“Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail,” said an Obama administration official. And what would cause failure? For the monarchy to be overthrown and replaced with a democracy.
From Washington’s perspective, the people in Bahrain, the other Gulf states and especially in Saudi Arabia cannot be trusted with the power to determine their own futures.
Saudi Arabia is preparing to launch a ruthless crackdown on dissent and when pro-democracy demonstrators get slaughtered, as they probably will, if President Obama has anything to say we can be sure he will go no further than issue one of his usual mealy-mouthed appeals for restraint. The House of Saud has already been given the green light to do whatever it must in the name of preserving “stability.”
The stability to which the Middle East’s rulers and their American friends now cling, is a stability whose foundation is built on graves and torture cells.
Robert Fisk writes:
Saudi Arabia was yesterday drafting up to 10,000 security personnel into its north-eastern Shia Muslim provinces, clogging the highways into Dammam and other cities with busloads of troops in fear of next week’s “day of rage” by what is now called the “Hunayn Revolution”.
Saudi Arabia’s worst nightmare – the arrival of the new Arab awakening of rebellion and insurrection in the kingdom – is now casting its long shadow over the House of Saud. Provoked by the Shia majority uprising in the neighbouring Sunni-dominated island of Bahrain, where protesters are calling for the overthrow of the ruling al-Khalifa family, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is widely reported to have told the Bahraini authorities that if they do not crush their Shia revolt, his own forces will.
The opposition is expecting at least 20,000 Saudis to gather in Riyadh and in the Shia Muslim provinces of the north-east of the country in six days, to demand an end to corruption and, if necessary, the overthrow of the House of Saud. Saudi security forces have deployed troops and armed police across the Qatif area – where most of Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslims live – and yesterday would-be protesters circulated photographs of armoured vehicles and buses of the state-security police on a highway near the port city of Dammam.
Although desperate to avoid any outside news of the extent of the protests spreading, Saudi security officials have known for more than a month that the revolt of Shia Muslims in the tiny island of Bahrain was expected to spread to Saudi Arabia. Within the Saudi kingdom, thousands of emails and Facebook messages have encouraged Saudi Sunni Muslims to join the planned demonstrations across the “conservative” and highly corrupt kingdom. They suggest – and this idea is clearly co-ordinated – that during confrontations with armed police or the army next Friday, Saudi women should be placed among the front ranks of the protesters to dissuade the Saudi security forces from opening fire.
If the Saudi royal family decides to use maximum violence against demonstrators, US President Barack Obama will be confronted by one of the most sensitive Middle East decisions of his administration. In Egypt, he only supported the demonstrators after the police used unrestrained firepower against protesters. But in Saudi Arabia – supposedly a “key ally” of the US and one of the world’s principal oil producers – he will be loath to protect the innocent.
The Wall Street Journal reports:
After weeks of internal debate on how to respond to uprisings in the Arab world, the Obama administration is settling on a Middle East strategy: help keep longtime allies who are willing to reform in power, even if that means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait.
Instead of pushing for immediate regime change—as it did to varying degrees in Egypt and now Libya—the U.S. is urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with existing rulers toward what some officials and diplomats are now calling “regime alteration.”
The approach has emerged amid furious lobbying of the administration by Arab governments, who were alarmed that President Barack Obama had abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and worried that, if the U.S. did the same to the beleaguered king of Bahrain, a chain of revolts could sweep them from power, too, and further upend the region’s stability.
The strategy also comes in the face of domestic U.S. criticism that the administration sent mixed messages at first in Egypt, tentatively backing Mr. Mubarak before deciding to throw its full support behind the protesters demanding his ouster. Likewise in Bahrain, the U.S. decision to throw a lifeline to the ruling family came after sharp criticism of its handling of protests there. On Friday, the kingdom’s opposition mounted one of its largest rallies, underlining the challenge the administration faces selling a strategy of more gradual change to the population.
Administration officials say they have been consistent throughout, urging rulers to avoid violence and make democratic reforms that address the demands of their populations. Still, a senior administration official acknowledged the past month has been a learning process for policy makers. “What we have said throughout this is that there is a need for political, economic and social reform, but the particular approach will be country by country,” the official said.
A pivotal moment came in late February, in the tense hours after Mr. Obama publicly berated King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa for cracking down violently on antigovernment demonstrators in Bahrain’s capital. Envoys for the king and his Arab allies shuttled from the Pentagon to the State Department and the White House with a carefully coordinated message.
If the Obama administration did not reverse course and stand squarely behind the monarchy, they warned, Bahrain’s government could fall, costing America a critical ally and potentially moving the country toward Iran’s orbit. Adding to the sense of urgency was a scenario being watched by U.S. intelligence agencies: the possibility that Saudi Arabia might invade its tiny neighbor to silence the Shiite-led protesters, threatening decades-old partnerships and creating vast political and economic upheaval.
“We need the full support of the United States,” a top Bahraini diplomat beseeched the Americans, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, and other top policy makers.
Arab diplomats believe the push worked. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emerged as leading voices inside the administration urging greater U.S. support for the Bahraini king coupled with a reform agenda that Washington insisted would be have to be credible to street protesters. Instead of backing cries for the king’s removal, Mr. Obama asked protesters to negotiate with the ruling family, which is promising major changes.
Israel was also making its voice heard. As Mr. Mubarak’s grip on power slipped away in Egypt, Israeli officials lobbied Washington to move cautiously and reassure Mideast allies that they were not being abandoned. Israeli leaders have made clear that they fear extremist forces could try to exploit new-found freedoms and undercut Israel’s security, diplomats said.
“Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule,” said a U.S. official. “Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail.”
All protests and marches are to be banned in Saudi Arabia, the interior ministry has announced on state TV.
Its statement said security forces would use all measures to prevent any attempt to disrupt public order.
The announcement follows a series of protests by the kingdom’s Shia minority in the oil-producing eastern province.
Last month, King Abdullah unveiled a series of benefits in an apparent bid to protect the kingdom from the revolts spreading throughout many Arab states.
“Regulations in the kingdom forbid categorically all sorts of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, as they contradict Islamic Sharia law and the values and traditions of Saudi society,” the Saudi interior ministry statement said.
It added that police were “authorised by law to take all measures needed against those who try to break the law”.