Tag Archive | "Shi’ites"

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Iran vs. Saudi Arabia in Bahrain?

Posted on 16 May 2011 by hashimilion

The Iranian meddling in Bahrain was temporarily to be put to a hold. However, the prey, albeit small in acreage, is too lucrative to be let go, and Iranian clandestine intervention continues. Bahrain, a small island kingdom in the Gulf, is coveted by Iran, its neighbor across the bay, as it has a lot to covet. Strategically located near the Hormuz straits, through which 20% of the world’s oil passes, with its own production of 40,000 oil barrels a day, and with huge gas reserves, Bahrain is definitely in the sights of the Iranian regime. What makes the Iranian move to indirectly swallow Bahrain a real risk is the fact that 70% of the Bahraini population is Shiite, such as 80% of Iran’s population, and the Bahraini Shiites look up to Iran for guidance, or even instructions.

The Saudi King and other Gulf States rulers read the map correctly and sent troops to protect Bahrain. The demise of the 200-year Bahrain rule of the Sunni dynasty currently headed by King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa’s and its replacement by a Shiite puppet of Iran could be ominous to their own regimes. Saudi Arabia is particularly vulnerable because its rich oilfields border with Bahrain and the local population in this region is mostly Shiite. A successful Shiite takeover of Bahrain could whet the appetite of the Saudi Shiites and their Iranian comrades to follow suit. Therefore, with the invitation of the Bahraini king, 3,500 Saudi soldiers crossed the bridge linking Saudi Arabia with Bahrain to help preserve the Bahraini regime.

The Iranians are far from liking this development, which all of a sudden shuffled their cards. Now, it is no longer tiny Bahrain defending itself from Iranian sponsored subversion — it is Iran versus Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The bar has risen. Saudi Arabia, with a cash chest that would make King Midas envious and with the backing of the U.S, is a formidable rival to Iran.

The Iranian response to the Saudi move was quick. Local media in the northeastern city of Mashhad reported that 700 people gathered outside the Saudi consulate and stoned it to protest the killing of Shiites in Bahrain. If the Saudi government fails to take the hint, additional protests are likely to follow in other Iranian cities, including Tehran.

Saudi Arabia has increased its pressure on the U.S to intervene and prevent the operation of the Iranian nuclear plant in Bushehr. They quoted Dmitry Rogozin the Russian ambassador to NATO who repeated a previous warning sent by Russia that “The virus attack on a Russian-built nuclear reactor in Iran could have triggered a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl.” Now the concern is increased following the disaster in the Japanese reactors in Fukoshima. Although Fereydoun Abbasi the head of the Atomic Energy Organization, acknowledged that “Even before the earthquake and nuclear contamination crisis in Japan, Iran had accepted Russian experts’ proposal to revise its plans to load fuel into the core of the Bushehr power plant’s reactor,” Saudi Arabia continues with its pressure against Iran, as part of its effort to limit Iranian clandestine involvement in Bahrain.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not new. The fervent Shiite Iran and the Sunni Saudi Arabia have long been struggling over the reign of world Muslims. Thus far, with its control of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has the upper hand.

The saber rattling continues. Bahrain ousted the Iranian Consul in Manama, and the Iranians retorted in kind. Iran recruited once more Hezbollah, its subcontractor for dirty jobs. During a rally in Beirut, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah criticized Bahrain’s monarchy for bringing in troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to quash Shiite protests. Nasrallah said the blood of the people will eventually force their regimes to grant them greater rights.

The Bahraini Foreign Ministry condemned Hezbollah’s criticism of its government, describing it as an intervention in Bahrain’s internal affairs. A statement released by the Bahrain foreign ministry said Nasrallah’s verbal “assault against Bahrain and its people” was aimed at serving foreign interests, a reference to Iran, Hezbollah’s boss. The foreign ministry described Nasrallah as the “representative of a terrorist organization with a known history in destabilizing security in the region.” Apparently, Iran and its allies do not like others to play in what Iran considers its own playground.

Thus far the Iranians are wary not to directly confront the Saudis, and for a reason: For Iran, Saudi Arabia is the last major local power they need to win over; however, it is not a simple task. The Saudis’ big brother is watching — the U.S. The U.S has failed to intervene in Egypt because Egypt is dependent on U.S aid and therefore, it anticipated that the Egyptian response to the U.S lack of active support would be limited to verbal condemnation, if any. However, the terms of reference between the U.S and Saudi Arabia are diametrically different. It is Saudi Arabia that supports the U.S with money, oil and military bases. Therefore, Saudi interests and voices are more likely to be listened to attentively in Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, the Sunnis in Bahrain have a lot to worry about. The Shiites in Bahrain demand a democratic republic instead of monarchy, and that simple message is certain to find many attentive ears in the U.S and elsewhere. However, democracy in Bahrain with a 70% Shiite majority, means Sunnis out, Shiites in, the U.S and its 5th Fleet harbor out, Iran in, including a control of the oil reserves and a direct threat to Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest producer of oil in fields located next door populated by Shiites.

