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Edition 18 Volume 9 - June 23, 2011

The GCC and Arab revolution

The monarchy club  - Anouar Boukhars
Not since the Arab revolutions of the 1950s have the monarchies of the Gulf felt so insecure.

The al-Saud's spring  - John R. Bradley
At home, the kingdom did what it always does in any crisis.

Hunker down or seize the opportunity?  - Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi
Gulf leaders must consider their place in history.

Jordan and the GCC:
few opportunities,
many challenges
 - Oraib Al-Rantawi
Membership may become a burden on Jordan's security and stability rather than a solution to its economic crisis.

The monarchy club
 Anouar Boukhars

Not since the unnerving times of the Arab nationalist revolutions of the 1950s have the monarchies of the Gulf felt so insecure and threatened by the inexorable forces of revolutionary change. Saudi Arabia's panicky reaction to the tremors of change in Egypt and its frantic counterattack against anti-autocratic agitation in neighboring Bahrain shows a desperate attempt to stem the rising tide of popular demands. Exploiting ideological differences and stoking sectarian divisions, the Saudis are brandishing the specter of Iranian mischief in fermenting populist agitation and rebellion in Sunni domains. Hence the Saudi's venture to rally Sunni regimes in and outside of the Middle East in a bloc against Iran's perceived war on the existing Arab order. This is nothing but a plotted shift from popular demands for democracy and a diversion into dangerous doctrinal infights.

As old certainties fade away, the GCC has emerged as reactionary club par excellence, striving to crush popular revolts within its realm and prevent, or at least manage, the fall of any more regimes in its proximity. Its leader, Saudi Arabia, has mounted an aggressive multi-front strategy to buy peace at home and stability in its regional surroundings. The monarchy uses the power of the purse to appease its own young and restless population as well as prop up the strained finances of the less well-off members of the GCC, namely Oman and Bahrain. Riyadh has also proposed opening its institutional doors to the royalties of Jordan and Morocco who happen to share the same religious identification and threat perception. Both monarchies are reliable allies of the GCC, possess professional security forces, and fear populist demands for credible popular representation and social justice. If this expansion comes to pass, the Middle East would have all its monarchies grouped into one club.

The official and public reaction to the GCC's surprise announcement elicited different responses in both Jordan and Morocco. In Morocco, the invitation was greeted with surprise and popular derision. The timing of the initiative is very suspect. Many Moroccans believe that the GCC's proposal fits within Saudi Arabia's ideological agenda to combat democratic stirrings in the Arab world. Street protests have already pushed the monarchy in Morocco to introduce important constitutional reforms and limit some of its prerogatives. Lacking the Saudis' largess to mollify its people, the regime smartly opted to further liberalize politically. Nevertheless, there is rampant suspicion of Saudi motives of suddenly wanting to upgrade the already close partnership with Morocco. It is common knowledge that the Saudis strongly fear the implications of Morocco's democratization, and it is not a stretch to believe that they might try to use their financial leverage to pressure the monarchy to slow the reform process it put under way.

Moroccans are also concerned that their security forces, hundreds of which have been stationed in parts of the Gulf for decades now, might be called upon to bloodily repress popular uprisings or Shiite revolts in the Gulf. With the exception of radical Salafis, no Moroccan wants to be entangled in the Saudis' doctrinal war with Iran and Shiism. Such a conflict is a boon for uncompromising doctrinarians and radical ideologues.

Similar fears are echoed by many Jordanians who fear being dragged into a sectarian contest that is inimical to the process of democracy-building and the very stability that the Saudis and authoritarian regimes claim to so crave. To be sure, the public reaction in Jordan was not as lukewarm or outright hostile to membership in the GCC. Jordan shares geographic proximity with the Gulf, enjoys certain cultural and tribal affinity with the bloc, and lacks a real sense of national identity. Jordanians also hope to benefit from the movement of labor, discounted oil, and financial aid.

Like Moroccans, however, Jordanians are wary of this sudden push to bring Jordan into the GCC fold. There is concern that this is a reactionary move to preserve the current system with very few modifications. A number of Jordanian analysts have voiced worry that the dangerous stoking of regional tensions and ramping up of anti-Shiite rhetoric might be a deliberate strategy to undermine popular pressures for political change. There are serious concerns that King Abdullah II, who has been lobbying hard for membership with the GCC and has enthusiastically jumped in the anti-Shiite bandwagon, might be tempted or pressured to shelve his timid plans for limited political reforms.

The king is known for invoking the country's "bloody borders" and the specter of Iran as a means to forestall political reforms. His recent backtracking from the promises he delivered in his June 14 speech are not reassuring. The king first declared that future prime ministers will be selected in accordance with popular will, then a few days later he retracted, arguing that that transformation will come along only after the emergence of mature political parties in two to three years time.

Jordan's monarch would be better served by following the model of measured reforms just launched by King Mohammed VI of Morocco. The alternative is to "watch it take place in the streets below with uncontrolled consequences," warned Marwan Muasher, a former senior government official in Jordan. The same applies to the conservative monarchies of the Gulf. They can either opt for reform and become a powerful motor of Arab integration and economic growth, or continue their internal decay until they are swept away by the winds of change.

