US Actions in Yemen Helped Create Current Crisis

The Progressive 02/06/2024.
Plus Four Background Articles:

If Biden Wants to Protect Troops, He Should Bring Them Home — Not Bomb Syria

Truthout, March 2, 2021: The US has bombed Syria more than 20,000 times over the past eight years, so last week’s attack on a border post in northeastern Syria, which killed 22 militiamen and apparently no civilians, may not seem surprising to some… it is nevertheless disappointing that President Biden appears determined to continue the failed policies of his predecessors… Some members of Congress challenged Biden’s authority to order such an attack, which contravenes both international law and the US Constitution. [FULL LINK]

Sudan’s Democratic Revolution: How They Did It

[By Stephen Zunes, reposted April 2020 from Inside Arabia by ICNC, Nonviolence International and The Conversation] Conditions under Sudan’s oppressive autocratic regime did not fit into what Western analysts see as the right ones for a successful pro-democracy civil resistance movement and yet they have emerged victorious—at least for now. Among other things, its success points to perhaps the single most important factor: nonviolent discipline

How the U.S. Contributed to Yemen’s Crisis

As a Saudi-led military coalition continues to pound rebel targets in Yemen, the country is plunging into a humanitarian crisis. Civilian casualties are mounting.

With U.S. logistical support, the Saudis are attempting to re-instate the country’s exiled government — which enjoys the backing of the West and the Sunni Gulf monarchies — in the face of a military offensive by Houthi rebels from northern Yemen.

None of this had to be.

Not long ago — at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011 — a broad-based, nonviolent, pro-democracy movement in Yemen rose up against the U.S.-backed government of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. If Washington and Saudi Arabia had allowed this coalition to come to power, the tragic events unfolding in Yemen could have been prevented.

The movement had forged an impressive degree of unity among the various tribal, regional, sectarian, and ideological groups that took part in the pro-democracy protests, which included mass marches, sit-ins, and many other forms of nonviolent civil resistance. Leaders of prominent tribal coalitions — as well as the Houthis now rebelling against the government — publicly supported the popular insurrection, prompting waves of tribesmen to leave their guns at home and head to the capital to take part in the movement.

These tribesmen, along with the hundreds of thousands of city dwellers on the streets, were encouraged to maintain nonviolent discipline, even in the face of government snipers and other provocations that led to the deaths of hundreds of unarmed protesters.

The Obama administration, however, was more concerned about maintaining stability in the face of growing Al-Qaeda influence in rural areas. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that Washington had not planned for an era without Saleh, who had ruled the country for more than three and a half decades. As one former ambassador to Yemen put it in March 2011, “For right now, he’s our guy.”

“That’s How It Is”

Though the pro-democracy movement largely maintained a remarkably rigorous nonviolent discipline in its protests, some opposition tribes and rebel army officers added an armed component to the resistance movement. An assassination attempt against Saleh that June forced the severely wounded president to leave for Saudi Arabia for extended medical treatments.

John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser and future CIA director, visited Saleh in a Saudi hospital in July and encouraged him to sign a deal transferring power. Not only was the mission unsuccessful in convincing Saleh to resign, however, the regime — in a continuation of its efforts to use Saleh’s close relationship with the United States to reinforce his standing — broadcast images of the surprisingly healthy-looking president and emphasized his statesmanlike demeanor in meeting with a top U.S. official as a signal of continued U.S. support for the regime.

As the pro-democracy struggle tried desperately to keep the movement nonviolent in the aftermath of the assassination attempt and a growing armed rebellion, the United States escalated its own violence by launching unprecedented air strikes in Yemen, ostensibly targeting Al-Qaeda cells. The Pentagon acknowledged, however, that Al-Qaeda operatives often intermingled with other anti-government rebels.

Indeed, U.S. policy allowed the CIA to target individuals for drone strikes without verifying their identity, resulting in some armed Yemeni tribes and others allied with pro-democracy forces apparently being attacked under the mistaken impression they were al-Qaeda. This scenario was made all the more likely by U.S. reliance on the Yemeni regime for much of its intelligence in determining targets. Complicating the situation still further during this critical period of ongoing protests, teams of U.S. military and intelligence operatives were continuing to operate out of a command post in the Yemeni capital.

It’s entirely possible, then, that the Yemeni government may have used the pretext of al-Qaeda to convince the U.S. government to take out its rivals.

