Tag Archives: sectarianism

Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships

20 Oct

(Prefatory Note: This post is a substantially revised version of an opinion piece published online by Middle East Eye on October 6, 2015; it challenges the geopolitics of impunity from both principled and pragmatic perspectives, and also casts doubts on ‘special relationships’ that the United States has established in the Middle East with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Finally, an effort is made to suggest that there is an alternative based essentially on the practical wisdom in the 21st century of upholding and strengthening the global rule of law.)

 

Saudi Arabia enjoys a spectacular level of impunity from international accountability. This is not only because it a powerful monarchy or has the world’s richest and largest royal family with influence spread far and wide. And it is not even just about oil, although having a quarter of the world’s pre-fracking energy reserves still engenders utmost deference from those many modern economies that will depend on Gulf oil and gas for as long as this precious black stuff lasts. The Saudi comfort zone is also sustained by its special relationship with the United States that provides geopolitical backing of great benefit.

 

This refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for upholding law and morality raised mainstream eyebrows that have usually looked the other way when it came to the Saudi record on human rights. Recently electing Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), partly due to a secret vote swap with the UK, seemed to cross a hereto invisible line. And if that was not enough of an affront to cosmetic morality in the sphere of human rights, the Saudi UN ambassador has been recently selected to chair the influential HRC ‘ consultative panel that recommends to the President of the Council a short-list of whom shall be appointed as Special Rapporteurs, including on such issues as right to women, freedom of expression, and religious freedom.

 

This news is coupled with confirmation that Saudi Arabia has inflicted more beheadings than ISIS this year, over 2 a day, and has ordered Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to be executed by crucifixion for taking part in an anti-monarchy demonstration when he was 17.  In a second representative case, the popular blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to a long prison term and 1000 lashes in public for criticizing the monarchy.  This behavior resembles the barbarism of ISIS more than it exhibits qualifications to occupy senior UN positions dealing with human rights.

 

Additionally, Riyadh like Damascus, seems guilty of severe war crimes due to its repeated and indiscriminate targeting of civilians during its dubious Yemen intervention. The worst incident of late was an air strike targeting a wedding party on September 29th, killing 131 civilians, including many women and children, but the overall pattern of the Saudi military onslaught has been oblivious to the constraints of international humanitarian law as embodied in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  

 

The Saudi mismatch between stature and behavior cannot be considered, as it appears to be, a grotesque anomaly in the global normative order. Instead, it fits neatly into a coherent geopolitical pattern.  Ever since World War II Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable strategic asset for the West. Oil is the core explanation of this affinity, but it is far from the whole story. Earlier Saudi anti-Communism was important, a kind of health insurance policy for the West that the government would not lured into the Soviet orbit or adopt a non-aligned position in the manner of Nasser’s Egypt, which would have dangerously undermined energy security for Western Europe.

 

In recent years, converging patterns of extreme hostility toward Iran that Saudi Arabia shares with Israel has delighted Washington planners who had long been challenged by the difficulty of juggling unconditional support for Israel with an almost absolute dependence of the West on keeping Gulf oil flowing at affordable prices. This potential vulnerability was vividly revealed in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War when Saudi Arabia expressed the dissatisfaction of the Arab world with Western pro-Israel positioning by persuading OPEC to impose an oil embargo that caused a global panic attack. This crisis unfolded on two levels– a high road revealing Western vulnerability to Middle Eastern oil and a low road of severe consumer discontent in reaction to long gas lines and higher prices at the pump attributable to the embargo.

 

It was then that war hawks in the West murmured aloud about coercively ending the embargo by landing paratroopers on Saudi oil fields. Henry Kissinger, never troubled by war scenarios, speculated that such an intervention might be ‘necessary’ for the economic security of the West. The Saudi rulers heard this ‘never again’ pledge from the custodians of world order, and have since been careful not to step on Western toes.

 

Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that NGO concerns about the dreadful human rights landscape in Saudi Arabia falls on deaf ears. President Obama who never tires of telling the world that the national character of America requires it to live accord with its values, centering on human rights and democracy, holds his otherwise active tongue when it comes to Saudi Arabia. He is busy reassuring the new Saudi king that the US remains as committed as ever to this second ‘special relationship’ in the Middle East, the first being, of course, with Israel.