As absurd as it may sound, it is likely that supporters of full Western style democracy in Bahrain may at the end of the day be supporting theocratic Iran.

A dilemma, Greek for “two premises,” has been likened to the horns at the front end of an angry and charging bull. Both premises are bad options.

If there were ever a decision tantamount to sitting on the horns of the dilemma, the choices the West needs to make are fitting. What would the West choose? Support democracy for approximately 350,000 Shiites in Bahrain, or risk an increased Iranian control of the spigots of the huge oil reserves, with the resulting immediate effect on the world’s economy?

By Haggai Carmon

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The Consequences of Saudi Intervention in Bahrain

Posted on 10 May 2011 by hashimilion

A lot of people were overjoyed when Saudi Arabia’s military intervened in Bahrain and saved the Al Khalifa regime from collapse. Some even considered the intervention a Saudi victory over its regional rival Iran.

The real reason behind the Saudi intervention (or occupation) was to stop democracy from spreading in the Gulf, especially the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were prepared to intervene with or without the invitation of the Al-Khalifa family. They could not bear the sight of democratic revolutions encircling them from every side.

The Saudis have succeeded in manipulating the Bahraini revolution, which was a conflict between an authoritarian family  and pro-democracy movement, to a regional and sectarian conflict between the persian shiites and the arab sunnis.

The Saudis helped the Al-Khalifa regime militarily, politically, economically, and by raising the issue of sectarianism in their media. Saud al-Faisal travelled to Egypt, Turkey and Moscow in order to get support for repressing the Bahraini democratic movement. An agreement was made between Washington and the West, whereby the West overlooks the events in Bahrain in exchange for unlimited Gulf support in Libya. The Gulf countries provided the political cover for Western military intervention, which was then followed by support from the Arab League and the Security Council. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE must pay the full costs of overthrowing Gaddafi, as well as financing and arming the rebels when necessary. On the media front, both Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya channels neglected the repression in Bahrain and concentrated on Libya. The media coverage in the Gulf had a sectarian stench to it!

On the economic front, the Gulf states announced their readiness to support the government in Bahrain with billions of dollars. The Saudis told the Al Khalifa that they were prepared to compensation Bahrain for all its loses if the international financial institutions decide to leave the country.

The Saudi support provided the Bahraini Government with enough motivation to suppress its people. The consequences of Saudi intervention are as follows:

Firstly, Saudi Arabia perceives democracy in Bahrain as a threat which must be removed immediately. In the mid 1970s Saudi Arabia pressurised the Al Khalifa to annul the Constitution and abolish Parliament, which lead to uprisings that forced Bahraini royal family to undertake reforms in 2000.

The Al-Saud family cannot accept the fact that Bahrain is demographically and politically different from their kingdom. They exerted enormous pressure to slow down and eliminate the reforms process in the past and will continue to do so.

Some members of the Al-Khalifa family support Saudi Arabia’s policies in their Kingdom, especially the Prime Minister. The Al-Khalifa have lost their decision making powers once they accepted Saudi Arabia’s intervention. Bahrain has lost its independence to both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Secondly, those who supported the suppression of the Shiites will be the next victims to Saudi’s military presence. The Saudi military presence will last for a long time and the House of Saud will not waste this opportunity to impose Saudi’s will on Bahrain’s internal affairs. The Saudis will be little the Al-Khalifa family in the not too distant future.

Moreover, the Saudi forces will cause tension in Bahraini society by supporting the Bahraini salafis against the majority shiites. The Bahraini sunnis will be pressurised by the Wahhabis, who will interfere in their daily lives just as they did in Iraq.

Today Saudi Arabia, its religious clerics and sectarian satellite channels serve the Al Khalifa regime. All of them want something in return for their efforts and the al-Saud in particular believe that in order to have a strong political influence in Bahrain, they most proliferate their Wahhabi ideology. Wahhabi thought and discourse was never accepted by the majority of Bahrainis.

In summery: Saudi intervention may have been viewed as a blessing by the Al-Khalifa family in the beginning. But those who think that they’ve won today will soon realise that they were never the winners, and that the loss is huge for all Bahrainis, shiites, sunnis and the Royal Family.

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Saudi Arabia’s Political Risks

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

The world’s No. 1 oil exporter faces the twin challenges of creating jobs for a young population at a time of unrest in the Arab world, and pursuing economic reforms with a royal succession looming.

The stability of Saudi Arabia is of global importance since the kingdom sits on more than a fifth of oil reserves, is home to the biggest Arab stock market, is a major owner of dollar assets and acts as a regional linchpin of U.S. security policy.

