You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

U.S. sidelined from Gulf turmoil

Crucial allies in region stifle fight for freedom

- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 13, 2012

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Persian Gulf has been the slow burn of the Arab uprisings.

The fraternity of rulers in the oil-rich region has remained intact with tactics such as withering force in Bahrain and arrests of perceived dissenters in the United Arab Emirates.

It also has been accomplished with little serious blowback from their Western allies, which count on the region's reliability as an energy supplier and military partner against Iran.

That now could be put to the test as Gulf states attempt to muzzle the voices of opposition by adopting sweeping measures such as bans on protests and clampdowns on social media.

"The Western governments have taken essentially 'do what it takes' policies with the Gulf regimes," said Christopher Davidson, an analyst on Gulf affairs at Britain's Durham University. "That requires a certain level of silence and a practice of looking the other way from the West."

This month, however, State Department spokesman Mark Toner issued unusually blunt criticism of a decision by Bahrain — a strategic island kingdom that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet — to temporarily outlaw all protests against the government amid rising violence in the nearly 21-month-old uprising against the Western-backed monarchy.

On Nov. 4, protesters rained homemade firebombs on at least three police stations in another sign of deepening tensions.

Kuwait also could bring further questions from the West over its widening clampdowns on an Islamist-led opposition ahead of Dec. 1 parliamentary elections, including bans on public gatherings of more than 20 people.

Protesters have defied the order, and authorities on Nov. 4 warned that a planned anti-government rally was illegal and would face a stiff backlash from security forces.

The UAE, meanwhile, angrily challenged a European Parliament resolution this month that denounced "assaults, repression and intimidation" against rights activists and suspected members of an Islamist group that officials consider a threat to the state.

More than 60 people have been detained in the past year in one of the quietest ongoing crackdowns of the Arab Spring, rights groups have said.

Saudi Arabia said last month that it was "insulted" by a British Parliament inquiry into suspected Saudi human rights violations and its military assistance to Bahrain's embattled monarchy.

Saudi forces also have waged an ongoing battle against groups from the kingdom's Shiite majority, which claims systematic discrimination.

A mutual arrangement

Across the region, bloggers and social media activists face increasing pressures from laws against direct criticism of the sheiks and monarchs who control the Gulf. A Bahraini man recently was sentenced to six months in prison for a conviction of insulting the king.

"The Gulf is a delicate dance for the West," said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs. "The Gulf leaders know they are insulated. There could be rising complaints from Washington or London about various hard-line measures, but no one realistically thinks the West will do anything more than complain."

That is because the likely price would be too high for anything else.

The Gulf states host perhaps the highest concentration of Western military might outside NATO, including about 15,000 U.S. ground forces in Kuwait and air bases dotting the desert down to Oman.

The arrangement works for both sides because of a shared concern: Iran. The West gets firepower right at Iran's doorstep, and the Gulf leaders have resident protectors.

The West also cannot ignore the rising political ambitions of the Gulf as the wider Middle East is reshaped by the Arab Spring.

Qatar, a leading backer of Libyan rebels last year and now a key supporter of the Syrian rebellion, is hosting a critical meeting this month of Syrian opposition officials.

The U.S. hopes to use the gathering to overhaul the anti-Damascus forces into a new leadership with fewer Syrian exiles and more rebel commanders.

At the same time, Syria's civil war and Iran's nuclear program were high on the agenda for Gulf stops last week by British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. Those visits allowed Gulf leaders to restate their views on the internal threats.

They fall in two directions: suspected Iranian plots, and fears about Islamists emboldened by Arab Spring victories in Egypt and elsewhere.

The Islamist question

Authorities in Bahrain — facing nonstop clashes and unrest since February 2011 — increasingly have blamed Shiite power Iran or its proxies for encouraging the protests by the island nation's Shiite majority.

No clear evidence has emerged to back up the claims, and Iran denies any direct role.

But it has become a central narrative of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council anchored by regional Sunni power Saudi Arabia. It also boxes Washington and other Western allies into a corner.

The U.S. has urged dialogue in Bahrain, where more than 50 people have died in the unrest. But any clear support for the Shiite-led opposition could seriously disrupt relations with Gulf nations and possibly complicate the futures of U.S. bases in the region.

In the UAE, the main target is al-Islah, an Islamist group that authorities worry could try to undermine the control of the ruling clans in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other emirates.

Al-Islah says it seeks only a wider public voice in the country's affairs — but even that is considered dangerous territory in a nation that allows no political parties and swiftly squelches any signs of public protests.

Dubai's police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, warned in September of an "international plot" to overthrow the governments of Gulf Arab countries by Islamist factions inspired by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

"The Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in the nation state," UAE Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said last month. "It does not believe in the sovereignty of the state."

The claim was made just weeks after UAE President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan offered an invitation to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to visit Abu Dhabi.

Suspicions about the Muslim Brotherhood run so deep that the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — are expected to make it a main topic of talks when leaders meet next month.

By that time, however, Kuwait will have held its next election for parliament, by far the most politically powerful legislature of the Gulf Arab states.

Opposition groups, led by Islamists and backers from Kuwait's powerful tribes, have two main paths ahead: either seek to reclaim control of the chamber, or boycott the voting in protest of the tightening crackdowns.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.