U.S. officials insisted that the violence between the pro- and anti-regime elements of the Yemeni armed forces did not involve U.S.-trained Yemeni special operations forces, and Brennan initially maintained that the unrest had not affected U.S.-Yemeni security cooperation. By the end of the year, however, he acknowledged that the “political tumult” had led these U.S.-trained units “to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.”

That meant that Yemeni forces trained by the United States for the purpose of fight al-Qaeda were instead directly participating in the squelching of a democratic uprising. “Rather than fighting AQAP,” an exposé in The Nation noted, “these U.S.-backed units — created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations — redeployed to Sanaa to protect the collapsing regime from its own people.”

According to the well-connected Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, these U.S.-backed units exist “mostly for the defense of the regime.” For example, rather than fighting a key battle against Al-Qaida forces in Abyan, al-Iryani told reporter Jeremy Scahill, “They are still here [in Sanaa], protecting the palace. That’s how it is.”

“Keeping Enough of the Regime Intact”

At the end of July 2011, despite the ongoing repression of pro-democracy forces, a congressional committee approved more than $120 million in aid to the Yemeni government, primarily in military and related security assistance. The aid was conditional on the State Department certifying that the Yemeni government was cooperating sufficiently in fighting terrorism, but there were no conditions regarding democracy or human rights.

As the repression increased, U.S. officials praised the Yemeni regime’s cooperation with U.S.-led war efforts, with Brennan declaring in September, “I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure.”

Meanwhile, the United States and Saudi Arabia, joined by the other monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), presented a plan whereby Saleh would step down. According to the deal, he and other top officials in the regime would be granted immunity from prosecution, and a plebiscite would be held within 60 days to ratify the transfer of power to Saleh’s vice-president, Major General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Pro-democracy protesters largely rejected this U.S.-Saudi mandate for Hadi. It soon became apparent that despite occasional calls for Saleh to step down — such as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s strong statement in early August — the Obama administration was deferring to its autocratic GCC allies on the peninsula to oversee a political transition.

In mid-August, opposition activists formed a National Council, which they hoped would form a provisional government until multiparty elections could be held. It consisted of 143 members representing a broad coalition of protest leaders, tribal sheiks, South Yemen separatists, opposition military commanders, former members of the governing party, and the Houthi militia representing the Zaydi minority in the north.

The Saudis and the U.S. government, however, kept pushing for Saleh to transfer power to his vice president. Supporters of the National Council denounced these foreign efforts as “only a plot to foil the revolution.”

Following a meeting with Hadi in September, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said, “We continue to believe that an immediate, peaceful, and orderly transition is in the best interest of the Yemeni people. …We urge all sides to engage in dialogue that peacefully moves Yemen forward.” Pro-democracy protesters pushed ahead in their campaign of civil resistance, insisting that the National Council representing a broad array Yemenis not be circumvented.

Shortly thereafter, government security forces fired into crowds during a massive pro-democracy protest in Sanaa. Dozens of protesters were killed and hundreds more wounded.

The U.S. embassy, however, appeared to blame both sides for the killings, saying the United States “regrets the deaths and injuries of many people” and calling “upon all parties to exercise restraint. In particular, we call on the parties to refrain from actions that provoke further violence.” Similarly, U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein criticized a peaceful pro-democracy march from Taiz to Sanaa in December as “provocative.”

Soon afterwards, 13 more pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by government security forces, leading many activists to accuse the ambassador of preemptively giving Saleh permission to shoot civilians. Time magazine, summarizing the view of pro-democracy activists, noted, “The early intercession of foreign powers with a transition plan distracted attention from popular demands, they say, and allowed the president to cite ongoing talks in delaying his resignation. Many Yemenis believe the key interest guiding the U.S. has been keeping enough of the regime intact to combat al-Qaeda, and that this has distorted the outcome.”

“This Revolution Has Been Stabbed in the Back”

Eventually, U.S. officials bowed to international concerns and put forward a threat of United Nations sanctions against the regime, which finally forced Saleh to formally resign.

In January 2012, the Obama administration allowed Saleh into the United States for medical treatment, rejecting calls for his prosecution. U.S. officials believed that doing so was the best way of finally forcing him to step down as president and finally make a peaceful transition of power possible.

Pro-democracy activists in Yemen were outraged.

