the Saudi state has equipped itself with the biggest carrot and largest stick in the Arab world. The carrot comprises the king’s promise of 37 billion dollars to his country’s agitated younger generations – a fifteen percent pay raise for government employees, aid for students and the unemployed, and access to sport clubs – something that only a Croseus-rich monarch like King Abdullah could hope to deliver. Nowhere are subjects offered such largess to buy off their loyalties.

Since thousands of voices using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube expressed ingratitude for such a ‘benevolent’ act, the state then decided to deploy its catch-all religious fall-back to warn its subjects that demonstrations and protests are un- Islamic. Using the pretext of the Saudi Kingdom as the ultimate guardian of the Islamic faith and custodian of the holy mosques, the state claimed to be protecting its population from the sins of other Middle Eastern youth. There have been in recent days mass arrests of those calling for reform, and multiple websites have been blocked. The Saudi bogeyman, thousands of security forces backed by armour on the street and helicopters hovering over city skies, act as an iron-fisted warning against any dissent. The Saudi rulers are beyond the reproach of their people.

Meanwhile the United States, traditional protector and ‘custodian of the holy oil fields,’ has lapsed into diplomatic torpor. The US has guarded the Kingdom from external threats through the sales of hundreds of billions of dollars of high-tech arms. Since 1945, the stationing of American forces in Dhahran near the critical oil fields have been crucial for Saudi security and are the lifeblood of American and world economy. The US never alluded to the subject of democracy in its support of the Saudi rulers and deliberately did not deal with the people, remaining constant in their policy for the survival of the Al Saud. The pact between Riyadh and Washington was to always protect the Kingdom’s fortress and not to get embroiled with the multitude of tribes, sects, regions, and ethnic groups.

The big carrot and stick have bought the Saudi rulers a temporary sense of control. But the faces of millions of screaming, self-liberated Arabs beaming at them on the screens of Al Jazeera have increased the tension. Prince Naif, interior minister and crown prince in waiting, may continue to repeat the Kingdom’s slogan: “What we took by the sword, we will hold by the sword.” But the traditional sword is dull, limited, and unable to meet the challenges of the moment. The Saudi rulers are also using the sectarian discourse both for the US and for their Sunni populations, portraying the Shi’a as the scary spectre seeking dominance and a dangerous alliance with Iran. They also are using the divide and rule policy to warn their Sunni population against the internal Shi’a enemy.

The most challenging group to the Saudi rulers is currently the Shi’a, who constitute 75 percent of the population in the Eastern Province, the Kingdom’s main oil-producing region. The Shi’a were also the first to respond to the eruptions of demonstrations in the Arab region despite the legal ban on demonstrations. The Shi’a have experienced loss of lives and imprisonment since 1979 because of their defiance.

The strategic regional predominance of Saudi Arabia through its oil wealth has allowed the country’s rulers to freeze reform. This policy offers temporary political respite for the kingdom, but the frozen body politic is brittle and can easily break. The danger is that continued repression of peaceful protests can lead to violence and radicalisation. At the moment, Islamic extremism and Al Qaeda have no space in the Arab movements of the people, but if this desperation continues to be confined to computer screens while political representation and expression is forbidden, then Al Qaeda will find renewed space.

By Dr Mai Yamani

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