Archive for March, 2014

Counterproductive Reactive Saudi Policies

March 18, 2014

By Nicola Nasser*

Writing in The Washington Post on February 27, 2011, Rachel Bronson asked: “Could the next Mideast uprising happen in Saudi Arabia?” Her answer was: “The notion of a revolution in the Saudi kingdom seems unthinkable.”

However, On September 30 the next year, the senior foreign policy fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy Bruce Riedel concluded that the “revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable.”

To preempt such a possibility, the kingdom in March 2011, in a “military” move to curb the tide of the Arab popular uprisings which raged across the Arab world from sweeping to its doorsteps, the kingdom sent troops to Bahrain to quell similar popular protests.

That rapid reactive Saudi military move into Bahrain heralded a series of reactions that analysts describe as an ongoing Saudi-led counterrevolution.

Amid a continuing succession process in Saudi Arabia, while major socioeconomic and political challenges loom large regionally, the kingdom is looking for security as far away as China, but blinded to the shortest way to its stability in its immediate proximity, where regional understanding with its geopolitical Arab and Muslim neighborhood would secure the kingdom and save it a wealth of assets squandered on unguaranteed guarantees.

In his quest to contain any fallout from the “Arab Spring,” Saudi King Abdullah Ben Abdel-Aziz selectively proposed inviting the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco to join the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), leading The Economist on May 19, 2011 to joke that the organization should be renamed the “Gulf Counter-Revolutionary Club.” For sure including Iraq and Yemen would be a much better addition if better security was the goal.

Ahead of US President Barak Obama’s official visit to the kingdom by the end of this March, Saudi Arabia was looking “forward to China as an international magnate with a great political and economic weight to play a prominent role in achieving peace and security in the region,” according to Defense Minister and Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who was in Beijing from March 13 to 16 “to enhance cooperation with China to protect peace, security and stability in the region.” He was quoted by a statement from the Saudi Press Agency.

Prince Salman was in Japan from 18-21 last February, hopefully to deepen bilateral cooperation “in various fields.” On February 26, India and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to strengthen co-operation in military training, logistics supplies and exchange of defense-related information. On last January 23, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia signed a defense cooperation agreement, the first of its kind.

While a strong Saudi-Pakistan defense partnership has existed for long, it has been upgraded recently. Princes Salman and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal arrived in Pakistan on February 15. Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif was in Saudi Arabia earlier. Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC, Tufail Ahmad, wrote on this March 11 that “the upswing in the relationship marks a qualitative change,” hinting that the kingdom could be seeking Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities to “counter a nuclear-capable Iran” despite Islamabad’s denial, which “is not reliable.” The kingdom is moving “to transform itself as a regional military power,” Sharif wrote.

On this March 14, the Financial Times reported that Saudi Arabia has given $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 billion) to Pakistan. In February a senior Pakistani intelligence official told the Financial Times that Saudi Arabia was seeking “a large number of [Pakistani] troops to support its campaign along the Yemeni border and for internal security.” The official confirmed that Pakistan’s agreement, during Prince Salman’s visit, to support the establishment of a “transitional governing body” in Syria was an important aspect of the deal.

On this March 5, the kingdom led two other members of the six-member GCC, namely the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar, risking the survival of the GCC.

Hunting two French and Lebanese birds with one shot, the kingdom early last January pledged a $3 billion royal grant, estimated to be two-time the entire military budget of Lebanon, to buy French weapons for the Lebanese Army.

The Saudi multi-billion dollar support to the change of guards in Egypt early last July and the kingdom’s subscription to Egypt’s make or break campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) inside and outside the country following the ouster of the MB’s former president Mohammed Morsi reveal a much more important Saudi strategic and security unsigned accord with Egypt’s new rulers.

On the outset of the so-called “Arab Spring,” the kingdom also bailed out Bahrain and the Sultanate of Omen with more multi-billion petrodollars to buy the loyalty of their population.

More multi-billion petrodollars were squandered inside the country to bribe the population against joining the sweeping popular Arab protests.

Yet still more billions were squandered on twenty percent of all arms transfers to the region between 2009-2013 to make the kingdom the world’s fifth largest importer of arms while more Saudi orders for arms are outstanding, according to a new study released on this March 17 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

While the United States will continue to “guarantee Israel’s qualitative military edge” over all the twenty two Arab nations plus Iran, Iran is developing its own defense industries to defend itself against both the US and Israel, rendering the Saudi arms procurement efforts obsolete.

