Spotlight on Geopolitics

As the attention of the international public opinion over the last month has been focused on the developments in Libya, the Gulf kingdoms have been busy repressing pro-democracy protests, from Manama to Sanaa. Headed by Saudi Arabia, who provides the military force or the money, Persian Gulf rulers are hoping to avoid the long overdue transformations of incredibly corrupt regimes running on oil money.

By sending armoured convoys to support the embattled sultan of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has totally compromised its leadership position among Arab states. Last week’s securitary intervention in Manama could only delay the inevitable. In fact, the population of Bahrain has raised against the same type of religious discrimination that saw Saddam Hussein toppled in Iraq only a few years ago. The fact is that more than 60 percent of the Bahraini population lacks equal economic and political rights because they are Shia. Such a huge vulnerability should have been addressed by the sultan not with bullets and tear gas, but with a constitution offering all citizens equal rights, regardless of their religion. The Shia Bahrainis have no doubt been following the situation in Iraq closely, where the Sunni monopoly on power came to an end as a result of the US military intervention.

Nor is that all. Saudi Arabia is also using the wealth obtained via a decades-old policy of overpriced oil in order to prop up the hugely unpopular Ali Saleh regime in Yemen. Just a few days ago, Saleh’s security forces have killed 52 protesters with Gaddafi-style sniper fire. The killings have determined a few top Yemeni generals and diplomats to side with the opposition and call on him to step down. French foreign minister Alain Juppé has also echoed the call, in a sure sign that Saleh’s rule, like Gaddafi’s, is rapidly approaching a bloody and ignominious end.

The Saudi Arabian armed intervention in Bahrain and the support it has thrown behind Saleh somehow bring to mind – albeit in a small way – the Warsaw Pact’s 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately for the octogenarian Saudi rulers, Obama is not Brezhnev. By the same token, the US is not ready and willing to underwrite a bloody repression of popular protests clamouring for equal rights and democratically-elected governments.

Alone among Arab monarchs, the 47 year-old king Mahommed VI of Morocco has promised a thorough overhaul of the country’s constitution. Sadly, the proposed changes do not go far enough in addressing the key problem of transforming the kingdom into a fully fledged constitutional monarchy. The proposed reforms seem to be aimed at conserving the powers of the monarch and making sure that the blame for the bad administration of the country gets to be shared more equally in future by national and regional politicians alike.

Among Western circles, there is talk of helping Arab nations in their democratisation drive and of assisting them economically. Talk of economic assistance, however, is hugely misguided. For more than forty years, Western countries have already been overpaying for their oil through the nose. It is unfortunate that the wealth so transferred got squandered by the Arab versions of what Olson labels “sedentary bandits”, i.e. the obscurantist and absolute monarchs now controlling a large part of the world’s oil reserves. For Western politicians, it makes more sense to lend their support to the popular uprisings aimed at toppling them, than to prop them up and continue to see the oil revenues invested in thoroughbreds, yachts and other conspicuous consumption items. Helping Arabs democratise and achieve a fairer redistribution of the wealth their own countries generate could go a long way towards establishing a real partnership between Arab nations and the West. (sources: Reuters, The Guardian, Le Monde, Al Jazeera, Financial Times)

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