Protest leader Tawakkol Karman, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the previous month, called on the United States to “hold Saleh accountable.” She also observed, “There shouldn’t be any place for tyrants in the free world. This is against all international agreements, laws, and covenants. The entry of Ali Saleh into America is an insult to the values of the American people. This was a mistake by the administration, and I am confident he will be met with wide disapproval in America. This will tarnish the reputation of America among all those who support the Arab Spring revolutions.”

Saleh returned to Yemen the following month to oversee the transfer of power to his vice-president and has remained the country ever since. Now, he’s making a bid to retake control, having formed an alliance with his former Houthi adversaries and, with the support of some allied army units, playing a critical role in their rise to power.

This has greatly angered the pro-democracy movement, whose leaders twice petitioned the Obama administration for support but were rejected in favor of negotiations led by the Saudi regime and other autocratic GCC monarchies. This greatly set back the hopes for a genuine democratic revolution and alienated the very liberal youth who would otherwise be the West’s most likely Yemeni allies.

As Francisco Martin-Royal, an expert on counter-radicalization in the region, wrote at that time, “The lack of U.S. support means that these young men and women, who effectively ousted Saleh and continue to call for democratic institutions, have broadly failed to have a voice in the formation of Yemen’s new government or have their legitimate concerns be taken seriously.”

He continued, “Yemen’s pro-democracy activists largely blame the U.S. for failing to live up to its rhetoric — a disillusionment that potentially makes them vulnerable to recruitment by other well-organized forces that are against the existing regime, namely extremist groups like AQAP and separatist movements. From their perspective, the only real changes in Yemen — the establishment of a semi-autonomous region by the Houthis and the propagation of sharia law in various cities in southern Yemen by Ansar al-Sharia — have come through violence.”

U.S. Ambassador Feierstein kept pushing the vague idea of a “national dialogue” among elites and criticized ongoing protests within the government institutions, particularly military units, on the grounds that “the problems have to be resolved through this process of dialogue and negotiations.” By contrast, he castigated the pro-democracy activists, saying “We’ve also been clear in saying we don’t believe that the demonstrations are the place where Yemen’s problems will be solved.”

In February 2012, President Obama publicly endorsed Hadi, claiming — despite Hadi’s service as vice-president in a repressive regime and his distinction as the only candidate in the subsequent plebiscite — that his subsequent election was “a model for how peaceful transition in the Middle East can occur.”

The pro-democracy movement thus largely gave up on the United States, with prominent young pro-democracy activist Khaled al-Anesi fuming, “This revolution has been stabbed in the back.”

What Could Have Been?

This marginalization of Yemeni civil society — which had struggled for so many months nonviolently for democracy — and Washington’s failure to accept the broad-based National Council to head an interim government created the conditions that led to the dramatic resurgence of the armed Houthi uprising, which until last year had only operated in the Zaydi heartland in the far northern part of the country.

The Houthis were helped along by the Hadi government’s lack of credibility, ongoing corruption and ineptitude at all levels of government, a mass resignation of Yemen’s cabinet, and controversial proposals for constitutional change. They also received support from armed groups allied with the former Saleh dictatorship, which enabled the Houthis — who represent only a minority of Yemenis — to nevertheless emerge as the most powerful force in Yemen. They surprised the world by seizing the capital of Sanaa in August, consolidating power in January, and subsequently expanding southward.

Most Yemenis strongly oppose the Houthi militia and, in Taiz and other parts of the country, have challenged their armed advance through massive civil resistance and other nonviolent means. Yet the Houthis have actually expanded their areas of control in some key regions, even where they’ve faced armed resistance and Saudi air strikes.

It would be much too simplistic to blame the current crisis in Yemen entirely on the United States. However, one still has to wonder: If instead of allying with Saudi autocrats to install another strongman in the name of stability, Washington had supported that country’s nonviolent pro-democracy movement, what might have been?

Powerful nonviolent resistance to armed conflict in Yemen

While media coverage of the tragic situation unfolding in Yemen in recent months has focused on armed clashes and other violence, there has also been widespread and ongoing nonviolent civil resistance employed by a number of different actors.

In fact, the most significant setbacks to the Huthi militia in their march southward across the country in recent months have come not from the remnants of the Yemeni army or Saudi air strikes, but from massive resistance by unarmed civilians which has thus far prevented their capture of Taiz, the country’s third largest city, and other urban areas. The resistance efforts have also pressed the Houthis to withdraw their forces from a number of previously-held areas, including universities, residential neighborhoods, and even military bases. This kind of nonviolent resistance by ordinary people is remarkable, but it is not new in Yemen.