The challenge, however, is how to prevent this royalty club from becoming a reactionary bloc intent on defending the status quo.-Published 23/6/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org

Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College in Maryland.

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".

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).

Hunker down or seize the opportunity?
 Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi

The relative quiet we are witnessing in the Arab Gulf streets today can be attributed to both natural and governmental causes. After all, the soaring summer heat makes it impractical for large groups of people to protest for long hours. A severe government crackdown may have caused others to reconsider.

But below the surface, things may not be as quiet as these governments like to believe. In the Arab Gulf states, the core demands of their citizens who protested earlier in the year have so far not been met. In fact, at a recent forum in Abu Dhabi the managing director of the Omani think tank Tawasul, Khalid al-Safi al-Haribi, predicted that the Gulf states would witness a second wave of protests before the end of the year.

The Gulf states have perhaps overreached in their reaction to the "Arab spring". On the external level, they've invited Morocco and Jordan into the monarchical club known as the Gulf Cooperation Council and upped the ante with Shiite neighbor Iran. Internally, a clampdown on dissent was coupled with generous financial grants.

Saudi Arabia has led both reactive efforts. Despite under-the-table disagreements that almost all Arab Gulf states have with Riyadh, several factors contribute to Saudi Arabia being the anchor state of the region whose decisions influence its smaller neighbors. After all, it is the only state to border all the other five GCC states, and the one with the largest population--including Shiites--landmass, army, oil production and oil reserves. The kingdom also has the largest media empire and economy in the Middle East.

Because Saudi Arabia is such an instrumental force in the region, even an incremental change there could have a tremendous effect on the other Gulf states. The kingdom is akin to a giant ship that takes a long time to turn, yet once the turn is complete it makes a significant difference. Excessively pressuring Saudi Arabia may have a reverse effect; should the contagion spread to a nation that hosts Islam's holiest shrine, the tragic events in Bahrain would look like a storm in a teacup. The best way forward to encourage reform may be to use the existing tribal structure rather than outside influence to signal to Saudi Arabian and other Gulf leaders the necessity of reform--not to please outsiders but because it is the right thing to do.

Despite what foreign media would have many believe, most Gulf leaders have a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of largely politically apathetic GCC citizens. Much of the critical media opinion regarding these leaders originates from people outside the Gulf who have little understanding of the realities on the ground vis-a-vis their own ideals. These outside analysts have likely been deceived by how things appear rather than how they really are.

To use computer jargon, Gulf hardware is very much up to date: shiny buildings, modern airports and world-class infrastructure. But the software--civil society and individual responsibility--has not developed as fast. So it is no surprise that foreign pundits measure demand for reforms in Gulf societies based on a small number of activists and the country's elite intelligentsia. Although the protests in Bahrain did escalate into demands by some for the toppling of the monarchy, this condition was not adopted by the mainstream opposition movement al-Wefaq. In the two least politically active Gulf states, Qatar and the UAE, the vast majority of the population sees the activists who were detained simply as rebels without a cause.

The Arab Gulf states are visibly concerned about the Arab spring, which has already cost them a major ally in Egypt's former president. But, to borrow from American lingo, hunkering down is not the ideal solution to the challenges that face the GCC.

Gulf leaders in power today have an opportunity and responsibility to reform their societies and bring them into the twenty-first century regardless of external factors. There is so much more to reform than the idea of a free and fair ballot box that keeps many leaders awake at night. The judicial system in these countries is outdated and highly susceptible to outside influence. Centralization of decision-making has slowed progress to a snail's pace. Corruption is endemic to ministries that have not witnessed change at the top in decades. Women's rights have stalled, only Oman has appointed ministers who follow the Shiite faith, and no Gulf state has appointed a black cabinet minister. Accountability applies to select people. Freedom of the press suffers from official as well as self-censorship. Individual rights are elastic notions that expand and contract depending on a case-by-case basis.

There is indeed much work to be done away from the ballot box, but Gulf leaders must first consider their place in history. Do those in power want to be remembered as leaders who surpassed their people's expectations, or as individuals whose reaction to the Arab spring was to hunker down and wait it out?-Published 23/6/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based commentator on Arab affairs.

Jordan and the GCC:
few opportunities,
many challenges

 Oraib Al-Rantawi

On May 10, at their thirteenth consultative summit, Gulf Cooperation Council leaders decided to accept Jordan's application for membership, noting that it had originally been tendered 15 years ago. The GCC leaders also issued an invitation to Morocco to join their "super-rich Arab club" despite the fact that Morocco had not requested to join.

This decision by the Gulf countries was viewed by Arab political circles as a striking and high-profile step. Some political observers described the decision as an attempt to create a "Sunni monarchies club"; others, as an attempt to re-create the Baghdad Pact. The latter, we recall, was an alliance among pro-western or pro-American countries against the USSR and its satellites during the Cold War.

Evidently, the GCC initiative was the outcome of Saudi-led efforts, supported by the UAE and Bahrain, while the other three GCC countries, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, had reservations. This may reflect differences in these countries' agendas and order of priorities. Put more bluntly, it may reflect the apprehension of certain GCC countries.

