The world’s attention is on Libya, but the real geostrategic importance is in Bahrain

Thursday 24 March 2011 by CEPRID

Alberto Cruz


March 1st 2011

Original in Spanish - http://www.nodo50.org/ceprid/spip.php?article1092

Once again the bourgeoisie’s game has been set into play: is Gaddafi good or is he bad? Is he still in control of the country or not? Should Libya be occupied? Is the Libyan government receiving support from Latin America? Should Gaddafi be criticized? …

It is with astonishing skill that the bourgeoisie has manipulated the current revolts in the Arab world. In Egypt and Tunisia the middle class who fostered the revolts with the support of the army, does not hesitate in attacking those that want to go beyond merely cosmetic reforms in order to ensure the continuation of the status quo but with greater power for the middle classes themselves. This is their way of avoiding the progressive impoverishment their own class. In Morocco and Jordan the protests continue, now with criticism of the respective monarchies (which is a novel occurrence) but for the Western media these protests are now nonexistent An occasional report appears amidst the swarm of chronicles from "liberated zones" by "special correspondents" in Libya.

It is not there, though, that the future of the Arab world as we know it today is being decided, but in Bahrain, which currently represents the spark that could ignite the flames of revolt across the entire Persian Gulf.

The geostrategic importance of events in this small country is so great that if the current revolt triumphs it will affect Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Protests have already started to take place in the former.

There are Shiites in all three of these countries representing an absolute majority of the population (70%) in Bahrain and significant minorities in the other two – about 30% in Kuwait and a little less than 20% in Saudi Arabia. Importantly, though, it is the Shiite population than inhabits the part of Saudi Arabia that is both richest in oil and situated closest to Bahrain (10% of the world’s daily oil consumption is extracted from this part of Saudi Arabia).

Throughout the centuries, Shiites in this region have been consistently marginalized both politically and economically. They have been regarded as a sort of “fifth column” of the Islamic revolution that began in Iran in 1979. Not even as a result of the timid constitutional reform of 2001 and the reactivation of the Bahraini Parliament were the Shiites able to overcome the exclusion they are subjected to in Bahrain - legal ruses avoided the establishment of a Shiite political majority ensuring political control in the country remained in Sunni hands.

Reform was, in truth, a farce which constitutionally consolidated power in the hands of the Sunni elites considering that the power to name a consultative council with the power to block electoral candidates was left to the Bahraini monarchy, while the electoral districts were manipulated in such a way so as to reduce Shiite representation in the Parliament to a bare minimum. In Bahrain, political parties are illegal. Political organizations present themselves for elections as “political societies.”

If now the West is concerned about oil, imagine what would happen were there to be a change in the correlation of forces in the “black granary” of the Gulf. To mention just two factors, firstly, the difficult position in which US military deployment in the region would find itself. Not only are the headquarters of the V Fleet situated in Bahrain - from where the bombardment and missile operations that devastated Baghdad prior to the 2003 invasion were carried out - but also, in Kuwait, the effective military command of the occupying troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secondly, such a situation would have an impact in terms of strengthening the influence of Iran in the region and, by extension, in the entire Middle East.

This is the Achilles heel of the strategy being adopted by the Obama Administration in response to the revolts in the Arab world. It is a strategy based on supporting the revolts so as to ensure they do not get out of hand and to use them, as the deposed presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have been, in Washington’s campaign against Iran.

It is within the logic of this strategy that we hear Western calls for “moderate” responses to protests and “to avoid violence” which, in the case of Bahrain, resulted in the monarchy’s military forces immediately ceasing the massacre of protestors who, just a few weeks ago, were being driven under fire out of the Pearl Square (or Martyr Square as the protestors now call it as a homage to those killed during the recent repression).

It is not necessary to remind readers about the head of the Bahraini Army’s TV speech after ordering the deployment of tanks to the streets on the third day of the revolt in which he ensured viewers that all necessary force would be used to avoid “disturbances.”

Bahrain is the only Arab country that has been visited twice by high level US political and military officials during the last few days (1). The last visit, for the moment, was that of the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman.

Both the US and Saudi Arabia feel a shiver up their spines as the difficult position in which they find themselves regarding Bahrain becomes more apparent. They cannot encourage repression nor can they invade the country as they have been insistently proposing in Libya’s case. The mere suggestion of invasion would have the effect of unleashing a furious and uncontrollable response among the Shiites.

