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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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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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Befriending Saudi Princes: A High Price for a Dubious Alliance.

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

Nothing can justify the heinous terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Yet, some feel that U.S. policies have acted as the equivalent of poking hornets’ nests, turning Americans into targets for violence at home and abroad. Demanding reconsideration, therefore, is the promiscuous foreign intervention that has helped generate not just abstract hatred, but hostile passions intense enough to cause people to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings full of innocent people.

One of the worst aspects of U.S. foreign policy has been the tendency to prop up “friendly” autocratic regimes. Among Washington’s more-dubious allies is Saudi Arabia, a corrupt totalitarian regime at sharp variance with America’s most cherished values, including religious liberty.

The House of Sand has long leaned toward the West. Saudi Arabia grew out of the World War I defeat of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of the Central Powers, at the hands of Great Britain and various subject Arab peoples. King Abdul al-Aziz al-Saud, who briefly fought against the Turks and then defeated the Hashemite Dynasty and allied Arab families to take control of the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, proclaimed the modern Saudi Arabia in 1932. King Abdul al-Aziz, who fathered 44 sons before dying in 1953, was the fount of today’s royal family. His son, pro-American King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, suffered a series of strokes beginning in 1995, leaving another son, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, largely running the government.

Saudi Arabia would be unimportant to the U.S. were it not for the massive oil deposits sitting beneath its seemingly endless deserts. The advent of an activist Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by Saudi Arabia, which supported the oil embargo of 1973-74 against America, helped to raise oil prices and enrich the Saudi monarchy. Tensions with the West grew, and, for a time, a few analysts even advocated invading the Persian Gulf region to seize the oil. The latest round of worrying about Saudi stability has led some people to recycle that idea.

However, in the post-World War II era, U.S. policymakers have focused primarily on defending the Gulf region from other potential invaders–the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Islamic revolutionaries who seized control of Iran in 1979, and, most recently, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. To deter Moscow, Pres. Jimmy Carter created a rapid deployment force; to block Tehran, the Reagan Administration aided Iraq in its bloody and lengthy war against Iran.

Finally, America went to war with Iraq, with preservation of the House of Sand of far more concern than the liberation of Kuwait, the formal public goal. The U.S. and its allies easily defeated Iraq, but left Saddam in power. Ten years of desultory United Nations weapons inspections, economic embargo, “no-fly zones,” and frequent U.S. bombing followed.

America backed its military units in Turkey and carrier forces in the Persian Gulf with about 5,000 Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia as part of the Southern Watch command, comprising aircraft ranging from F-15s and F-16s to C-130s and KC-135s. Another 1,300 military personnel and civilian contractors worked with the Saudi National Guard. No mere temporary response to Saddam’s aggression, America’s presence has a “permanent feel,” as Howard Schneider of the Washington Post put it in May, 2001.

Although the relationship between Riyadh and Washington is close, it has rarely been easy. For American administrations that loudly promote democracy, the alliance with Saudi Arabia has been a deep embarrassment. As the Human Rights Watch reported in 2001, “Freedom of expression and association were nonexistent rights, political parties and independent local media were not permitted, and even peaceful anti-government activities remained virtually unthinkable. Infringements on privacy, institutionalized gender discrimination, harsh restrictions on the exercise of religious freedom, and the use of capital and corporal punishment were also major features of the kingdom’s human rights record.”

Repression and corruption. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, an almost medieval theocracy, with power concentrated in the hands of senior royalty and wealth concentrated among some 7,000 al-Saud princes (or more, by some estimates). Political opposition and even criticism are forbidden. In practice, there are few procedural protections for anyone arrested or charged by the government. The semiautonomous religious police, or Mutawaa’in, intimidate and detain citizens and foreigners alike. The government may invade homes and violate privacy whenever it chooses, and travel is limited. Women are covered, cloistered, and confined, much as they were in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The Saudi regime’s apologists, such as Abdulrahman al-Zamil, a member of the official 120-member Shoura (Advisory) Council, consider the lack of popular accountability a virtue, arguing that it ensures selection “unrelated to the influence of special interest groups and financial contributions.” Ultimate control, though, rests with the 75,000-man National Guard (run by the Crown Prince), which is as large as the army, not with any group of advisors. Command positions are reserved for the royal family, thereby strengthening its influence and creating further resentments. “Nobody climbs up into the higher ranks,” one Saudi complained to the Wall Street Journal in November, 2001. “Those are reserved for the royal family.”