Had all of those squandered billions of petrodollars spent more wisely they could have created a revolution of development in the region.

Not Assured by US Assurances

Ahead of Obama’s visit, the Saudi message is self-evident. They are looking, on their own, for alternative security guarantees, or at least additional ones. They don’t trust their decades – long American security umbrella anymore. The US sellout of close allies like the former presidents of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen shed doubt on any “assurances’ Washington would be trying to convey during Obama’s upcoming visit.

President Obama is scheduled to be in Riyadh by the end of this March to assure Saudi Arabia of what his Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns on last February 19 told the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the United States takes Saudi security concerns “seriously,” “US-Saudi partnership is as important today as it ever was” and that the “Security cooperation is at the heart of our agenda” with the GCC, reminding his audience that his country still keeps about 35,000 members of the US military at 12 bases in and around the Arabian Gulf.

However, “the Saudi voices I hear do not think that what they see as the current lack of American resolve is merely a short-term feature of the Obama Presidency: They spot a deeper trend of Western disengagement from their region,” Sir Tom Phillips – British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia 2010-12 and an Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme – wrote on last February 12.

Obviously, the Saudis are not assured, neither internally, regionally or at the international level because as Burns said on the same occasion: “We don’t always see eye to eye” and it is natural that Gulf states would “question our reliability as partners” given US efforts to achieve energy independence and US warnings that traditional power structures, such as the gulf monarchies, are “unsustainable.”

Obama’s upcoming visit to the kingdom has been described as a “fence-mending” one. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal, at a joint press conference alongside visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry last November, hinted that fences might not be mended because “a true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor, and frankness rather than mere courtesy.”

What Prince Al Faisal described as “frankness” is still missing: His brother, prince Turki al-Faisal, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last December, blasted the Obama administration for keeping his country in the dark on its secret talks with Iran: “How can you build trust when you keep secrets from what are supposed to be your closest allies?”

“The Saudis have good reason to feel besieged and fearful,” Immanuel Wallerstein, director emeritus of the Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University and senior researcher at Yale University and Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, was quoted as saying by AlJazeera America on this March 1.

Senior associate of Carnegie’s Middle East program Frederic Wehry on this March 10 wrote that, “There is a growing sense in Gulf capitals … led by Saudi Arabia” that “the United States is a power in retreat that is ignoring the interests of its steadfast partners, if not blithely betraying them.”

What Burns described as “tactical differences” with Saudi Arabia and its GCC co-members, the Saudis are acting on the premise that those differences are much more strategic than “tactical” and accordingly are overstretching their search for alternative security guarantees worldwide because they seem to disagree with Burns that “our Gulf partners know that no country or collection of countries can do for the Gulf states what the United States has done and continues to do.”

Pressured between Two ‘Crescents’

Three threatening developments have led to Saudi distrust in US security assurances. The first was the selling out of a US ally like the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the second was the Qatari, Turkish and US coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood regionally and the third was the assumption to power of the MB in Egypt. The first development set the precedent of selling out of a long regional US ally against the fervent public advice of the kingdom. Mubarak’s ouster set the red lights on in Riyadh of a possible similar scenario in Saudi Arabia.

The second development put the kingdom on alert against the emerging MB, Turkey, Qatar and the US axis that would have encircled Saudi Arabia had the kingdom allowed this axis to hand the power over to the Brotherhood in Syria in the north and in Egypt in the west. The MB is influential in Jordan, the kingdom’s northern neighbor, and in Yemen, its southern neighbor. The Hamas’ affiliation to the MB in the Palestinian Gaza Strip would complete what a Saudi analyst called the “Brotherhood crescent” in the north, west and south, to squeeze the kingdom between the rock of this “Brotherhood crescent” and the hard place of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the east.

The third development surrendered the western strategic backyard of the kingdom to the MB, which has become untrustworthy politically in view of its membership in the emerging US-led ““Brotherhood crescent” after decades of sponsoring the MB leaders who found in the kingdom a safe haven from their suppression in Syria and Egypt and using them against the pan-Arab regimes in both countries and against the pan-Arab and communist political movements.

Unmercifully pressured between the “Brotherhood crescent” and what King Abdullah II of Jordan once described as the “Shiite crescent” extending from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbullah in Lebanon, let alone the al-Qaeda offshoots, which have deep roots inside the kingdom and in its immediate surroundings and have emerged as a major threat to regional as well as to internal stability, in addition to what the Saudis perceive as the withdrawal or at least the rebalancing of the US power out of the region, the kingdom seems poised to find an answer to the question which Bruce Riedel asked on September 30, 2012 about whether or not the “revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable.”