And it is significant that protesters in Bahrain have been very careful not to make an issue of religious beliefs as part of the revolt. Like in Egypt, the protesters’ use of the national flag portrays a rebellion based on the principle of national and not religious identity. Underlining religious differences would likely reduce the existing situation to a Sunni-Shiite confrontation.

Claims that the Bahraini protesters are involved in an attempt to create some kind of wilayat al-faqih, or Shiite state, could not be further from the truth. This is underlined by the very existence of an important Bahraini leftwing organization, Waad, made up, almost in its entirety, of Shiites. It would be ridiculous, therefore, to pay any attention to US Armed Forces Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen’s claims when, without mentioning Iran by name, he accused the country of “inciting disturbances in Bahrain.” (2)

Saudi Arabia in checkmate

This US position has served to justify the actions of the Bahraini monarchy over the last few years. The Bahraini regime even went as far as asking the US to bomb Iran, as was revealed recently in secret diplomatic documents exposed by Wikileaks.

As part of their attempt to counteract the popular revolt the Bahraini monarchy called on their supporters to attend the Sunni mosque Al-Khalifa on February 21st, an action which again underlines the sectarianism that sustains the regime.

If the corporate media is bent on talking about pro-Gaddafi mercenaries in Libya, the same outlets should be talking about the pro-Salafist mercenaries – many of them Saudis – used by the Bahraini Interior Ministry to repress protesters during the first few days of the revolt. (There are tribes that enjoy Bahraini-Saudi dual nationality, and up until now, the Bahraini monarchic regime’s security forces have been mainly made up of members of these ethnic groups.)

Saudi Arabia has historically had strong interests in Bahrain. The Saudis even went as far as building a bridge uniting both nations (Bahrain is an island) via which thousands of Saudi business men cross over into “liberal” (in comparison with Saudi Arabia) Bahrain to relax each weekend.

In reality, though, the main function of this bridge – which began to be built in 1981, two years after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran – is not recreational, but has to do with military control. The bridge linking the two nations is wide enough to permit the pass of an entire mechanized division in a short space of time should the Bahraini Army require such reinforcement. And it did in 1990 when a number of bombs went off in the commercial and financial center of the capital city, Manama.

It is not, therefore, by any means a crazy hypothesis that the Saudis could intervene if the Bahraini revolt takes a more drastic course. If the Egyptian protests provoked the Saudi stock market to lose on average 6% value a day (3), a similar crisis in Bahrain would be devastating for the economy of this country which, though very rich, finds itself in a state of political paralysis thanks to the ills of a gerontocracy both in the middle of a process of succession and without an effective response plan to current events in the region, events which will inevitably cause progressive loss of Saudi regional influence.

And Saudi Arabia really is the great piece in the game of chess being played out in the Middle East: it is the equivalent of the King in check. With the Jordanian Bishop already annulled and the Egyptian Queen under threat (her movements restricted to the squares in her immediate vicinity), the loss of the Bahraini Rook would represent check mate for the Saudi King.

For the moment, as they wait to see how the protests evolve, both the US and Saudi Arabia have encouraged the Bahraini monarchy to make concessions (modest concessions but concessions all the same) to the majority of its population, like the liberation of certain political prisioners and the appointment of a prince to negotiate with the protestors.

Simultaneously five ministers have been replaced (the ministers of housing, labour, health, electricity and water and the presidency, in other words all the social ministries something which in itself suggests the protesters’ main demands are to do with the poverty in which the majority of the population lives. At the same time, the interest rate on mortgages has been reduced by 25%.

These concessions, though, are insufficient for the Shiite demands which are now based on nothing less than the disappearance of the monarchy.

This is something the protesters will not achieve, however, unless they increase and radicalize their actions (although they are likely to win greater political concessions than the Monarchy and their US and Saudi sponsors would like). And on Sunday February 27th a path in this direction was opened up when protesters besieged government headquarters (4) in rejection of a Parliamentary meeting they considered illegal, given that the withdrawal of the Shiite parliamentary bloc meant there was not sufficient quorum for a debate or meeting to take place in the parliament. Also, on the same day, the government reinforced police security in the Persian Gulf country embassies.

