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Distrusting America, Saudi Arabia Embarks on More Assertive Role

Posted on 19 May 2011 by hashimilion

As U.S. President Barack Obama seeks to reinvigorate his administration’s policy in the Middle East, he will have to contend with several issues where U.S. influence is less than overwhelming.

Chief among them, according to Middle East analysts, is the growing assertiveness of Saudi Arabia as it confronts Iranian influence in the region and tilts away from its historic bargain with the U.S.: oil for security.

In recent months, the Saudis have essentially taken the gloves off — sending troops into Bahrain to prop up the island’s Sunni monarchy against a rebellious Shiite majority; consolidating their relationship with Pakistan as a regional counterweight to Iran; and expanding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to reinforce the club of Sunni monarchies.

Through the GCC Saudi Arabia has also moved to resolve the crisis in Yemen, its neighbor to the south, where al Qaeda is establishing a foothold and where the Saudis suspect Iranian meddling.

Their core mission, says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, “is to ensure stability in their neighborhood.” Bremmer believes “the single most important long-term implication of the Arab Spring may be a consolidated GCC that is tacking away from the West.”

At the same time, the Saudi kingdom’s relations with the United States have deteriorated — in part over the Obama administration’s support for pro-democracy movements in the Arab world. On two occasions in recent months, according to well-placed sources in the Gulf, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia even refused to meet senior U.S. officials.

Earlier this week, Saudi grievances were laid out in a Washington Post op-ed by Nawaf Obaid, a consummate insider and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Describing a “tectonic shift” in the Saudi-U.S. relationship, he complained of an “ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable” for its settlement-building in Palestinian territories. On the latter issue, he said the U.S. “had lost all credibility.”

Obaid also echoed some of the criticisms made last year by Prince Turki al Faisal, a former ambassador to the United States who said that “negligence, ignorance and arrogance” had cost America the “moral high ground” it held after 9/11.

Saudi alienation from Washington predates the Obama administration. Riyadh saw the invasion of Iraq as a disaster because it unleashed Shiite influence in a country traditionally dominated by its Sunni minority. Several Saudi officials have described Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki — who leads a Shia-dominated government — as an “Iranian agent.”

The Saudis also complained that the Bush administration had “dropped the ball” on the Israel-Palestinian peace process by not endorsing King Abdullah’s plan for a two-state solution, with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. That, they argued, had only strengthened more radical forces in the region, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Above all, the Saudi establishment has long been anxious that the threat it perceives from Iran is not adequately acknowledged in Washington.

U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published last year showed growing Saudi impatience with U.S. caution toward Iran’s nuclear program, with King Abdullah quoted as urging Gen. David Petraeus to “cut off the head of the snake” during a meeting in April 2008. A year later, the King is quoted as telling President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, that he hoped the U.S. would review its Iran policy and “come to the right conclusion.”

So now, Obaid writes, “Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.”

One long-time observer of Saudi policy says the kingdom is preparing to use its wealth and economic growth (forecast at nearly 6% this year, thanks to the rising price of crude oil) to lead an expanded bloc as old certainties wither away.

The Saudis plan to spend $100 billion to modernize their armed forces, buy a new generation of combat aircraft and add 60,000 Interior Ministry troops. Like other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia also plans to expand its special forces.

Beyond its borders the kingdom wants to expand the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, until now a club of wealthy monarchies, by inviting Jordan and Morocco to join. They might not have much money, but they, too, are ruled by Sunni monarchs and have — by regional standards — cohesive and well-trained armies.

In return, Gulf largesse would help support their weak economies. Amid recriminations and confusion in the Arab League — whose planned Baghdad summit has just been postponed for a whole year — the Saudis see the GCC as the institutional antidote to the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

Saudi Arabia has already created a $20 billion fund to assist Bahrain and Oman. And the dispatch of some 1,000 troops to Bahrain in March served notice to Tehran that Saudi Arabia would not tolerate a Shiite-dominated state a few miles off its coast.

“Sending a force to Bahrain was a necessary evil for the GCC in order to protect the monarchy in Bahrain,” says Theodore Karasik of the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “If a monarchy falls in the region, this might create a domino effect.”

It was also a slap in the face to U.S. policy in the region, which was focused on coaxing dialogue in Bahrain. Just days before the Saudi intervention, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Bahrain urging King Hamad to take more than “baby steps” towards reform.

That followed alarm in Riyadh over the Obama administration’s desertion of long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, who had cultivated close ties with the Gulf states and who was regarded by the Saudis as another Arab bulwark against “Iranian expansionism.” The U.S. eventually told Mubarak it was time to go, but the Saudi royal family supported him to the end, even offering to make up for any cut in U.S. aid.

