By Pepe Escobar
Here's a crash course on how one of "our" - monarchic - dictators treats his own people during the great 2011 Arab revolt....soon to arrive to Damascus too....
The king of Bahrain, Hamad al-Khalifa, has blood on his hands after his mercenary security forces - Pakistani, Indian, Syrian and Jordanian - with no previous warning, attacked sleeping, peaceful protesters at 3 am on Thursday at the Pearl roundabout, the tiny Gulf country's version of Cairo's Tahrir Square.
In the brutal crackdown, at least five people have been killed - including a young child - and 2,000 injured, some by gunshots, two of these in critical condition. Riot police targeted doctors and medics and prevented ambulances and blood donors from reaching the Pearl roundabout. A doctor at Salmaniya hospital told al-Jazeera there was a refrigerated truck outside the hospital, which he fears the army has used to remove more dead bodies.
The resourceful Maryama Alkawaka of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights was there; "It was very violent, [the police] were not showing any mercy." An avalanche of tweets from Bahrainis denounced an "Israeli-style" sneak attack and shoot-to-kill approach. And many have denounced al-Jazeera for not having kept a live satellite link as it had in Cairo, and for implying that this was only a Shi'ite protest. The Pearl roundabout is now surrounded by nearly 100 tanks at every entrance and exit. Downtown Manama has been turned into a ghost city.
The Shi'ite opposition described it as "real terrorism". Reem Khalifa, senor editor at the opposition newspaper al-Wasat, said, "The regime forces just came and massacred a crowd of people as they slept." They had been "chanting together, shouting 'neither Sunni nor Shi'ite but Bahraini'. We have not seen this before. And this is what annoyed the government agents the most - they are always trying to divide the people ... And now the regime is spreading lies about me and other journalists who are trying to say what is happening."
Khalifa had the courage to stand up and harshly confront Bahrain's foreign minister at a press conference, totally debunking his version of events (he called the deaths "regrettable" but insisted protesters were sectarian, and armed).
The Gulf Cooperation Council - the scandalously wealthy club of local kingdoms which holds over US$1 trillion stashed away in foreign reserves and almost 50% of the world's proven oil reserves still underground - issued, what else, a bland statement supporting Bahrain.
Kill them, but with a velvet glove
Is Washington remotely outraged by all this? The record speaks for itself. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "deep concern", according to the State Department, and "urged restraint". The Pentagon said Bahrain was "an important partner"; later Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman - certainly to make sure everything was dandy with the US Navy's 5th Fleet and its 2,250 personnel housed in an isolated compound inside 24 hectares in the center of Manama.
Even the New York Times was forced to acknowledge that US President Barack Obama had "yet to issue the blunt public criticism of Bahrain's rulers that he eventually leveled against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt - or that he has repeatedly aimed at the mullahs in Iran". But he can't; after all, Bahrain's I-shot-my-people king is another usual suspect, a "pillar of the American security architecture in the Middle East", and "a staunch ally of Washington in its showdown with Iran's Shi'ite theocracy".
Under these strategic circumstances, it's hard to dismiss Lebanese political scientist and blogger at the Angry Arab website As'ad AbuKhalil, when he stresses, "The US had to plot the repression of Bahrain to appease Saudi Arabia and other Arab tyrants who were mad at Obama for not defending Mubarak to the every end."
Incidentally, Saudi Arabia's prince Talal Bin Abdulaziz - father of the billionaire darling of the West prince Al Waleed bin Talal - told the BBC there's a danger the protests in Bahrain could spill into Saudi Arabia.
It's never enough to stress Bahrain is all about Iran vs Saudi Arabia (see All about the Pearl roundabout Asia Times Online, February 18).
The US naval base in Manama translates as a cop on the (Persian Gulf) beat. Moreover, 15% of Saudi Arabia's population is Shi'ite, living in the eastern provinces, where the oil is. That makes it very hard for Bahrainis - Shi'ite and even Sunni - to threaten the ruling, Sunni, al-Khalifa dynasty, as the House of Saud will immediately rush in with all sorts of logistical and military support.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia has huge leverage over Bahrain's oil, which comes from the shared Abu Saafa oilfield, explored by Saudi Aramco and shared with a Bahraini refiner.
Bahrain is far from swimming in oil. According to International Monetary Fund figures, in 2010 Saudi Arabia produced roughly 8.5 million barrels of oil a day; the United Arab Emirates 2.4 million barrels; Kuwait 2.3 million barrels; and Bahrain only 200,000 barrels.