The Saudi answer so far has been reactive more than proactive. “It is difficult to avoid the impression that Saudi policy is more re-active than pro-active,” Sir Tom Phillips – British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia 2010-12 and an Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme – wrote on last February 12.

Proactive Shorter Path Overdue

Following the lead of the United States and Europe who have come to deal with the fait accompli that Iran as a pivotal regional power is there to stay for the foreseeable future, a more Saudi proactive regional policy that would engage Iran and Syria would be a much shorter and cheaper route to internal security as well as to regional stability, instead of reacting to their alliance by engaging in a lost and costly battle for a “regime change” in both countries.

Or much better, the kingdom could follow the lead of the Sultanate of Oman, which risked to break away from the GCC should they go along with the Saudi proposal late in 2011 for transforming their “council” into an anti-Iran military “union.” Regardless of what regime rules in Tehran and since the time of the Shah, Oman has been dealing with Iran as a strategic partner and promoting an Iranian-GCC regional partnership. Qatar takes a middle ground between the Saudi and Omani positions vis-à-vis Iran. On this March 17, the Qatar-Iran joint political committee convened in Tehran.

Feeling isolated, besieged and threatened by being left in the cold as a result of what it perceives as a withdrawing US security umbrella, the kingdom’s new experience of trying to cope on its own is indulging the country in counterproductive external policies in the turmoil of the aftermath of the shock waves of the Arab popular uprisings, which have raged across the Arab world since 2011, but its tide has stopped at the Damascus gate of the Iranian – Syrian alliance, which is backed internationally by the emerging Russian and Chinese world powers.

At the end of the day, the kingdom’s recent historical experience indicates that the Saudi dynasty lived its most safe and secure era during the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian trilateral understanding, which was developed as a regional axis of stability, as the backbone of the Arab League regional system and was reinforced by the trilateral coordination in the 1973 Arab – Israeli war.

The revival of the Saudi coordination with Egypt in the post-Morsi presidency was a crucial first step that would lead nowhere unless it is completed by an overdue Saudi political U-turn on Syria that would revive the old trilateral axis to defend Arabs against Israel. A partnership with Iran would be a surplus; otherwise the revival of the trilateral coordination would at least serve as a better Saudi defense against Iran as well.

However such a Saudi U-turn would require of course a strategic decision that would renege on the kingdom’s US-inspired and ill-advised policy of dealing with Syria and Iran as “the enemy,” while dealing with Israel, which still occupies Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territories, as a possible “peace partner” and a co-member of an anti-Iran and Syria “front of moderates,” which the successive US administrations have been promoting.

It would first require as well a change of foreign policy decision-makers in Riyadh, but such a change will continue to be wishful thinking until a man of an historic stature holds the wheel at the driving seat at the helm of the Saudi hierarchy. Until that happens, it might be too late. Meanwhile, it is increasingly becoming a possibility that the “revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable.”

* Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.


In Birzeit, ‘Trigger Happy’ Israel Vindicates Amnesty’s Report

March 5, 2014

By Nicola Nasser*

In the Palestinian West Bank town of Birzeit early last February 27, the Israeli (IDF) Occupation Forces (IOF) acted determinedly, under the media spotlights, to feed Amnesty International with a show case study to vindicate the report it released only hours earlier, entitled “Trigger-happy: Israel’s use of excessive force in the West Bank,” and to refute the Israeli official diplomatic denial of the contents thereof.

Under the command of Col. Yossi Pinto, a Nahal infantry force of the Binyamin Territorial Brigade, joined by the Border Police’s elite Counterterrorism Unit, Yamam, according to Israeli The Jerusalem Post on the same day and “200 Israeli soldiers, dozens of jeeps, two (military) bulldozers and many Shin Bet [internal security] officers” according to Amira Hass of Haaretz on this March 3, including some 28 – more than thirty army patrol armored vehicles according to the count of Arab natives of Birzeit who spoke to this writer, were amassed in this Birzeit University town, raising a hell of explosives and gunfire and disrupting its peaceful countryside early spring morning.

Amira Hass was on the scene. Wondering what was all that military mobilization for, a former mayor of Birzeit told this writer that he heard her asking in repudiation, “Was it (the late al-Qaeda founder Osama) Bin Laden inside?!”

