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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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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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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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Women Assert Place in Yemen’s Protests

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Isobel Coleman

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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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Yemeni Shia Persecution and the Regional Sunni-Shia Divide

Posted on 01 April 2011 by hashimilion

Currently we have many political and religious convulsions throughout North Africa and the Middle East. However, for the Shia of Yemen it is apparent that the nation state of Yemen is at odds with many Shia Muslims who suffer systematic persecution.

Saudi Arabia is worried about the power base change in Iraq because after the demise of Saddam Hussein the Arab Sunni stranglehold was broken and now the main power brokers are the Shia and Kurds in the north. Therefore, recent political tensions in Bahrain and Yemen are causing alarm in Saudi Arabia because the leaders of this nation desire to preserve a dominant Sunni political power structure throughout the region.

If we focus on Afghanistan then the Sunni Islamic fanatics of the Taliban and Al Qaeda shared the same Sunni Islamic theme of power and control. This policy of victimizing and persecuting the Shia was factual and you had many massacres of the Shia by the forces of the Taliban and Al Qaeda before the invasion of Afghanistan.

Sunni Islamic extremists deem the Shia to be heretics and non-Muslim and the same hatred towards the Shia can be found in Pakistan. Even in so-called moderate Malaysia the government is anti-Shia. However, unlike the massacres of the Shia which have taken place in other nations it is state sanctioned discrimination in Malaysia which holds the Shia at bay and forbids their religious buildings.

The Sunni-Shia issue is very potent and the Shia are second class citizens in Saudi Arabia because they face centralized policies which discriminate against them. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is meddling in many nations and the people who suffer from this policy are the Shia and in Yemen many massacres have taken place in the past but most of these went unreported.

Also, while truces have been agreed upon in Yemen these truces rarely last and often it appears that the centralized state is just making the most of the breathing space in order to unleash more violence against the Shia minority.

James Haider, Middle East correspondent for The Times (UK), stated on November 5, 2009, that the Shia “…accuse Saudi Arabia, a conservative Sunni Muslim country, of backing the Yemeni army, fearing the emergence of a strong Shia militia similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

“In turn, the Yemeni Government in Sanaa has accused Iran, a Shia theocracy, of supporting the Houthi rebels as part of a campaign to spread Tehran’s influence across the region. The Government said last week that Yemeni troops had seized five Iranians on a boat loaded with arms in the Red Sea”.

James Haider also comments about the fleeing Shia during a major military assault in late 2009. This military assault led to 150,000 Shia Muslims fleeing their homes in order to escape the military clampdown against their community.

The military bombardments led to the killing of many innocent Shia Muslims who were caught up in the fighting. Therefore, many civilians were killed and the blood flowed.

If we concentrate on the bigger picture it would appear that Sunni Islamic elites do not desire to build bridges with the followers of the Shia faith. Instead the Sunni Islamic elites desire either the status quo or to maintain power by further marginalizing the Shia throughout the region.

Rannie Amiri’s, whose article was published in the weekend edition of Counterpunch, (Feb 19-21, 2010) called The Shia Crescent Revisited, commented that “Should the Arab Shia be prohibited from freely airing their grievances and demanding accountability for past injustices? Stopped from speaking out against the crimes perpetrated against them under Saddam (in which many in the Arab world were complicit)? Prevented from attempting to lift the heavy hand of institutionalized discrimination levied against them in Saudi Arabia? Barred from seeking an end to their disenfranchisement in Bahrain — where they make up at least 70 percent of the population yet constitute no part of the government or security services? Forbidden from asking why the language of sectarianism was used to justify and amplify the carnage in north Yemen?”

It is a fair question and despite the “Iranian card” which is being manipulated and used in Saudi Arabia it is apparent that the global jihadist network is based on the followers of radical Sunni Islam. After all, the terrorist attacks behind September 11, Madrid, Kenya, Bali, Uganda, and other global jihadist attacks, were all done by Sunni Islamic extremists.

Despite the Mahdi Army under Moqtada al-Sadr who attacked American forces in Iraq; it is clear that the Shia in Afghanistan and Iraq have gained from outside military forces taking action against Sunni Islamic zealots in Afghanistan and against the regime of Saddam Hussein which also played the anti-Shia card.