The fall of President Saleh and rise of the Huthis

It was just four years ago, in 2011, when—inspired in part by the successful civil insurrections against the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the Mubarak regime in Egypt—millions of Yemenis took to the streets in massive nonviolent protests against the autocratic US-backed government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had held power for three and a half decades. An impressive degree of unity was forged between the various tribal, regional, sectarian, and ideological groups taking part in the pro-democracy protests, which included mass marches, sit-ins, and many other forms of civil resistance. Leaders of prominent tribal coalitions publicly supported the popular insurrection, prompting waves of tribesmen to leave their guns at home and head to the capital to take part in the movement. These tribesmen, along with the hundreds of thousands of city dwellers, were encouraged to maintain nonviolent discipline, even in the face of government snipers and other provocations which led to the deaths of hundreds of unarmed protesters.

These ongoing nonviolent protests, combined with shifting alliances between competing elites and armed factions, made President Saleh’s continued hold on power increasingly untenable. Saleh was eventually forced to resign, but it wasn’t long before conflict returned. Backed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the United States, Saleh’s vice president, Major General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi took over as the head of state, over the objections of civil society and the masses that had ousted the former president.

The new Hadi government was unpopular, lacked credibility, and was widely perceived as inept and corrupt. These factors, combined with the mass resignation of the cabinet, controversial proposals for constitutional change, and support from armed groups allied with the former Saleh dictatorship led to a power vacuum that enabled the Huthi militia (despite representing only the Zaidi minority in the north of the country) to emerge as the most potent military force in Yemen.

Popular resistance to the Huthi takeover

Despite having participated in various forms of nonviolent action in previous years, the Huthi militia made a decision to begin engaging in violence, and on July 10, 2014 they attacked the city of Amran, overrunning a military base, seizing a large array of weaponry, and killing dozens of soldiers and civilians in the process. While the Hadi government was unpopular, the Huthi attack was also summarily rejected by many Yemenis, and the following day massive protests took place in Amran, Sana, Taiz, Ibb, Hadramout, Dhamar, Al Bayda, and Ad-Dhale’e, condemning the Huthi attack (along with Israel’s military campaign in Gaza), demanding investigations of the incident and a return of the stolen weapons.

In August 2014, the Huthi’s surprised the world by seizing the capital of Sana’a, which led to a new round of anti-Huthi protests in September, with hundreds of thousands marching in Taiz against what they called “threats of royalists” along with calls to resist the violent groups that were trying to impose their control by force.

Major student protests swept the country throughout the fall, primarily in Hodaidah, Ibb and Baydha. On November 2, hundreds of students and employees of the Sana’a University formed a silent chain around their campus, raising signs with slogans condemning the control of their campus by the Huthis. Protests were continuous, with students insisting they would not stop until the “Huthi occupation” ended. As a result of ongoing protests, Huthi forces finally withdrew from the university on December 10.

In addition to demonstrations, a wave of strikes took place across the country targeting a variety of sectors where the Huthis attempted to assert their control: in addition to universities and high schools, the military academy in Sana’a, the judiciary in several cities, and fuel production facilities in Shabwa were shut down. Hundreds of prisoners held captive by the Huthis went on hunger strike, as did President Hadi while under house arrest prior to his escape. Scores of prominent Yemenis have resigned from their posts in protest, including governors, police chiefs, senior military officials, and top administrators in transportation, medicine, communications, and other sectors.

Young activists, many taking advantage of social media networking, have played a role in resisting the Huthi armed advance and have tried to emphasize the need for national unity and nonviolent means of settling differences. A September 28 protest in front of the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Sana’a incorporated national songs and dances in order to emphasize Yemenis’ commonalities and to condemn the presence of armed groups. Protesters chanted such slogans as “Dear my country, rise and shine, no weapons after today” and “Altogether for a capital without weapons.” Similar themes were stressed in a December 13 demonstration calling for national unity and nonviolent action with protesters marching from Change Square to the president’s house. The largest protests during this period took place on January 26, 2015 in response to the Huthi consolidation of their takeover, in which tens of thousands took the streets in Sana’a despite violent repression by the Huthis.

By the end of January, a number of tribal groups and other associations declared they would no longer comply with orders, military or otherwise, coming from the Huthi-dominated government in Sana’a. The Huthis began recognizing that control of government buildings in the capital did not necessarily mean control of the country, even in areas where their forces were present.