It is perhaps no surprise that such a regime has an unenviable reputation for corruption. Western business partners are occasionally imprisoned to resolve disputes. The problem is so great that the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has acknowledged tens of billions of dollars in abuse and theft. Indolence is even more widespread. For years, every college graduate could expect a government position that provided a good salary (and many tea breaks) for little effort. More than a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s nearly 23,000,000 people are expatriates, many of whom are domestic workers. During the Gulf War, many Saudis expected others to do the dirty work of military combat, likening America’s presence to hiring mercenaries.

Religious totalitarianism. Most ugly, however, is the religious totalitarianism enforced by Riyadh. Citizens and foreigners alike are prohibited from engaging in non-Muslim worship as well as proselytizing. According to former foreign service officer Tim Hunter, fired by the State Department for his criticism of its timidity in dealing with the Saudis, Christian clerics, if discovered, are arrested, beaten and brutalized, and eventually expelled from the country. Conversion means apostasy, which is punishable by death. Private devotion is theoretically allowed, but homes are raided if worshippers gather together. Christians have also been punished for blasphemy. In this regard, Saudi Arabia follows much of the same policy as the Taliban (which Riyadh recognized and funded until recently), that was assailed by Pres. Bush for prosecuting foreign aid workers Who were accused of proselytizing.

Thuggish behavior alone is rarely enough to preclude diplomatic relations, but it should discourage the U.S. from affirmatively embracing the Saudi regime, even in the name of stability. After all, repression is not the only path to security. Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Kuwait has gained legitimacy by creating an elected legislature and considering giving women the vote, while Bahrain plans on holding parliamentary elections in 2003, a move that, in the words of analyst Joseph Shattan, “appears to have seriously blunted the anti-American rage that is currently sweeping through the rest of the Arab world.” In fact, the quick dissipation of fundamentalist street protests during the war in Afghanistan would appear to offer a propitious moment for Arab governments to adopt political reforms. Those autocratic regimes should be strong enough to risk reaching for long-term stability through democratic means.

American policies have identified Washington with the Saudi kleptocracy. As Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute observes, “We are associated with regimes that are corrupt and illegitimate.” Many average Saudis believe the U.S. is either serving as a pillar of the regime or taking advantage of its position to profit from the Gulf War. This has generated anger against America and support for sending home its troops, as well as the feeling that terrorism against the U.S. is legitimate. That phenomenon was evident after the bombing of the Khobar Towers military barracks in 1996, as well as after Sept. 11.

Americans are paying for Washington’s cozy ties with Riyadh. That association has made the U.S. a target of terrorists. Obviously, one must take Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden’s pronouncements with some grains of salt, but ending Washington’s support for the corrupt regime in Riyadh and expelling American forces from the Persian Gulf region appear to be his main goals. Since he lacks missiles, bombers, and carrier groups to achieve his end, he instead relies on terrorism.

Growing internal problems. The Saudi ruling elite is paying for its repression and links to Washington, especially when contrasted with its formalistic Muslim piety. With 70% of government revenues (and 40% of gross domestic product) derived from oil sales, the drop in energy prices since the early 1980s has caused economic pain in Saudi Arabia; per capita GDP has dropped from $28,600 in 1981 to less than $7,000 today. Unemployment is estimated at 15% overall and 20% for those under 30. That has helped generate deep undertones of unrest, but the discontented feel helpless to promote political change. Any criticism tends to be expressed through religious leaders. Novelist Abdelrahman Munif warns that the “situation produces a desperate citizenry, without a sense of dignity or belonging.” As Neil MacFarquhar of The New York limes observed in November, 2001, “In another country Mr. bin Laden might have become an opposition politician rather than a holy warrior. But Saudi Arabia brooks no dissent.”

Senior clerics live well on the government payroll and therefore lack credibility. Radical freelancers have developed a widespread following. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 were from Saudi Arabia, and in January, 2002, Riyadh acknowledged that about 100 of the 158 alleged Al Qaeda prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay were Saudi citizens. One Saudi businessman told the Wall Street Journal: “Many young people are disgruntled and disenchanted with our society’s openness to the West and U.S. foreign policy. These people are frustrated and have nothing to do. They fall prey to people with agendas of their own. They are time bombs. They’re like the Japanese kamikaze.” With roughly half of the population under the age of 15, the potential for further unrest is substantial.

