This March is a critical month in Yemen's political transition since 2011, when millions of peaceful street protesters ended 33 years of rule by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the coming week, the country's transitional leader, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is scheduled to inaugurate the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Beginning on March 18, the NDC is expected to hold a series of meetings with more than 500 representatives, who will attempt to find solutions to several pressing problems for Yemen. What hangs in the balance is nothing less than Yemeni national unity. The conference was supposed to start last year after Hadi was elevated to the post of president by public referendum in February 2012. For the sake of a successful national dialogue, it was recognized the NDC had to take place under a large tent encompassing all the major political parties and social factions. Building this tent has proven difficult. The process was postponed more than once because some parties refused to accept a predetermined number of seats, while others refused to participate under any circumstances.
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When Saudi activists Abdullah al-Hamed and Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani headed to the Criminal Court in Riyadh on Saturday morning, they knew what was waiting for them. The two founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) have been on trial since June 2012, and the judge was expected to hand down his ruling at the session scheduled on Saturday. As the defendants arrived to the court, they were received by more than 100 activists who came to show their support and attend the hearing which was also marked by a heavy presence of security officers with truncheons hanging from their belts.
The government has been accusing al-Hamed and al-Qahtani with a series of charges that include founding an unlicensed human rights organization, seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder, undermining national unity, breaking allegiance to the ruler, disobeying the ruler, and questioning the integrity of officials. These are considered serious charges in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where political dissent in not usually tolerated. It does not allow protests, political parties, or unions. Saudi Arabia is also a main ally of the United States in the Middle East.
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For almost two years, since February 17, 2011, Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province has seen a protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring that called for democracy, dignity, and more rights for Saudi Arabia's disenfranchised Shiite minority. The killing of protesters and the arrest and shooting of key oppositional clerics have spurred three cycles of protests. A renewed wave of protests and funerals was set in motion by the killing of 18-year old Ahmad Al Matar on December 27, 2012 in Qatif. Much of the escalation was blamed on the security forces, and especially on the long-serving governor of the Eastern Province, Muhammad bin Fahd.
And on Monday, January 14, the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz issued a decree relieving the governor of his duties after 28 years "upon his request" and appointing Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as the new governor of the Eastern Province.
At first glance the Gulf monarchies look stable, at least compared to the broader region. In reality, however, the political and economic structures that underpin these highly autocratic states are coming under increasing pressure, and broad swathes of citizens are making hitherto unimaginable challenges to the ruling elites.
These six monarchies -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman -- have faced down a number of different opposition movements over the years. However, for the most part, these movements have not been broad-based and have tended to represent only narrow sections of the indigenous populations. Moreover, given their various internal and external survival strategies -- including distributive economic systems and overseas soft power accumulation -- the incumbent regimes have generally been in strong, confident positions, and have usually been able to placate or sideline any opposition before it could gain too much traction. In most cases the Gulf monarchies have also been very effective at demonizing opponents, either branding them as foreign-backed fifth columns, as religious fundamentalists, or even as terrorists. In turn this has allowed rulers and their governments to portray themselves to the majority of citizens and most international observers as safe, reliable upholders of the status quo, and thus far preferable to any dangerous and unpredictable alternatives. Significantly, when modernizing forces have begun to impact their populations -- often improving communications between citizens or their access to education -- the Gulf monarchies have been effective at co-option, often bringing such forces under the umbrella of the state or members of ruling families, and thus managing to apply a mosaic model of traditional loyalties alongside modernization even in the first few years of the 21st century.
More recently, however, powerful opposition movements have emerged that have proved less easy to contain.
In a recent video entitled "Days with the Imam" in which he recalls Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri declares that the founder of al Qaeda had been a "member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arabian Peninsula" before he was evicted in the 1980s. He was expelled because of his insistence on fighting alongside the mujahidin in Afghanistan while the Brotherhood allowed him to bring aid to Pakistan but didn't want him to go any further. Zawahiri's claims seem to have caused some embarrassment among the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), judging from how quick MB spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan was to refute them.