According to Moody's, to balance its budget the Bahrain government needs oil at $80 a barrel, "one of the highest budgetary ‘break-even' points in the region", says the Financial Times. As a Barclays Capital report puts it with typical corporate contortionism, "The announcements of street protests, concessions by the government at the cost of a deteriorating fiscal position and simmering political tensions have created a backdrop that has clearly caused investors to view Bahrain with increased caution."
So if protesters really want to hit the al-Khalifa where it hurts, they should aim at the nexus oil business/financial sector. It will be an extraordinary uphill struggle against a nasty police state crammed with mercenaries - especially Jordanian military consultants (the "master torturer" of the Mukhabarat is a Jordanian) and now also counting on "help" from Saudi tanks and troops. Moreover, the riot police and special forces don't speak the local dialect, and in the case of Balochis from Pakistan, don't even speak Arabic.
Prospects are bleak. The inside dope in Manama is of a split within the royal family. The dreaded, sectarian Khalid bin Ahmed, responsible for the policy of naturalizing "imported" Sunnis to alter the demographic balance and dilute even more the voting rights of the indigenous Shi'ite population, would be on one side; and the king plus Crown Prince Salman (Gates' pal) would be on the other. The king may be losing control. And in this case Saudi Arabia would be lobbying for bin Ahmed to take over and get one of the king's sons, Nasir Bin Hamed to be crown prince. This does make sense if seen under the angle of the brutal crackdown.
Time to cross the bridge
What Bahrain's Shi'ites can certainly accomplish is to inspire Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia in terms of a long fight for greater social, economic and religious equality. It's wishful thinking to bet on the House of Saud reforming itself - not while enjoying extraordinary oil wealth and maintaining a vast repression apparatus, more than enough to buy or intimidate any form of dissent.
Yet there may be reasons to dream of Saudi Arabia following the winds of new Egypt. The average age of the House of Saud trio of ruling princes is 83. Of the country's indigenous population of 18.5 million, 47% is under 18. A medieval conception of Islam, as well as overwhelming corruption, is under increasing vigilance on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
The middle class is shrinking. 40% of the population actually lives under the seal of poverty, has access to virtually no education, and is in fact unemployable (90% of all employees are "imported" Sunnis). Even crossing the causeway to Manama is enough to give people ideas.
Once again, talk about an extraordinary uphill struggle - in a country with no political parties - or labor unions, or student organizations; with any sort of protests and strikes outlawed; and with members of the shura council appointed by the king.
The Arab News newspaper anyway has already warned that those winds of freedom from northern Africa may hit Saudi Arabia. And it may all revolve around youth unemployment, at an unsustainable 40%. There's no question; the great 2011 Arab revolt will only fulfill its historic mission when it shakes the foundations of the House of Saud. Young Saudi Sunnis and Shi'ites, you have nothing to lose but your fear.....
By Chan Akya
"I have a cunning plan to stop us from going over the top" - Baldrick
"Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of here by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman around here?" - Black Adder
From the last episode of the British comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth
So let's do a raincheck shall we? The world's stock markets are on a gallop as they greet the Chinese Year of the Rabbit (or was it hare as in hare-brained?) with an assault on new trading levels that would make the mythical creature in Aesop's fable proud as it sought to beat the slow, gnawing thing called reality (okay, actually a tortoise).
Stocks are ignoring a bunch of things:
1. Stimulus efforts that are pushing up demand for food ...
2. ... which is driving inflation higher in emerging markets, causing
3. ... riots in many Arab capitals that are ...
4. ... pushing up oil prices, which in turn are ...
5. ... driving bond yields higher and making central bankers nervous,
6. ... which is forcing governments to cut their budget deficits;
7. ... that will help to increase defaults in US municipal bonds and European government bonds,
8. ... all of which will make today's hopes of a recovery a chimera at best.
Anyone possessed of a logical mind could have seen those eight steps above and surmised that now wasn't a good time to be buying, say Facebook at US$50 billion, buying a meaningless blog aggregation website for $315 million or indeed a bank stock at 1.2x book value. That logical person would of course be completely wrong because all these things are happening around us as we speak.
In an effort to undertake some serious journalism rather than my usual brand of armchair commentary-ism, I attempted to learn the secrets of these wonderful market investors by talking to a few of them. The net result of these conversations was a lot of empty beer bottles, a big hangover the next morning and absolutely (and I mean absolutely almost in the scientific sense of the word) no clue as to why people were still bullish the stock markets.
Then it all came to me. Let us consider the problem from a different perspective, namely what is the secret solution that could possibly explain the market's confidence - however unlikely or even fantastic that it may be?
Here is what I think the market would like to see: a solution that encompasses the messy situation in the Middle East, the debt problem in Europe, inflation across the world and the unemployment issue in America.