Soaring dissatisfaction with the regime due to slumping revenues and a slowing economy has merged with criticism of America. Numerous Saudis are angry about U.S. support for the House of Saud, and many students irrationally blame America for Saudi Arabia’s economic woes. Additional irritants include Washington’s support of Israel, attacks on Iraq (which are paradoxically seen as anti-Muslim now, a decade after that nation’s defeat), and the invasion of Afghanistan. Admiration for bin Laden is evident even among those who dislike his austere Islamic vision. Richard Murphy, a onetime U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia currently with the Council on Foreign Relations, worries that, “After 11 years, we’ve worn out our welcome on the popular level, though not with the leadership.”

Saudi obstructionism

The Saudi leadership has proved wary of aiding the U.S. despite direct attacks on Americans. The 1996 bomb attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Dharan killed 19 Americans and wounded 372. It was the work of radical Islamists, who, like bin Laden, view Riyadh’s alliance with America as a defilement of holy lands. U.S. efforts to investigate the bombing were hamstrung by the Saudis, who refused to turn over relevant information or to extradite any of the 13 Saudis indicted by an American grand jury.

In the same year, the Saudis refused, despite U.S. urging, to take custody of bin Laden from Sudan. In 1998, he and several other extremist Muslim leaders issued a manifesto calling for a holy war to drive the U.S. from Islamic lands. Even so, American officials were unable “to get anything at all from King Fahd” to challenge bin Laden’s financial network, charged John O’Neill, a former FBI official involved with counterterrorism who died in the attack on the World Trade Center, where he was security chief.

Riyadh’s reluctance to risk popular displeasure by identifying with Washington continues, even after the deaths of several thousand Americans on Sept. 11. Observes Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum: “In 1979, when a group of extremists took over the Mecca Mosque, the Saudi regime called in French troops, infidels to go into Mecca and take it over. [In] 1990, when Saddam Hussein threatened, they called us in and we protected them. Now it’s our turn to call. We’re the ones who lost [more than 3,000] dead. We need them, they’ve got to be there.”

Privately, White House aides acknowledge that Saudi officials have not been as cooperative as the U.S. hoped. Riyadh has refused to run “traces,” involving background investigations, on its 15 citizens who committed the atrocities of Sept. 11, supply passenger lists of those on flights to America, and block terrorist funds flowing through supposed charities. (If the money goes awry, the regime explains, it does so outside of Saudi Arabia.) Riyadh has also pressed non-OPEC nations to cut oil production in an attempt to raise prices to buttress the cartel of which it is the leading member. It is no surprise, then, that Riyadh seemed to be one of the targets of Bush’s November, 2001, address to the UN General Assembly when he called for moving from “sympathy” to “action.” Publicly, however, Administration officials, including the President, laud Saudi cooperation.

The Saudis are, it is true, allowing use of the operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base, near Riyadh, but Saudi Arabia has joined its neighbors in attempting to keep its distance, ostentatiously announcing that no foreign troops would use Saudi facilities to stage attacks. One reason is concern about America’s strong support for Israel, but, more generally, Riyadh fears identifying with the U.S. By early November, 2001, some Saudi officials were at least willing to blame the Taliban and not America for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, though the Saudis failed to join other governments in marking the three-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Still, one anonymous official asked, “Does it matter what we are saying publicly?” Just as cooperation with the West generates unrest, the refusal to defend cooperation with the West aggressively encourages extremist sentiments to grow.

The lack of a public endorsement pales in comparison with Riyadh’s support for the very Islamic fundamentalism that threatens to consume the regime in Riyadh as well as to murder more Americans in future terrorist attacks. Al-Zamil criticized the U.S. for aiding Afghan guerrillas only in their fight against the Soviet Union, as if Washington could have subsequently imposed order on a land rent by warring, fratricidal factions, maintaining that “The Saudi volunteers, pure at heart and committed to high principles, could understand neither the opportunism nor pragmatism of U.S. foreign policy.” It is a curious criticisen for a Saudi official, given the rank opportunism and pragmatism of Saudi policy. Al-Zamil admits that “the U.S. military presence is very unpopular throughout Saudi society and is a liability rather than an asset,” raising questions about why American military personnel are there–other than as pragmatic protection from Iraq and perhaps Iran.