Therefore, will Yemen become the next brutal war which will drag in outside forces and lead to the growth of radical Sunni Islam? After all, it is clear that the al-Shabaab in Somalia desire to turn Somalia into a fundamentalist nation and this extremist Sunni Islamic organization often beheads the followers of Christianity and women also face being stoned to death for adultery.

The Somalia syndrome may happen in Yemen because it is obvious that outside Sunni Islamists have used Somalia in order to spread their version of Islam. However, for the Shia of Yemen then they may face a “dual policy” whereby Sunni Islamic fanatics are allowed to enter the fray from many nations but at the same time the centralized state in Saudi Arabia will boost the nation state of Yemen.

Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, February 11, 2010, stated that “Even as it fights a U.S.-supported war against al-Qaeda militants here, the Yemeni government is engaging Islamist extremists who share an ideology similar to Osama bin Laden’s in its own civil war, adding new complications to efforts to fight terrorism.”

The writer continues by stating that “Yemen’s army is allying with radical Sunnis and former jihadists in the fight against Shiite rebels in the country’s north. The harsh tactics of those forces, such as destroying Shiite mosques and building Sunni ones, are breeding resentment among many residents, analysts said, and given the tangle of evolving allegiances could build support for al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, which plotted the Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner.”

Abdel-Karim al-Iriyani, a former prime minister is clearly alarmed by current events in Yemen. He states that “Using these extremist people, if they are with you today, they are prone to be against you tomorrow.”

Therefore, the Shia in Yemen will continue to suffer and Western nations will do little to challenge Saudi Arabia and the same applies to Bahrain because Saudi Arabia will do everything it can in order to prop-up the Sunni elites.

Saudi Arabia will use any means possible in order to preserve Sunni Muslim power and this also applies to state sanctioned policies which will encourage the forces of radical Sunni Islam in Yemen and boosting the military of Yemen. Therefore, the Shia in Yemen will be attacked by Sunni Islamic militant organizations and by the military of Yemen and this dual policy will be used in order to crush the Shia but in the past the Shia have been tenacious and events are unpredictable.

By Lee Jay Walker

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Iran Calls Saudi Troops in Bahrain ‘Unacceptable’

Posted on 15 March 2011 by hashimilion

A day after Saudi Arabia’s military rolled into Bahrain, the Iranian government branded the move “unacceptable” on Tuesday, threatening to escalate a local political conflict into a regional showdown with Iran.

“The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue,” Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman told a news conference in Tehran, according to state-run media.

Even as predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran pursues a determined crackdown against dissent at home, Tehran has supported the protests led by the Shiite majority in Bahrain.

“People have some legitimate demands and they are expressing them peacefully,” Mr. Memanparast said. “It should not be responded to violently.”

“We expect their demands be fulfilled through correct means,” Mr. Mehmanparast added. Iran’s response — while anticipated — showed the depth of rivalry across the Persian Gulf in a contest that has far-reaching consequences in many parts of the Middle East.

On Monday, Iranian state-run media went so far as to call the troop movement an invasion. Saudi Arabia has been watching uneasily as Bahrain’s Shiite majority has staged weeks of protests against a Sunni monarchy, fearing that if the protesters prevailed, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s bitter regional rival, could expand its influence and inspire unrest elsewhere.

The Saudi decision to send in troops on Monday could further inflame the conflict and transform this teardrop of a nation in the Persian Gulf into the Middle East’s next proxy battlefield between regional and global powers. On Tuesday, there was no immediate indication that the Saudi forces were confronting protesters in the central Pearl Square — the emblem of the Bahrain protest much as Cairo’s Tahrir Square assumed symbolic significance in the Egyptian uprising.

Several hundred protesters camped out there on what seemed initially to be a quiet day with little traffic on the streets as the details of the deployment by Bahrain’s neighbors — and their mission — remained ill-defined.

On Monday, about 2,000 troops — 1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the United Arab Emirates — entered Bahrain as part of a force operating under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation regional coalition of Sunni rulers that has grown increasingly anxious over the sustained challenge to Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. “This is the initial phase,” a Saudi official said. “Bahrain will get whatever assistance it needs. It’s open-ended.”

The decision is the first time the council has used collective military action to help suppress a popular revolt — in this case a Shiite popular revolt. It was rejected by the opposition, and by Iran, as an “occupation.” Iran has long claimed that Bahrain is historically part of Iran.

