By Pepe Escobar
A very quiet summit recently took place at a North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO) base in Molesworth, in the United Kingdom. Facing the British was none other than Prince Turki al-Faisal, former director general of Saudi Arabia's feared Mukhabarat (intelligence services), and once a very close friend of slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Prince Turki was there to explain the House of Saud's take on the great 2011 Arab revolt. In a nutshell; he told the British - and the Americans - to forget their silly ideas about "democracy". This was all an Iranian plot.
The deployment of Saudi Arabian troops in Bahrain and Yemen, and the deployment of Wahhabi mercenaries in Libya and Syria was nothing other than tools to fight in ideological combat - and engage in hardcore repression - against the spread of Shi'ite Iran's influence.
The icing in this desert cake is the ongoing transformation of the Gulf Cooperation Council - in fact now a Gulf Counter-Revolution Cub - into an alliance of Sunni monarchies, with the incorporation of Jordan and Morocco to current members Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The House of Saud remains the proverbial staunch ally of the Washington/London "special relationship" - its petrodollars ($300 billion in oil revenues in 2011, made possible by owing 12% of global oil production) buying everyone in sight from Egypt to Libya and Palestine, while Arab al-Qaeda-linked networks merrily bolster the uprisings in both Libya and Syria.
Yet - in this House of supreme paranoia - what if the day comes when they wouldn't be regarded as indispensable, staunch allies anymore? What if Washington/London are convinced that a more acceptable Middle East should have Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood as "models"?
On the crucial energy front, the House of Saud didn't fail to notice the fact that the US will prefer to concentrate its future energy needs on gas - and not oil, and this while Saudi oil reserves are declining and China is already Saudi Arabia's top trade partner (that's one of the key reasons China abstained from United Nations resolution 1973 on Libya; Beijing didn't want to antagonize Riyadh).
Washington/London certainly increased their own fears of a regional disaster when Prince Turki was very clear Saudi Arabia would go for its own nuclear bomb in case Iran did the same - although there's no evidence whatsoever, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program. By the way Prince Turki himself made it clear on a separate occasion; the only regional actor allowed to have nuclear weapons is Israel.
So Prince Turki's message at this "secret" NATO meeting was essentially that we're top dog in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, and from now on we do what we want to do first, not necessarily what you want us to do.
That could be the definitive hint for Washington to finally drop this inconvenient, medieval but staunch ally that stubbornly wants to stop the flow of history - but it won't be interpreted as such.
All about Iranophobia
The House of Saud has used the great 2011 Arab revolt to propel Iranophobia in the Sunni Arab world to all-out hysteria. Iranophobia has been deployed as a Saudi-orchestrated psy-ops for years now - geared towards isolating Iran in the arc from Northern Africa to Southwest Asia.
While trying to depict Iran to Arab public opinion as the ultimate evil, the House of Saud may hope to obscure the role of the real profiteers - Western neo-colonial powers which occupy or control, directly and indirectly, the Arab world. Most of all, Iranophobia is extremely useful for the House of Saud, as well as the al-Khalifa Sunni dynasty in Bahrain and the Emirates rulers, to mercilessly repress their own people.
In the West, Iranophobia has been misunderstood as a cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. No; it's a counter-revolutionary pys-ops conducted by the House of Saud out of supreme fear of Iran's regional alliances - with Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad - as well as Iranian support, for instance, for the Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen in 2009.
There's also a running myth that Saudi King Abdullah, 86, illiterate and close to meeting his maker, has tried to integrate Saudi Shi'ites - especially via the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue. There's no way to understand Saudi Arabia without examining its historical prejudice against Shi'ites. Saudi schoolbooks treat Shi'ites as non-Muslim infidels, or worse - evil "polytheists".
The heart of the matter is that the House of Saud is bound by blood with the Sunni Wahhabi clerical establishment. As long as the monarchy follows their medieval interpretation of sharia law, the king is incensed as the legitimate "custodian of the two holy mosques".
So Iranophobia - as it's being deployed especially after Tahrir Square in Egypt - only serves to bolster Wahhabi medievalism, and to demean Shi'ites, inside and outside the kingdom. Thus the overall belief in Saudi Arabia that Iran forced the overwhelming majority of Bahrain's population to cry for democracy.