As MacFarquhar has observed in the Times, a charity telethon designed to channel funds to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers “perfectly mirrored the government’s way of doing business: throw money at nasty problems and leave the unpleasant details under the rug.” Riyadh’s strategy is to buy off everyone. It long subsidized Arab governments and guerrilla movements at war with Israel, and it opposed the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The regime was, along with Pakistan, the primary financial backer of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which provided sanctuary for bin Laden and his training camps. It is widely believed that even Saudi businessmen unsympathetic to his goals have made contributions to bin Laden in an attempt to purchase protection. There are serious charges of financial support from some members of the Saudi royal family itself for bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

The problem goes even deeper. The Saudi state, run by royals who often flaunt their libertinism, enforces the extreme Wahhabi form of Islam at home and subsidizes its practice abroad. Wahhabism derives from the practices of a fundamentalist 18th-century tribal leader whose followers helped the Saudi royal family consolidate power in the early 1900s. The practice is thought to dominate as many as 80% of the mosques in America. Within this sect, hostile to modernity, political extremism and support for terrorism have flourished in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the threat reaches beyond the Middle East to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. According to The New York Times, Riyadh “has also sponsored the fundamentalist academies known as madrassa in Pakistan. Many graduates of these madrassa have headed straight to Afghanistan, some to bin Laden training camps.”

In short, “these are SOBs who are barely even our SOBs,” complains National Review editor Rich Lowry. By any normal assessment, Americans should care little if the House of Saud fell, as have other illegitimate monarchies such as Iran’s Peacock throne, except for one thing: Saudi Arabia has oil. Quoted in Forbes in November, 2001, Saudi oil expert Nawaf Obaid worries that, if it fell to a fundamentalist revolution, the resulting government would be “ten times more powerful [than] Iraq or Iran.”

Contrary to popular wisdom, the Saudis’ trump card is surprisingly weak. Tree, with 262,000,000,000 barrels in proven reserves, Saudi Arabia has about one-quarter of the world’s resources and 8.7 times America’s supplies. Riyadh is not only the world’s leading supplier, but, as a low-cost producer, it can easily augment its daily exports, that totaled 9,100,000 barrels a day in 2001.

However, the reserves figure vastly overstates the importance of Middle Eastern oil to the U.S. (and Western) economy. Saudi Arabia accounted for about 12.3% of global production in 2000 (and closer to 10% in 2001); Riyadh plus Kuwait and the various sheikdoms came to 21.3%; and OPEC as a whole produced 41.5% of the world’s oil supplies.

By one estimate, zero Mideast production would push prices to $76 a barrel. The result in such a worst-case scenario would be severe economic pain in the short term, though the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which Bush has vowed to fill, would help moderate prices. With a one percent supply reduction estimated to influence a 10% price rise, zero Saudi production would push prices to $42 a barrel–a high, but hardly catastrophic, level. Moreover, the U.S. has survived high prices in the past. Between 1974 and 1985, real gasoline prices ranged between 1.4 and 2.3 times current prices.

The myth of the oil weapon

Were the Saudi regime to fail, prices would rise substantially only if the conqueror, whether internal or external, kept the oil off the market. That would be true especially if the other states in the region did not collapse as well.

Withholding oil, though, would defeat the very purpose of conquest, even for a fundamentalist regime. After all, the Iranian revolution did not cause Iran to stop exporting oil; production increased every year from 1990 to 1998 and rose again in 2000, almost returning to 1998 levels. In fact, even bin Laden urged his followers in late 2001 via videocassettes not to damage Saudi oil wells since oil is the source of Arab power.

If a new regime did halt sales, the primary beneficiaries would be other oil producers, who likely would increase exports in response to higher prices. A targeted boycott of only the U.S. would be ineffective, since oil is a uniform product available around the world. In fact, the embargo of 1973-74 had little impact on production. The global recession of 1975 caused a far-more-noticeable drop.

A new regime might decide to pump less oil in order to raise prices. Such a strategy would require international cooperation, yet the oil producers have long found it difficult to coordinate price hikes and limit cheating on agreed-upon quotas. Even if effective, restricting sales would have just a limited impact. A decade ago, when oil was selling for about $20 a barrel, David R. Henderson, former senior energy economist with Pres. Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers and now with the Hoover Institution, calculated that the worst result of an Iraqi seizure of the Saudi oil fields would be about a 50% price increase, which would cost the U.S. economy approximately one-half of one percent of GDP.

In any case, the economic impact would decline over time. Countries such as Kuwait, Iran, Nigeria, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates have the ability to pump significantly more oil than they are currently producing. As economist Susan Lee puts it, should Riyadh turn off the pumps, “the U.S. would find itself plenty of new best friends.”