Bremmer of the Eurasia Group says the United States does hold important cards — through multi-billion-dollar arms contracts and long-established relationships in the oil industry. And regional analysts say that ultimately Saudi Arabia would likely appeal for and get U.S. help in any showdown with Iran.

Bremmer says that much in the Gulf revolves around personal relationships and loyalties, and he says the Obama administration needs to invest more in that, starting at the top. By contrast, senior executives in U.S. oil companies — by and large no fans of the president’s energy policy — do talk with the Saudis.

In the longer-term, a Saudi tilt to the East may simply reflect new economic realities. Some 55% of Saudi oil now flows to Asia, compared with about 10% that flows to the United States. The Saudi state oil firm has built refineries in China, and trade between the two countries was worth $40 billion in 2010.

As relations with the West fray, Bremmer concludes that “a far-reaching Saudi-China strategic partnership could well result alongside expanded Chinese contracts to buy long-term access to Saudi oil and Chinese investment in developing Saudi infrastructure.”

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Arab Spring Splits Saudi U.S Alliance

Posted on 16 May 2011 by hashimilion

A tectonic shift has occurred in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Despite significant pressure from the Obama administration to remain on the sidelines, Saudi leaders sent troops into Manama in March to defend Bahrain’s monarchy and quell the unrest that has shaken that country since February. For more than 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been bound by an unwritten bargain: oil for security. Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided U.S. policies. But American missteps in the region since Sept. 11, an ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement building have brought this arrangement to an end. As the Saudis recalibrate the partnership, Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.

The backdrop for this change are the rise of Iranian meddling in the region and the counterproductive policies that the United States has pursued here since Sept. 11. The most significant blunder may have been the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in enormous loss of life and provided Iran an opening to expand its sphere of influence. For years, Iran’s leadership has aimed to foment discord while furthering its geopolitical ambitions. Tehran has long funded Hamas and Hezbollah; recently, its scope of attempted interference has broadened to include the affairs of Arab states from Yemen to Morocco. This month the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, harshly criticized Riyadh over its intervention in Bahrain, claiming this act would spark massive domestic uprisings.

Such remarks are based more on wishful thinking than fact, but Iran’s efforts to destabilize its neighbors are tireless. As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat. The emerging political reality is a Saudi-led Arab world facing off against the aggression of Iran and its non-state proxies.

Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilize the Arab monarchies — the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco. In Yemen, the Saudis are insisting on an orderly transition of power and a dignified exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh (a courtesy that was not extended to Hosni Mubarak, despite the former Egyptian president’s many years as a strong U.S. ally). To facilitate this handover, Riyadh is leading a diplomatic effort under the auspices of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council. In Iraq, the Saudi government will continue to pursue a hard-line stance against the Maliki government, which it regards as little more than an Iranian puppet. In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia will act to check the growth of Hezbollah and to ensure that this Iranian proxy does not dominate the country’s political life. Regarding the widespread upheaval in Syria, the Saudis will work to ensure that any potential transition to a post-Assad era is as peaceful and as free of Iranian meddling as possible.

Regarding Israel, Riyadh is adamant that a just settlement, based on King Abdullah’s proposed peace plan, be implemented. This includes a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. The United States has lost all credibility on this issue; after casting the sole vote in the U.N. Security Council against censuring Israel for its illegal settlement building, it can no longer act as an objective mediator. This act was a watershed in U.S.-Saudi relations, guaranteeing that Saudi leaders will not push for further compromise from the Palestinians, despite American pressure.

Saudi Arabia remains strong and stable, lending muscle to its invigorated foreign policy. Spiritually, the kingdom plays a unique role for the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims — more than 1 billion of whom are Sunni — as the birthplace of Islam and home of the two holiest cities. Politically, its leaders enjoy broad domestic support, and a growing nationalism has knitted the historically tribal country more closely together. This is largely why widespread protests, much anticipated by Western media in March, never materialized. As the world’s sole energy superpower and the de facto central banker of the global energy markets, Riyadh is the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, representing 25 percent of the combined gross domestic product of the Arab world. The kingdom has amassed more than $550 billion in foreign reserves and is spending more than $150 billion to improve infrastructure, public education, social services and health care.

To counter the threats posed by Iran and transnational terrorist networks, the Saudi leadership is authorizing more than $100 billion of additional military spending to modernize ground forces, upgrade naval capabilities and more. The kingdom is doubling its number of high-quality combat aircraft and adding 60,000 security personnel to the Interior Ministry forces. Plans are underway to create a “Special Forces Command,” based on the U.S. model, to unify the kingdom’s various special forces if needed for rapid deployment abroad.