 

If we look beneath the word ‘special,’ which conveys the added importance attached of the relationship, it seems to imply unconditional support, including a refusal to voice criticism in public. US geopolitical backing confers impunity, shielding a beneficiary from any pushback by the international community at the UN or elsewhere. There are other perks that come with this status additional to impunity. Perhaps none more notable than the embarrassment associated with hustling Saudi notables out of the United States the day after the 9/11 attacks. Remember that 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the US Government still refuses to release 28 pages of detailed evidence on alleged Saudi connections with Al Qaeda gathered by the 9/11 investigative commission.

 

Surely if Iran had remotely comparable linkages to those notorious events it would likely have produced a casus belli; recall that the justification for attacking Iraq in 2003 was partially based on flimsy fictitious allegations of Baghdad’s 9/11 complicity. 

 

The Saudi special relationship (unlike that with Israel) is more mutually beneficial. Because of the enormous revenues earned by selling 10 million barrels of oil a day for decades, Saudi unwavering support for the dollar as the currency of account has been of crucial help to the American ambition to dominate the global economy. Beyond this, the Saudis after pushing the world price of oil up by as much as 400% in the 1970s quickly healed the wounds by a massive recycling of so-called petrodollars through investments in Europe and North America, and especially appreciated, have been the Saudi purchase of many billions of dollars worth of arms over the years. The United States did its part to uphold the relationship, especially by responding to the 1990 Iraqi attack on Kuwait that also menaced Saudi Arabia. By deploying 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and leading the successful effort to compel Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, American reliability as Saudis protective big brother was convincingly upheld. Of course, in this interest there was a genuine convergence of interests. Western policy as shaped by American foreign policy accorded an absolute priority to keeping Gulf oil in friendly hands.

 

Despite the major strategic benefits to both sides, the most remarkable aspect of this special relationship is its survival in the face of the Saudi role in its massive worldwide funding of Islamic anti-Western militancy or jihadism. Saudi promotion of religious education with a Wahhabist slant is widely believed to be largely responsible for the rise and spread of jihadism, and the resultant turmoil.

 

I would have thought that the West, especially after 9/11 would insist that Saudi Arabia stop supporting Wahhabist style extremism abroad, even if it overlooked denials of human rights at home due to the imposition of harsh controls upon freedom of expression, of association, women’s rights, cruel and unusual punishments. More damaging in its political consequences than being the shield of Saudi impunity is the willingness of the US to go along with the anti-Iranian sectarian line that the Saudi leadership relies upon to justify such controversial moves as direct interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as the provision of  weapons and money to anti-Assad forces in Syria.

 

Saudi opportunism became evident when the kingdom threw its diplomatic support and a large bundle of cash to an anti-Sunni coup in Egypt against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Saudi’s true enemies are determined by the threat posed to the stability of the monarchy, and not by their sectarian identity. In this sense Iran is an enemy because it is a regional rival that threatens to impinge upon the role and influence of Saudi Arabia, and not because of its adherence to a Shia variety of Islam. Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood, despite being of Sunni persuasion, was perceived as as a threat to royal absolutism by its democratizing challenge directed at the Mubarak autocracy. Sectarian identity is distinctly secondary, especially for the Saudi monarchy that is responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. At home, the stability of royal governance is sustained by allowing a free rein to the Wahhabi religious leadership that subject the Saudi people to its severe sectarian constraints.

 

Saudi impunity makes us appreciate the value of normal relationships among sovereign states. These do not entail exemptions from accountability in relation to international crimes and human rights violations. These special relationships have become politically costly in this century, especially if used to protect rogue states from international scrutiny. Accountability based on the rule of law is far better for stability, security, and sustainable peace than impunity. It has become increasingly awkward for US Government to validate, in part, its global role by championing human rights while refusing to blink when it comes to the most minimum expectations of accountability for Saudi Arabia or Israel.

 

I would go further, and argue that such special relationships, although expressions of the primacy of geopolitics (as over against the implementation of a global rule of law), do not serve on balance to uphold national interests in the course of abandoning national values. Contrary to the precepts of political realism, in the Middle East these two special relationships unthinkingly bind the United States and its European allies to a failing foreign policy that has occasioned great suffering for many of the peoples of the region. The migration crisis that is one direct effect of these unfortunate policies, especially military intervention, is finally leading observers to connect some dots, and recognize that what is done in the Middle East has menacing reverberations for Europe. As well, it further damages the reputation of the United States as a principled leader in a global setting that is serving the global public good as well as promoting its national policy priorities.  Perhaps, that reputation is tarnished beyond recovery at this point in any event, making repetitional considerations almost irrelevant.