Sharply higher prices would bring forth new energy supplies elsewhere. Total proven world oil reserves were 660,000,000,000 barrels in 1980, 1.009 trillion in 1990, and 1.046 trillion at the end of 2000. Yet, in the last decade alone, the world’s people consumed 250,000,000,000 barrels of oil. How could this be? A combination of new discoveries and technological advances increased the amount of economically recoverable oil. Reserves rose even as oil prices dropped. Between 1980 and 1990, proven oil reserves jumped by 62%, while prices for Middle Eastern petroleum were falling 43%. Prices eventually hit a dramatic low in 1998, down another 41%, before rising over the next two years.

America’s oil options. The U.S. is dotted with high-production-cost wells that could be unplugged. The nation’s outer continental shelf alone is thought to contain more than current proven reserves, though, since so little of the outer continental shelf–barely six percent–has been leased, those resources have not been proved. Some 15,000 acres of the 19,600,000-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could contain a similar amount of oil (as well as supplies of natural gas). Even the modest estimate of 5,000,000,000 barrels of recoverable reserves would be a significant addition to current supplies. However, it won’t be known how much is there without drilling, which could be conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner. Although some people might think the desire to lower the cost of gasoline an inadequate reason to develop those supplies, the prospect of terrorism and war related to America’s access to Persian Gulf oil should change the cost/benefit ratio considerably.

Further, approximately 300,000,000,000 barrels of unrecovered oil–10 times our proven reserves and more than known Saudi resources–lie in beds of shale under the U.S. They are not counted because they are not currently worth developing, but, as prices rise and new techniques are developed, they may become economically recoverable.

Moreover, energy companies are looking for new oil deposits around the world, including in the Caspian Basin, Russia, and West Africa. Estimates of as yet undiscovered potentially recoverable oil range from one trillion to six trillion barrels. The Energy Information Administration estimates that, at current consumption rates, we have enough oil for another 230 years and that “unconventional” sources, such as shale, could last 580 years. Even those figures are based on existing prices and technologies. Higher prices would stimulate exploration, as well as production of alternative fuels and conservation, reducing oil consumption.

In short, an unfriendly Saudi Arabia might hurt America’s pocketbook, but would not threaten America’s survival. Different would be the ascension of a truly terrorist regime, one dedicated to using oil revenues to undertake a campaign against the U.S. That is unlikely, however, if for no other reason than that Washington’s campaign against Afghanistan demonstrates that, in such a case, the new ruling elites would not long remain the new ruling elites. (Control of the Gulf region by a hegemonic rival, notably the Soviet Union, would have posed a significantly different, and greater, security threat, but that prospect disappeared with the end of the Cold War.)

Although in an unlikely worst case (the loss of most Persian Gulf oil) the cost hike might be significant, that risk must be balanced against the annual cost of maintaining forces to protect Saudi oil, estimated at $50,000,000,000. On top of that come the expenses of fighting terrorism, exacerbated by U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. The war in Afghanistan costs at least $1,000,000,000 a month, and then there are the likely civilian casualties from future attacks should the war on terrorism fail or prove just partially successful.

Severing the tie

Mentioning Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings or suggesting that the regime’s survival is not vital to the U.S. makes policymakers in Washington and Riyadh nervous. In particular, the House of Saud doesn’t take criticism well. Crown Prince Abdullah denounced the American media in a speech on state television, charging that they were damaging his nation’s reputation and driving a wedge between his government and Washington. In the Arab News, he blamed the American media campaign for expressing “its hatred toward the Islamic system.” His government diplomatically suggested that Riyadh’s problems were with the press, not the Bush Administration. (In November, 2001, the Saudi government bought a four-page advertisement in leading newspapers extolling the accomplishments of King Fahd, “a doyen of world statesmen.”)

In fact, there are rumors that policymakers in Riyadh, worried about domestic criticism of their ties to Washington, are considering ending America’s military presence. That naturally has been denied by Saudi and U.S. officials alike, but serious tensions obviously remain. In his letter to the President, Crown Prince Abdullah wrote, “It is time for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests.” Al-Zamil suggested that “Saudi Arabia might well find it necessary to reassess its 70-year special relationship with the United States,” including pulling its students out of American universities, withdrawing financial investments from the U.S., and “playing a different role within OPEC.”

Those are empty threats, however, since America would not notice the departure of Saudi university students, and arbitrarily pulling out investments would hurt Saudi Arabia more than the U.S. Moreover, even in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Riyadh was lobbying non-OPEC oil producers to cut production, to America’s detriment. The House of Saud sets, and will continue to set, oil production on the basis of Saudi, not American, interests.