A series of mass protests took place in response to the detention of anti-Huthi activists, the most significant of which took place in Ibb on February 15. Thousands of nonviolent protesters who took to the streets were met with gunfire, with armed forces trying to separate the mass demonstration into smaller more controllable units. The protesters not only held their ground, but were able to seize a number of armed Huthis. As these citizens maintained nonviolent discipline and refused to disperse, Huthi-led security forces then refused commands by their superiors to continue firing on the crowd, calling it “deliberate repression of peaceful demonstrators.”

Remarkably, even with the dramatic escalation in fighting last month with the Huthi advance southward and the subsequent Saudi military intervention, nonviolent resistance has continued. The most impressive episodes took place in Taiz, located between Sana’a and the strategic port city of Aden. On March 19, Huthi militiamen seized the important Yemeni Special Forces camp on its outskirts and were expected to shortly take over the entire city, no longer defended by Yemeni government troops, who had fled or defected. However, largely youthful demonstrators massed outside gates of the captured base, raising banners rejecting the Houthis’ armed presence, and remained encamped to physically block additional militiamen from entering the area. The region’s governor, Shawki Ahmed Hayel, called on all Taizis to join the sit-ins and remain in place until the Huthis left the city.

On March 21, armed Huthis militiamen attempted to break up the “human wall” surrounding the base with teargas and gunfire, killing several unarmed demonstrators. This resulted in a public backlash, with hundreds of thousands marching the following day from the center of the city demanding that the Huthis withdraw their gunmen from Taiz. By March 24, a general strike was in effect to demand Huthi withdrawal from city. Taiz effectively shut down and the mostly youthful protesters set up roadblocks preventing access to the city by Huthi reinforcements. Despite additional casualties among the protesters, the Huthis — who just days earlier were presumed to have been preparing to occupy the entire city — were forced to withdraw from the captured base and surrounding areas.


The recent military intervention by Saudi Arabia has resulted in a mixed response. Popular anger at the Huthi aggression has led many Yemenis to support the Saudi air strikes, with rallies in support of the bombing taking place in Ibb, Hodeidah, and Taiz. Larger rallies in opposition have taken place in Sana’a and Amran. Even among those who oppose the Huthis, there is widespread suspicion regarding Saudi intentions and actions due to their previous interventions in Yemen’s internal affairs, their support for authoritarian and extremist elements, their maltreatment of Yemeni guest workers, and their ultra-conservative Salafi brand of Islam.

The Saudi role in creating conditions for the current crisis by marginalizing civil society elements in supporting Hadi’s takeover of the presidency and their overall aspirations in the Arabian Peninsula have led many Yemenis to fear that once again they seek to usurp nonviolent nationalist pro-democracy forces. In addition, there has been widespread outrage at the large-scale civilian casualties resulting from the Saudi air assault.

It was the sidelining of civil society and leaders of the 2011 nonviolent pro-democracy struggles by the Saudis, GCC states, and the US which helped create the current crisis. It would therefore behove the international community not to similarly ignore the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who, in the midst of the current chaos and violence, have again taken to the streets in unarmed civil resistance.

The history and ongoing manifestations of nonviolent action in Yemen is greater than is generally perceived by the outside world, which has long dismissed the country as “primitive,” “violent,” “tribal,” “chaotic,” and incapable of handling its own affairs. The most effective means of ensuring stability and resisting the Huthis, Al-Qaeda, or other armed extremists comes not from backing allied strongmen, but from allowing civil society to take the lead in developing broad-based democratic institutions without the use of arms.

Yet it is in this history of civil resistance that lies the country’s greatest hope. The power of Yemenis of various and even competing tendencies to wage their struggles nonviolently is something that should be acknowledged and encouraged, not undermined in pursuit of military solutions to complex political problems.

Protesters persist despite crackdown

Of the popular pro-democracy civil insurrections that have swept the Middle East over the past year, none were as large — relative to the size of the country — as the one that took place in the island kingdom of Bahrain. And while scattered resistance continues, none were so thoroughly suppressed.

The crackdown against the overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy struggle launched in mid-February was brutal. More 40 people have been killed, including a number in custody, and more than 1,600 have been arrested. Those targeted were not just human rights activists, but journalists who covered the protests and medical personnel who treated victims. In October, a military court sentenced 20 doctors and nurses to up to 15 years in jail for assisting the wounded.

