Tag Archive | "Tunisia"

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Saudi Shi’ite Clerics Call For End To Protests

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

Shiite Cleric Hasan Saffar

Leading Saudi Shi’ite clerics called on Thursday for protesters to end two months of demonstrations in the kingdom’s oil-producing Eastern Province, in an apparent bowing to government demands.

In at least two eastern towns, however, young Shi’ites ignored the call and took to the streets again to demand the release of prisoners and political reforms, activists said.

Inspired by Arab uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia, Saudi Shi’ites have been staging small protests in the Eastern Province, defying a demonstration ban and government pressure.

The Sunni Muslim monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and major U.S. ally, does not tolerate any form of public dissent and the kingdom has not seen the mass uprisings seen in other countries in the region.

After meeting government officials, leading Shi’ite clerics issued a statement asking activists to end demonstrations.

“We urge our beloved brothers … to calm the streets for the sake of brotherly cooperation that will help achieve our demands,” said the statement signed by 51 Shi’ite clerics and other personalities.

“We stress our demands to officials to address the issues and deliver on legitimate rights raised by a group of young people.”

A Shi’ite activist said the statement would probably not halt protests as young people were demanding reforms promised for years.

“It might reduce the number of protestors but I don’t think it will end it,” said the activist, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Saudi Shi’ites have long complained of difficulties getting government jobs and benefits enjoyed by the country’s majority Sunni population, a charge denied by Riyadh.

On Thursday, dozens of Shi’ites staged protests in the main Shi’ite city of Qatif and neighbouring village of Awwamiya, an activist said.

Saudi authorities have been increasingly nervous about protests, arresting participants and making independent travelling for journalists more difficult in the Eastern Province.

More than 160 Saudi activists have been arrested since February, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week.

On Sunday, Saudi authorities arrested a Shi’ite Muslim intellectual al-Saeed al-Majid, two days after protests in the Eastern Province.

 

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Libya’s Only a Part of Mideast Equation

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

What’s more important than Libya? At least four other countries.

The outcome of the unfinished revolution in Egypt will affect the prospects for democracy across the region. The outcome in Yemen, where Al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch is headquartered, is important to the struggle against terrorism. A change in Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, would upend the balance of power on Israel’s northern borders.

And then there’s the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, where troops from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries have intervened to quell a Shiite Muslim uprising. It might seem odd to include a power struggle in a quasi-country of half a million citizens on a list of major strategic issues, but the crisis in Bahrain qualifies.

About two-thirds of Bahrainis are Shiite, but Sunni Muslims hold almost all the power. After Shiite groups staged increasingly violent demonstrations to demand more democracy, the government cracked down — and when the Bahraini police faltered, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries stepped in with troops.

Opposition groups say more than 400 activists have been arrested; the Bahraini government has refused to disclose the number of arrests. Human Rights Watch has charged that at least seven detainees have died in custody and that some may have been tortured.

Last week, the government announced that it was outlawing the largest — and most moderate — Shiite political party, but then backpedaled after an international outcry.

Why does all this matter? Because Bahrain isn’t the only Arab state on the gulf with a sizable Shiite population. Iraq has a Shiite majority and a Shiite-dominated government. Saudi Arabia is ruled by Sunnis, but it has a significant Shiite minority in its oil-rich eastern province. In all three countries, Shiite Muslims have historically been treated as an oppressed underclass — but now, watching other Arabs win more rights, they’re demanding equality too.

Bahrain matters, as well, because Saudi Arabia treats it as a virtual protectorate. The Saudi royal family doesn’t like to see Shiite Muslim demonstrators demand the head of any monarch; it’s too close to home.

Besides, in the view of many Sunnis, Bahrain’s Shiite protesters look like puppets in the hands of Iran, the Shiite Muslim behemoth across the gulf that has long tried to assert itself as the region’s dominant power.

The fear among many U.S. officials, though, is that the Sunni-Shiite unrest in Bahrain could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Bahraini government stops negotiating with the moderate Shiite opposition, it risks radicalizing its own population — and driving some of them into the arms of Iran. Another outcome could be a conflict between Sunni and Shiite that would cross several borders.