Washington should take the initiative. The country that should reassess the current Washington-Riyadh axis is the U.S. As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby observed on Nov. 18, 2001, “For years the United States has had an arrangement with Saudi Arabia’s rulers: They would sell us oil and we would pretend not to notice that they were intolerant dictators who crashed dissent at home while nurturing some of the world’s most violent fanatics abroad. But now we are at war with those fanatics and the old bargain cannot continue.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) has broken with the Washington consensus to make much the same point. The American commitment to the Saudi royal family is a moral blemish and a practical danger. It has already drawn the U.S. into one conventional war and has helped make Americans targets of terrorism, which generated far more casualties in one day than did the Gulf War, Kosovo conflict, and Afghanistan campaign (so far) combined.

The most important reason to withdraw U.S. troops is to eliminate a source of antagonism that has fostered the sort of virulent terrorism seen on Sept. 11. Nevertheless, Washington can ill afford to cite that as its justification, and it cannot pull out precipitously, lest the lesson learned abroad is that the way to change U.S. foreign policy is to slaughter innocent Americans.

Nevertheless, America has ample reason to make such a change on other, public grounds–Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian regime that has simultaneously fostered terrorism abroad and undercut long-term stability at home. The survival of the House of Saud should be left to itself.

Saudi Arabia’s oil is important, but who sells it to America is not. Indeed, although stability in the Persian Gulf is of value, the benefits of the U.S.’s presence are not so obvious. It is not clear that it increases Saudi stability. It is certain that the royal family will do whatever it takes to maintain its power and privileges against internal opposition. As analyst Simon Henderson puts it, “The House of Saud will be ruthless in preserving itself.” If that ruthlessness is inefficient, the American presence’ is not likely to help, unless the U.S. is prepared to commit ground forces–in addition to those presently on station–to prop up the monarchy, creating the prospect of a lengthy occupation and increased terrorist activity.

Of greater concern is the possibility of renewed external aggression, most obviously by Iraq, though it remains in a greatly weakened condition. Even before Sept. 11, the Gulf states were working to resolve conflicts and improve their ability to defend themselves without Washington’s help. Saudi Arabia spends more on its military than do Iran and Iraq combined, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, has a larger population than Iraq, but has yet to field a comparable military. The prospect of American disengagement would, like the prospect of a hanging, help concentrate the mind. Such a prospect would also increase pressure on the Gulf states to forge defensive relationships with surrounding powers–most notably Iran, Syria, and Turkey–and to inaugurate serious political reform to generate a popular willingness to defend the incumbent regimes.

If it fails to act, however, the U.S. shouldn’t worry unduly about the future of the Saudi regime. As National Review’s Lowry observes, “Dealing with these allies will require more cold-bloodedness and calculation than the U.S. has been capable of since the height of the Cold War.” Although Lowry opposes withdrawal of U.S. troops, that is the logical result of cold-blooded analysis. Badgering the Saudis to be more cooperative and to democratize, as has been proposed, is unlikely to succeed, since they would have done so already if they thought it was in their interest.

Expanding America’s military, going to war, and risking civilian casualties as a result of terrorism in order to defend Riyadh costs far more than stability in the Gulf region is worth. Forcibly ousting the House of Sand and imposing a puppet regime, whatever such a strategy’s apparent short-term virtues, would further entangle the U.S. in a virulent, hate-filled region made even more volatile by America’s action. The hysterical international reaction, by friend and foe alike, can easily be imagined.

Should the House of Saud fall or be overrun, Washington would finally be relieved of the moral dead weight of defending that regime. Consumers almost certainly would continue to purchase sufficient oil, if not directly from a hostile Saudi regime, then from other producers in a marketplace that would remain global. Americans would adjust to any higher prices by finding new supplies, developing alternative energy forms, and reducing consumption.

There were many causes of the Sept. 11 atrocity. Some, such as America’s status as a free society whose influence permeates the globe, reflect the country’s very being and cannot and should not be changed. Others–such as Washington’s willingness to make common cause with the morally decrepit, theocratic monarchy in Riyadh–would be of only dubious benefit even if they did not put Americans at risk. The U.S. must not retreat from the world, but it should stop intervening militarily and supporting illegitimate and unpopular regimes where its vital interests are not involved, as in Saudi Arabia.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.

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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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Warmth is Back in Pakistani-Saudi Relations?

Posted on 26 April 2011 by hashimilion

In normal circumstances, a visit by a Pakistani minister to Riyadh would make no news at all. But these are interesting, although not abnormal, times in Pakistan-Saudi relationship.

There is a consensus among political observers that after the inception of the PPP-led government in 2008, Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh had lost the warmth that had defined their partnership for the past six decades.