King Abdullah, who is around 87, unveiled $93 billion in social handouts in March, on top of another $37 billion announced less than a month earlier.

But this apparent effort to insulate the kingdom from Arab popular protests sweeping the region has not stopped activists, including liberals, Shi’ites and Islamists, calling in petitions for more political freedom. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no elected parliament.

Riyadh has not seen the kind of mass uprisings that have shaken the Arab world this year, but Shi’ites in the kingdom’s oil-producing east have staged a number of protests.

Almost no Saudis in Riyadh answered a Facebook call for protests on March 11 in the face of a massive security presence.

Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the Al Saud family for 79 years, with influence from clerics following the austere Wahhabi school of Islam, and many oppose the very reforms the king has started.

However, slowing down reforms to modernise education might affect government plans to create jobs — unemployment last year reached 10 percent.

And with around 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s almost 19 million people under the age of 30, the pressure to find them gainful employment is huge.

SUCCESSION

King Abdullah returned home in February after spending three months abroad for medical treatment, during which he underwent two surgeries after a blood clot complicated a slipped disc.

With the slightly younger Crown Prince Sultan also in poor health, the throne could eventually go to Interior Minister Prince Nayef, a conservative who could put the brakes on some reforms started by Abdullah, analysts say. Nayef, around 77 years old, was promoted to second deputy prime minister in 2009.

He has supported the religious police who roam the streets to make sure unrelated men and women do not mix in public and that shops close during prayer times.

To regulate succession, Abdullah has set up an “allegiance council” of sons and grandsons of the kingdom’s founder but it is not clear when, or how, it will work in practice.

So far only sons of the kingdom’s founder Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud have ascended the throne, and the remaining 20 or so are mostly in their 70s and 80s. Leaders have been reluctant to hand senior jobs over to the next generation.

If a younger generation were unexpectedly to come into play, prominent potential candidates include Nayef’s son Mohammed, who as the anti-terror chief was the target of an al Qaeda suicide attack in 2009. Another leading face among the grandsons of Ibn Saud is Sultan’s son Khaled, the assistant defence minister.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– The health of senior royal family members and their involvement in day-to-day affairs of running the kingdom

– Any sign of abrupt cancellation of scheduled programmes such as foreign visits by senior leaders

– Any signs that the elder generation is passing on more responsibility to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, and to which ones

REFORMS

Officials who back Abdullah say they fear that young Saudis frustrated over their failure to find work could provide potential recruits to violent Islamists who want to overthrow the House of Saud.

Abdullah started some narrow reforms to overhaul education and the judiciary after taking office in 2005 but diplomats say his reform drive has run out of steam.

He has not altered the political system of an absolute monarchy that analysts say has fuelled dissent, with democracy activists, liberals and Islamists calling on the king in petitions to allow elections and more freedom.

Abdullah’s handouts focused on social largesse and a boost to security and religious police, but included no political change.

The kingdom in March also announced it would hold long-delayed municipal elections but said women will not be allowed to vote. With no elected assembly, Saudi Arabia has no political parties.

Saudi analysts say the king could reshuffle the cabinet, where some ministers have been on board for decades, or call fresh municipal elections, a plan that was shelved in 2009 due to the opposition of conservative princes.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Any signs of protests or petitions by activists demanding political reforms

– Any signs of a cabinet reshuffle or plan to hold fresh municipal elections

– Any approval of a much-delayed mortgage law, which aims to ease pressure on the housing market

SHI’ITE MUSLIMS

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-led regional diplomatic heavyweight, has sought to contain Iran’s influence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq produced a Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.

With majority Shi’ites in neighbouring Bahrain having protested against the Sunni government there, analysts say there is a risk that unrest could spread to Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite minority, which lives in the oil-producing Eastern Province just across from Bahrain.

Shi’ites in the east have held a number of protests calling for prisoner releases and a withdrawal of Saudi forces sent to Bahrain to help put down the unrest.

Saudi Shi’ites have long complained about marginalisation and have started small protests to demand the release of prisoners they say have been detained without trial. Riyadh denies any charges of discrimination.

Riyadh also shares U.S. concerns that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons in secret. The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran, which says it is developing nuclear energy only to generate electricity.

Saudi Arabia has publicly tried to stay out of the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear programme but a series of U.S. diplomatic cables released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks portrayed Riyadh as pressing for a U.S. attack.

King Abdullah was said to have “frequently exhorted the U.S. to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear programme,” a cable printed in Britain’s Guardian newspaper said.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Any signs of further protests and a deterioration in the eastern province

– Any possible military action against Iran and its impact on the Gulf region

– Any Saudi diplomatic moves to tighten sanctions on Iran and any signs of Saudi facilities offered for military action

AL QAEDA THREAT

Saudi Arabia, with the help of foreign experts, managed to quash an al Qaeda campaign from 2003 to 2006 that targeted expatriate housing compounds, embassies and oil facilities.

