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Arab spring: Saudi Arabia calls the tune

Translated Friday 25 March 2011, by Kristina Wischenkamper and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Saudi Arabia has sacrificed Libya in order to pursue repression in Bahrain. Several geopolitical analysts quoted by the AFP believe that the oil power of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni solidarity against Shiite Iran explains why the Arabs have been silent about the repression in Bahrain whilst protesting loudly against the crushing of the revolt in Libya.

According to Bourhane Ghalioun, Director of the Center for Contemporary Arab and Eastern Studies "Riyadh has traded in Bahrain against Libya because what happens next door is vital, while the allied military intervention in Libya is of less importance to the Gulf countries, especially as they have very poor relations with Muammar Gaddafi". On 14 March, Saudi Arabia sent a thousand soldiers to support the Bahrain regime, and two days later Bahraini police dislodged protesters who, for a month, had camped in central Manama, demanding a constitutional monarchy. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has remained tight-lipped concerning foreign intervention in Libya.

The Power of Oil

It is in "no one’s interest to act with hostility towards Saudi Arabia or the Gulf countries. Both Western and Arab states have need of their oil and their huge financial resources," adds the professor of political sociology. Nearly half of the world’s oil reserves are to be found in the Gulf, and the Gulf monarchies have been linked since 1984 by a defence pact called the "Peninsula Shield."

Sunnis against Shiites

Above all, however, it is the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, and the shadow of Iran, which have been instrumental in Arab support for King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, whose Sunni line has reigned for over 200 years on the archipelago, where 70% of the population is Shiite. "The Arab position, especially in the Gulf countries, was to be expected because of both the sectarian polarization in the region and the ambitions of Iran”, says Iraqi analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie. Washington, like most of the Arab countries, is convinced of Iranian involvement in the revolt in Bahrain, and nobody had any intention of watching the flames ignite a few steps from major global oil reserves, because it would have serious consequences on energy supplies and consequently on the global economy."

The sectarian question is an extremely sensitive one, because even if only 10% of Saudis are Shiite, they consitute the population living in the oil regions of the kingdom. In contrast, virtually all Libyans are Sunnis and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hates the Libyan leader, with whom he has on many occasions exchanged insults. Even Syria, Iran’s principal ally in the Arab world, had its Foreign Minister Walid Moallem say on Sunday that the intervention of the Saudi forces, within the terms of the "Peninsula Shield" agreement, was "legal".

Syria at Odds with Iran

"The Syrian regime wants to avoid a hostile position towards the Gulf countries especially after what has happened to Muammar Gaddafi, who finds himself abandoned by his Arab peers," according to Hamid Fadhil, a professor of political science at the University of Baghdad. "After the unrest began in Syria, the authorities in Damascus totally changed their attitude towards Bahrain to avoid being isolated if they used force against demonstrators. This shift may have surprised Iran, but Syrians say it is better to have the support of the Gulf countries against a possible Western intervention, should the situation worsen", he said.

In fact the only Arab leader to openly take a stand in favour of the Bahraini demonstrations is the Iraqi Shiite Nouri al-Maliki. "We have seen how tyrants treat those who proclaim their rights peacefully in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain", he said Saturday. A statement that, according to analysts, will make it difficult to hold the Arab summit scheduled for May in Baghdad.

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