One reason for the embarrassment may be that, with a Muslim Brotherhood president recently elected in Egypt, the organization is eager to reassure the West of its moderate Islamist orientation and is therefore afraid of anything associating it with al Qaeda or jihadism. Yet Zawahiri's declarations shouldn't be seen as too problematic in this respect, since they portray the MB as an organization unwilling to let its members take part in physical jihad, even against the Soviets in Afghanistan at a time when the issue was far less controversial than it would later become. A more likely reason for the Brotherhood's distress, however, is that Zawahiri reveals what among Saudi Islamist insiders is an open secret but remains little known outside those circles: that there exists a Saudi Arabian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The arrest of the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in his hometown of Awwamiya in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province on Sunday afternoon, July 8, has been long in the making. In some ways many observers had been wondering why he had not been arrested earlier, since he had become the spiritual leader of the protest movement in Eastern Saudi Arabia and his outspoken views put him clearly at odds with the Saudi ruling family. But while Nimr al-Nimr repeatedly called upon the local youth to be ready to die as martyrs, he urged them not to "return bullets with bullets" but use peaceful means instead. He acknowledged that Shiites would suffer much more if they were to attack the overwhelming firepower of the Saudi regime, and therefore called for peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience.
The leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait) will meet in May to discuss creating a closer federal unit among the states. The idea of closer integration was first put forward in December 2011 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and recently fleshed out in a speech in the name of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. The potential benefits of creating a $1.4 trillion economic area of 42 million people were championed, as were the potential benefits of close cooperation and coordination in defense and security policy. While all this makes sense superficially, it is all but impossible to see how a meaningful GCC Union could take place.
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With the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend ten days away, international attention is once again focusing on the critical situation in the troubled island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. Daily clashes continue between protesters and the security services, and the beleaguered Al-Khalifa regime faces a growing international backlash over its treatment of jailed human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is reportedly nearing death after hunger-striking for more than 60 days in protest at the continuing detention of activists in Bahrain. Al-Khawaja's declining health and the imminent Formula One Grand Prix ensure that the spotlight will once again be trained on Bahrain, if only for a few days this April.
The "Arab Spring" is now over one year old. In much of the popular analysis over the past year the term "Arab Spring" has become the defining characteristic of the "new" Middle East emerging from decades of authoritarian and repressive rule. However, one should be cautious about inflating the importance of the democratic uprisings in several Arab countries in shaping the future contours of the Middle East. This caution applies especially to exaggerating both the prospects of democracy -- particularly the unhindered linear transition to representative rule -- in the Arab world and the role of major Arab powers in determining political outcomes in the Middle East in the short and medium-term future.
On March 11, 2011, Saudi Arabian activists called for a "Day of Rage" wishing to bring the rising tide of protest to the kingdom. Only one person showed up. But underneath the quiet surface, some things have changed in Saudi Arabia and dissent is brewing. One significant change is that activists can, sometimes successfully, challenge arbitrary detention in administrative court. The second change is that in order to avoid such challenges, the security services now level formal charges against detained dissidents and bring them to trial for their activism. In a country without written criminal law, forcing the government to submit to judicial process gives dissident grievances a legitimate platform.
The official Saudi response to the attempted protests showed that the government would not cede an inch of political space to popular calls for reform, choosing instead in February and March 2011 to placate Saudi citizens by doling out an estimated $135 billion in subsidies. The ruling Saud family, whose senior members occupy not only the throne but also key ministries and all provincial governorships, clamped down early on dissent. But for all government efforts to project an air of normality and suppress protests, popular displays of discontent continue.
At least seven young Shiite Muslims have been shot dead and several dozen wounded by security forces in Eastern Saudi Arabia in recent months. While details of the shootings remain unclear, and the ministry of interior claims those shot were attacking the security forces, mass protests have followed the funerals of the deceased. These events are only the latest developments in the decades-long struggle of the Saudi Shiites, which has taken on a new urgency in the context of 2011's regional uprisings -- but have been largely ignored by mainstream media.
The events of the Arab Spring have heightened long-standing tensions in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Just three days after large-scale protests started in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, protests began in the Eastern Province, which is a 30-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Saudi interior ministry vowed to crush the protests with an "Iron Fist" and has unleashed a media-smear campaign against protests and the Shiites in general. While protests subsided over the summer, they started again in October and have become larger ever since, leading to an ever more heavy-handed response from the security forces.
