Saudi/US strains show as Bahrain declares a “state of emergency”
posted at 1:37 pm on March 15, 2011 by Bruce McQuain
Yes it’s another fine mess. Of course while the Japanese tragedy and the struggles with their nuclear power plants has sucked all the air out of news elsewhere, there is, in fact much news elsewhere. And not the least of it is coming out of the Middle East where Saudi troops, as a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), moved into Bahrain ostensibly to “guard government facilities”.
The GCC is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. It was created in 1991 (think Iraq invasion of Kuwait), the 6 members share common borders and are committed by their charter to help each other in times of need.
The action by the GCC, as you might imagine, is in direct conflict with how the White House has indicated it would prefer the situation in Bahrain be resolved. Obviously that’s not carried much weight with the GCC.
The move created another quandary for the Obama administration, which obliquely criticized the Saudi action without explicitly condemning the kingdom, its most important Arab ally. The criticism was another sign of strains in the historically close relationship with Riyadh, as the United States pushes the country to make greater reforms to avert unrest.
Other symptoms of stress seem to be cropping up everywhere.
Saudi officials have made no secret of their deep displeasure with how President Obama handled the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, charging Washington with abandoning a longtime ally. They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls “universal values,” including peaceful protests.
The GCC move has prompted both Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense and Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, to cancel upcoming visits to Saudi Arabia.
Again, the apparent genesis of these tensions appear to be related to the way the US handled Egypt. It has caused the Saudis and other GCC nations to trust the US less than before:
The latest tensions between Washington and Riyadh began early in the crisis when King Abdullah told President Obama that it was vital for the United States to support Mr. Mubarak, even if he began shooting protesters. Mr. Obama ignored that counsel. “They’ve taken it personally,” said one senior American familiar with the conversations, “because they question what we’d do if they are next.”
Since then, the American message to the Saudis, the official said, is that “no one can be immune,” and that the glacial pace of reforms that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in since 2003 must speed up.
Obviously the Saudi’s have their own ideas of how to handle this and apparently aren’t taking kindly to the US attempting to dictate how it should handle it’s internal affairs. And, given the treatment of Mubarak, the Saudi rulers can’t help but feel that they’re just as likely to be thrown under the bus if protests were to escalate as was Mubarak.
Consequently, they’ve decided to go their own way and handle it with force within the GCC while throwing money at the problem within the Saudi Kingdom. Speaking of the latter:
One of President Obama’s top advisers described the moves as more in a series of “safety valves” the Saudis open when pressure builds; another called the subsidies “stimulus funds motivated by self-preservation.”
Saudi officials, who declined to comment for this article to avoid fueling talk of divisions between the allies, said that the tensions had been exaggerated and that Americans who criticized the pace of reforms did not fully appreciate the challenges of working in the kingdom’s ultraconservative society.
Of course the difference between their “stimulus funds” and ours is they actually have the money. But it is ironic to see the adviser describe “stimulus funds” in those terms isn’t it? The actual point here should be evident though. The GCC has rejected the “Bahrain model” as the desired method of addressing the unrest. As you recall that was the “regime alteration” model, v. the regime change model.
So where does that leave us?
Demonstrating to Iran that the Saudi-American alliance remains strong has emerged as a critical objective of the Obama administration. King Abdullah, who was widely quoted in the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks as warning that the United States had to “cut off the head of the snake” in Iran, has led the effort to contain Iran’s ambitions to become a major regional power. In the view of White House officials, any weakness or chaos inside Saudi Arabia would be exploited by Iran.
For that reason, several current and former senior American intelligence and regional experts warned that in the months ahead, the administration must proceed delicately when confronting the Saudis about social and political reforms.
”Over the years, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been fraught with periods of tension over the strategic partnership,” said Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a public policy organization. “Post-September 11 was one period, and the departure of Mubarak may be another, when they question whether we are fair-weather friends.”
That phone keeps ringing at 3am, doesn’t it?
Questions: given the “critical objective” as outlined above, is it smart to cancel visits by SecDef and SecState? Doesn’t that possibly signal lack of support for the Saudis and play into the perception the US is a fair-weather friend? Doesn’t that promise the possibility of more actions the Saudi’s might take that will be contra to the US’s advice? Isn’t now the time to be going in there and making the case with top leaders and showing support while trying to twist a few arms to ramp down the situation instead of canceling?
Here’s a little insight into the Iranian connection mentioned above:
The entrance of foreign forces, including Saudi troops and those from other Gulf nations, threatened to escalate a local political conflict into a regional showdown; on Tuesday, Tehran, which has long claimed that Bahrain is historically part of Iran, branded the move “unacceptable.”
“The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue,” Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a news conference in Tehran, according to state-run media.
Even as predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran pursues a determined crackdown against dissent at home, Tehran has supported the protests led by the Shiite majority in Bahrain.
“People have some legitimate demands, and they are expressing them peacefully,” Mr. Memanparast said. “It should not be responded to violently.”
He added, “We expect their demands be fulfilled through correct means.”
You have to love their chutzpah. A little analysis:
The Gulf Cooperation Council was clearly alarmed at the prospect of a Shiite political victory in Bahrain, fearing that it would inspire restive Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to protest as well. The majority of the population in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern provinces is Shiite, and there have already been small protests there.
“If the opposition in Bahrain wins, then Saudi loses,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “In this regional context, the decision to move troops into Bahrain is not to help the monarchy of Bahrain, but to help Saudi Arabia itself .”
So that’s the lens by which much of what happens should be viewed – two regional rivals, each aligned with a different sect of Islam as well as different ethnic groups (Arab v. Persian) attempting to take advantage of a situation in the case of Iran, or trying to prevent change that would favor Iran in the case of Saudi Arabia.
The possible result?
An adviser to the United States government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media, agreed. “Iran’s preference was not to get engaged because the flow of events was in their direction,” he said. “If the Saudi intervention changes the calculus, they will be more aggressive.”
Of course they have their own problems at home, but Iran will probably, at least covertly, try to support the opposition in Bahrain. It is obviously perceived to be in their best interest to do so.
The primary reason that Bahrain has ended up asking the GCC in is because the recommended way to resolve the crisis, negotiate with the oppositions, was rejected by the opposition. As I mentioned in the earlier post about regime realignment, the entire process hinged on the opposition being willing to engage in honest, good faith negotiations with the government. It appears the Bahranian royal family at least made an attempt to do the things necessary as advised by the US:
The royal family allowed thousands of demonstrators to camp at Pearl Square. It freed some political prisoners, allowed an exiled opposition leader to return and reshuffled the cabinet. And it called for a national dialogue.
But the concessions — after the killings — seemed to embolden a movement that went from calling for a true constitutional monarchy to demanding the downfall of the monarchy. The monarchy has said it will consider instituting a fairly elected Parliament, but it insisted that the first step would be opening a national dialogue — a position the opposition has rejected, though it was unclear whether the protesters were speaking with one voice.
Indeed. But it doesn’t matter now, does it? Events have apparently moved beyond that. The likelihood of this simmering down to the point that such negotiations and dialogue could occur seem remote – especially with Iran in the background keeping this all stirred up.
We live in interesting times.
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