Saudi Arabia has the will and the means to meet its expanded global responsibilities. In some issues, such as counterterrorism and efforts to fight money laundering, the Saudis will continue to be a strong U.S. partner. In areas in which Saudi national security or strategic interests are at stake, the kingdom will pursue its own agenda. With Iran working tirelessly to dominate the region, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt and unrest on nearly every border, there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability. The special relationship may never be the same, but from this transformation a more stable and secure Middle East can be born.

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Two Grenades Thrown at Saudi Consulate in Karachi

Posted on 11 May 2011 by hashimilion

Leaked Photo of Bin Laden

 

Drive-by attackers lobbed two grenades at the Saudi consulate in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi on Wednesday, in a first possible violent reaction to the US killing of Osama bin Laden.

Officials reported no damage and no casualties after two men on a motorcycle threw the explosives at the heavily fortified building in Clifton, the smartest neighbourhood of Karachi, nine days after bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.

“This was an attack on the Saudi consulate. Two motorcycle riders threw two grenades and fled,” provincial government official Sharfuddin Memon told AFP.

“One exploded and hit the outer wall. The second landed inside and fortunately didn’t explode. It was later defused by bomb disposal,” he said.

“There were no casualties. We are seeing this incident in the present context. It could be a reaction of the Osama incident.” Pakistan has been in the grip of domestic and international crisis since US Navy SEALS flew in, seemingly undetected, from Afghanistan to identify and kill the Saudi-born Al-Qaeda terror mastermind at a suburban compound on May 2.

Pakistanis have expressed horror at the perceived impunity of the raid, furiously asking if their military was too incompetent to know he was living in a garrison city near the capital, or, even worse, conspired to protect him.

But while the killing has not ignited mass protests in the Muslim country, where more than 4,240 people have died in bomb attacks blamed on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the last four years, small gatherings have vowed revenge.

“We fear that desperate elements are planning to launch a big attack. We are taking precautionary measures in this regard,” Memon said.

Saudi Arabia expelled bin Laden in 1991 and later revoked his nationality. The government in Riyadh, which is allied to the authorities in Islamabad, last week welcomed his killing as a boost to international anti-terror efforts.

An AFP photographer said ambulances, police and paramilitary Rangers swarmed outside the Saudi consulate after the attack, where small shrapnel marks could be seen on the outer wall of the building.

Mohammed Safdar, a police official at the scene, said security guards at the diplomatic mission had opened fire on the attackers but they escaped.

“Two security men at the gate opened fire on them, but they managed to flee,” he told AFP.

“The security guards informed us and we reached the spot immediately. The bomb disposal squad are here. Other police and Rangers have surrounded the area,” he added.

Pakistan is holding in protective custody three of bin Laden’s widows, who come from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and 13 of their children.

The foreign ministry says it has yet to receive a formal request from the United States for access to the relatives or requests from their home countries for their repatriation.

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The Consequences of Saudi Intervention in Bahrain

Posted on 10 May 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on 09 May 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Democracy Now!

TOBY JONES: Thanks for having me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fading Mirage: Illusory Reform in Saudi Arabia

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

In the eyes of many Westerners, the idea of reform in Saudi Arabia is a contradiction. The Al Saud dynasty has long held a monopoly of political, religious, and social power over its citizens. The government currently bans all opposition political parties and tightly controls domestic media outlets. Saudi Arabia has also gained notoriety around the world for its strict interpretation of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. Despite the apparent lack of freedom, Saudi Arabia has in fact experienced some movements toward reform and modernization over the past few years. Unfortunately, they do not represent a trend toward liberalization and political reform. Rather, they have only appeared in response to events such as lowered oil earnings and threats of terrorism. Given Saudi Arabia’s recent economic successes, it seems unlikely that the kingdom will move toward substantial reform in the near future.

The years of 2001 and 2003 were marked by significant drives for political reform in Saudi Arabia. Concerns over declining oil revenues and rising unemployment formed the basis for domestic dissatisfaction. The participation of 15 Saudis in the September 11, 2001, attacks left the government with a new combination of US pressure and internal calls for reform. In January 2003, 104 Saudi liberal reformers created a “Strategic Vision for the Present and the Future,” which consisted of detailed proposals for democratic changes such as separation of power and elected legislative bodies at the national and provincial levels. This document used religious and legal arguments to justify citizens’ supervision of government actions.

