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Shifting Sands

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 28 February 2011


The leaders of the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia are not renowned for their moral or physical courage. Events over the past month will have shaken them to the core. It is interesting to speculate on who or what might have stiffened the resolve of US client state, Bahrain, to face down the protesters. The US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain which the US regards as strategically important. In order to maintain the stability necessary to pursue its interests the US has backed the ruling royal family. To protect its vital oil supplies it has backed the ruling royal family in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to the changes taking place around it. On one side Egypt, on another Yemen and across a 26 kilometre causeway on the eastern gulf, Bahrain. The Saudi royal family is locked in a dangerous time warp of its own making.

The US Consular Service advises on their web site that the government of, "Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by a king chosen from and by members of the Al Saud family. The king rules through royal decrees issued in conjunction with the Council of Ministers, and with advice from the Consultative Council. The king appoints members of both councils...Saudi authorities do not permit criticism of Islam or the royal family. The government prohibits the public practice of religions other than Islam".

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Tensions have been simmering in the Middle East for decades, particularly Saudi Arabia. The majority practice a fundamentalist off-shoot of the Sunni branch of Islam, known as Wahabism. At least it does so officially. Compliance with the dictates of Wahabism is vested in the Mutawwa or religious police. They ensure that women are accompanied in public by their husbands or male relatives, that they do not drive motor vehicles and that they wear an Abaya, or equivalent in the case of Western women, and that female heads are covered with a scarf or shawl.

Women have few of the rights or freedoms that are taken for granted in Australia. They can work but only in an all female environment. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden, yet members of the wealthy elite and some members of the extended ruling family ignore this restriction.

There are some wonderfully contemplative, well balanced and read Saudis, yet venality and mendacity is all too often encountered. It is a society run entirely for the benefit of wealthy ethnic Saudi males.

The United States has made every effort to ensure that it remains close to the ruling family and is perceived to be so by all Saudis particularly those who loath the regime. The United States is also rightly seen to be close to Israel, so Saudi dissidents such as Osama bin Laden had no difficulty identifying the US as the number one enemy, particularly when they saw that the Saudi royal family would collapse without US support.

The reward for US abasement and abandonment of human rights in the Gulf has been to try and maintain an influence over Saudi and Gulf States oil policy, which has waxed and waned. Paradoxically for the US support for repressive Arab regimes led to the growth of a fundamentalist response, the philosophy of which has taken root in other Muslim countries where inequality and regime corruption conspire to deprive opportunity.

With the forces now unleashed in the Middle East the untimely and ill-advised US invasion of Iraq is brought into question. Little has been achieved in Iraq, yet the people, inspired by current events, may have been able to oust Saddam Hussein, along the lines unfolding in Libya. The Saudi Government is just as repressive and misogynist as the Taliban. Which should beg the question, why is the US is fighting the Taliban and succouring the Saudis, the answer is oil. Fighting the Taliban, while maintaining an equally unpleasant Saudi regime as an ally, could be seen as a vindictive crusade to salve American honour after 9/11; the war in Afghanistan has precious little to do with ending terrorism.

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Saudi Arabiahas used money to buy influence and security. It has paid off Hamas and other trouble makers including al Qaida. Even so there have been acts of terror committed inside Saudi Arabia, directed against Western and Saudi interests the most recent in 2007.Real and perceived wealth determines the power of the Al Saud. WikiLeaks claim a CIA assessment shows the Saudi's have 40% less in oil reserves forty percent than what they claim. Such revelations do not come at a good time for a nervous regime.

It is illegal to mention Israel in Saudi Arabia, maps sold in the country contain no reference to Israel. Yet according to the Jewish News of23 June, 2010, Israeli C130s landed at the big Saudi air base at Tabuk in the north and unloaded supplies. The Jewish News speculated that it was part of a joint US/Israeli undertaking directed at Iran. From the Saudi regimes point of view it is part of whatever it takes to survive, from the Israeli perspective it puts the lie to their oft made claim that the Arab states wish to crush them.

There is plenty of scope for unrest to develop inside Saudi Arabia. The population is just over 27 million. Thirty five percent or 9.5 million people are guest workers from Bangladesh, China, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam; they are poorly paid and treated. Female domestic assistants are particularly badly treated with claims of abuse ranging from deprivation of liberty to beatings and torture and all too often rape. A recent particularly sad story was of an Indonesian women who became pregnant after being raped raped by her employer. The employer alleged an affair with another man and took her to court where she appeared without legal representation. She was found guilty sentenced to 100 lashes and a term in prison.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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