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Japan foreign minister visits Saudi Arabia

Koichiro Gemba, Japan’s foreign minister, visited Saudi Arabia to discuss contingency options to maintain Japan’s flow of oil should EU plans to sanction Iranian oil come to pass, according to Al Arabiya.  Currently Japan receives 9% of its oil supply from Iran, and 30% from Saudi Arabia, so it follows that Japan would like assurances that the Saudis can provide 25-33% more oil if need be.  The article notes that

Pressure from Washington and the European Union to boycott Iranian crude comes at a time when Japan must make greater use of thermal power plants after a massive earthquake and tsunami sparked a nuclear power crisis last March. The vast bulk of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are now shut down, amid public distrust of the technology and increased safety calls.

Despite ranging projections of how much oil Saudi Arabia still has, an short-term increase in production to help ease the burden of an embargo on Iran is feasible.


Tunisia, Saudi Arabia

The vote is complete in Tunisia!  While the actual results are not yet known, the election was completed with high voter participation and few suggestions of cheating or fraud.  This Al Jazeera article is a good primer for when the actual percentages of votes are announced.  Essentially, Ennahda is going to be the big winner, as was expected by the time voting began.  However the scale of the victory, as well as the results of which other parties did well, will be critical in understanding what the commission that will be tasked with creating a new constitution, temporary governance, and holding presidential and parliamentary elections will look like.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has an interesting article posted on the potential new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.  An excerpt:

“Nayef is widely seen as a hard-line conservative who at best is lukewarm to King Abdullah’s reform initiatives,” said an October 2009 American diplomatic cable that was obtained via WikiLeaks. “However, it would be more accurate to describe him as a conservative pragmatist convinced that security and stability are imperative to preserve Al Saud rule and ensure prosperity for Saudi citizens.” The cable goes on to describe his multifaceted personality as “elusive, ambiguous, pragmatic, unimaginative, shrewd and outspoken.”

The article discusses how, in his position as Interior Minister, Prince Nayef has played an instrumental role in political arrests and enforcing Saudi crackdowns.  There wasn’t much in the article about his relationship with America though, except that back in 2001 Prince Nayef bought in to the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was a plot orchestrated by either the Muslim Brotherhood or Israel.

Two woah! stories

Al Jazeera reports that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu of Israel has announced that after five years of being held captive, Israel has finally struck a deal with Hamas for a prisoner swap that will free IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.  Shalit has become a sort of symbol in Israel, and while his release is of little tactical or strategic value, it is a huge political win for Netanyahu, in my opinion on the level of Obama announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden.  There is room to question if a swap of a captured IDF soldier for many Palestinian prisoners will only encourage future kidnappings, but for now that does not seem to be a concern.

Then there is this article from the New York Times, which reports that US Federal Authorities broke up a plot of two Iranians, with connections to Iran’s Quds Force, to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US and bomb the Saudi Embassy (I’ve been there!).  The men were supposedly attempting to hire Mexican drug cartels to carry out the operation.  The National Security Council has been on top of this plot since June.

Abdullah Alshamri, a Saudi official in Riyadh, predicted the disclosure would send Iranian-Saudi relations to “their lowest point yet.” Though no government steps had been taken, he suggested that a diplomatic row was inevitable.

“We’re expecting from our government a serious and tough reaction to give a message to the Iranians that enough is enough,” he said by telephone. “If we keep our diplomatic ties with the Iranians, they will think we are weak and they will keep trying to attack us.”

He said this was only the latest Iranian attempt to attack Saudi diplomats.

“This is their hobby,” he said. “Iran has no respect for international law.”

Edit: Professor Rob Prince, a friend of MEDG, blogged about Israel’s rough September.

Saudi Arabia has a flare up, China and Russia take a stand on Syria

This may or may not be ominous, but in Saudi Arabia there were some isolated riots in the oil-rich coast city of Qatif, according to Al Jazeera.  Details are limited.  The Saudis are blaming the riots on foreign instigators; it is likely that they have Iran in mind.  The article I’ve linked is frustrating in that it is ambiguous, seemingly hinting that we may be dealing with a powder keg, and equally likely that we are dealing with nothing.  Certainly, among all of the states in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is the most likely candidate for the United States to aggressively support the government in quelling protests that cause instability and order.

Al Jazeera is also reporting on the Chinese and Russian veto of a UN resolution that sought to condemn Syria and create minor actions against the Assad regime.

“The United States is outraged that this council has utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security,” Susan Rice, the US ambassador, said, condemning countries that “would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime”.

For months, Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa – the BRICS countries – have criticised the US and European council members for allegedly allowing NATO to overstep its Security Council mandate to protect civilians in Libya.