Riyadh destroyed the main cells within its borders. But many militants slipped into neighbouring Yemen where al Qaeda regrouped to form a Yemen-based regional wing that seeks, among other things, the fall of the U.S.-allied Saudi royal family.

The Yemen-based al Qaeda arm shot to the global spotlight after it claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane in December 2009.

Despite the U.S. killing of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden on May 1, the Yemeni wing of the militant Islamist group is expected to remain active, and exploit political instability in Yemen as well.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Whether al Qaeda’s resurgent Yemen-based branch mounts more operations in Saudi territory, as it has within Yemen

– Riyadh wants to build a fence to seal the mountainous 1,500-km (930-mile) Yemen border, which could help stop militants from crossing.

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Saudi Arabia Tightens Hold on The Media

Posted on 01 May 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia tightened its control of the media on Friday, threatening fines and closure of publications that jeopardised its stability or offended clerics, state media reported.

The desert kingdom and major U.S. ally has managed to stave off the unrest which has rocked the Arab world, toppling leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.

“All those responsible for publication are banned from publishing … anything contradicting Islamic Sharia Law; anything inciting disruption of state security or public order or anything serving foreign interests that contradict national interests,” the state news agency SPA said.

Saudi Arabia follows an austere version of Sunni Islam and does not tolerate any form of dissent. It has no elected parliament and no political parties.

The tighter media controls were set out in amendments to the media law issued as a royal order late on Friday. They also banned stirring up sectarianism and “anything that causes harm to the general interest of the country.”

Almost no Saudis in major cities answered a Facebook call for protests on March 11, in the face of a massive security presence around the country.

Minority Shi’ites have staged a number of street marches in the Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields are located.

Shi’ites are said to represent between 10 and 15 percent of the country’s 18 million people and have long complained of discrimination, a charge the government denies.

Saudi authorities arrested two Shi’ite bloggers from Eastern Province this week, adding to a total of 160 Saudis detained since February, according to a Human Rights Watch report in April.

Clerics played a major role in banning protests by issuing a religious edict which said that demonstrations are against Islamic law.

In turn, the royal order banned the “infringement of the reputation or dignity, the slander or the personal offence of the Grand Mufti or any of the country’s senior clerics or statesmen.”

King Abdullah has strengthened the security and religious police forces, which played a major role in banning protests in the kingdom.

The amendment published on Friday detailed punishments for breaking the media laws, including a fine of half a million riyals ($133,000) and the shutting down of the publication that published the violation, as well as banning the writer from contributing to any media.

 

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Middle East Power Shifts Put Region In State Of Flux

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

‘Melodrama” and ”Middle East” are words that sit comfortably in the same sentence. But who would have thought, as the world thrilled to the peaceful revolt by millions of ordinary Tunisians in January, that just three months later two of the region’s bad-cop regimes – Riyadh and Tehran – might be seen to be verging towards war?

They are on snarling terms already. Amid the clamour for rights and reform across the Middle East and North Africa, the irony of these heavyweights coming to blows is that each is as repressive as the other – but none of that will stop the rest of the region, and the world, lining up to take sides.

For now it’s a cold war, fought by proxies elsewhere. In Lebanon, the Saudi-backed Sunnis have lost significant ground to the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, which now controls the levers of power in Beirut.

In the current crises, Riyadh and Tehran face-off in Bahrain – Tehran is backing the majority Shiites; Riyadh had thrown its lot in with the minority Sunni monarchy, as it attempts to smash the protest movement. And Yemen, on the Saudis’ southern border, is the most likely next point of friction between the two.

Historically, they have pulled in opposite directions. Saudi Arabia is Arab and Sunni; Iran is Persian and Shiite. Both invest hugely in spreading their beliefs to the farthest corners of the Muslim world. Iran lines up with the so-called Arab rejectionists – Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. The Saudis line up with Egypt, Morocco, the Gulf statelets and the Palestinian Fatah faction. Riyadh pulls with Washington; Tehran against.

”The cold war is a reality,” a senior Saudi official told The Wall Street Journal. ”Iran is looking to expand its influence. The instability over the last few months means that we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and watching events unfold.”

How that plays out will be intriguing in what has become a ”yes, but …” geopolitical, global crossroads. The permutations tantalise. If the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad collapses, what are the implications if the Syrian alliance with Tehran fractures? What becomes of Syria’s joint sponsorship, with Iran, of Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon and of Hamas in the Palestinian Occupied Territories?