Thus, the decision led to an outcry and to controversial debate inside GCC political, economic and cultural circles and provoked internal opposition. We can deduce that a move by GCC leaders to admit Jordan to their fold will prove difficult. Not surprisingly, some observers went so far as to draw parallels between Turkey and Jordan, asserting that Ankara might obtain full membership in the European Union more easily than Jordan would obtain full membership in the GCC.

As matters stand, this GCC decision could not be taken outside the context of Saudi Arabia's strategy for dealing with three major new challenges confronting the kingdom and its allies. First are the threats emanating from Iran's consistent drive to extend its power and influence in the region, including among the GCC countries themselves (notably Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE), let alone Tehran's attempt to develop a nuclear program with multifold goals, including a military dimension.

A second major challenge is the collapse of moderate Arab regimes, in particular the Mubarak regime in Egypt, in the course of the "Arab spring" revolutions, possibly leading to the creation of democratic republics that reinforce anti-Saudi political forces (liberals, leftists and Islamists) inside these countries and in the region as a whole. This would present a new challenge to the kingdom and its political regime. Riyadh has reacted with a counter-revolution against Arab reform and revolution that seeks to contain the new forces of change in the region.

Third is the growing threat posed by al-Qaeda and other terrorists in "soft" regions like Yemen and the fear that this might penetrate Saudi Arabia. It also seems clear to Riyadh and some of its allies in the Gulf that the United States has shelved the Iran nuclear file and has not acted to prevent expansion of Iranian influence in the region. Further, the US appears to be prepared to abandon allies like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia if necessary.

Therefore, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have begun to adopt a new strategy, based on six pillars:

1. Putting their own houses in order by pumping billions of dollars into buying the silence of their citizens and preventing their protests.

2. Putting the Gulf house as a whole in order, closing gaps that may have allowed security threats to penetrate (the Bahrain uprising, threats in Oman), cooling down border disputes and tempering Riyadh's rivalry with the UAE regarding a Gulf currency and the Central Bank.

3. Expanding the GCC umbrella to welcome Jordan's application for membership and invite Morocco in order to create an economic, political and security force representing 80 million Arabs to counter Iran with its population of 70 million.

4. Looking to the east to build new alliances with China, India and Pakistan after concluding that the existing pro-western alliance might not meet the GCC's security needs.

5. Intensifying efforts to contain Arab revolutions by using money and oil and by re-directing Salafi Islamic movements in the region against forces of change and revolution.

6. Moving from static defense to more aggressive tactics in dealing with Iran. This means intense political and diplomatic campaigns at every level. It also means concentrating on the Iranian nuclear threat, the dangers of expanding Shiite influence and in particular Iran's attempts to penetrate the Gulf and Arab security systems, as well as focusing on national, ethnic and religious targets in Iran, beginning with Arabistan/Khuzestan/Ahwaz and activating Salafi movements in these regions.

During the last year alone, the Gulf security and defense system recorded two major failures. The first was military, in the confrontation between the Saudi army and the Yemeni Houthis. This seemingly proved that hundreds of billions of dollars had not succeeded in transforming the Saudi armed forces into an effective fighting force capable of defending the kingdom's borders against medium-size threats. The second, all too obvious security failure was in Bahrain, where the regime was unable to contain the Shiite opposition and was obliged to ask for the help of Peninsula Shield forces in addition to recruiting dozens of retired soldiers and officers from Arab and Islamic countries like Jordan and Pakistan.

As for Jordan, there is a growing belief among political circles that its acceptance as a member of the GCC came in the context of a Saudi-led strategy of self-reliance that seeks to expand the GCC's sphere of allies and not depend on Washington and its pledges. The US clearly views the latest developments in the region from a perspective at variance with the Saudi view on issues like Bahrain and the Houthis. Washington may protect the GCC states from Iran, but it will not protect them from internal threats. It views the Arab spring as an opportunity while Saudi Arabia views it as a threat.

Many Jordanians understandably welcomed the GCC membership offer as a way to help solve problems of unemployment, poverty, low growth and rising energy costs that weigh heavily on the national economy. But reformist and liberal currents fear that the offer may in fact be an opening for a military alliance aimed at countering Iran and the Arab spring revolutions simultaneously. This prospect and the role it envisages for Jordan are viewed by Jordanians with skepticism.

The reformist current also fears certain practical consequences as a result of Jordan joining the GCC: human rights (regarding women, minorities and freedom of opinion and expression) could be infringed and the future of reform and democratic transformation in the country could be affected. Placing Jordan under a "Saudi umbrella" could have a social, cultural and religious impact as a consequence of the extremist Saudi Wahhabi school of thought.

At the pragmatic level, the process of joining the GCC may take too long, and the positive returns be delayed. Meanwhile, Jordan is being asked to provide security and military services without delay. Thus, membership in the GCC may become a burden on Jordan's security and stability rather than a solution to Jordan's financial and economic crisis.-Published 23/6/2011 bitterlemons-international.org

Oraib Al-Rantawi is director of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies, Amman.

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