The power of the Saudi counter-revolution should not be underestimated. As much as the House of Saud was horrified by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak being "dumped" by the Barack Obama administration, they have been clever enough to bribe the Tantawi junta currently in power with almost $4 billion. The House of Saud is furious that Mubarak will have to stand trial.
Asia Times Online has extensively reported on the Saudi invasion and repression in Bahrain. In Yemen, Saudi "made-in-the-USA" jets have routinely pulled an Obama AfPak gimmick, bombing Shi'ite rebels across the border. But now the House of Saud craves "stability" - that is, to pick up the new post-Ali Abdallah Saleh ruler.
In Syria, it's more complicated. The House of Saud, officially, is silent - while Saudi media has a ball demonizing President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi-financed networks, mildly Islamist and even jihadi-oriented, work in the shadows.
Welcome to the end of history
House of Saud minions are all over Saudi-controlled media talking about the kingdom's "non-interference" policy. That's absurd; the House of Saud for decades has interfered against scores of progressive or leftist movements all across the world, and pushed several countries to civil war, from Lebanon to Yemen and Somalia - either serving Washington's interests or most of all the interests of their medieval Wahhabi clerics.
King Abdullah recently ordered that the grand mufti and other top clerics simply cannot be criticized. If you are even mildly opposed to the House, you go to jail; 11,000 people have been arrested since 9/11, and more than 5,000 remain in prison. No one has a clue who these people are. Transparency is zero. And there's no legal system responding to internationally accepted standards.
Beheadings abound; 121 people last year. There's no elected government, no political parties, no free press. Two women were arrested last Sunday in Riyadh because they were demanding a fair trial for their relatives, according to Amnesty International. On the same day, at least 20 people - including 16 women and children - were arrested outside the feared Ministry of Interior because they were demanding the release of political prisoners, according to the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.
Iranophobia is just another facet of a House living in perpetual fear - and paranoia. Wanna see the end of history? Board a flight to Riyadh....
The idea of Iranian-Saudi negotiations developing over the future balance of power in the Persian Gulf region does not seem to have caught the attention of mainstream media, but in exploring the theme thoroughly and for good reason. We spotted the first indication of this cooperation June 29, when rumors began circulating that the GCC Peninsula Shield Force, which intervened in Bahrain in mid-March to help put down a Shia-led uprising, was drawing down its forces. Commander in Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force Marshal Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa denied rumors of a withdrawal of GCC forces in a July 7 interview.
Al Khalifa said the forces were repositioning while looking at ways to increase their military capacity and coordination. Meanwhile, sources claim that the 1,000-plus force that deployed in mid-March has been pared down to about 300. We are then left with two questions: Why the sudden confusion over the status of GCC forces in Bahrain? And why have Iranian officials suddenly begun issuing near-daily statements about the conditions for a fruitful negotiation with Saudi Arabia?
The answer to both questions is related to a developing dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran, driven by the fact that the United States lacks both a clear strategy and the capability to prevent Iran from filling a crucial power vacuum in Iraq once U.S. forces withdraw. Against the odds, the United States is trying to negotiate with the Iraqi government an extension that would allow at least one U.S. division of 10,000 troops to remain in Iraq past the end-of-year Status of Forces Agreement deadline. Washington is struggling to negotiate this residual force against Iran for one simple reason: leverage. From the politicians in Parliament to Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s militiamen on the street, Iran has more means than the United States to influence decisions made in Baghdad.
Iran could theoretically consent to a small U.S. military presence (far less than a division) in Iraq, but Tehran would only do so if it felt confident it could hold those troops under the threat of attack while remaining immune to an invading force. The United States won’t agree to a small and ineffective force that would be vulnerable to Iran, so the negotiations fail to move forward. The pressure felt by the United States was expressed Thursday when U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told Pentagon reporters that “Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shia groups, which are killing our troops” in Iraq. Any extension of the U.S. troop presence, Mullen said, “has to be done in conjunction with control of Iran in that regard.”
The weakness of the U.S. position vis-a-vis Iran worries the GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia. A strong Iranian push into Iraq, combined with the long-term threat that Iran can provoke Shiite dissent in not only Bahrain, but more importantly in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, creates a highly stressful situation for the Saudis. Add to that the prospect of a weak and insufficient U.S. conventional military deterrent against Iran, and it becomes easier to see why the Saudis might feel compelled right now to open up a dialogue with the Iranians.