In a worst-case scenario, warned Charles Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-Shiite split could prompt the pro-U.S. government in Iraq to ally itself with Iran, scrambling the basic foundation of U.S. security policy in the area, which aims to make Iraq a bulwark against Iran.

“The strategic stakes in Bahrain are higher than many outside the region appreciate,” Freeman said.

The Obama administration has been urging the Bahraini government to negotiate. Last week, the State Department’s top Middle East hand, Jeffrey Feltman, rushed to Bahrain to try to reopen talks between the government and the opposition.

But the administration has been notably gentle, because it wants the Bahraini royal family to stay in power and it doesn’t want to offend Saudi Arabia.

In a speech last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. “strongly condemned the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government.” But on Bahrain, she merely warned that “security alone cannot resolve the challenges.” (“We know that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense,” she explained.)

Another official said the administration is promoting reform throughout the Arab world, but it’s also reassuring rulers in places such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that it won’t insist on immediate change. “It doesn’t have to come fast,” he said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security advisor Tom Donilon visited Saudi Arabia this month to try to patch up the U.S. relationship with King Abdullah, who was furious when Obama backed the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both U.S. and Saudi officials said the meetings helped repair the U.S.-Saudi alliance on issues such as Iran. But they said there was no sign of any Saudi moderation on the issue of Bahrain, which the Saudis consider their backyard.

The gulf has long been a central focus of U.S. foreign policy, both because it’s the source of much of the world’s oil and because it’s the frontier between the pro-American Arab monarchies and anti-American Iran.

That’s why the U.S. has a naval fleet there — headquartered, as it happens, in Bahrain.

Now Bahrain is at risk. Hard-liners have opted to use an iron fist, to see whether repression can restore stability; reform, they say, can come later. If they turn out to be wrong, the consequences could be dire.

By Doyle McManus

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The New Cold War

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

For three months, the Arab world has been awash in protests and demonstrations. It’s being called an Arab Spring, harking back to the Prague Spring of 1968.

But comparison to the short-lived flowering of protests 40 years ago in Czechoslovakia is turning out to be apt in another way. For all the attention the Mideast protests have received, their most notable impact on the region thus far hasn’t been an upswell of democracy. It has been a dramatic spike in tensions between two geopolitical titans, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This new Middle East cold war comes complete with its own spy-versus-spy intrigues, disinformation campaigns, shadowy proxy forces, supercharged state rhetoric—and very high stakes.

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

On March 14, the Saudis rolled tanks and troops across a causeway into the island kingdom of Bahrain. The ruling family there, long a close Saudi ally, appealed for assistance in dealing with increasingly large protests.

Iran soon rattled its own sabers. Iranian parliamentarian Ruhollah Hosseinian urged the Islamic Republic to put its military forces on high alert, reported the website for Press TV, the state-run English-language news agency. “I believe that the Iranian government should not be reluctant to prepare the country’s military forces at a time that Saudi Arabia has dispatched its troops to Bahrain,” he was quoted as saying.

The intensified wrangling across the Persian—or, as the Saudis insist, the Arabian—Gulf has strained relations between the U.S. and important Arab allies, helped to push oil prices into triple digits and tempered U.S. support for some of the popular democracy movements in the Arab world. Indeed, the first casualty of the Gulf showdown has been two of the liveliest democracy movements in countries right on the fault line, Bahrain and the turbulent frontier state of Yemen.

But many worry that the toll could wind up much worse if tensions continue to ratchet upward. They see a heightened possibility of actual military conflict in the Gulf, where one-fifth of the world’s oil supplies traverse the shipping lanes between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Growing hostility between the two countries could make it more difficult for the U.S. to exit smoothly from Iraq this year, as planned. And, perhaps most dire, it could exacerbate what many fear is a looming nuclear arms race in the region.

Iran has long pursued a nuclear program that it insists is solely for the peaceful purpose of generating power, but which the U.S. and Saudi Arabia believe is really aimed at producing a nuclear weapon. At a recent security conference, Prince Turki al Faisal, a former head of the Saudi intelligence service and ambassador to the U.K. and the U.S., pointedly suggested that if Iran were to develop a weapon, Saudi Arabia might well feel pressure to develop one of its own.

The Saudis currently rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and on antimissile defense systems deployed throughout the Persian Gulf region. The defense systems are intended to intercept Iranian ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver nuclear warheads. Yet even Saudis who virulently hate Iran have a hard time believing that the Islamic Republic would launch a nuclear attack against the birthplace of their prophet and their religion. The Iranian leadership says it has renounced the use of nuclear weapons.

How a string of hopeful popular protests has brought about a showdown of regional superpowers is a tale as convoluted as the alliances and history of the region. It shows how easily the old Middle East, marked by sectarian divides and ingrained rivalries, can re-emerge and stop change in its tracks.

There has long been bad blood between the Saudis and Iran. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim kingdom of ethnic Arabs, Iran a Shiite Islamic republic populated by ethnic Persians. Shiites first broke with Sunnis over the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the year 632; Sunnis have regarded them as a heretical sect ever since. Arabs and Persians, along with many others, have vied for the land and resources of the Middle East for almost as long.

These days, geopolitics also plays a role. The two sides have assembled loosely allied camps. Iran holds in its sway Syria and the militant Arab groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories; in the Saudi sphere are the Sunni Muslim-led Gulf monarchies, Egypt, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah. The Saudi camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel. The Iranian grouping thrives on its reputation in the region as a scrappy “resistance” camp, defiantly opposed to the West and Israel.

For decades, the two sides have carried out a complicated game of moves and countermoves. With few exceptions, both prefer to work through proxy politicians and covertly funded militias, as they famously did during the long Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Iran helped to hatch Hezbollah among the Shiites while the Saudis backed Sunni militias.

But the maneuvering extends far beyond the well-worn battleground of Lebanon. Two years ago, the Saudis discovered Iranian efforts to spread Shiite doctrine in Morocco and to use some mosques in the country as a base for similar efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. After Saudi emissaries delivered this information to King Mohammed VI, Morocco angrily severed diplomatic relations with Iran, according to Saudi officials and cables obtained by the organization WikiLeaks.

As far away as Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, the Saudis have watched warily as Iranian clerics have expanded their activities—and they have responded with large-scale religious programs of their own there.

The 1979 Iranian revolution was a major eruption that still looms large in the psyches of both nations. It explicitly married Shiite religious zeal with historic Persian ambitions and also played on sharply anti-Western sentiments in the region.

Iran’s clerical regime worked to spread the revolution across the Middle East; Saudi Arabia and its allies worried that it would succeed. For a time it looked like it might. There were large demonstrations and purported antigovernment plots in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which has a large population of Shiite Muslim Arabs, and in Bahrain, where Shiites are a distinct majority and Iran had claimed sovereignty as recently as 1970.

The protests that began this past January in Tunisia had nothing to do with any of this. They started when a struggling street vendor in that country’s desolate heartland publicly set himself on fire after a local officer cited his cart for a municipal violation. His frustration, multiplied hundreds of thousands times, boiled over in a month of demonstrations against Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. To the amazement of the Arab world, Mr. Ben Ali fled the country when the military declined to back him by brutally putting down the demonstrations.

Spurred on by televised images and YouTube videos from Tunisia, protests broke out across much of the rest of the Arab world. Within weeks, millions were on the streets in Egypt and Hosni Mubarak was gone, shown the door in part by his longtime backer, the U.S. government. The Obama administration was captivated by this spontaneous outbreak of democratic demands and at first welcomed it with few reservations.

In Riyadh, Saudi officials watched with alarm. They became furious when the Obama administration betrayed, to Saudi thinking, a longtime ally in Mr. Mubarak and urged him to step down in the face of the street demonstrations.

The Egyptian leader represented a key bulwark in what Riyadh perceives as a great Sunni wall standing against an expansionist Iran. One part of that barrier had already crumbled in 2003 when the U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein. Losing Mr. Mubarak means that the Saudis now see themselves as the last Sunni giant left in the region.

The Saudis were further agitated when the protests crept closer to their own borders. In Yemen, on their southern flank, young protesters were suddenly rallying thousands, and then tens of thousands, of their fellow citizens to demand the ouster of the regime, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family for 43 years.

