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Meanwhile in the Middle East–Saudi/US strains appear (Update–Bahrain declares martial law)

Yes it’s another fine mess.  Of course the Japanese tragedy and 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 caused 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?

UPDATE: Bahrain declares a “state of emergency”.  2 protesters killed 200 wounded. 1 Saudi soldier reported to have been killed.

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 may very well, at least covertly, try to support the opposition in Bahrain.

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 an earlier post about regime realignment, the entire process hinged on the opposition being willing to engage in honest 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.  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.

~McQ

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30 Responses to Meanwhile in the Middle East–Saudi/US strains appear (Update–Bahrain declares martial law)

  • Not a day goes by on the wrold stage where Obama and his team show themselves to be complete and total rookies in the arena of Foreign Affairs.  They do not seem to understand that Foreign Affairs is more than huddling over a game board playing Risk!

  • Some days you you are left to hope that the aim of this countries enemies is true.

  • Um….how about “martial law”?

  • This is one case where I heartily endorse a healthy dose of Realpolitik.
    Regardless of how or why, the world depends on keeping the crude flowing from Saudi Arabia. That means for the short and medium term we have to tolerate whatever decisions they make. (more or less) Add in the Iran factor and it’s clear that this situation has all the makings of an international disaster. Even though I think both sides are odious (can’t they both lose?), we need our allies in the gulf to be stable.
    It makes your head spin to think about all the lost opportunities we’ve had to work our will in that region, and yet we have effectively marginalized our own influence.

  • The Saudi’s are the worst of all of our enemies. With the funding of wahabist madrasses around the world they have arguably done more against us than any other nation since the downfall of the Soviet Union.

    The sooner our leaders realize this the better.

    • Purely a case of having to choose between Riyadh and Tehran.  And we no longer CAN choose Tehran.
       
      As Steve noted, Realpolitik.
       
      Speaking of Tehran, of course NONE of the unrest in Bahrain has anything to do with Iran….nudge nudge wink wink

      • That is a false choice, How about we chose not to back either of them?

        • “Backing” has been mutual.  Like people, the Saudi government is not one way…but many…sometimes conflicted…ways.

        • No, no, you seem to think we have a choice, we do not.
           
          You pick the lesser of two evils, merely because it is in fact the lesser.  It’s not a matter of choice.
          It’s the problem we had trying to decide if we should support Mubarak, or whatever collection of whackjobs might show up to replace him.  It’s a constant recognition that in the real world sometimes your best and only choice is the lesser devil who’s willing to listen to you now and again because it’s in his interest to do so.
           
          You can work yourself away from that relationship over time, particularly if you’re the whacky American government, changing it’s direction as often as every 4 years, foreign governments understand that.
           
          The power plays will continue with or without our presence, the difference is we discourage the more overt ones, and force Tehran to use 23 year olds with cell phones to foster the next Islamist revolution, rather than a more direct and obvious take over.
           
           

        • My short should have been –
           
          “he may be a ruthless unscrupulous dictator, but he’s OUR ruthless unscrupulous dictator!”
           
          I am a product of my cold-war upbringing.

          • That is obvious, and you are a slave to outmoded cold war thinking. We don’t have to chose anything in the middle east. Period, We are forced to prop up Iraq for the time being because it is our creation.  We have nothing but pain to gain by being any more involved in the nations in that area.

            No good literally can come of our meddling. Nor has any good come of it so far.

          • Meddling – yeah, would that it were that simple Kyle.
             
            We ‘meddled’ for my entire life time, sometimes well, sometimes very very poorly.
             
            But don’t kid yourself, our ‘meddling’ is the reason you’re not speaking Russian today comrade, and it’s the reason Eastern Europe no longer has to.  We danced with the devil and it resulted in our dependence on foreign oil, and that’s why we have to keep dancing for the moment.
             
            I’d love to see us get the hell out of Europe and Asia and etc, but reality says no one good is going to step up to the plate behind us.  If you can find a way to get everything we need to live in the 21st century here on the US continent I’m all in favor of doing it, but that’s just more moon pony dreaming. 
            The bitter truth is you have to do things you don’t like sometimes, and that is never going to change.
             
            But keep dreaming.

  • I see you forgot to mention democracy and twiitter and I-Phones and I-Pads and 23 year old average ages and how they’re causing a blooming of democracy in the Middle_East.
     
    Open question – does anyone think ANY of this is getting through the delusion projection screens of the moon-pony messiah brigade?

  • 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.”

    Gosh, I thought that The Dear Golfer’s much-touted speech in Cairo ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity and freedom and liberty and moon ponies in the Middle East.  Who are the Saudis to criticize???  Just because they live there doesn’t give them any special right to question The Dear Golfer’s policies!

    / sarc

    I guess this is why The Dear Golfer was whining about the fact that nobody in Cairo talks about what Hu Jintao has to say.  His life would be so much easier if the US was irrelevant.  But he’s working hard on that!

