Published: ABC The Drum. Canberra Times
The leaders of the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia are not renowned for their moral or physical courage. Events over the past month will have shaken them to the core. It is interesting to speculate on who or what might have stiffened the resolve of US client state, Bahrain, to face down the protesters. The US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain which the US regards as strategically important. In order to maintain the stability necessary to pursue its interests the US has backed the ruling royal family. To protect its vital oil supplies it has backed the ruling royal family in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to the changes taking place around it. On one side Egypt, on another Yemen and across a 26 kilometre causeway on the eastern gulf, Bahrain. The Saudi royal family is locked in a dangerous time warp of its own making.
The US Consular Service advises on their web site that the government of, “Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by a king chosen from and by members of the Al Saud family. The king rules through royal decrees issued in conjunction with the Council of Ministers, and with advice from the Consultative Council. The king appoints members of both councils…Saudi authorities do not permit criticism of Islam or the royal family. The government prohibits the public practice of religions other than Islam”.
Tensions have been simmering in the Middle East for decades, particularly Saudi Arabia. The majority practice a fundamentalist off-shoot of the Sunni branch of Islam, known as Wahabism. At least it does so officially. Compliance with the dictates of Wahabism is vested in the Mutawwa or religious police. They ensure that women are accompanied in public by their husbands or male relatives, that they do not drive motor vehicles and that they wear an Abaya, or equivalent in the case of Western women, and that female heads are covered with a scarf or shawl.
Women have few of the rights or freedoms that are taken for granted in Australia. They can work but only in an all female environment. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden, yet members of the wealthy elite and some members of the extended ruling family ignore this restriction.
There are some wonderfully contemplative, well balanced and read Saudis, yet venality and mendacity is all too often encountered. It is a society run entirely for the benefit of wealthy ethnic Saudi males.
The United States has made every effort to ensure that it remains close to the ruling family and is perceived to be so by all Saudis particularly those who loath the regime. The United States is also rightly seen to be close to Israel, so Saudi dissidents such as Osama bin Laden had no difficulty identifying the US as the number one enemy, particularly when they saw that the Saudi royal family would collapse without US support.
The reward for US abasement and abandonment of human rights in the Gulf has been to try and maintain an influence over Saudi and Gulf States oil policy, which has waxed and waned. Paradoxically for the US support for repressive Arab regimes led to the growth of a fundamentalist response, the philosophy of which has taken root in other Muslim countries where inequality and regime corruption conspire to deprive opportunity.
With the forces now unleashed in the Middle East the untimely and ill-advised US invasion of Iraq is brought into question. Little has been achieved in Iraq, yet the people, inspired by current events, may have been able to oust Saddam Hussein, along the lines unfolding in Libya. The Saudi Government is just as repressive and misogynist as the Taliban. Which should beg the question, why is the US is fighting the Taliban and succouring the Saudis, the answer is oil. Fighting the Taliban, while maintaining an equally unpleasant Saudi regime as an ally, could be seen as a vindictive crusade to salve American honour after 9/11; the war in Afghanistan has precious little to do with ending terrorism.
Saudi Arabia has used money to buy influence and security. It has paid off Hamas and other trouble makers including al Qaida. Even so there have been acts of terror committed inside Saudi Arabia, directed against Western and Saudi interests the most recent in 2007.Real and perceived wealth determines the power of the Al Saud. WikiLeaks claim a CIA assessment shows the Saudi’s have 40% less in oil reserves forty percent than what they claim. Such revelations do not come at a good time for a nervous regime.
It is illegal to mention Israel in Saudi Arabia, maps sold in the country contain no reference to Israel. Yet according to the Jewish News of23 June, 2010, Israeli C130s landed at the big Saudi air base at Tabuk in the north and unloaded supplies. The Jewish News speculated that it was part of a joint US/Israeli undertaking directed at Iran. From the Saudi regimes point of view it is part of whatever it takes to survive, from the Israeli perspective it puts the lie to their oft made claim that the Arab states wish to crush them.
There is plenty of scope for unrest to develop inside Saudi Arabia. The population is just over 27 million. Thirty five percent or 9.5 million people are guest workers from Bangladesh, China, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam; they are poorly paid and treated. Female domestic assistants are particularly badly treated with claims of abuse ranging from deprivation of liberty to beatings and torture and all too often rape. A recent particularly sad story was of an Indonesian woman who became pregnant after being raped raped by her employer. The employer alleged an affair with another man and took her to court where she appeared without legal representation. She was found guilty sentenced to 100 lashes and a term in prison.
Whilst on posting to Saudi Arabia in the mid 1980’s I had to intercede on behalf of an Australian nurse sentenced to 100 lashes for being found in a car containing alcohol on New Year’s Eve. She escaped the sentence but was thrown out of the country.
Ten to Fifteen per cent of the population are Shiite Muslims who have little time for the Wahabis.
All in all taking into account the Shiites, the guest workers, some of whom are mercenaries in the army, and women, the ruling male oligarchy including the royal family are sitting on a well of discontent numbering some 21.5 million people and probably more considering that many Saudi men outside the royal family and the wealthy elite are opposed to the regime.
And it is no better in the Gulf States where in Kuwait, 60% of the population of 3 million are guest workers and 85% of the population in the United Arab Emirates are guest workers. Many Yeminis work in Saudi Arabia and it is said Yemen is to Saudi Arabia as Mexico is to the US.
The nervousness is growing and showing. On 17 February, 2011, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz warned on the Arab service of the BBC that unless King Abdullah introduces more political participation and human rights Saudi Arabia may see protests or worse.
The ruling elites in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia believe they are above the law. Last August in London two young men from Abu Dhabi driving a Lamborghini at speed smashed into four parked cars in Lowndes Square, Knightsbridge, at 1.30am. They escaped injury and said to concerned residents as they headed off to the Sheraton Hotel, ‘don’t worry we’ll pay’. They did, much to their surprise they received prison sentences. Young men from the Gulf fly their expensive cars into London during the summer, much to the consternation and annoyance of the residents of Knightsbridge and surrounding areas.
The US appears to have been caught short over recent developments in the Middle East and has been flat footed in response. US travel warnings for Egypt and Libya are up to date, but those for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia date back to last year.
The limitations of US influence have been exposed, the foundation of its foreign policy in the Middle East is collapsing; it sits mesmerised, transfixed, frustrated, angry and impotent. In the absence of effective diplomacy and a coherent foreign policy in the face of rapid change all that it has at its disposal is raw military power.
Let us hope that if the US deploys force it does so on behalf of people and not regimes. Few would be sad to see the end of the rule of the Saudi royal family and other despots up and down the Gulf, including in Iran.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan