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June 23, 2011 Edition 18

The al-Saud's spring
John R. Bradley

Far from mirroring the Velvet Revolution, for which Czechoslovakia is now justly celebrated, recent events in Bahrain recall another poignant moment in the history of Prague: when, in 1968, Soviet tanks rolled through the streets to turn into an ice age that particular "spring".

Articles in this edition
Jordan and the GCC:
few opportunities,
many challenges
- Oraib Al-Rantawi
Hunker down or seize the opportunity? - Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
The al-Saud's spring - John R. Bradley
The monarchy club - Anouar Boukhars
The short-lived Bahraini protests were essentially a Shiite uprising against the Sunni minority that rules over them. It was only natural, then, that when the protests threatened to acquire some real momentum, the staunchly Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council, in the form of Saudi tanks, swiftly put a stop to them.

If Bahrain has no oil, Libya sure does. This reportedly allowed the Saudis to make a make a deal with Washington: let us invade Bahrain and in turn we will vote for United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which in March kickstarted NATO's intervention in Libya by authorizing "all necessary force" to protect civilians. America needed Saudi support for the resolution.

President Barack Obama could thus present his war to his own voters not only as a humanitarian mission into which he had been half-dragged by his insistent European allies, but (more crucially) as having the blessing of all freedom-loving Arabs in the form of the dinosaur institution called the Arab League.

Riyadh and Washington were greatly helped in this ruse by the fact that only half of the 22 Arab League members were present at the UN vote, and six of the 11 that voted were members of the same GCC that had been itching to invade Bahrain. In his much-hyped speech calling for democracy throughout the Middle East in the wake of what was rapidly turning into a cruelly cold Arab winter, Obama did his Saudi friends the kindness of not mentioning them once.

But let us be frank: What partner in our time could be worse than Saudi Arabia when it comes to promoting democracy? Perhaps only the Kim Jong-il regime has a worse record for repression and torture; but at least its influence stops dead at North Korea's borders. When the "Arab spring" almost came, though, the Saudi regime launched a massive counterrevolution

At home, it did what it always does in any crisis: promised $130 billion in handouts to keep the mostly apathetic population in line. A few hundred protestors on Saudi Arabia's own "day of rage"--mostly Shiites in the oil-rich Eastern Province that borders Bahrain--were quickly dispersed or arrested, while the Wahhabi religious establishment forbade all protests against a regime that already represented God's kingdom on earth.

That, with sad predictability, became the end of the desert kingdom's spring.

To tighten its hold on the region, Saudi Arabia meanwhile promised four billion dollars in soft loans and credit lines to bolster the post-revolutionary Military Council in Egypt. And there are signs that Saudi money is also flowing under the table to help extremist Sunni political groups in forthcoming Egyptian elections. The Saudis are also piling huge pressure on the Egyptian interim regime not to try deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, in the form of indirect steps like threatening to expel millions of Egyptian workers from the kingdom.

In Yemen, the al-Saud seized the opportunity presented by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's injuries to set itself up as a power broker. Saleh sought medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, effectively then leaving up to the al-Saud the decision as to whether he should return. Tunisia's deposed leader, Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, had to land in Saudi Arabia after he fled because nobody else would offer him refuge. The al-Saud has flatly refused to extradite him to stand trial. In Yemen, the only Gulf country not a member of the GCC, the most likely group to gain power is an alliance of the al-Saud-backed Hashed tribe and the radical Islamist Islah party, which was founded by leading members of the Hashed.

Saudi Arabia is also pushing for Jordan and Morocco, ruled by fellow Sunni monarchies, to join the GCC, giving rise to the nightmare scenario of a sort of Greater Saudi Arabia from the borders of Israel to the Atlantic. It is also trying to persuade Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia to join an alliance against its (and America and Israel's) archenemy Iran.

In short, the American-Saudi-Israeli political axis--surely the most bizarre political alliance in modern history--ensures that, so long as the al-Saud remain in power, there is no hope of democracy in the wider Middle East. Given that Washington and Tel Aviv regard the al-Saud as a vital guarantor of stability in the region, the latter will surely be in power for a very long time to come.-Published 23/6/2011 © bitterlemons.org

John R. Bradley is the author of "Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution" (2008) and, most recently, "After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts" (2012).

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