More than 2,500 people have been dismissed from their jobs for supporting the freedom movement and more than 40 mosques and religious sites deemed to have links to pro-democracy activists were destroyed. Human Rights Watch reports, “Leading political opposition figures, human rights defenders and civil society activists have been sentenced to unduly long prison terms, in some cases for life, solely for their role in organizing the large street protests; their trial record does not link them in any way to acts of violence or any other recognizable criminal offense.”
When the Bahraini regime proved incapable of suppressing the popular nonviolent uprising on its own, U.S.-armed Saudi forces, supplemented by smaller units from the nearby emirates, invaded the country March 14 via the causeway separating the island from the mainland.

On Nov. 22, the government-appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry released a report that was surprisingly frank in acknowledging many of the regime’s abuses. The day after the report was issued, however, security forces launched a new round of repression against the now smaller but still persistent protests.

It is not surprising that the pro-democracy struggle has been so much stronger in Bahrain than in the other Arab Gulf states. Its traditional role as a leading trading center reinforced traditions of cosmopolitanism, tolerance and pluralism. A visit to the island today reveals not only Sunni and Shiite mosques, but Christian churches, Hindu and Sikh temples and even a synagogue. Bahrain was also the first Arab country in the Gulf to provide formal modern education to women. Even prior to the discovery of oil, the economy based on fishing, pearl diving and trade allowed for the development of a largely urban society with an indigenous middle class, thereby avoiding the parochial tribalism of other Arabian countries.

Though the protesters have represented a broad cross section of society, the Sunni royal family and its supporters have tried to depict the struggle for democracy as a sectarian conflict by radical Shiites tied to Iran. The majority of pro-democracy activists are indeed Shiite, because more than three-quarters of Bahrainis are of the Shiite tradition and have long been discriminated against by the Sunni-controlled Bahraini government in employment, housing and infrastructure. The military, particularly top officers, is mostly made up of Sunnis and the secret police are almost exclusively Sunni. Only a handful of cabinet posts, restricted to the less important ministries, have been granted to Shiites, with the most important positions held by members of the royal family.

Such discrimination, however, is but one aspect of the monarchy’s authoritarian rule that the Bahrainis are challenging. Indeed, the protests in Bahrain are as legitimate a pro-democracy movement as the popular struggles in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, and they have had the support of progressive Sunni and secular elements. Signs and chants at the demonstrations have eschewed sectarianism, emphasizing Shiite-Sunni unity in the cause of democracy. Having been conquered by the Persian Empire for periods of their history, the Arab Bahrainis cherish their independence. In addition, the opposition movement has expressed its solidarity with the ongoing pro-democracy struggle against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime.

That hasn’t stopped some Obama administration officials from denouncing alleged Iranian meddling in Bahraini affairs while refusing to criticize the Saudi invasion and repression.

The United States has long been a major supporter of Bahrain’s autocratic monarchy, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. While President Barack Obama has expressed his concern about the repression and has called for the government to dialogue with the opposition, his language has been restrained compared with his criticisms of the Assad regime in Syria and other repressive governments with which the United States does not have such close relations.

In October, the administration announced a new $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, including 44 armed Humvees that could be important instruments in suppressing street protests. The Pentagon, in defending the arms transfer, praised the authoritarian government as “an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”
Fortunately, a broad coalition of 29 peace, human rights and religious organizations mobilized against the arms sale and a number of prominent congressional Democrats raised concerns as well. The following month, in the face of mounting objections, the Obama administration announced an indefinite delay in the sale.

This serves as a reminder that for the cause of freedom and democracy to advance in the Arab world, the struggle cannot just take place in the Middle East, but here in the United States as well.

Yemen on the Edge

Since Obama came to office in January 2009, U.S. security assistance to the Yemeni regime has gone up 20-fold. Despite such large-scale unconditional support, however, the 32-year reign of autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh may finally be coming to an end. Yet the Obama administration has been ambivalent in its support for a democratic transition in this impoverished but strategically important country.

Saleh’s behavior has gotten increasingly bizarre. He has begun claiming that an unlikely coalition of Israel and Qatar has incited and financed the pro-democracy struggle, and that women in leadership positions in the pro-democracy struggle and even men and women protesting in the streets together is somehow “un-Islamic.”