Pressures for reform reached a peak when 12 suicide bombers attacked the capital of Riyadh in May 2003, killing 30 people and wounding 200. Saudis refer to the attacks as their own September 11, and the bombings seemed to initially push the Saudigovernment to reform its authoritarian practices. The Riyadh attacks were followed by unprecedented criticism of religious extremism in the media. The Crown Prince himself made speeches acknowledging the problem of Islamic extremism–acknowledgments that would have been unthinkable just a few years prior. In 2005, Saudis also witnessed their first municipal elections in almost a half-century. That same year, women were even allowed to participate in elections for the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. The start of the 21st century, thus, seemed a positive one for Saudi reform.

The impact of these reforms, however, should not be overstated. In many cases, they have been overshadowed by continued authoritarian behavior. Despite the optimism of the 2003 petitions, signatories to more recent appeals for reform have faced stiff government resistance. In March 2004, 13 pro-reform activists in favor of a constitutional monarchy were arrested, some of whom are forbidden to travel abroad even today. Perhaps most tellingly, the lauded 2005 municipal elections excluded women, and only half of the seats were contested. Political parties are still banned, and the government retains power over the municipal councils’ budgets. Sadly, even this encouraging glimmer of democracy has proved to be strikingly limited.

Economic growth in the country also suggests that substantive political reform may not arrive any time soon. As the oft-cited maxim goes, the higher the oil prices, the lower the prospect of democracy in the Middle East. The histories of Europe and the United States show that heavy taxation often leads to agitation for reform and greater demands for government accountability. However, the Saudi government’s high oil revenues allow it to forgo all income or corporate taxes. Indeed, owning a quarter of the world’s oil reserves permits the Saudi government essentially to buy off domestic demands for reform. Since revenues flow to the Saudi government directly, it has the option of exercising patronage to benefit political or social actors who demand change. Ways of placating interests include giving land gifts or supplying public services such as education and health care. Furthermore, the high concentration of wealth in the monarchy makes it harder for political groups outside of the government to find financial support. Additionally, since oil production does not necessitate mass labor mobilization, the potential power of unions dissolves. Even if demands for change were to remain strong within certain groups, the middle class’ demonstrated preference for economic stability over political freedom dampens the probability of widespread demands for change.

Current economic indicators may portend a negative political climate for Saudi citizens. In the years leading up to 2003, rising unemployment led to widespread dissatisfaction among the population. The Saudi Arabia of today faces no such problem. In 2006, the country saw a US$100 billion current account surplus and a GDP of US$350 billion. With plans to increase its oil production to 12.5 million barrels per day by 2009, there is little sign that the Saudi government will lose economic control, and thereby political control, over its citizens.

It is certainly possible that a downturn in the Saudi economy will once again spark the possibility for reform. Such reforms, however, would reflect the monarchy’s pragmatism rather than its conviction. Without firm government commitments to political change, it is unlikely that the Saudi government will make permanent, substantial improvements to its citizens’ rights. Reform in the Saudikingdom may not be the hopeless cause it once was, but the prospects for lasting, substantive changes remain illusory.

By Julia  Choe

 

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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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Iranian Commander: Bahrain Could Spark Unrest In Saudi

Posted on 02 May 2011 by hashimilion

Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi

One of Iran’s top military commanders warned Saudi Arabia that it’s decision to send forces to Bahrain to quell protests by Shiite Muslims would spark unrest at home, a semiofficial Iranian news agency reported.

Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, head of Iran’s joint chiefs of staff, didn’t offer any evidence to back up his claim. But his comments reflected growing tension between Shiite-majority Iran and Sunni-dominated countries in the Gulf like Saudi Arabia.

Iran has repeatedly denounced Gulf leaders for dispatching a Saudi-led military force in March to prop up Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy and try to quell the protests by Shiites, who comprise 70 per cent of the population but are excluded from key government and security posts.

“Unfair and unIslamic moves will hurt the honour of Muslims in Saudi Arabia, and it will threaten the security of Saudi Arabia,” Firouzabadi was quoted as saying by the Mehr news agency.

Firouzabadi, who is known for his anti-Saudi rhetoric, also lashed out at the United States, claiming Washington was behind Riyadh’s move into Bahrain so that it could preserve an American naval base there.

“Washington ordered Saudi Arabia as its mercenary to thwart the Bahrainis’ popular revolution so that the U.S. can maintain its base,” Firouzabadi was reported as saying.

Again, he offered no evidence to back up his claim.

Firouzabadi lashed out at Arab countries on Saturday as well, according to the official IRNA news agency.

“The Arab dictatorial regimes in the Persian Gulf are unable to contain the popular uprisings,” he was reported as saying. “The dictators should relinquish power, end their savage crimes and let the people determine their own future instead of … opening an unworkable front against Iran.”

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