Saudi Arabia may not be able to accept the idea of recognizing an Iranian sphere of influence in Iraq that extends dangerously close to the Saudi borderland. However, the Kingdom could negotiate a temporary truce with Iran under the terms of which Saudi Arabia would begin to draw down its military presence in Bahrain, while Iran would cease meddling in the Shiite affairs of the GCC states. This confidence-building conversation could then extend step-by-step to other strategic matters, including the appointment of a Sunni (versus a Shia) to the defense ministry in Iraq, the distribution of Iraqi oil revenues, the Sunni-Shia power balance in Lebanon and so on.
While investigating this issue, we learned that at least five bilateral meetings between Saudi Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Turki bin Muhammad bin Saud and Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Muhammad Rida Shibani have quietly taken place, suggesting that negotiations are proceeding, albeit slowly. According to our sources.
Iran has tried to bring Kuwait into the talks as a third party, a prospect Saudi Arabia has thus far rejected. Iran often confuses negotiations by adding more participants, with the aim of sowing divisions in the adversary’s camp. They employ the tactic regularly when negotiating with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, trying to bring countries like Turkey and Brazil into the conversation. However, Saudi Arabia seems to be making clear to Iran that it intends to speak alone on behalf of the GCC — excluding even its main patron, the United States.
Given the current situation, the Saudis cannot be sure that the United States will be able to buttress them against Iran. The Saudis also don’t know whether the United States and Iran will reach an understanding of their own that would leave Saudi Arabia vulnerable. Such a rapprochement might see Washington effectively ceding Iraq to Iran (which in many ways may be inevitable) while seeking guarantees that Iran will desist from meddling in Saudi Arabia. Unable to trust U.S. intentions toward Iran, the Saudis appear to be negotiating with Iran independent of the United States.
As one Saudi source phrased it, if the Americans do not include the Saudis in their own talks with Iran, then why should the Saudis coordinate their negotiations with the Americans?
This reaction could put the United States in a difficult position. Washington, in trying to negotiate an extension in Iraq, needs to build up its leverage against Iran. One-on-one talks between the Iranians and the Saudis would undermine the U.S. negotiating position. Moreover, the United States cannot be sure how far a Saudi-Iranian negotiation will go.
Right now, preliminary steps like a truce in Bahrain can be made between the Saudis and the Iranians, but what if the negotiations move to discussing the eviction of the U.S. Fifth Fleet from Bahrain in exchange for Iranian security guarantees to Saudi Arabia? The Saudi royals hope these thoughts will compel the White House to commit to a more effective blocking force against Iran, thereby precluding the need for Riyadh to strike an unsavory deal with the Persians. The problem is that the United States already feels so compelled but finds itself stymied. If the question now is one of capability, Iran has already shown that it holds the upper hand in Iraq as Washington and Riyadh contemplate their next — independent moves....
The Saudi-led counter-revolution ....
For decades, the Arab region was in a state of regression and helplessness, until a series of uprisings and revolutions erupted early this year. To date, these have resulted in toppling two regimes, Egypt and Tunisia, and threatening three, Libya, Yemen and Syria, with a similar destiny. Other regimes have felt obliged to initiate various degrees of reform: Jordan, Morocco, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Algeria, and Bahrain. This is one of the most sweeping changes witnessed by the Arab world since the age of renaissance and enlightenment some 100 years ago.
In fact, events taking place in several Arab countries can be seen as a delayed phase of that renaissance and enlightenment age that began late in the Ottoman era. According to this concept, that age was interrupted during the new colonial era when the World War I victors divided up the inheritance of the "sick man of Europe" based on the Sykes-Picot and San Remo agreements. That was followed by the creation of the state of Israel in fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration, the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, then a series of military coups against ruling regimes accused of being accomplices of the West.
If we reflect on the impact of these coups d'etat on the political, economic, and social structure of our states and societies, we can to a certain extent explain the "democratic inertia" that the region has witnessed. The coups demolished the emerging civil, political and partisan structures in our societies, hindered the legislative and judiciary branches' functioning, and prevented free and pluralistic elections. They also "ruralized" civil life and empowered peasant-rural elites to determine the status of political, intellectual, cultural, and social life in the Arab world. After all, most of the Arab armed forces executing the coups d'etat and subjecting the states to dictatorial military rule were descended from peasant origins.