Meanwhile, across a narrow expanse of water on Saudi Arabia’s northeast border, protesters in Bahrain rallied in the hundreds of thousands around a central roundabout in Manama. Most Bahraini demonstrators were Shiites with a long list of grievances over widespread economic and political discrimination. But some Sunnis also participated, demanding more say in a government dominated by the Al-Khalifa family since the 18th century.

Protesters deny that their goals had anything to do with gaining sectarian advantage. Independent observers, including the U.S. government, saw no sign that the protests were anything but homegrown movements arising from local problems. During a visit to Bahrain, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged the government to adopt genuine political and social reform.

But to the Saudis, the rising disorder on their borders fit a pattern of Iranian meddling. A year earlier, they were convinced that Iran was stoking a rebellion in Yemen’s north among a Shiite-dominated rebel group known as the Houthis. Few outside observers saw extensive ties between Iran and the Houthis. But the Saudis nonetheless viewed the nationwide Yemeni protests in that context.

In Bahrain, where many Shiites openly nurture cultural and religious ties to Iran, the Saudis saw the case as even more open-and-shut. To their ears, these suspicions were confirmed when many Bahraini protesters moved beyond demands for greater political and economic participation and began demanding a constitutional monarchy or even the outright ouster of the Al-Khalifa family. Many protesters saw these as reasonable responses to years of empty promises to give the majority Shiites a real share of power—and to the vicious government crackdown that had killed seven demonstrators to that point.

But to the Saudis, not to mention Bahrain’s ruling family, even the occasional appearance of posters of Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah amid crowds of Shiite protesters pumping their fists and chanting demands for regime change was too much. They saw how Iran’s influence has grown in Shiite-majority Iraq, along their northern border, and they were not prepared to let that happen again.

As for the U.S., the Saudis saw calls for reform as another in a string of disappointments and outright betrayals. Back in 2002, the U.S. had declined to get behind an offer from King Abdullah (then Crown Prince) to rally widespread Arab recognition for Israel in exchange for Israel’s acceptance of borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day War—a potentially historic deal, as far as the Saudis were concerned. And earlier this year, President Obama declined a personal appeal from the king to withhold the U.S. veto at the United Nations from a resolution condemning continued Israeli settlement building in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Saudis believe that solving the issue of Palestinian statehood will deny Iran a key pillar in its regional expansionist strategy—and thus bring a win for the forces of Sunni moderation that Riyadh wants to lead.

Iran, too, was starting to see a compelling case for action as one Western-backed regime after another appeared to be on the ropes. It ramped up its rhetoric and began using state media and the regional Arab-language satellite channels it supports to depict the pro-democracy uprisings as latter-day manifestations of its own revolution in 1979. “Today the events in the North of Africa, Egypt, Tunisia and certain other countries have another sense for the Iranian nation.… This is the same as ‘Islamic Awakening,’ which is the result of the victory of the big revolution of the Iranian nation,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran also broadcast speeches by Hezbollah’s leader into Bahrain, cheering the protesters on. Bahraini officials say that Iran went further, providing money and even some weapons to some of the more extreme opposition members. Protest leaders vehemently deny any operational or political links to Iran, and foreign diplomats in Bahrain say that they have seen little evidence of it.

March 14 was the critical turning point. At the invitation of Bahrain, Saudi armed vehicles and tanks poured across the causeway that separates the two countries. They came representing a special contingent under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a league of Sunni-led Gulf states, but the Saudis were the major driver. The Saudis publicly announced that 1,000 troops had entered Bahrain, but privately they concede that the actual number is considerably higher.

If both Iran and Saudi Arabia see themselves responding to external threats and opportunities, some analysts, diplomats and democracy advocates see a more complicated picture. They say that the ramping up of regional tensions has another source: fear of democracy itself.

Long before protests ousted rulers in the Arab world, Iran battled massive street protests of its own for more than two years. It managed to control them, and their calls for more representative government or outright regime change, with massive, often deadly, force. Yet even as the government spun the Arab protests as Iranian inspired, Iran’s Green Revolution opposition movement managed to use them to boost their own fortunes, staging several of their best-attended rallies in more than a year.