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The Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

28 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post modifies an article published in Middle East Eye on September 21, 2015, with title, “Yemen pays the price for Saudis’ sectarian paranoia.” Whether the Saudis are being paranoid about political developments in their neighbors (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen) or prudent in view of regional threats to the stability of the Kingdom is difficult to ascertain. However this issue is resolved, portraying what has gone wrong as a consequence of sectarianism or an expansionist Iran, evades the real challenges being posed in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Only in Iraq, where American occupation policy injected

a self-defeating sectarianism as the centerpiece of its post-Saddam Hussein state-building project, does this optic misused when applied to Middle East conflict seem to explain the course of developments, including the alignment of Iraq’s current leaders with Iran rather than with their supposed liberators from the West!]

 

 

 

Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

 

Any attempt to provide a coherent account of the political strife afflicting Yemen is bound to fail. The country is crucible of contradictions that defy normal categories of rational analysis. If we look beyond the political fog that envelops the conflict the tragic circumstances of acute suffering imposed on the civilian population do emerge with stark clarity. Long before the outbreak of civil warfare, Yemen was known to be the poorest country in the region, faced with looming food and water scarcities. The UN estimates 80% of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 40% live on less than $2 per day. Further there are high risks of mass famine and epidemic outbreaks of disease will occur, while continuing chaos is a near certainty, with the prospect of yet another wave of desperate migrants swept ashore in Europe.

 

Against this background, the UN Security Council seems shockingly supportive of a major Saudi military intervention via sustained air attacks that started in March 2015, severely aggravating the overall situation by unanimously adopting a one-sided anti-Houthi Resolution 2216. This Saudi use of force is contrary to international law, violates the core principle of the UN Charter, and magnifies the violent disruption of Yemeni society. The success of the Houthi insurgency from the north that swept the Yemeni leadership from power, taking over the capital city of Sanaa, was perversely treated by the Security Council as a military coup somehow justifying the intervention by a Saudi led coalition of Gulf countries pledged to restore the ‘legitimate’ government to power. To grasp the geopolitics at play it is clarifying to recall that the 2013 blatant military coup in Egypt, with much bloodier reprisals against the displaced elected rulers, aroused not a murmur of protest in the halls of the UN. Once more the primacy of geopolitics is showcased in the Middle East. It’s not what you do, but who does it, that matters when it comes to a UN response.

 

What makes it even more difficult to make sense of developments in Yemen is the geopolitical tendency, as abetted by the media, to reduce incredibly complex national histories and the interplay of multiple contending forces to a simplistic story of Sunni versus Shia rivalry for the control of the country. Such a prism of interpretation, above all, allows Saudi Arabia to portray once again the strife in Yemen as another theater of the wider region proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran, which is a guaranteed way of securing U.S. and Israeli backing. The same rationale has served the Kingdom well (and the world badly) in explaining why it supports anti-Assad forces in Syria during the last several years. It also was the pretext for intervening in Bahrain in 2011 to crush a popular pro-democracy uprising. If considered more objectively we begin to understand that this sectarian optic obscures more than it reveals, and not accidentally.

 

For instance, when it came to Egypt, however, the sectarian template was completely discarded, and the Saudis immediately used their financial muscle to help the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in 2012 led by General Sisi to consolidate its control over the country. Even when Israel attacked Gaza a year ago, seeking to destroy Hamas, a Sunni Islamic version of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia made no secret of the startling fact that it gave Tel Aviv a green light. What emerges, then, is not a regional politics based on sectarian priorities, but rather a pathological preoccupation with regime stability in the Saudi monarchy, with anxieties arising whenever political tendencies emerge in the region that elude its control, and are perceived as threatening. Part of the truer explanation of Saudi pattern of behavior also has to do with the Faustian Bargain struck with the powerful Wahabi establishment, which has allowed the Saud royal clan to flourish at home while spending billions to spread the most repressive version of Islam far and wide to madrassas throughout Asia. The fact that the application of Wahabism at home, including more than 100 beheadings already this year and confinement of women to an extent that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran appear liberal by comparison, is a further sign that international clamor of human rights is selective to put it mildly.

 

The people of Yemen are paying a huge price for this brand of Saudi violent security politics. Whether it is paranoia at work or a healthy respect for the mass unpopularity of its policies, or some mixture, is difficult to assess. Yet what seems clear is that much of the world is lulled to sleep, not taking the trouble to peer below this sectarian cover story. Only scant account taken of the fact that the real threats to regional order in Yemen do not come from a reasonable Houthi insistence on power-sharing political arrangements, but mainly arise from the presence in Yemen of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS that have been long targeted by American drones as part of the war of the terror ever since 2007. So while the West supports the Saudi fight against the Shia Houthis at the same time it does its best to weaken their most formidable domestic opposition, and in the process further alienates the Yemeni civilian population by its military tactics, which recruits more extremists committed to fighting against this second form of external intervention that finds no basis in international law and enjoys the tacit support of the UN Security Council.