All these are ”yes, but …” issues, as much for Damascus as for Tehran. Given that Syria remains, technically at least, at war with Israel, can we assume that any new order in Syria would rush to throw over Hezbollah and Hamas? Even Israel, as much as it loathes the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas quartet, is wary of who and what might replace Assad in the Syrian capital, because just as the interim regime in Cairo is shifting away from the ousted regime’s alliance with Israel, there is no guarantee that a new Syrian leadership will be any friendlier to Tel Aviv.

What if Syria dumped Iran as an ally – but was to pick up expansionist Turkey as a new best friend in the region? Likewise, how might the regional balance be altered if Tehran was to lose Damascus as an ally, but in turn was to pick up Shiite-controlled Iraq and liberated Egypt, which this week revealed that it was resuming diplomatic relations with Tehran?

The official spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry told reporters: ”We are prepared to take a different view of Iran; the former regime used to see Iran as an enemy, but we don’t.” Similarly, the ministry confirmed that new Foreign Minister, Nabil Elaraby, was considering a visit to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. As a return on the Americans’ huge blood-and-treasure investment in deposing Saddam Hussein and thereby delivering Iraq from minority Sunni control to a majority Shiite government that is becoming increasingly relaxed and comfortable in its dealings with Tehran, the US has handed the Iranian regime a rare gift. Yes, the ayatollahs might lose Syria as their Arab champion, but here is Arab Baghdad and Washington’s lock-step ally Cairo beckoning Tehran with open arms.

The Saudis are furious with Washington over the loss of Sunni control of Iraq and over Barack Obama selling out the Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak. Such is the chill between the two countries that Riyadh recently refused official visits by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and by the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates. A measure of Saudi determination – maybe that should be ”desperation” – is that when Riyadh saw a need to quell the unrest in Bahrain, it ignored pleas from Washington and sent its own troops over the causeway that links Bahrain to the kingdom.

This is a regime that ordinarily pays others to fight its battles – see its funding of Iraq in its 1980s war with Iran; or has relied on allies – see American wars against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and in 2003.
Ramping it all into a religious conflict, a senior Saudi official was quoted: ”King Abdullah has been clear that Saudi Arabia will never allow Shia rule in Bahrain – never.” In turn, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has warned the House of Saud that it ”should learn from Saddam’s fate”.

The stakes for the US are huge – a third of its imported oil comes from Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols vital sea lanes through which a fifth of the world’s oil supplies are shipped. Equally, Riyadh and other capitals in the region have openly speculated on pursuing their own nuclear programs, if Tehran is allowed to persist with its program.

The story of the Washington response to all of this is circuitous.

The Western military intervention in Libya is dressed up as a humanitarian act, but don’t be fooled, writes Robert Kaplan of the Centre for a New American Security in The Wall Street Journal. Arguing that in foreign policy all moral questions are really questions of power, Kaplan observes: ”We intervened twice in the Balkans in the 1990s, only because Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic had no nuclear weapons and could not retaliate against us; unlike the Russians, whose destruction of Chechnya prompted no thought of intervention on our part.”

Was that then the rationale for Washington’s decision to throw its superpower weight behind the Libyan intervention? Not entirely – orchestrated leaks from the Obama White House reveal that a critical element in the decision to join the attacks on Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was the message such an action would send to Tehran.

As reported by The New York Times, failure to act against Libya would be seen by Tehran as a failure by Obama to follow through on his claim that Gaddafi had ”lost the legitimacy to lead”, as a confirming sign of weakness that Obama also would not follow through on his vow that he would never allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

Benjamin Rhodes, a senior aide present for the talks, was quoted: ”The ability to apply this kind of force in the region this quickly – even as we deal with other military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan – combined with the nature of this broad coalition, sends a very strong message to Iran about our capabilities, militarily and diplomatically.”

In a broadcast translated into Persian and beamed into Iran to mark last month’s Persian new year, Obama told Iranians: ”So far, the Iranian government has responded by demonstrating that it cares more about preserving its own power than respecting the rights of the Iranian people. These choices do not demonstrate strength, they show fear.”

In this context Libya is presented as a sideshow. The real contest is with Tehran, which the Americans want to see stopped in its nuclear tracks – and whose tilt for the balance of power in the entire region they have blocked.

But the Arab uprisings were something of a get-out-of-jail-free card for Iran. In January, Washington was happy in the belief that it was boxing Tehran in with economic sanctions; a deal with Russia to halt weapons deliveries to Tehran; and a computer virus called Stuxnet, which was eating its way through the centrifuge machines in the Iranian uranium enrichment program.

Fast-forward to the present, and Washington’s Arab allies are more preoccupied with their own longevity and – ka-ching, ka-ching – Iran is doing better than the sanctions might have allowed, thanks to the crises in the region driving oil to $US100-plus a barrel.

In all of this, Washington’s key ally in the region was to be Riyadh. But the contempt for the US coming out of the Saudi capital is visceral – in the view of the princes, the Bush administration botched by toppling Saddam, thereby delivering Iraq to Tehran; and the Obama administration is condemned equally for selling out Mubarak, and allowing the grubby rank-and-file Egyptians to have a meaningful vote.