    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.

    Say… Didn’t The Annointed One (as he was then known) rail against the eeevil Bush’s meddling in other countries’ affairs and promise that he would end that policy of “American arrogance”?  Guess he only meant that he would end “meddling in America’s best interests”.

    Demonstrating to Iran that the Saudi-American alliance remains strong has emerged as a critical objective of the Obama administration.

    Hey, The Dear Golfer bowed to their king.  What more could he possibly be expected to do???

    / sarc

    McQQuestions: 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?

    In all fairness, what it appears that the Saudis want is for us to (A) squash Iran and (B) look the other way if / when they or their allies start gunning down protesters to keep hold of power.  I’m completely on board with (A); not so much with (B).

    As far as the Saudis (or anybody else) taking advice from the current US regime… They’d have to be outright morons to do so.  The track record of our regime in foreign affairs has been dismal, starting with the botched “reset button” in Russia and including backing the wannabe dictator Zelaya in Honduras, letting Calderon publicly insult us in the Congress, stabbing the Czechs and Poles in the back with regard to missile defense, looking the other way while Iranians were demonstrating against their odious regime, tossing Mubarak under the bus, and most recently dithering while Khaddaffi slaughters his opponents.  US foreign policy under The Dear Golfer would be a joke if it wasn’t for the serious (often deadly) repercussions.  But I’m pretty sure he could give sound advice on which golf courses around DC are best, and I would TOTALLY trust his judgment if I was ordering wagyu for supper.

    kyle8The Saudi’s are the worst of all of our enemies. With the funding of wahabist madrasses around the world they have arguably done more against us than any other nation since the downfall of the Soviet Union.

    I have no particular love for that pack of overstuffed hoodlums, either, but I have to agree with looker and Ragspierre: “backing” the Saudis is a bad choice, but it is the best that we can make.  If we drilled for our own oil and otherwise took steps to ensure that we have plenty of power without having to rely on their goodwill, things might be different, but the world is how it is.

    Oil is the key.  This is why the Saudis can be our pals even while funding madrassas that preach “death to America”: we need their oil; they need our security “guarantee” and arms.  What will we do if they decide (or get a shiny new government that decides) that they don’t need us anymore and price their oil accordingly?

  • Completely OT, but if you want to have a little fun, apparently my post about the capitalism t-shirt got “stumbled upon” bringing a whole legion of Michael Moore defenders here.  It is indeed a target rich environment.  Er, fire at will.

    • I been askin this for years, maybe I can get a definitive answer this time….Which one is Will?

    • Well….there they are….I couldn’t resist.   Though I doubt if I helped much.  Perhaps after weeks of intensive therapy and deprogramming.
       
      The amount of cognitive dissonance going on there is.  I suppose it explains lynch mobs.
      I would have thought people might have looked beyond his attempt to be Yassir Arafat in a baseball cap and ask what he’s doing with all that cash he’s amassed in being a champion of the little guy.
       
      And I just realize I understand the difference, I ‘thought’.
      You know, if he lived a normal middle class life style and contributed the bulk of his earnings to ‘the little guy’ I could at least give him credit for practicing what he preaches.  Sort of the difference between Al Gore and Ed Begley Jr.
       

    • Looked at the comments.  Typical leftist drivel; I could practically smell the pot fumes.  “He, like, GETS IT, man!  Power to the peopleeeeee!  And, like, Bush’s great-great-great-great-uncle on his mother’s cousin’s side was a SLAVE OWNER!  And that, like, you know, means, like, you know, that BUSH is, like, an eeeevil plutocrat for bailing out all those banks and stuff!”

      Bah.

    • Too funny. Thanks for the notice I needed some entertainment. :)  

  • Now … imagine they all have nuclear weapons

  • If these places didn’t have oil, and weren’t the locations of our military bases…
    I guess I stick with Obama’s plan but now add that if the Shia protesters don’t take the deal that’s been offered, we will be okay with them possibly getting shot.
    Sucks, but that’s life.
    I guess that’s the silver lining of allowing Qadafi to succeed. You have a precedent.

    • It’s more of our unholy alliance stuff.   You hit it in the first sentence, our bases are there, because the oil is there, because the West needs the oil (and I don’t just mean the US).
       
      I’m not sure what makes anyone think if we weren’t there, these guys wouldn’t be like, oh, Zimbabwe or Rwanda, but hey, if people want to pretend that these countries all have a teaming silent mass just yearning for a democratic government and we’re all that’s stopping this magical democratic bloom from flowering, hey, they can knock themselves out.
      They can pretend it would be like London on the Persian Gulf, or Stockholm on the Red Sea.
       
      I don’t know, maybe we’d be better off if they forced us to drill here by blowing the crap out of themselves to prove who’s right about the Mahdi and the heirs of the Caliphs.