 

If this was not enough to make the Yemeni crystal ball opaque, there is the internal alignment of forces. On the one side, the 2012 successor regime to the corrupt dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh that is headed by its equally corrupt former vice president, Abd Rabbaah Mansour Hadi, now apparently ‘governing’ from exile, although rumored to be seeking a return to Aden. On the anti-regime side, in addition to the Houthis, are the main military and police forces that still respond to the authority of the ousted leader, Saleh, who has returned to the Yemen struggle to oppose the Saudi intervention and have helped turn the tide of battle on the ground against the Hadi-led government. Despite this adverse battlefield reality, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was quoted as saying “We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.” Tragically, what this seems to mean, is reducing the country to a shambles that brings starvation and disease to the population, and possibly escalating at some future point of frustration by the launch of a ground offensive. There are confirmed reports of a massing of Saudi troops close to the Yemen border.

 

At this point, it is difficult to know what would bring some kind of peace and stability to Yemen. What we do know is that both the sectarian optic, Saudi intervention, and American drone warfare are dead end options. The beginning of a constructive approach is to take root causes of the current conflict into account. Several need to be considered. There is a long experience of division in the country between the north and the south, and this means that any unity government for the whole of Yemen can only be sustained by an iron-fisted dictator like Saleh or through a genuine power-sharing federalist kind of arrangement based on decentralized autonomy and a weak central governmental structure. Beyond this, the country bears the scars of Ottoman rule intermixed with a British presence in Aden and the surrounding area, vital to earlier colonial priorities of controlling the Suez and the trade routes to the East.

 

Additionally, and often forgotten and ignored, Yemen remains a composite of tribes that still command the major loyalty of people and reign supreme in many locales. The modern European insistence on sovereign states in the Middle East never succeeded in overcoming the primacy of Yemeni tribal identities. Any possibility of political stability requires subsidizing and respecting Yemen’s tribes as Saudi Arabia did during Saleh’s dictatorship (1990-2012) or creating a multi-colored quilt of autonomous tribal polities. When the background of the north/south split and persisting tribalism are taken into account recourse to the Shia/Sunni divide or the Riyadh/Tehran rivalry as an explanation of Yemen’s strife-ridden country is more than a simplistic evasion of a far more complicated reality. It is a cruel and futile fantasy.

 

What should be done, given this overall situation? One potential key to achieving some kind of peace in Yemen is held by policymakers in Washington. So long as the U.S. Government remains beholden to the rulers in Saudi monarchy, to the extremists running Israel, and insistent on striking at AQAP targets with drone missiles, this key is unusable. This combination of factors is what makes the wider political turmoil in the Middle East stuck on a lethal fast moving treadmill. How to get off the treadmill, that is the question for which there answers, but as yet no relevant political will.

 

There are two obvious moves, neither ideal, but with the modest goal of a first step in creating a new political order: first, negotiate a ceasefire that includes an end to the Saudi intervention; secondly, establish a more credible revival of the National Dialogue Conference that two years ago made a failed attempt at Gulf initiative in Sanaa to find a power-sharing arrangement. It did not help matters then that two successive Houthi representatives at the diplomatic discussions were assassinated on their way to participate. What is needed is establishing a political transition sensitive both to the north/south split and the strength of Yemeni tribes coupled with massive economic assistance from outside, as well as the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence tasked with implementation and the termination of all forms of external armed intervention. Nothing less has any chance of working.

 

Such a rational path is currently blocked, especially by the intense militancy of the aggressive Saudi leadership of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Secretary of Defense, the apparent champion of military intervention. The United States, with its special relationship to Israel, its strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and faith in drone led counterterrorism seems to be swallowing the central contradiction between opposing both its real adversaries, AQAP and ISIS, and its implicit ally, the Houthis. Instead of treating the enemy of their enemy as a friend, Washington has reversed the proverb. This Gordian Knot is strangling the people of Yemen. Cutting it will require a drastic break with current policy. The way forward is evident, but how to get there is not, in the meantime the bodies pile up in what has long been considered the poorest country in the region severely stressed by the prospect of severe water scarcities.