In these twin efforts, Washington is seen to have dislodged two great stones in what was a Sunni wall that effectively thwarted Iranian ambition. Likewise, in refusing to go along with Saudi efforts to resolve the Palestinian crisis, Riyadh saw Washington prolonging the issue that Iran used to great effect in stirring the Arab street.

Washington, it must be noted, does not have a mortgage on hypocrisy in the region. The Americans look morally bankrupt – leading the charge against Gaddafi and dumping long-standing allies Mubarak in Cairo and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, while at the same time allowing the leaders of Bahrain, Yemen and Syria to get away with murder in confronting protesters.

But, like the US, the Iranian ayatollahs are into picking winners and losers. Initially they simply ignored the growing unrest in allied Syria, but when that became unsustainable, they took to casting the demonstrations against Assad as the work of Israeli-trained provocateurs.

The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, according to the Tehran spin, were belatedly inspired by Iran’s 1979 revolution. And while it champions the ”Islamic awakening” rights of the demonstrators who are being brutalised by the regime in neighbouring Bahrain, it whitewashes out of the equation its own brutal suppression of Iranians who have attempted to revive the mass protests that erupted in the wake of Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009.

For the mullahs, the region’s uprisings are a day-by-day proposition. They might posture endlessly about the holy Shiite suffering in Bahrain, but they know – and they know that their people know – the revolts in Tunisia and in Egypt were a secular lunge for a kind of democracy which, if successful, will make their theocracy a sad venture by comparison.

But for now, Iranian security forces have arrested opposition leaders and tightened media censorship and control of the internet and social media. In the region, the Iranian leadership observes a greater level of difficulty for Washington in achieving the three elements of its regional policy – a region from which the oil flows freely; in which Israel is protected; and in which citizens enjoy basic human rights, or at least to the extent that they do not attack US interests, as expressed by Thanassis Cambanis, of Columbia University. Or, to quote the Hillary Clinton lexicon – ”stability”.

As they happily crack the heads of the few who dare to take to the streets in Iranian cities, the mullahs cannot believe the Sunni Saudis were mug enough to send forces into Bahrain to put down an uprising by Shiites.

Despite endless complaints from Riyadh, there has been little to substantiate its claims that Iran is deliberately manipulating events in Bahrain – even US diplomats have reported no signs of Iranian intervention in the Bahraini protests.

It was only after the Bahraini regime unleashed its brutal attacks on demonstrators that posters of the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, appeared in the crowds and that calls were made for the ousting of the royal family. Iran did beam broadcasts of Nasrallah’s speeches into Bahrain, but foreign diplomats back the protest leaders’ denial of claims by the regime that they have received money and weapons from Tehran.

For the Saudis, the uprisings are a horrific moment. Abutted by all of Jordan, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain, Riyadh views the varying degrees of unrest in all four as a threat to its own stability. Others agree.
Kaplan grinds all this into a single, core question for Washington: ”Which regime [will last] longer: Saudi Arabia’s or Iran’s? If the Saudi monarchy turns out to have more staying power, we will wrest a great strategic victory from this process of unrest; if Iran’s theocracy prevails, it will signal a fundamental eclipse of American influence in the Middle East.”

Answers to that question thrown up by some analysts, make the call in Tehran’s favour.

In a joint-paper, Ruth Hanau Santini, of the Brookings Centre on the US and Europe, and Emiliano Alessandri, of the German Marshal Fund, see the balance of power in the Persian Gulf shifting in Iran’s favour, ”just as it did in 2003, with the US-led war in Iraq”.

They write: ”Regional power shifts, rising oil prices and progress in its nuclear program all seem to have combined to boost Iran’s external ambitions.

”The authority of Saudi Arabia, which has long served as a counterbalance to Iran, the bastion of regional stability, and the guarantor of Israel’s survival, has been severely weakened by the ongoing turmoil.”

Reviewing Washington’s options, the paper concludes: ”Iran’s calculus that the current level of unrest will turn to Tehran’s advantage, without it having to lift a finger, makes it an especially difficult interlocutor.”

By Paul McGeogh

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Why The West’s Silence on Bahrain Risks a Full-Blown Sectarian Conflict

Posted on 19 April 2011 by hashimilion

Today: It’s hard not to see a double standard in the West’s responses to the Arab Spring.

Western governments have had no problem in calling for Muammar Gaddafi to go. They have condemned Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen for firing on protesters, detention without trial and the usual responses of repressive regimes.

But on the topic of the equally repressive Khalifa family in Bahrain, diplomats of all stripes have been much more restrained.