But the chill has apparently given way to a thaw, the observers think, and Islamabad now seems to be back on the regional radar — for more than one reasons.

The visit is taking place in the backdrop of the so called ‘Arab spring’ which has almost stalled and appears to be going nowhere. Old regional alignments are being revived and new alignments have been emerging on the wider Middle East chessboard as a new cold war between regional heavyweights gets stickier.

The ongoing popular uprising in a number of countries have all lent a new meaning to the Arab-Iran gulf. And Pakistan’s role in the scenario has come under a renewed focus.

Events over the past few years have only helped reinforce and entrench misgivings within the Arab world about the growing Iranian influence. The departure of Saddam Hussain from Baghdad and the fostering of Maliki government in Iraq, has led many to look at the development from a different perspective- the growing Shia influence in the Arab world.

King Abdullah of Jordan once referred to it as “the expanding Shia crescent” in the region. Arab governments feel apprehensive on that account. And recent events seem to have only reinforced their fears.

In Lebanon the influence of the pro-Iran Hezbollah is ascending — at the expense of the Saudi-backed Hariri. This was regarded by many here as a strategic loss.

Riyadh has also been complaining, for long, of the growing Iranian influence in Hamas-ruled Gaza. And to counter Tehran’s growing clout, Riyadh had little option than supporting the pro-West Abbas set-up in the West Bank. Then the upheaval in Egypt turned out to be the last straw on the back of the proverbial camel. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supported Hosni Mubarak till the end.

The US failure to support Mubarak, not only soured the political relations between Riyadh and Washington, but also forced the Kingdom to play its cards rather aggressively. There was no room for further complacency — many felt here.

When the uprising began in Bahrain, everyone here in Riyadh realised the stakes were too high. The option of watching things take its own course was definitely not on the table. Riyadh acted and acted swiftly.

WAR OF WORDS

An explosive war of words erupted between Riyadh and Tehran. Events in Bahrain exacerbated tensions between Saudi Arabia, its Arab allies and Iran, dragging relations between them to its ebb in at least a decade and setting the stage for confrontations elsewhere in the region.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising six Arab states around the Gulf, was also dragged into action. The GCC explicitly warned Iran of dire consequences, if it continued endeavouring to make inroads into the Arab world.

Back-channel diplomacy was also used to send the message in rather clear terms to Tehran. Gulf governments were no more ready to give in and vowed doing everything at their disposal to protect their ‘legitimate interests’.

Hands off the Arab world — was the clear message to Iran. And in the meantime, the Arab world also went into full gear to galvanise support and muscle to block Tehran’s inroads, into what is being termed here the ‘Arab territory’ – through the Shia soft belly of the Arab states.

And it is here that Pakistan and Turkey got into the loop too. For after all these are the two strongest countries — as far as muscle is concerned — within the Sunni world.

A stream of events took place in a short span of time. Saudi National Security Council chief Prince Bandar bin Abdul Aziz came over to Islamabad, immediately after the meeting in Kuwait of President Zardari and Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, the second deputy premier and the long-time interior minister.

And Prince Bandar’s visit was preceded by a visit of the Saudi chief of staff to Pakistan. In the meantime, the Bahraini foreign minister also dashed to Pakistan, despite the ongoing strife in his country.

Something was indeed brewing. Islamabad was again on the radar in Riyadh. Interestingly, the visit of Hina Rabbani Khar to Riyadh was announced after Prince Bandar sent a letter to Prime Minister Gilani — following up on his meetings in Islamabad late last month. In the letter, Prince Bandar reiterated Saudis’ desire to further strengthen relations with Pakistan in all areas of mutual interest.

In the aftermath of Prince Bandar’s regional visit, Riyadh has already signed a security agreement with Malaysia, vowing to enhance the level of security cooperation between the two countries. And after his Beijing trip, Saudi Arabia and China too announced signing an agreement on nuclear cooperation for peaceful purpose.

And Prince Bandar is no ordinary diplomat. He is often regarded as a trouble-shooter for Riyadh. John Hannah, writing in the Foreign Policy magazine, says: ‘Saudi Arabia’s legendary former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is once again a major presence on the world stage.’

And his previous visit to Pakistan did not escape world attention and generated considerable interest. In the same story Hannah says: “More interestingly – and undoubtedly more worrisome – at the end of March, in the wake of the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, Bandar was dispatched to Pakistan, China and India to rally support for the kingdom’s hard line approach to the region’s unrest.