This repressive response, with distinct rhetorical echoes of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, poses an awkward challenge to recent Saudi foreign policy. The protests of the people in the Eastern Province are as legitimate as the protests in Syria. If Saudi Arabia does not respond to these calls for reform at home how can it seriously claim to rise to the defense of democracy in Syria? The crackdown in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has given the Iranian and Syrian regime, as well as Shiite political movements in Lebanon and Iraq, a useful rhetorical gambit to push back against their regional rivals.
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Walking last month into the Shabaab al-Sumud tent in Yemen's Maydan Taghayr -- Change Square -- I was greeted by eager faces and talkative qat chewers. "We love Americans," a Houthi supporter nodded his head vigorously, and, in doing so, revealed an enormous poster on the tent flap behind him on which the group's infamous slogan was inscribed: "God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, a curse on the Jews." Seeing my eyes widen, he offered, "We hate American policies, not people. The roots of the slogan lie in America's war on the Iraqi people and support for Israeli policies against the Palestinians. Let me tell you what it is that the Houthis want..."
Even the dedicated observer of Yemeni affairs can be forgiven for not fully grasping the complexity of the country's political milieu during this shaky revolutionary period. Researching Yemeni politics, one often feels stuck in an intractable game of telephone. Part of this is the grammar of how information spreads in the Middle East, which is often informal and decentralized. But part of it can be related to the political ecology of the country and the palpable gap between the geographical center and periphery. The history of the political evolution of the Shiite "Houthi" rebels of Saada province is no different. Unraveling what the Houthis want may indicate how other independent and marginalized groups, like the southern separatists, will navigate a post-Saleh Yemen. The political integration of the Houthis is one among the myriad problems faced by newly minted President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, who underwent his official installation ceremony today in Sanaa. An assessment of Houthi interests also suggests a larger difference than we realize between the opposition movements in cities like Sanaa, Taiz, and Aden, and the supporters they claim to represent in rural areas.
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In 2007 and 2009 Saudi King Abdullah capped a decade of legal and judicial reforms in his country by reorganizing the judiciary and ordering that Saudi Arabia follow the step that virtually all other states in the region did long ago by codifying its laws -- committing to paper a comprehensive compendium of the operative laws in the kingdom. Since that date, however, his order has been neither challenged nor implemented. Why is codification of law seen as such a dramatic step in Saudi Arabia? And why does the king seem incapable of making it happen?
Women are at a crossroads in the Middle East and North Africa. This is widely reflected in the current battles over the adoption of quotas aimed at improving women's chances of being elected into parliaments. Although women's quotas were introduced as early as 1979 in Egypt, there are new efforts underway in the Middle East to implement them. Last year, Tunisia adopted a law requiring that party lists alternate between men and women. In a more restrained manner, Libya recently drafted an election law that gives women only 10 percent of the seats. However, the struggle for quotas has also met with resistance as in Egypt, which abandoned a 2010 quota law altogether that would have ensured the presence of 64 women in the parliament.
Quotas are not only being adopted in the legislative arena in the Middle East, they are being entertained in government as well. Recently, the Iraqi cabinet approved a quota system that requires women to make up half of all hires in the ministries of health and education and to account for 30 percent of hires at all other ministries.
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It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011. That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline. In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.
First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).
And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:
On Monday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe stated that freezing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's assets should be discussed as soon as possible. Such an assets freeze has been an action pushed by nationwide protesters for months and is widely seen as the first step that must be taken if Yemen's 10-month long political stalemate is to come to an end.
After being tricked into believing that Saleh would sign a Gulf Cooperation Council brokered power transfer deal three times, the international community has finally realized that Saleh has no intention of leaving power until at least 2013, the end of his official presidential term of office. Other than using language to "condemn" the killing of peaceful protesters, an ineffectual U.N. resolution, and asking nicely, an assets freeze would be the first real attempt to put pressure on President Saleh to step down.