Thus Upper Egypt dominated Cairo and Alexandria; Tikrit dominated Baghdad, Mosul and Basra; Kardaha dominated Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. By the second half of the 1970s, the "Bedouinization" of Arab communities by the Wahhabi version of the extremist Salafi trend became the most extreme and socially and culturally backward manifestation of this dynamic.
Coincidentally, oil and gas discoveries were concentrated in the least-developed and least-urbanized Arab countries. Thus, an "unholy alliance" emerged between Salafi-Wahhabi religious institutions and enormous oil revenues, constituting a chronic impediment to Arab reform. Arabs came to be viewed as "another type of people" who do not deserve democracy and for whom democracy is irrelevant, even though the 1920s and 1930s had witnessed a modernization and renaissance process at least in the major Arab cities.
The triumph of the Islamic revolution in Iran, along with the Salafi movement, oil revenues and an ideology of hatred, resulted in the region sinking into an ocean of Islamization that collided with modernity, freedom, pluralism, and democracy. A parallel Sunni-Shiite confrontation has festered since the Iraq-Iran war.
Thus did the Arabs miss the opportunity to join the democratic waves that spread through most countries in the world. Only when the Bouazizi event erupted in Tunisia towards the end of last year did the Arab doors open wide for change and revolution. A domino effect catalyzed revolution in one Arab country after another and galvanized a new socio-political force--Arab youth. Could it be that the Arab world had all of a sudden decided to abandon regression and passiveness in favor of freedom, pluralism and dignity? Had the Arab street become convinced that the only thing it had to lose was its chains?
The quick fall of both the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt and that of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia inspired young men and women in additional Arab countries to take to the streets with similar demonstrations and sit-ins; they repeated virtually the same slogans before recognizing that Libya, Yemen and Syria are neither Egypt nor Tunisia. On the contrary, revolutions seeking reform and change in those countries will be costly, long, and bloody. Consequently, the "counter-revolutionary forces" led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have had a chance to mobilize their logistics and launch a counter-attack along multiple fronts.
This began with an effort to save Mubarak and Ben Ali. Failing this, the Saudi camp attempted to salvage their regimes. It sought to trade the head of the Libyan regime against the minority Sunni regime in Bahrain. Today, these forces are doing their best to rescue the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, while on the Syrian front they are still trying to fathom whether or not the American strategy calls for President Bashar Assad to depart in order to calculate their response.
Noticeably, this Arab counter-revolutionary camp comprises nearly the same forces that in the 1950s and 1960s spearheaded a confrontation with the Nasserist, nationalist. and leftist trends of the day. Coincidentally, the countries targeted today are the same that were targeted in the past. Indeed, such coincidences usually conceal necessities. Saudi Arabia and its allies in the residual "moderate" Arab camp consider the "Arab spring" a strategic threat to their security and very existence: not because the winds of change have caused their major allies to collapse but rather because a "reaction" has already commenced inside Saudi Arabia (the Eastern Region and Hijaz) and among the Gulf emirates (Bahrain).
Saudi Arabia has left no stone unturned in seeking to immunize its interior and the Gulf. Vast alliances have been built with the old and collapsed "leftover" regimes. Support has been delivered to states vulnerable to revolution and change, based on enormous oil revenues derived from increased oil prices this year. The Salafi/Wahhabi movements in Egypt and Tunisia have been exploited to cause the revolutions to wane and to divert attention to marginal issues and clashes. In Syria, Riyadh seeks to blackmail the regime. In Iraq and Lebanon, it wants to challenge the forces affiliated with Iran and its "Shiite crescent".
The old Arab political systems, then, are proving very capable of resistance; they will not accept the new status easily. They are taking advantage of the double standards and hesitant reaction of the West when addressing Arab revolutions. Thus, many political observers are convinced that the Arab region is still in the throes of a hard transition period; victory has not yet been achieved.
The good news, though, is that the Arab street has abandoned the culture of fear. It has resolved decisively to take its future in hand and become a main actor, if not "the" main actor, on the political stage. This is the most important guarantee that the revolution of change will be sustained until it triumphs...