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with the position taken by China and Russia on this one.  The likelihood of this resolution peacefully resolving conflict in Syria while still allowing the Assad regime to keep power is low.  Rather, its intention is to lay groundwork for eventual regime change.  I suppose that in my own view I am hypocritical, as I would like to see regime change in Syria, but do not believe the West should be the catalyst.  Yet without the West as catalyst, Assad’s regime would have to be incredibly inept to not eliminate the present challenge to its regime.  If we intend on interfering with Syrian sovereignty to the degree of achieving regime change, there had better be an explanation of how such action is a national security imperative than what was offered regarding Libya.  Do you all agree?  Consider also Ambassador Rice’s point, that the veto prevents the international community from preventing human rights violations in Syria.  Do you believe that a UN resolution could have been the critical factor in stopping human rights violations as Syria carries out a campaign to quiet activists?

Bahrain and colonialism

It is a slow news day; in the UN Security Council a resolution on Syria isn’t taking the shape America would prefer, according to Al Jazeera.  In Bahrain, the appeals of sentenced protesters were rejected.

So today I want to post an Al Jazeera piece from early September.  The author argues that the portrayal of Bahrain as split between Shi’a and Sunni is an over-simplification, and that rather Bahrain should be understood as struggling with colonialism, where the colonial British have set up a proxy authority (now controlled by the US and the Saudis) that happens to be Sunni in a place that happens to be populated by Shi’a.

The so-called sectarian divide of Bahrain is a manipulative simplification of a far greater divide: that of the colonially-installed government that has no connection with or compassion for the people of Bahrain. The Saudis are there to preserve Anglo-American power as they do in Saudi Arabia. They are Sunni. The people they rule over are primarily Shia.

These are the kinds of tensions the British specialized in and the Americans are taking advantage of in so many parts of the world. It’s an insidious approach to world affairs. Coupled with nonstop mainstream media portrayals of sectarian divides amongst the population, it has been a successful model for damaging the locals, their reputation, and their chances of getting the help they actually need.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to expect from Bahrain.  If the US and Saudi Arabia really are determined to support the Al Khalifa family out of fear of growing Iranian influence, among other factors, then international pressure wont mount.  If the army really has been carefully maintained to be all Sunni, then I can’t see the army switching its support from the government to the opposition, which I view as the critical step in any revolution.  So what is the best to hope for?  That the Khalifa family voluntarily relaxes its policies regarding the Shi’a population?  The other challenge activists face is that Bahrain is not a poor country.  It is not Qatar-rich, but it is not Yemen-poor either, so the desperation that plays a part in motivating other protest movements around the region may not exist in Bahrain.  Do we root for Iran to succeed in stirring up dissent?


Saudi women will gain a right in 4 years

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has announced that women will be able to participate in future municipal elections, according to Al Jazeera and The New York Times.  The Al Jazeera article explains that

More than 5,000 men will compete in Thursday’s municipal elections, only the second in Saudi Arabia’s history, to fill half the seats in the kingdom’s 285 municipal councils. The other half are appointed by the government.

Women will be allowed to vote in the next round of municipal council elections, which should come in 2015 or so.  The decision reflects long lasting pressures on the Saudi government to create better gender equality, as well as pressure from the Arab Spring to make changes that make government more representative and accountable to the people.

A quote from the Times:

“It is not something that will change the life of most women,” said Fawaziah Bakr, an education professor in Riyadh, noting that she had just held a monthly dinner for professional women who were buzzing with excitement about the change.

“We are now looking for even more,” Mrs. Bakr said. “The Arab spring means that things are changing, that the political power has to listen to the people. The spring gave us a clear voice.”

The story, for whatever reason, reminds me of this 2008 New York Times article about an unlikely icon (source of encouragment?) for Saudi Arabian women.

I think that the US is trying to come to grips with the fact that our less-than-wholesome allies in the Middle East are not entirely sustainable if we leave them to their own devices domestically.  So there is a challenge to push/encourage Saudi Arabia to take steps towards liberalizing their social/legal/political system when maintaining good relations is paramount to our Middle East strategy.  Given the Secretary of State Clinton’s priorities, especially in the area of gender equality, this might be a development that provides the United States an opportunity to build on.


Saudi Arabia gets involved

I have already enjoyed my twenty free online articles from the New York Times this month, but for those who haven’t, the paper has an article up on the effort of Saudi Arabia to get involved in steering the outcomes of the Arab Spring.  Of course, the Saudis sent troops and advisors to Bahrain to help stabilize instability and end revolt in that state.  In their own state, the royal family doled out tons of money to citizens to essentially buy stability.  That strategy is going to be applied abroad.  This week, the Saudis sent $4 billion to Egypt to support the military leadership.  The Saudi’s message to other states is two fold: stability is preferable, and Iran and Shi’as are bad.