Friday, February 25, 2011

The Great End Game?

While all eyes are currently focused on Libya, the unrest in Bahrain might be of more interest in the medium term as this revolt may have more bearing on The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What follows may be a long draw of the bow, but the lead up to WWI is not entirely dissimilar to events in the middle east. In the former case, several Balkan nations experienced civil unrest/war until the assassination of the Archduke became the trigger for the powerful nations to mobilize.

In Born of the Great Game - echoes of the past, I attempted to summarize some of the causes of discontent, with a nod to the historical colonial backgrounds behind the current configuration of most countries in the Middle East. Kuwait and Bahrain appear to be typical Colonial British Era constructs, albeit built on the back of some local Royal, but in essence they have a similar strategic role as Singapore or Gibraltar. Namely, they serve as good control points and naval bases along a strategic trade route. The same reason the US has several military bases in Bahrain (see also).

While US relations with 'the elites' of Bahrain appear to have been cozy, The New York times writes that US views on the Shia majority have been somewhat negative.
Dim View of U.S. Posture Toward Bahraini Shiites Is Described
Michael Slackman
As Bahrain’s leaders struggle to hold back a rising popular revolt against their absolute rule, Washington’s posture toward the Shiite majority, which is spearheading the opposition, could prove crucial to future relations with this strategically valuable Persian Gulf nation. The United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based here, helping ensure the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and the gulf, and safeguarding American interests in this volatile region.

Over the years, the military, according to the advisers and the human rights advocate, believed that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his court were reform-minded leaders who could advance democracy and preserve stability. That narrative contrasts sharply with the experience of the Shiites, as documented by human rights groups and some of the military’s own advisers.

“The problem has been that we have been doing everything we can to cuddle up to the Khalifas and have been consciously ignoring at best the situation of Bahraini Shiites,” said Gwenyth Todd, a former political adviser to the Navy in Bahrain from 2004 to 2007.

“The military here always took a position against the human rights community,” Mr. Rajab said. “The U.S. did not build up any good relations with the opposition. They always categorize them as fundamentalist or extremist in their reports, in order to justify their political position in support of the government.”

“If the United States does not modify its policy now to take into account the Shia, there is a danger that worries me, if we are seen as backing the government to the end,” said a United States government official in Bahrain who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
Several sources cite Saudi nervousness at the fall of long time ally Hosni Mubarak, whom they may host as a guest, but also the fracas in their small neighbor Bahrain.
The nervousness here is mainly due to the presence in Suadi Arabia of a small community of Shia Mulsims in the East neighboring Bahrain. The animosity is due to the long standing conflict between Arabs and Persians (ie Iran), the latter being predominantly of the Shia branch of Islam. Possibly a second reason for the nervousness is that Bahrain may serve as a small microcosm of sorts for the situation in Saudi Arabia itself.
Standing by their man...

Unrest Encircles Saudis, Stoking Sense of Unease
Robert F Worth, New York Times

Saudi Arabia is far less vulnerable to democracy movements than other countries in the region, thanks to its vast oil wealth, its powerful religious establishment and the popularity of its king.

But the country’s rulers were shaken by the forced departure of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a close and valued ally. They are anxiously monitoring the continuing protests in neighboring Bahrain and in Yemen, with which Saudi Arabia shares a porous 1,100-mile border. Those concerns come on top of long-festering worries about the situation in Iraq, where the toppling of Saddam Hussein has empowered Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival and nemesis.

Standing by their other man.

“The Saudis are completely encircled by the problem, from Jordan to Iraq to Bahrain to Yemen,3” said one Arab diplomat, voicing a view that is common in the halls of power in Riyadh, the capital. “Saudi Arabia is the last heavyweight U.S. ally in the region facing Iran.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with diplomatic protocol.

The Saudis tend to see any threat to the established order in the region as a gain for their nemesis Iran...

Saudi officials have tried to appear unruffled. ...Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the interior minister, invited a group of prominent intellectuals and journalists in Riyadh to discuss the recent turmoil. He struck a confident tone, saying that Saudi Arabia is “immune” to the protests because it is guided by religious law that its citizens will not question.

Don’t compare us to Egypt or Tunisia,1” the prince said, according to one of the attendees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was meant to be off the record. But the attendee said he and others were skeptical, and suspected the prince was merely hiding his anxieties.

The Saudi and pan-Arab news media have been cautiously supportive of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, with a number of opinion articles welcoming the call for nonviolent change. That may change now that protests and violence have seized Bahrain ... a far more threatening prospect, in part because of the sectarian dimensions of the protests. Bahrain’s restive population is mostly Shiite, and is adjacent to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, an important oil-producing area where the Shiite population has long complained of unfair treatment by the puritanical Saudi religious establishment.

Although Saudi Arabia shares many of the conditions that bred the democracy uprisings — including autocracy, corruption and a large population of educated young people without access to suitable jobs — its people are cushioned by oil wealth and culturally resistant to change2.

“Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University. “It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.”

1. Here the Prince sounds remarkably like Gadaffi

2. "its people are cushioned by oil wealth and culturally resistant to change"
Many of the internal frictions within the country are a result of extremist Wahhabists wanting to UNDO the changes that have occurred (modernisation, education of women, kick out the foreigners etc). And the oil wealth may be great for the extended Royal Family and hangers on, but there are a large number of poor and very poorly treated foreign (Muslim) workers.
[Edit 2/3/11]
3. Since this was written the circle now includes Oman. The BBC adds to the other observations here about the situation in Saudi.
In many ways, Saudi Arabia has by far the most serious problems of all the Gulf states - a large, youthful and sometimes restive population chafing under an ageing leadership.