In the media tumult following the charges that elements of the Iranian regime sought to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, the prospect of a faltering regional status quo has become a frightening reality. However, while the historic and regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has unquestionably intensified, especially following the Saudi-led invasion of Bahrain this past spring to suppress majority Shi'a protests, recent events obscure the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia increasingly share a growing economic market and great power ally in China. China's gradual realignment from squarely backing Iran to courting Saudi Arabia in recent years heralds a geostrategic shift in Chinese foreign policy and marks the stirrings of a Chinese "twin-pillar" policy in the Gulf. Yet the U.S. should not necessarily view this shift as a threat to its strategic national interests in the Gulf. Rather, Chinese engagement with these two regional poles of influence could actually prove beneficial for the U.S. as it begins to rethink its regional strategy and seek ways to maintain stability without a large military presence.
The naming of Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud as Saudi Arabia's new crown prince was no great surprise, but has nonetheless highlighted ongoing questions about the generation gap in Saudi Arabia, and about the capacity for the country's political system to evolve in a changing Middle East. Prince Nayef, who has been the Interior Minister since 1975 and who was appointed to the second deputy prime minister in 2009, had long been seen as the most likely successor to the previous crown prince, Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud. After King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud, Prince Nayef is the most senior of the surviving sons of the country's founder, King Abdel-Aziz, who passed away in 1953. Saudi Arabia has had five kings since then, all brothers. Of course, this generation is aging; Prince Sultan was at least 83 when he died and Prince Nayef is 78. One of the biggest questions about Saudi Arabia's future is how it will manage the transition to the next generation of princes. King Abdel-Aziz had 37 sons; the grandsons are far more numerous.
"Why do you guys in the West keep falling for the same old tricks?" Yusif Al-Ra'adi, a lean-looking student who passed up his studies in engineering back in May to join his country's uprising, told me as we sat in the shade of a sheet of blue tarpaulin in Sana'a's Change Square. "He [Saleh] has no intention whatsoever of stepping down, it's a dance, this is a political agreement that really means nothing to us."
Such skepticism throws cold water on the hopes raised by Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh's decree this week granting his deputy the right to sign a deal with the opposition for a transfer of power. Saleh is currently in Saudi Arabia recovering from chest wounds he sustained in a booby-trap bombing of his palace in early June. He surprised observers with an announcement that Yemen's Vice President, Abed Mansour Hadi, could now sign a deal drawn up by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which offers Saleh immunity in exchange for early presidential elections. A peaceful way out of this year's bout of bloody demonstrations and swirling financial and political turmoil might still be on the cards.
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The killing of a 14-year-old boy by police on the island of Sitra on Aug. 31 has reignited simmering tensions in Bahrain. Ali Jawad Ahmad died while attending an Eid al-Fitr demonstration, one of numerous flashpoints in the daily confrontations between anti-government protesters and the security services. His death triggered widespread protests that rapidly spread to most Shiite villages on the Bahraini archipelago. Some 10,000 people attended his funeral and repeated calls for the overthrow of the ruling Al-Khalifa family.
Groups of demonstrators also returned to central Manama where they attempted to reclaim the site of Pearl Roundabout -- now a traffic junction after it was bulldozed by the regime in March. Riot police beat them back with tear gas, but the symbolism of the attempted return to the heart of the pro-democracy movement that threatened to topple the Al-Khalifa in March was clear.
Would the monarchs of the Holy Alliance have supported a democratic uprising anywhere in Europe in 1820? Would Prince Metternich have backed nationalist movements in 1848? Of course not. But their supposed reactionary analogue in the Arab upheavals of 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, has now come out, forcefully if indirectly, for a regime change in Syria. That makes the third time during this Arab spring that Saudi Arabia, the supposed champion of the status-quo, has thrown an Arab leader under the bus. Bashar al-Asad now joins Muammar al-Qaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh in the club of Arab leaders Saudi Arabia can do without.
The immediate reaction to the Saudi recall of its ambassador to Damascus in many news outlets (including the BBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post) emphasized the incongruity (and the hypocrisy) of an absolute monarchy that had sent troops to Bahrain to put down popular protests calling on a fellow dictator to stop oppressing his people. But that is the wrong frame in which to understand Saudi Arabia's regional policy during this time of Arab upheaval. The right frame is the regional balance of power battle between Riyadh and Tehran. In that context, the Saudi move against the Asad regime makes much more sense.