Saudi Arabia has kept a wary eye on its own population of Shiites, who live in the oil-rich Eastern Province directly across the water from Bahrain. Despite a small but energetic activist community, Saudi Arabia has largely avoided protests during the Arab Spring, something that the leadership credits to the popularity and conciliatory efforts of King Abdullah. But there were a smattering of small protests and a few clashes with security services in the Eastern Province.

The regional troubles have come at a tricky moment domestically for Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah, thought to be 86 years old, was hospitalized in New York, receiving treatment for a back injury, when the Arab protests began. The Crown Prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, is only slightly younger and is already thought to be too infirm to become king. Third in line, Prince Nayaf bin Abdul Aziz, is around 76 years old.

Viewing any move toward more democracy at home—at least on anyone’s terms but their own—as a threat to their regimes, the regional superpowers have changed the discussion, observers say. The same goes, they say, for the Bahraini government. “The problem is a political one, but sectarianism is a winning card for them,” says Jasim Husain, a senior member of the Wefaq Shiite opposition party in Bahrain.

Since March 14, the regional cold war has escalated. Kuwait expelled several Iranian diplomats after it discovered and dismantled, it says, an Iranian spy cell that was casing critical infrastructure and U.S. military installations. Iran and Saudi Arabia are, uncharacteristically and to some observers alarmingly, tossing direct threats at each other across the Gulf. The Saudis, who recently negotiated a $60 billion arms deal with the U.S. (the largest in American history), say that later this year they will increase the size of their armed forces and National Guard.

And recently the U.S. has joined in warning Iran after a trip to the region by Defense Secretary Gates to patch up strained relations with Arab monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. Minutes after meeting with King Abdullah, Mr. Gates told reporters that he had seen “evidence” of Iranian interference in Bahrain. That was followed by reports from U.S. officials that Iranian leaders were exploring ways to support Bahraini and Yemeni opposition parties, based on communications intercepted by U.S. spy agencies.

Saudi officials say that despite the current friction in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, they won’t break out of the traditional security arrangement with Washington, which is based on the understanding that the kingdom works to stabilize global oil prices while the White House protects the ruling family’s dynasty. Washington has pulled back from blanket support for democracy efforts in the region. That has bruised America’s credibility on democracy and reform, but it has helped to shore up the relationship with Riyadh.

The deployment into Bahrain was also the beginning of what Saudi officials describe as their efforts to directly parry Iran. While Saudi troops guard critical oil and security facilities in their neighbor’s land, the Bahraini government has launched a sweeping and often brutal crackdown on demonstrators.

It forced out the editor of the country’s only independent newspaper. More than 400 demonstrators have been arrested without charges, many in violent night raids on Shiite villages. Four have died in custody, according to human-rights groups. Three members of the national soccer team, all Shiites, have also been arrested. As many as 1,000 demonstrators who missed work during the protests have been fired from state companies.

In Shiite villages such as Saar, where a 14-year-old boy was killed by police and a 56-year-old man disappeared overnight and showed up dead the next morning, protests have continued sporadically. But in the financial district and areas where Sunni Muslims predominate, the demonstrations have ended.

In Yemen, the Saudis, also working under a Gulf Cooperation Council umbrella, have taken control of the political negotiations to transfer power out of the hands of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, according to two Saudi officials.

“We stayed out of the process for a while, but now we have to intervene,” said one official. “It’s that, or watch our southern flank disintegrate into chaos.”

By BILL SPINDLE and MARGARET COKER

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Tunisian Protesters Urge Saudi To Extradite Ben Ali

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

Hundreds of Tunisians rallied outside the Saudi embassy on Friday demanding the extradition of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and staging a mock trial that sentenced the former strongman to death.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after he was ousted by mass protests on Jan. 14 after 23 years in power. Several members of his family and some of his closest allies were detained shortly after he was forced out.

Tunisia announced later that month it had asked Interpol to help arrest Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other members of the family who left the North African country during the uprising.

About 30O people gathered at the Saudi embassy in Tunis for a peaceful protest after Friday prayers, several holding placards demanding that Riyadh hand over Ben Ali to face justice in his home country.