The troops entered Bahrain at an especially combustible moment in the standoff between protesters and the monarchy. In recent days protesters have begun to move from the encampment in Pearl Square, the symbolic center of the nation, to the actual seat of power and influence, the Royal Court and the financial district. As the troops moved in, protesters controlled the main highway and said they were determined not to leave.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Jassim Hussein Ali, a member of the opposition Wefaq party and a former member of Parliament, said in a phone interview. “Bahrain is heading toward major problems, anarchy. This is an occupation, and this is not welcome.”

Rasool Nafisi, an academic and Iran expert based in Virginia, said: “Now that the Saudis have gone in, they may spur a similar reaction from Iran, and Bahrain becomes a battleground between Saudi and Iran. This may prolong the conflict rather than put an end to it, and make it an international event rather than a local uprising.”

An adviser to the United States government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press, agreed. “Iran’s preference was not to get engaged because the flow of events was in their direction,” he said. “If the Saudi intervention changes the calculus, they will be more aggressive.”

Though Bahrain said it had invited the force, the Saudi presence highlights the degree to which the kingdom has become concerned over Iran’s growing regional influence, and demonstrates that the Saudi monarchy has drawn the line at its back door. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Washington, has traditionally preferred to operate in the shadows through checkbook diplomacy. It has long provided an economic lifeline to Bahrain.

But it now finds itself largely standing alone to face Iran since its most important ally in that fight, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, has been ousted in a popular uprising. Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, recently toppled the Saudi-backed government of Lebanon — a symbol of its regional might and Saudi Arabia’s diminishing clout.

But Bahrain is right at Saudi Arabia’s eastern border, where the kingdoms are connected by a causeway.

The Gulf Cooperation Council was clearly alarmed at the prospect of a Shiite political victory in Bahrain, fearing that it would inspire restive Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to protest as well. The majority of the population in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, where the oil is found, is Shiite, and there have already been small protests there.

“If the opposition in Bahrain wins, then Saudi loses,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “In this regional context, the decision to move troops into Bahrain is not to help the monarchy of Bahrain, but to help Saudi Arabia itself .”

The Bahrain government said that it had invited the force in to help restore and preserve public order. The United States — which has continued to back the monarchy — said Monday that the move was not an occupation. The United States has long been allied with Bahrain’s royal family and has based the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain for many years.

Though the United States eventually sided with the demonstrators in Egypt, in Bahrain it has instead supported the leadership while calling for restraint and democratic change. The Saudi official said the United States was informed Sunday that the Saudi troops would enter Bahrain on Monday.

Saudi and council officials said the military forces would not engage with the demonstrators, but would protect infrastructure, government offices and industries, even though the protests had largely been peaceful. The mobilization would allow Bahrain to free up its own police and military forces to deal with the demonstrators, the officials said.

The Gulf Cooperation Council “forces are not there to kill people,” said a Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. “This is a G.C.C. decision; we do not violate international law.”

But the officials also acknowledged that it was a message to Iran. “There is no doubt Iran is involved,” said the official, though no proof has been offered that Iran has had anything to do with the political unrest.

Political analysts said that it was likely that the United States did not object to the deployment in part because it, too, saw a weakened monarchy as a net benefit to Iran at a time when the United States wants to move troops out of Iraq, where Iran has already established an influence.

The military force is one part of a Gulf Cooperation Council effort to try to contain the crisis in Bahrain that broke out Feb. 14, when young people called for a Day of Rage, fashioned after events in Egypt and Tunisia. The police and then the army killed seven demonstrators, leading Washington to press Bahrain to remove its forces from the street.

The royal family allowed thousands of demonstrators to camp at Pearl Square. It freed some political prisoners, allowed an exiled opposition leader to return and reshuffled the cabinet. And it called for a national dialogue.

But the concessions — after the killings — seemed to embolden a movement that went from calling for a true constitutional monarchy to demanding the downfall of the monarchy. The monarchy has said it will consider instituting a fairly elected Parliament, but it insisted that the first step would be opening a national dialogue — a position the opposition has rejected, though it was unclear whether the protesters were speaking with one voice.

The council moved troops in after deciding earlier to help prop up the king with a contribution of $10 billion over 10 years, and said that it might increase that figure. But if the goal was to intimidate Iran, or the protesters, that clearly was not the first response.

Bahrain’s opposition groups issued a statement: “We consider the entry of any soldier or military machinery into the Kingdom of Bahrain’s air, sea or land territories a blatant occupation.”

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