“Bandar’s formidable skills in the service of a Saudi Arabia that feels itself increasingly cornered and unable to rely on US protection is a formula for trouble — made even worse when the likes of Pakistan and China are thrown into the mix.

“No one should forget that, in the late 1980s, it was Bandar who secretly brokered the delivery of Chinese medium-range missiles to the kingdom, totally surprising Washington and nearly triggering a major crisis with Israel. The danger today, of course, is that the Saudis feel sufficiently threatened and alone to engage in similar acts of self-help.

“Would they seek to modernise their ballistic missile force? Even worse, would the kingdom go shopping for nuclear weapons or, at a minimum, invite Pakistan to deploy part of its nuclear arsenal in the country?”

As the Middle East convulses and Iran relentlessly inches closer to achieving a nuclear weapons capability, has that time finally arrived? Even short of these extreme scenarios, other troubling possibilities exist. During his trip to Pakistan, Bandar reportedly discussed contingencies under which thousands of additional Pakistani security forces might be dispatched to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to crush the uprising.

So it appears Pakistan is getting sucked into a regional cold war — and Washington may not mind it this time too. When Hina Rabbani Khar lands in Riyadh today, she can expect the red carpet to roll — once again. The talk of chill seems a distant story.

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Middle East Power Shifts Put Region In State Of Flux

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Paul McGeogh

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Is The Tide Turning Against Arab Freedom?

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

Is a counter-revolutionary tide beginning to favour the “strongmen” of the Arab world, whose regimes appeared a couple of months ago to be faltering under the impact of the Arab Awakening?

From Libya to Bahrain and Syria to Yemen, leaders are clinging on to power despite intense pressure from pro-democracy protesters. And the counter-revolution has so far had one undoubted success: the Bahraini monarchy, backed by troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, has brutally but effectively crushed the protesters in the island kingdom. Pro-democracy leaders are in jail or have fled abroad. The majority Shia population is being terrorised by arbitrary arrests, torture, killings, disappearances, sackings, and the destruction of its mosques and religious places.

In three other countries despots under heavy assault have varying chances of survival. A month ago in Yemen it seemed likely that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was on his way out, but he still has not gone and has mobilised his own demonstrators, gunmen and security forces. Nevertheless the army has publicly split and the probability is that he will finally depart.

In Syria protests are continuing across the country despite frequent shootings, but President Bashar al-Assad will take a lot of displacing because of his determination to stay, the strength of his security apparatus and the tight grip on power of the minority Allawi community.

In Libya Muammar Gaddafi teetered on the verge of defeat two months ago when rebels had seized the east of the country and there were demonstrations in Tripoli. Since then he has rallied a core of support and the rebels in Benghazi would collapse if they did not have the backing of Nato airpower. Nevertheless he is likely to go simply because Britain, France and the US are committed to his departure.

All this is very different from what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, where the military and political establishments believed they could get rid of the regime but keep the rest of the state intact. This could not be done in Libya or Syria because the regime and the state are too intertwined.

In Yemen the state is too weak to get rid of the leader, while in Bahrain democracy means a revolutionary transfer of power from the minority Sunni to the majority Shia. The counter-revolution has other advantages. Its leaders are no longer being caught by surprise. Defenders of the status quo no longer think their defeat is inevitable and have recovered their nerve. They can draw on the loyalty and self-interest of state employees and on sectarian allegiances.

The attitude of outside powers to the overthrow of the status quo differs from country to country. The US was in two minds over support for Mr Mubarak, but did not condemn the Saudi armed intervention in Bahrain or the subsequent terrorising of the Bahraini Shia. Washington has a very different attitude to Arab autocracies in North Africa and far more strategically important Gulf oil states allied to the US. Unspoken also as a factor in US thinking is the degree to which revolution or counter-revolution will help or hinder America’s traditional enemy in Iran.

Only in Libya has the struggle between rebellion and the state turned into outright war. The rebels have plenty of support, but they still only control a quarter of the population and they remain militarily weak. Their most important card is Nato air strikes and even these have not enabled the anti-Gaddafi forces to advance beyond Ajdabiya or break the siege of Misrata.

The counter-revolution is showing that it has more going for it than seemed likely two months ago. This only appears surprising because well-established authoritarian regimes went down so swiftly in Tunisia and Egypt. Police states have had time to rally their formidable forces of repression, but even this may not be enough to quell newly politicised populations which believe they can end autocratic rule.

By Patrick Cockburn

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Saudi Arabia’s Missteps Into Bahrain

Posted on 21 April 2011 by hashimilion

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

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

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

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

Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

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