To underscore the point, some of them staged a mock trial with one man acting the part of Ben Ali and another the judge, who sentenced him to death.

Demonstrators also hurled shoes at a plastic effigy of Ben Ali, painted in red to make him look like an assassin.

Some of them noted that Egyptian authorities were taking action against ousted president Hosni Mubarak over corruption allegations. “I want to see Ben Ali face justice before I die,” one old man at the rally said, declining to give his name.

A few women at the demonstration carried photographs of sons they said had been killed by Ben Ali’s security forces.

The rally took place two days after state media said Tunisian authorities had prepared 18 legal cases against Ben Ali, including for voluntary manslaughter and drug trafficking.

Other charges listed by Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi included conspiring against the state and drug use.

A total of 44 legal cases had been prepared by his ministry against Ben Ali, his family and his inner circle, he said.

Chebbi said the Justice Ministry was exploring legal ways to extradite Ben Ali from Saudi Arabia to face trial. He gave no further details.

The caretaker authorities, trying to assert their authority and gain legitimacy in the eyes of protesters who forced the transition, are attacking the vestiges of Ben Ali’s long rule.

They appointed a new government on March 7 and disbanded the state security apparatus, notorious for human rights abuses under Ben Ali.

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

Posted on 14 April 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Soumaya Ghannoushi

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Guarding the Fortress

Posted on 06 April 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dr Mai Yamani

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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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Yemen’s Peaceful Protests Appeal to Shi’ite rebels

Posted on 10 March 2011 by hashimilion

Yemen’s northern Shi’ite rebels, inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, have stopped fighting the government and are joining to non-violent protests instead, a theologian with close ties to the rebels said on Tuesday.

The rebels, known as Houthis after their leader Abdel Malek al-Houthi, have fought the government on and off since 2004 in a conflict that even drew in neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia when Houthis briefly seized Saudi territory last year.

Abdulkareem Ahmed Jadban, who has mediated between the government and the rebels, told Reuters the Houthis have put down their weapons and joined nationwide peaceful protests that have swept Yemen demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32 year rule.

“The examples of Tunisia and Egypt have been powerful. The Houthis have not fired a single bullet in the last several weeks. The have taken to the streets in Saada in their thousands like the rest of Yemen,” Jadban said. But he cautioned that the non-violence could also be short-lived.

Yemen agreed a truce in 2009 to halt its intermittent war with the Houthis. But sporadic violence has continued, Jadban said, because Saleh is supporting a tribal figure in the Houthi stronghold of Saada.

“They still reserve the right of self-defence. The attack on them last week was unjustified. Saleh is trying to divert attention from the street rage he is facing throughout Yemen,” he added, referring to an attack by the military on protestors that killed two in Saada, the Houthis’ northern stronghold.

At least 27 people have been killed in Yemen since protests erupted last month. Saleh, a key U.S. ally against al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, is refusing street demands to leave and has hinted that Yemen would fall apart without him.

The Houthis, Jadban said, want effective representation in a national dialogue to take place if the popular movement manages to remove Saleh from office.

Jadban was until recently a member of Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress Party until he resigned last week along with 11 other parliamentarians to protest Saleh’s refusal to meet street demands to step down.

“Being in parliament was the only way to help the people of Saada because the ruling party controlled everything. No longer,” said Jadban, who has written books on the sect of Shi’ite Islam known as Zaidism, to which Houthis belong.

Jadban believes the Houthis might gain more traction if Houthis relinquished their belief in an Imamate, where the ruler must be a descendent of Islam’s prophet Mohammed. A Zaidi imamate ruled much of modern Yemen for more than 1,000 years until it was overthrown in 1962.

The Houthis are also deeply resentful of Saudi Arabia’s promotion of its austere Salafi school and fear that this fundamental version of Sunni Islam threatens their identity.

Saleh, who is backed by the United States, is of the same minority Zaidi sect as the Houthis, but also receives backing from Saudi Arabia in the conflict.

A Qatari-brokered peace agreement last summer stipulated that the government should help with the reconstruction of Saada but Jadban said little effort was made to improve the lot of the province, which is more impoverished than the rest of Yemen.

“There is no electricity. The whole region is sinking in darkness,” he said.

 

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