There is unemployment and corruption, little political development and few personal freedoms. There has even been unrest in areas such as Najran and the oil-rich Eastern Province, where the minority Shia population is concentrated.

But many Saudis are unhappy with the grants the king made on his return - an estimated $36bn (£22bn) spread across social programmes, job creation packages and higher salaries.

Adding to the mix is an increasingly infirm group of senior princes, with King Abdullah said to still be not entirely well following an operation in December.
[end edit]

There are several sources of internal tension within Saudi Arabia: corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism. The Royal Family is not immune from internecine disputes - the second Kingdom of Saudi Arabia coming to an end and the family being ejected to Kuwait becuase of it (1, 2). Interestingly, the Noble House of Saud took no part in the military adventures that liberated the Arab people from the Turks during WWI - preferring instead to wait for the right time to install themselves as rulers of the peninsula.

There is also the matter of the unholy holy alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi/Salafi sect who are bitter historical enemies of the Shia. Outside of Saudi this sect is frequently considered extreme or even heretical. However, the Wahhabi grant 'religious legitimacy' for the Royal family and control the Islamic doctrine within the country, even while members of the Royal family are considered corrupt by many of its followers. The military have attempted several coups and the 1979 storming of the Holy Sanctuary in Mecca led to many public beheadings - tribal societies have long memories.

Tariq Ali and Guy Rundle have some interesting views. In The Age Tariq makes several important observations:
US hegemony in Mid-East dented but not destroyed

The big worry is that Bahrain could lead to a democratic upheaval in Saudi Arabia.
The absurd, if much-vaunted, neo-conservative notion that Arabs or Muslims were hostile to democracy has disappeared like parchment in fire.

Those who promoted such ideas appear the most unhappy: Israel and its lobbyists in Euro-America; the arms industry, hurriedly trying to sell as much as it can while it can (the British Prime Minister acting as a merchant of death at the Abu Dhabi arms fair); and the beleaguered rulers of Saudi Arabia, wondering whether the disease will spread to their tyrannical kingdom.... where will the royal family seek refuge? They must be aware that their patrons [ie the US] will dump them without ceremony and claim they always favoured democracy.

Like Europeans in 1848, the Arab people are fighting against foreign domination ... against the violation of their democratic rights; against an elite blinded by its own illegitimate wealth - and in favour of economic justice. This is different from the first wave of Arab nationalism... The Egyptians under Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and were invaded by Britain, France and Israel - but that was without Washington's permission, and the three were thus compelled to withdraw.

[Muammar Gaddafi's] Saudi enemies have always insisted that the coup [that brought him to power] was masterminded by British intelligence, just like the one that propelled Idi Amin to power in Uganda. Gaddafi's professed nationalism, modernism and radicalism were all for show... [it] never extended to his own people. Despite the oil wealth, he refused to educate Libyans or provide them with a health service or subsidised housing, squandering money on absurd projects abroad

The Arab revolutions, triggered by the economic crisis, have mobilised mass movements, but not every aspect of life has been called into question. Social, political and religious rights are becoming the subject of fierce controversy in Tunisia, but not elsewhere yet. No new political parties have emerged, an indication that the electoral battles to come will be contests between Arab liberalism and conservatism in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood, modelling itself on Islamists in power in Turkey and Indonesia.

The big worry for Euro-America is Bahrain. If its rulers are removed, it will be difficult to prevent a democratic upheaval in Saudi Arabia. Can Washington afford to let that happen? Or will it deploy armed force to keep the Wahhabi kleptocrats in power?

The observation about Gaddafi and the coup are interesting in light of the softly softly treatment of the great moral stalwart Tony Blair. [Edit 2/3/11: see also Blair signed secret deals with dictator]

Crikey picks up on the silence of the US right as civil unrest has progressed from "Evil, Islamist/Shiite anti-Western" to "Bahrain? Christ, there’s a US fleet there. It’s less a country than a jetty."
The Right’s gradual and encroaching silence about the Arab uprisings is a wonder to behold. On National Review, the US conservative website, which ran wall-to-wall coverage of the Iranian protests in 2009, and berated the left for not praising the brave Iranians, there is barely a word — just as there has been barely a word on Bahrain.

Why such reticence? The bravery of the Libyans is immense, inspiring. And they appear to be winning against a heavily armed regime whose fearsome power is crumbling …

Ah, of course. It is precisely because the Libyan uprising has occurred at all that it makes so little appearance on right-wing radar. For it kicks away another prop from the neocon argument about the Iraq invasion, and intervention more generally — that some regimes are so heavily armed that a people’s liberation must be done on their behalf. This was fall-back position No.2 in the war, as I recall, after the WMDs thing.
If the price of oil rises significantly and induces another global recession, will the cushioning oil wealth (in devaluing $US) continue to placate everyone (see: The Saudi solution to social unrest: buy peace) in the Kingdom? How will support of corrupt "foreign" dictators play in public opinion? And what about the US military presence on the peninsula?

It's a different venue, but a few wrong moves and a modern Archduke may be all that's required. No wonder people are nervous.

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