събота, 26 март 2011 г.

Иран и Саудитска Арабия

The real test of American commitment to democracy is long-time ally Saudi Arabia. U.S. and Saudi Arabian troops conducted a joint military training exercise in early March. Riyadh acts as the critical “swing” oil producer, upon which Washington long has relied to stabilize the international oil market. Saudi Arabia also is a major arms buyer. Perhaps most important, the Saudi royals have spread their wealth around Washington, collecting many influential friends.
Unfortunately, Riyadh also is essentially a totalitarian theocracy. A handful of feeble gerontocrats rule and 7,000 princes mulct a nation of 27 million. There are no elections or civil liberties and non-Muslims cannot even freely worship at home. Now Saudi Arabia has adopted Washington’s strategy of imposing its values abroad, moving troops into neighboring Bahrain. Riyadh intends to stifle Bahrain’s growing democracy movement and preserve the Khalifa family dictatorship.

The Persian Gulf is filled with kleptocratic monarchies, of which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the preeminent example. The Kingdom was established in 1932 by Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, or Ibn Saud. Oil was first discovered in 1938. Over the years the Saudi monarchy developed particularly close relations with Washington. The perceived threat from radical Islamists, highlighted by the 1980 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, caused the royal family to more strictly observe Sunni Islam in public while continuing to enjoy a licentious, sybaritic lifestyle in private. The regime has maintained absolute political control, rejecting elections as “not consistent with our Islamic creed.”

Riyadh was horrified by the eruption of democracy protests in the Middle East. New information technologies make it impossible for the royals to hide pervasive corruption, mismanagement, and poverty from their citizens. But the regime, buttressed by the army and a well-armed National Guard, has avoided mass demonstrations. Small crowds have gathered in a number of cities, especially in the east where the Shia are concentrated, only to be quickly dispersed. As foreign protests spread, the king announced $36 billion in social spending.

Now the Saudis are directly meddling in neighbor Bahrain. The Khalifa family rules the small country of 600,000, representing a thin Sunni covering over a mostly Shia population. The disenfranchised majority began taking to the streets after the eruption in Tunisia. The Bahrain government responded violently last month, causing many protestors to demand the end of the monarchy. Washington endorsed the “universal rights” of Bahraini citizens but counseled moderation — after all, the country hosts America’s Fifth Fleet. Protests increasingly disrupted the capital and surrounding villages. Bahrain has but 9,000 men under arms, raising questions about the regime’s ability to survive. Riyadh worried about Shia activism spreading to its Shia minority, many of whom live in the oil-producing Eastern Province connected to Bahrain by a 16-mile-causeway. The Saudis also feared Iranian support for Shiites against Sunni-ruled regimes.
On March 14, 1,200 Saudi troops and 800 from the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain, nominally under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council after a request from Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The initial public reaction was defiance as 10,000 Bahrainis marched on the Saudi embassy to condemn what many called an “occupation” of their country. The king declared martial law. Several people were killed when Bahraini troops used tanks and helicopters to clear a tent city organized by protestors.

Riyadh’s “occupation” is likely to undermine and could even destroy the Bahraini monarchy. This radicalization of people who originally wanted reform could spread elsewhere in the Gulf. Indeed, the Saudis risk playing into Iran’s hands. Riyadh blames Iran for promoting Shia unrest, but Afshin Molavi of the Woodrow Wilson Center reported that “Iran is not the driving force in these actions.” Unfortunately, Saudi meddling will push protestors across the spectrum toward Tehran. Even Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric who normally avoids politics, criticized the Bahrain government’s crackdown. The Saudi move threatens even greater polarization between Sunni and Shia throughout the region.


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