In any case, further political concessions by the Bahraini authorities will be seen as a triumph which will embolden Shiites in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia itself, something which will result in the further decline of the political influence of the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar) in the region as a whole.

The fact that on February 17th, a day after the massacre of protesters, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in Manama, establishes very clearly that the GCC does not plan to let the regime of Bahrain – a country with such a high percentage of Shiites – fall. Doing so would be the equivalent of ceding control of the Gulf region to Iran at a time when the Iranian authorities celebrate what they describe as a “a new Islamic awakening and a New Middle East” with the appearance in the region of new leaders who are less servile to Western interests.

From that February 17th, the media chain Al Jazeera started to offer more sectarian coverage of events in Bahrain in contrast with the openly sympathetic stance the same media outlet has taken regarding revolts in other Arab countries. This seems to have created division within the Bahraini protesters with the more moderate Al-Wefaq (Movement for National Agreement) now proposing the establishment of a British style “constitutional monarchy.”

There is one country within the GCC, however, - Qatar - which, since the triumph of Hezbollah against Israel in the summer 2006 war, has tried hard to convert itself into a bridge between the members of the GCC and Iran. Qatar could play an important geostrategic role in this sense by facilitating a rapprochement with Iran and acting as a moderator between Shiites in the Gulf.

The forces of “change” in Libya

In this convulsive situation the only country that isn’t causing the imperialist powers too much loss of sleep is Libya. Only in Libya can one safely say that the pro-imperialist warriors are triumphing. The so-called National Front for the Salvation of Libya, considered the protagonist of the rebellion (which, tellingly, uses the monarchic flag), is a creation of the CIA and Saudi Arabia dating back to the 1970s (5), while the Libyan Constitutional Union is a monarchic organization. Both groups form part of the so-called National Conference of Libyan Opposition.

Does this mean to say that Gaddafi is “good” or that he is an anti-imperialist point of reference? Absolutely not. His histrionics and pro-Western affairs are well documented enough even though he has now been abandoned by the West and is being treated as a pariah.

Gaddafi was long ago denounced within the Arab world by the Resistence Front (especially Hezbollah) both for these moves and for his role in the disappearence of key Shiite leader, Musa Sadr, thirty years ago (although now claims that Sadr is still alive and in jail somewhere in Libya have emerged).

The support he has recieved from Latin America is understandable, although more from a sentimental than an intellectual perspective.

But if the right of the world’s peoples to self determination is to be defended, consistency is essential. The only acceptable stance to take vis-a-vis events in Libya, therefore, is one of support for the right of the Libyan people to determine their own internal affairs by themselves without interference from NATO or any other imperialist power.

The fact that the UN Security Council has voted unanimously in favour of a series of sanctions against individuals and has opened the door to an International Criminal Court ruling (a decision which in itself about which one could say a great deal) does not mean much: the resistance of Turkey, Russia and China prevented the declaration of a no-fly zone - like the one which acted as the premise to the Iraq invasion in 2003 - over Libya as requested by the National Conference of Libyan Opposition (NCLO).

The Libyan regime will fall, but not as soon as the imperialist powers would like, and, at least for now, a blatant foreign invasion will not be possible.

A “provisional government” like the ones formed in Tunisia and Egypt (made up of officials from the current regime and figures from the NCLO) would be recognized by the Western powers. And given that in these two countries the neoliberal economic policies established by both Ben Ali and Mubarak have remained intact, in Libya (where Gaddafi has also introduced neoliberal policies) they will be greatly advanced. In 1994 the NCLO was already talking about complete privatization of the Libyan economy (6).


(1) Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 25th February 2011.

(2) Asia Times, 24th February 2011.

(3) Alberto Cruz, “Egipto: la revuelta de la clase media (y el comienzo de una nueva lucha)”, “Egypt: the middle class revolt (and the beginning of a new struggle),” http://www.nodo50.org/ceprid/spip.php?article1079

(4) Al Jazeera, 27th February 2011.

(5) Jeffrey Richelson, “The US intelligence community”, Westview Press, 2008.

(6) “Libyans Debate Post-Qaddafi Era”, http://www.wrmea.com/backissues/0194/9401050.htm

Alberto Cruz is a journalist, political scientist and writer

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