Their mission, according to Israeli military spokespeople, was to arrest a “wanted individual” who, according to the Shin Bet internal security agency, quoted by Hass, had “intended” to carry out an “aggressive operation” against Israeli targets. An Israeli army spokeswoman said the man was “suspected” of “terror activity.” on the same day quoted “the IDF Spokesman’s Unit” as saying that he was “a wanted man suspected of terror activity.” Gideon Levy in Haaretz on this March 2 quoted “the military correspondents” as repeating what the “IDF claimed” that the man “had the intention to carry out a terror attack in the near future.”

Hass wrote: “In the unofficial Israeli law code, unproved “terrorist intentions” are enough to be punishable by death. In Hebrew, “terror attack” is a magic phrase that exempts the Israelis from wondering why an arrest needs so many troops and fanfare, and has such a murderous end.”

Gideon Levy sarcastically repeating the self-described as “the most moral army in the world” wrote that the Israeli army “is also an army that reads intentions,” but Levy did not add that this army has had it as a rule to act accordingly as well.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said: “After the suspect was called to turn himself in, he barricaded himself inside his house, effectively resisting arrest. Under the premise that he had weapons in his possession, the forces used different means to complete the arrest, including live fire.”

The “suspect” was 24-year old Muatazz Abdul-Rahim Washaha, an unemployed Palestinian native of Birzeit.

Hass questioned the accuracy of this statement. Claiming that the victim had “barricaded himself” in would make people “think he built a fortress and surrounded himself with explosives. This is very inaccurate,” she wrote.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office said that the “troops forcibly entered the building and found his body.” Hass said that “this is a lie.” “The elite police unit had shot Washaha at point-blank range dozens of times, according to the pieces of brain that covered the room, not to mention his legs, arms and fingers that were nearly severed from his body,” she added. Washaha’s head was split open after being struck by a projectile, a doctor at the Palestinian Ramallah Hospital told AP on the same day.

It was left to Levy and others to specify the details of “live fire.”

Levy reported that “the most moral army in the world fired an (M72 LAW) anti-tank missile at the house in which a wanted young Palestinian was hiding … ran a bulldozer over the top of the house and destroyed it,” using “a drill it calls a ‘pressure cooker’ – a rather disgusting drill it invented for itself.”

When the tactic of “pressure cooker,” which involves shooting at the walls of the house that is surrounded, failed to persuade the suspect to come out and turn himself in, the IOF troops at around 7 AM bulldozed part of the outer wall of the house and fired projectiles into the building. Fire erupted in the house. At 11 AM, they issued an ultimatum, “giving Muatazz two minutes to surrender, without result. As the ultimatum expired, the army fired several artillery shells from close distance. They then stormed the burning house, killing Muatazz,” Jan Walraven reported in the Palestine Monitor on this March 3.

The four – apartment building was bulldozed and shelled out of use and its contents burned and vandalized. Four families suddenly found themselves on the street, waiting for charities.

Washaha did not “resist” his arrest; he simply refused to give himself in. Released from an IFO jail only a few months ago, he knew very well what being imprisoned by the IOF meant. “I will be free here. Leave and do not worry about me. I will stay here and not surrender. I will not return to prison,” he told a Palestinian civil defense worker who rushed in to extinguish the fire caused by the Israeli projectile. Those were his last words, quoted by The Electronic Intifada on last February 28.

“They could have taken him as a prisoner, but they did not want him as a prisoner they wanted to kill him,” his father Mr. Abdul – Rahim said. Similarly, his mother, Mrs. Eitzaaz Washaha, told Anadolu Agency: “Israeli forces could have arrested Washaha, but they were determined to kill him. My son wasn’t armed. He was killed after the house was bombed.”

An Israeli Shin Bet officer, who goes under the name of Alon, gave permission to kill Muatazz because he refused to appear for an interview with him, according to Hass. “This was regarded as a personal affront by Alon,” she wrote. The victim’s brother, Tha’er Washaha, told Haaretz he implored Alon for permission to go inside and convince his brother to come out; Alon refused.

However, despite the officially acknowledged “suspicion,” an official army tweet, quoted by Los Angeles Times on the same day, convicted him as a “terrorist who resisted arrest.”

Pro – Israeli media and Israeli media, the latter being subjected to well – known strict military censorship, echoed this unconfirmed conclusion; for example, on the same day headlined its report to conclude that a “Wanted Terrorist (was) Shot Dead by Israel Defense Forces.”