Meanwhile, the Saudis have sent 1,000 troops to its neighbour to help put down the “coup” — what anyone else would call peaceful protests. Bahraini activists risk being arrested or threatened. Last week a fourth detainee died in police custody in less than two weeks. Witnesses said his body, like the others, bore signs of abuse.

The strategy of inertia could well blow up in the West’s face. The protesters in Bahrain are mainly Shiites, who form the majority of the population; the rulers are Sunni.

Shiite Iran next door is the wild card. No one can predict how the ayatollahs will respond. They are already suspected of covert meddling and it’s hard to imagine they will sit by while their co-religionists are massacred.

At the British newspaper The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting attributes the West’s silence in part to Britain’s relationship with the ruling Bahraini family.

“It has been one of the most successful chapters in British imperial domination; the Al Khalifa dynasty signed its first treaty with the British in 1820 and they finally ‘left’ in 1971. The British have backed a repressive regime in a very cosy, mutually advantageous relationship of finance, military training, arms deals and royal ceremony (one of the less edifying aspects of the imperial endgame has been the use of the royal family to flatter and seduce client regimes, however unpalatable). In the last few months the Bahrain government has beaten, killed, tortured the Shia protest movement …The west has done little but mumble incoherently; too many interests are at stake to live up to the grand moral rhetoric now being lavished on Libya.”
In an interview with the Iranian-owned Press TV, Christopher Walker, a former Moscow and Middle East correspondent of the London Times, has no problem in connecting the dots.

“The fact is that Bahrain is the regional base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet is its major strategic arm in the Middle East. Although it is based in Bahrain, it is crucial to the current Washington policy in the region. So they are very worried that if something was to happen in Bahrain of deep instability, that Fleet would lose its base. That is really the guiding force …
[Covering] Bahrain has not frankly been of the Western media’s interest. You can see a conspiracy behind it if you want. It was the West’s interest not to encourage the downfall of the ruling Khalifa family in Bahrain. Bahrain is also a much easier place for the authorities to restrict press coverage. In Libya, for instance, when journalists could not get in, because Gaddafi did not at that time allow them, they just drove into the East or got there another way. But in Bahrain, they have to go via the airport and they are just not given visas.”
To have different levels of tolerance for different despots raises awkward questions, says The Observer in an editorial.

“One obvious lesson for the west from recent upheaval in the Middle East is that propping up authoritarian regimes on the grounds that they make stable allies is a terrible policy.
The stability procured by despotism is an illusion. Brittle police states can contain, but never satisfy, a captive people’s appetite for better lives. Eventually, they shatter and the more rigid the apparatus of repression, the more explosive the change when it comes.
That has been demonstrated clearly enough in North Africa and yet the west struggles to apply the lesson to the Arabian Peninsula. The contagious spirit of democratic springtime that provoked protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya also reached Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. But there the west has been markedly less inclined to cheer it on.”
At the Christian Science Monitor, Kristen Chick explains why the U.S.’s silence could backfire:

“While the U.S. stance is generally attributed to an attempt to protect regional interests, the festering situation in Bahrain is actually increasing Iran’s opportunity for influence in the region and widening rifts between Arab nations – neither of which are in the interest of the U.S. … the U.S. failure to condemn human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini security forces while condemning such abuses in Libya and Syria is undermining any credibility it had with Bahrainis. If Saudi and the U.S had hoped to curtail Iran’s influence through Bahrain, they may have instead given it an opening …
Indeed, the situation in Bahrain has given Iran repeated opportunities to publicly criticize the oppression of Shiites and criticize Bahrain.”

By Araminta Wordsworth

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Saudi Shi’ites Protests in Oil Province

Posted on 09 March 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Shi’ites have started staging small protests in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, the source of much of the Gulf Arab state’s oil wealth.

The top oil exporter and U.S. ally has so far avoided unrest like in Egypt or Tunisia but Shi’ite protests have made markets worried whether Saudi Arabia is insulated from larger anti-government demonstrations.

Saudi Arabia applies the Wahhabi austere version of Sunni Islam, and minority Shi’ites say that, while their situation has improved slightly under reforms launched by King Abdullah, they still face many restrictions and discrimination. The government denies these charges.

WHAT DO SAUDI SHI’ITES DEMAND?

Shi’ites have long complained of second class status in the absolute monarchy. They also want the release of Shi’ite prisoners, some of whom were arrested during previous protests.

Shi’ites, who make up to 15 percent of the 19 million Saudi population, say they are not represented in the cabinet, they struggle to land senior government and security jobs and are viewed as heretics or even agents of Iran by the Saudi authorities and hardline Sunni clerics.

Despite being home to most of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, the Eastern Province is less affluent than the capital Riyadh or other Saudi cities. The government has announced investments in the Shi’ite main Gulf coast stronghold of Qatif, but Shi’ites say their villages are underdeveloped and neglected.