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After six months of ongoing peaceful protests, a fracturing of the armed forces, and ongoing violence in numerous parts of the country, Yemenis face increasingly dire conditions each day. And yet they keep showing up. While non-democratic (nay, anti-democratic) neighbors fitfully engage in mediation efforts while also giving refuge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. continues to interpret the crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. Concerned about the risk of an emboldened al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the U.S. has offered tepid support for the aspirations of the country's majority, pinned its hopes on an atavistic autocrat, and opted to increase controversial drone attacks in some of the most unstable parts of the country.
This strategy is mistaken. It presupposes a narrow understanding of U.S. interests centered on counterterrorism, which I and others have argued against elsewhere. But it also assumes that working against the revolutionary aspirations of millions of Yemenis is, in fact, the best way to counter the threat of AQAP. Supporting the development of a democratically-constituted Yemen and offering support to its leaders as they build legitimate state institutions makes more sense. This Friday, the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, which is advocating for Saleh's immediate transfer of powers and the formation of a transitional council, has issued a call for a march in pursuit of a "Civil State." Yemenis from across ideological, occupational, generational, and class lines will gather around the country to demand a state accountable to its rights-bearing citizens. It will be the twenty-fifth Friday on which they have done so, camped out in the squares for the weeks in between.
To most observers witnessing events in Syria, the goal is clear-cut: end the killing, support democracy, and change the Assad regime -- hoping it will be removed or reformed to an unrecognizable degree. State actors looking at the same reality will often bring a different set of considerations into play, especially if they happen to be neighboring Syria. Israel has had a complicated relationship with the popular upheaval in its northern neighbor -- and, indeed, with the Baathist Damascus regime in general over the years.
As of Sunday, that complexity entered a new dimension. Of course the popular uprising in Syria is not about Israel, nor will it be particularly determined by Israel's response. Nevertheless, Israel's leaders, like those elsewhere in the region, will have to position themselves in relation to this changing environment, and this will, in part, impact Syria's options.
On Sunday, June 5, marking Naksa Day (the Arab "setback" in the 1967 war), protesters -- mostly Palestinian refugees and their descendents -- marched to the Israel/Syria disengagement line representing the border between Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. According to reports up to 22 unarmed Syrian-Palestinian protesters were killed when Israeli forces apparently resorted to live fire (Israeli laid mines may also have been detonated and may have caused causalities, the exact unraveling of events remains sketchy). In most respects, this Sunday's events were a repeat performance of the outcome of May 15's Nakba Day commemorations (which Palestinians mark as the anniversary of their catastrophe in 1948).
Saudi Arabia has remained fairly quiet during the recent months of Arab uprisings. A few demonstrations did take place, mostly in the Eastern Province, but never gathered more than a couple of thousands. As for the Facebook calls for a "Saudi revolution" on March 11, they had no real impact on the ground. Some observers found this surprising, given the fact that many of the causes of revolutions elsewhere in the region exist in Saudi Arabia. There is corruption, repression, and, despite the country's wealth, socioeconomic problems that particularly affect the youth -- it is said that at least 25 percent of Saudis below age 30 are unemployed.
Some observers argued that nothing had happened, or even could happen, in Saudi Arabia because the kingdom possesses two extraordinary resources in huge quantities. This first is a symbolic resource, religion, through the regime's alliance with the official Wahhabi religious establishment, while the second resource is a material one, oil. These resources, however, have their limits. The real reason that Saudi Arabia has not seen major protests is that the Saudi regime has effectively co-opted the Sahwa, the powerful Islamist network which would have to play a major role in any sustained mobilization of protests.
The reaction in the GCC monarchies to the uprisings coursing through the Arab world has leaned heavily toward the politics of patronage. Saudi Arabia, Oman, and even Bahrain have met political challenges in part with lavish financial inducements to key sectors of society. Such soft counter-revolutionary strategies seem astute in the short run, as they buy allegiance instead of breeding resentment, and allow regimes to avoid the international opprobrium which comes with undue violence. In the long run, however, they threaten to undermine not only the fiscal sustainability of GCC regimes, but also their strategies to integrate their national populations into a diversifying economy.