Disinformation was demonstrated by Israel Hayom, reportedly close to prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office; on the same day Hayom reported that “a firefight broke out” between the holed in victim and the besieging army brigade, but the witnesses on the site confirmed the Reuters’ report that “no shots were heard from inside the home before the Israeli forces opened fire,” a fact that is confirmed by the other fact that the raiding Israeli forces did not suffer the slightest casualty, which also refutes the IOF’ claim that the man had an AK-47 rifle, another “story” that “Israel accepted … with a yawn,” according to Levy of Haaretz.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) in a statement condemned Washaha’s killing as an “assassination,” a “crime” and a “deliberate” killing. PA’s spokesman, Ihab Bsaiso, said it was an “example of the violence perpetrated on a daily basis against our population.” In a letter sent to the UN Secretary-General, the President of the UN Security Council and the President of the UN General Assembly, Palestinian Ambassador Feda Abdelhady – Nasser said Washaha’s killing indicates Israel’s “pre-meditated intention of killing him.”

Israeli journalist Hass agrees further that his killing was a “cold-blooded assassination”; “The Israeli army did this deliberately,” she wrote. “Israel’s goal” was “to embarrass the Palestinian Authority and undermine its status” among its own people and Israel was “successful” as the “Palestinian Authority officials were absent from Washaha’s funeral” the next day to avoid the angry crowds, estimated at more than five thousand, who were demanding an end to peace negotiations and to PA’s security coordination with Israel.

Gideon Levy had another interpretation for the motives of “The most moral army in the world,” which was the title of his opinion column in Haaretz; “The Israel Defense Forces has also created a heartwarming name for all this: the “Tool of Disruption” – storming a civilian community for the purpose of causing panic and fear, and to disrupt its life,” or “Sometimes these operations are conducted … as a training routine in order to preserve the readiness of the forces and a demonstration of sovereign power” toward the Palestinians living under the Israeli military occupation since 1967, he wrote.

Amnesty’s Report Vindicated

Washaha’s extrajudicial execution came on the same day the Amnesty International (AI) released its 87-page report recommending that the U.S., EU and the rest of the international community should suspend all transfers of military aid to Israel because “without pressure from the international community the situation is unlikely to change any time soon,” Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said. “Too much civilian blood has been spilled … (and Israel’s) unlawful killings and unnecessary use of force must stop now,” he added.

The AI reported it had documented the killings of 22 Palestinian civilians in the West Bank in 2013 and in all the cases the Palestinians did not appear to have been posing a direct and immediate threat to life: “The circumstances of all their deaths point to them having been victims of unlawful killings, including — in some cases — possible willful killings.”

“Several victims were shot in the back suggesting that they were targeted as they tried to flee and posed no genuine threat to the lives of members of Israeli forces or others,” the report said. “In several cases, well-armored Israeli forces have resorted to lethal means to crack down on stone-throwing protesters causing needless loss of life” and “there is evidence that some individuals were victims of willful killings, which would amount to war crimes,” it added.

Since the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry succeeded in resuming the Palestinian – Israeli peace talks on last July 29, the IOF killed more than 42 Palestinian civilians; Washaha was among the latest.

Using “excessive force,” “arbitrary and abusive force against peaceful protesters” and displaying “callous disregard” for human life, Israeli soldiers and police officers have been operating with “near total impunity,” in a “harrowing pattern of unlawful killings and unwarranted injuries,” “as a matter of policy,” while the Israeli investigative system is “woefully inadequate,” said Luther.

The AI report accused Israel of “war crimes and other serious violations of international law.”

Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, said that Amnesty was “obsessive” with a “focus on Israel” and accused the London – based rights organization of having “an agenda that has more to do with politics than human rights.” His embassy in London told The Jewish Chronicle that the AI’s report was merely a “stunt” filled with “unverifiable and often contradictory accounts.”

In Birzeit on that sad morning of last February 27, the elite military disproportionate force which the IOF used to liquidate Washaha acted as if it was intentionally determined to undermine the credibility of Israel’s official diplomacy, represented this time by ambassador Taub, and to vindicate the contents of Amnesty’s report which he tried to deny or at least to question.

Ironically, Israeli PM Netanyahu, less than a week later, was in Washington D.C. lecturing a receptive American audience at the annual conference of AIPAC about drawing a “clear line … between life and death, between right and wrong” and about the “moral divide!”

* Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.