Perhaps there is a version of Baldrick's cunning plan that goes into effect as follows (and stay with me here):
1. Arab potentates across the Middle East decamp with their money to Europe. No scratch that: they just decamp to Europe where their money already is hidden in various money laundering havens.
2. As a condition for tolerating the presence of these geriatric autocrats and their forbiddingly fundamentalist entourage, European governments require them to purchase a bunch of assets - nothing dangerous you understand, just a bunch of European government bonds selected at "random"; so let's say Ireland, Greece, Portugal shall we. "Would the emir like some Spain with that?"
3. A wholesale departure of rulers from the Middle East of course pushes up oil prices dramatically, so America immediately enlists a million unemployed folks and flies them down to man the oil pipelines from refineries like Al-Khobar to the nearest ports. Whatever happens to the rest of these countries is of course no one's specific concern.
4. The Arab masses in places like Libya, Syria, Jordan etc all decide that with their rulers gone far away, there isn't much point to protesting and so go back to lounging around street corners.
And so the headlines all improve:
A. Stability in the Middle East
B. European debt crisis is over
C. America shows strong jobs growth
D. Oil prices fall
Or something like that. LOL....
Instead of revolution and democracy, Chinese official reportage has emphasized the dangers of chaos and instability.
However, Egypt is primarily Obama's and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's headache.
Within China, it is undoubtedly being argued that the Mubarak government was too deferential to the democratic desires of the Obama administration.
In what he would no doubt confess was not his best work, Prime Minister Shafiq yielded to the mediation of one of Egypt - and the world's - richest men, Davos fixture and telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris, and released Google's Wael Ghonim from custody. Ghonim promptly gave an inspiring interview to Dream TV, then electrified the flagging crowd in Tahrir Square. In a couple days, Mubarak was history.
It can be assumed that the isolated release of this one dissident - who also did not undergo the brutal treatment meted out to less fortunate dissidents while in custody - can be attributed to the discretely expressed desires of the United States and Google as conveyed to the Egyptian government both directly and through Sawiris.
Egypt's military was also compromised by its dependence on US military aid and continual hearts-and-mind efforts of the US to divide its loyalties during high-level military exchanges (which were going on in the United States as the situation in Cairo exploded). In the end, the Egyptian military declined to obey Hosni Mubarak, instead choosing a path that pleased the United States - and led to a military junta ruling Egypt.
To some extent, China can regard the outcome of the US Internet freedom agenda in Egypt with some complacency as a case - in Chinese parlance - of an "enemy picking up a stone to throw but dropping it on his own foot".
For China, the acid test for US Internet freedom strategy - or lack of it - will be Iran.
If Iran is able to avoid contagion and tamp down the widespread discontent that has coalesced around opposition political leaders for several months, Beijing will probably draw the conclusion that it was the Mubarak government's pro-American authoritarianism, not authoritarianism per se, that doomed the regime.
If, on the other hand, Iran finds itself in serious difficulty, then China must look anxiously at its own parallels with Egypt: smoldering resentment at economic injustice and corruption; a do-nothing military that has kept to barracks for decades while preening at its role as the people's protector; and a business class that has enriched itself through the regime but has limited loyalty to it - and wonder if networked outrage at some incident will trigger an 18-day explosion that will bring down a regime that has survived for over 60 years.
Heightened Chinese awareness could conceivably lead to a more nuanced approach to managing the Internet. China has the doctrine, the tools, and the money to do it.
It would make for an interesting state of affairs if China decided that the social, diplomatic, and financial costs and political risks of maintaining the Great Firewall in its current, draconian form were unacceptable and decided it could manage dissent with the same combination of direct and indirect tools used in the West.
However, the US government has taken the provocative step of defining Internet connectivity as a "freedom", which in China will probably be regarded as nothing more than a self-serving and hypocritical step to repackage an American interest - and a violation of Chinese sovereignty - as a universal value that China is supposed to be obligated to adopt.
It looks like finger-wagging and belligerence will be the order of the day in Sino-US exchanges on Internet policy.
Given the welter of conflicting, contradictory, and complementary interests in play, maybe that's not a good thing.
China and Iran ... want to keep tight control over the Internet, not only because they fear that their citizens might find out the real state of affairs in their country, but also because they believe that the Internet is the America's favorite tool of starting antigovernment rebellions ...
... the very concept of Internet freedom, much like the war on terror before it, leads to intellectual mush in the heads of its promoters and excessive paranoia in the heads of their adversaries. This is hardly the kind of change that American foreign policy needs...