U.S.-Saudi relations are in crisis. King Abdullah thinks the Obama administration's love of universal freedoms is naive and inappropriate for conservative Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, when the big threat is Iran. Washington is upset about the king's alleged offer to bail out Egypt if Hosni Mubarak had decided to cling to power. And there's also the oil factor: With U.S. gasoline prices climbing and despite Riyadh's promises to make up for lost Libyan hydrocarbon sales, the Saudis "throttled back production in mid-March," according to the International Energy Agency.
So when Tom Donilon, the U.S. national security advisor, sat down with the aging Saudi monarch on April 12, there were indeed "a number of issues of common interest" to be reviewed at the meeting, as the Saudi Press Agency dryly reported. Having initially warmed to the newly elected U.S. president, Barack Obama -- who in return offered apparently obsequious deference -- King Abdullah feels let down by the White House on pretty well everything from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Iran, and especially Iran.
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Saudi Arabia has thus far been spared the agitations for change that toppled Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak and that are now pressuring Bahraini and Yemeni leaders. King Abdullah's popularity among the majority of Saudis accounts for much of the lack of impetus for political overhaul in the kingdom. Abdullah, however, is 87 and unhealthy. When he dies, what will happen to the country?
Instead of speculating about who might succeed Abdullah and how Saudi Arabia will change as a result, it's more constructive to analyze how Saudi Arabia has conducted itself amidst regional unrest and understand what this says about senior Saudi leadership.
While US and international attention is focused largely elsewhere in the region, especially Libya, the violent crackdown against protestors in the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain may well pose a bigger threat to the entire region's stability. The Bahrain situation is exposing long simmering tensions and rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and carries the danger that it will trigger the next regional war. Such a scenario would likely draw in the United States at a time when its relationships with key allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, are under strain. Urgent action is therefore needed to de-escalate the situation in Bahrain and create the trust necessary for the government and opposition to start a much delayed national dialogue that charts the future of the country.
Worryingly, a senior unidentified Saudi official has described the mission of Saudi and other GCC troops to support the Bahraini security forces as "open-ended." A three month state of emergency has led to a campaign of house raids and arrests that have included the leaders of the main opposition parties, as well as human rights activists and other dissidents. There are also mounting concerns that these combined security forces are using disproportionate force and committing serious violations of international law and humanitarian law. The space for dialogue seems to be rapidly closing.
In the days ahead, we are likely to see a deepening of the culture of resistance in Bahrain. In particular, calls for dialogue to establish a constitutional monarchy may be swept away by more radical groups and the combative youth that increasingly supports them. Further radicalization of Bahrainis seems inevitable the longer the current impasse lasts, carrying with it the real danger that the country will be mired in a full blown civil war.
Two-thousand Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, most of them from Saudi Arabia, entered Bahrain on Monday -- ostensibly to provide security to government installations "threatened" by protestors. In fact, such a show of force, with more troops on the way, is an attempt by the Saudi-led GCC to stiffen the resolve of the ruling house in Bahrain to put down the democracy protests if need be with force. The violence unleashed by the Bahraini army and police against peaceful protestors on Tuesday was the direct outcome of the Saudi/GCC military intervention.
Various interpretations have been put forward as to the reasons behind the Saudi-led military intervention. These include pre-empting the emergence of a pro-Iranian, Shia-dominated government in Bahrain and tilting the balance in favor of the hard-line faction among the al-Khalifa and against the more moderate faction allegedly led by the crown prince.
Kuwait and Bahrain have had two different experiences during the winter of Arab discontent. Manama has witnessed the violent suppression of popular protests, followed by the largest mass demonstrations in the state's history. The standoff between the al-Khalifa regime and the protesters continues. Kuwait has had its own issues, with a much less violent confrontation between political activists and security forces in late 2010, before the events in Tunisia got rolling, and more recent protests by stateless residents (biduns) seeking political and economic equality. But the largest public gathering of Kuwaitis during this period was in late February, when young and old took to the streets to celebrate 50 years of Kuwaiti independence under al-Sabah rule and the 20th anniversary of their liberation from Iraq in 1991. Despite these differences, these two small states -- which combine a ruling family with an elected parliament -- demonstrate how difficult political reform will be in the Persian Gulf monarchies.
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