Under reforms started by King Abdullah, Shi’ites say they can now practice their faith relatively freely in Qatif but want recognition and equal benefits enjoyed by Sunni counterparts.

In petitions and meeting with top officials, Shi’ites have demanded for years to open mosques and worship places outside Qatif. The port city of Dammam has only one Shi’ite mosque and nearby Khobar none despite many Shi’ites living there.

Authorities have closed at least nine places of worship in Khobar and the Ahsa region, the U.S. government said in a report in November. Shi’ite activists say authorities have signalled since protests started that places of worship in Khobar might be allowed but caution that similar promises were made in the past.

 

CAN SHI’ITES PROTESTS GET LARGER?

Since protests started in the Qatif area the marches have grown, drawing up to 200 each time and spreading to Hofuf, more than 100 kilometres south of Qatif.

Moderate Shi’ite leaders say they struggle to restrain frustrated young people emboldened by protests of their brethern against the Sunni Al Khalifa ruling family in nearby Bahrain.

“All the oil comes from here but we don’t benefit. We want jobs, housing,” shouted a young man at a protest in Qatif last week.

But the protests are still smaller and more peaceful than in 2009 when hundreds of Shi’ites clashed with police after firebrand preacher Nimr al-Nimr broke a taboo by suggesting that Shi’ites could one day seek their own state — a call heard only rarely since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which stirred unrest among Saudi Shi’ites.

Shi’ite leaders who went into exile after the 1979 protests returned in the 1990s under a deal with the government.

But Iran’s rising influence, especially since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which empowered that country’s Shi’ite majority, has also revived official fears that Shi’ites could become a fifth column against the Saudi state.

Protesters this time have held up posters saying they do not want to overthrow the government.

Several Shi’ite leaders have signed petitions together with moderate Sunni activists across the country asking the king to hold elections in the absolute monarchy which has no elected parliament.

Many young Shi’ites say they back a general call by activists on Facebook to stage a “Day of Rage” across Saudi Arabia on Friday but it is unclear how many will respond as the government has warned that such protests are illegal.

 

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF PROTESTS AFFECTING OIL FACILITIES?

Many Shi’ites in the eastern province work in the oil industry, especially at state giant Saudi Aramco so they have no interest in disrupting oil flows and their livelihood. Their conditions are better than Shi’ites in Bahrain or Iraq as they still benefit from a welfare state though complain they get less than Sunnis. An estimated 10,000 Shi’ites study abroad on government grants.

HOW MANY SHI’ITES LIVE IN SAUDI ARABIA ?

There are no official figures. Government officials say less than 10 percent of Saudis are Shi’ites but human rights activists and diplomats put it up to 12-15 percent. Most Shi’ites live in the east near Bahrain, where Shi’ites challenge the Sunni government but there are also Shi’ites living in the holy city of Medina and some in Jeddah in western Saudi Arabia.

Shi’ites of the Ismaili sect are in the majority in Najran near the Yemen border, where no protests have been reported yet. Their community leaders say they face restrictions in getting senior state jobs but authorities have reached out more to them to win their loyalty in the volatile Yemen border region.

 

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Shi’ites Stage Protest in Saudi Oil Province

Posted on 04 March 2011 by hashimilion

Shi’ites staged a protest in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing Eastern Province on Thursday, demanding the release of prisoners they say are being held without trial, witnesses said.

Mostly young men marched through the small town of Awwamiya, near the Shi’ite centre of Qatif on the Gulf coast.

“Peaceful, peaceful,” the demonstrators shouted, holding up pictures of Shi’ites they say have been long held without trial, while policemen stood by without interfering.

Last month, Saudi authorities released three prisoners after a previous protest by Shi’ites in Awwamiya.

“They demand the release of prisoners, only this,” Zaki al-Saleh, an Shi’ite activist and resident told reporters, although he did not participate in the demonstration.

A group of women also followed the protest.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament that usually does not tolerate public dissent.

Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority mostly live in the Eastern province, which holds much of the oil wealth of the world’s top crude exporter and is near Bahrain, scene of protests by majority Shi’ites against their Sunni rulers.

Saudi Arabia applies an austere Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam and Shi’ites say that, while their situation has improved under reforms launched by King Abdullah, they still face restrictions in getting senior government jobs.

The government denies these charges.

The demonstration was much smaller than protests staged in Awwamiya in 2009 after police launched a search for firebrand Shi’ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who had suggested in a sermon that Shi’ites could one day seek their own separate state.

The secessionist threat, which analysts say was unprecedented since the 1979 Iranian revolution, provoked anti-government protests, and was followed by clashes between the Sunni religious police and Shi’ite pilgrims near the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in the holy city of Medina.

Since then, Shi’ites say the situation has calmed down but they are still waiting for promised reforms to be carried out.

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