Efforts by Saudi Arabia and other regional monarchies to negotiate Saleh’s resignation, despite showing some initial promise, have failed both as a result of the dictator’s obstinacy and the protesters’ demands for a genuine democratic transition. Saleh continues to lose support despite his corrupt system of patronage. This policy of “bribe a tribe” appears to be failing as tribal leaders, top military officers, and other formal allies have joined the protesters in demanding that the increasingly repressive and eccentric U.S.-backed dictator to step down.

Rising Protests

Yemen is a desperately poor country, with high unemployment, and a long history of division and instability. Sheila Carapico, a professor at the University of Richmond, has described

the grotesque enrichment of regime cronies at the expense of the many; deteriorating standards of living; obscenely bad schools, hospitals and roads; the skyrocketing price of meat, staples and even clean water; the lack of jobs for college and high-school graduates. … Grandiose pageants of presidential power, half-truths in the official media, indignities at military checkpoints, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments — these and other daily insults feed popular alienation, despair and frustration, most notably among the youth. While a privileged few cool off in swimming pools in their luxury compounds, the water table has fallen, decimating the farm economy that remains the livelihood of the rural majority. Farmers and ranchers facing starvation have flocked to the cities where water supplies and social services are swamped. Misery has become the new normal; millions barely survive on the equivalent of a dollar or two per day.

The United States has sent plenty of money, but it’s almost all been military assistance. The small amounts of economic aid have mostly gone through corrupt government channels.

Until the pro-democracy struggle emerged as a major nationwide challenge to the regime, the attention of the U.S. media and the Obama administration had almost exclusively been on al-Qaeda cells operating in the country and Shiite Houthi tribesmen fighting in a remote northern region. There was a sense that the people of Yemen were too poor or too tribal or too “backward” to engage in a nonviolent civil insurrection against their dictator. However, as other unarmed pro-democracy uprisings in the region have demonstrated, the desire of human freedom and the willingness face down the tanks, machine guns, tear gas, and truncheons to defend basic rights is indeed universal.

As with Tunisia and Egypt, young people make up the majority of the protesters, though people of all ages have taken to the streets in more than a dozen cities across the country. As with similar pro-democracy protests, there has been a strong cultural dimension, including street theater, music, dancing, and other performance art. Protesters have used tactics that illustrate the unity of the movement, such as 50,000 hands being clasped above the crowd.

Yemen is the most heavily armed countries in the world in terms of individual gun ownership, with some estimates as high as three weapons per person. The fact that the millions of Yemenis who have taken to the streets have consciously left them at home and largely maintained a strict nonviolent discipline is nothing short of remarkable. At a recent demonstration in the tribal al-Bayda region, men brought guns only to throw them down on the ground shouting “silmiyya!” (“peacefully!”), a common chant of the protests. Indeed, the extent of the pro-democracy struggle and its commitment to nonviolence is comparable to the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and earlier unarmed insurrections in Serbia, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Chile, and elsewhere.

Washington Flat-Footed

Despite diplomatic cables going back as far as 2005 indicating that Saleh could potentially face a popular pro-democracy uprising, the Obama administration appears to have been caught completely off-guard. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that Washington had not planned for an era without Saleh. As one former ambassador to Yemen put it in back in March, “For right now, he’s our guy.”

Since then, the Obama administration has belatedly joined its European allies in encouraging Saleh to step aside. At the same time, the United States has not been very supportive of the pro-democracy protests either. For example, following government attacks on peaceful pro-democracy protesters two weeks ago, which killed a dozen protesters and injured hundreds of others, the U.S. embassy called on the Yemenis to cooperate with the rather dubious Saudi-led negotiations for a transition by “avoiding all provocative demonstrations, marches and speeches in the coming days.”

Recently released Wikileaks cables have also demonstrated that U.S. military assistance increased despite evidence that Saleh was using U.S.-supplied weapons not against al-Qaeda as promised but against domestic opposition to his increasingly repressive rule. As a result of the popular protests, Washington has frozen the more than $1 billion in military aid currently in the pipeline. But Washington has acted more out of concern over Saleh’s successor than genuine outrage at the dramatically increased repression.

It’s time for the United States to recognize that the future of the Middle East is not in the hands of aging autocrats like Saleh or even traditional elite oppositionists, but in civil society. Ultimately power comes not from well-armed people at the top but from the consent of the people.

Pro-Democracy Protests Spread to Oman

Most Americans are not familiar with the sultanate of Oman. The mostly desert country the size of Kansas wraps around the Arabian peninsula’s southeastern corner, bordering Yemen on its southwest and the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia along most of its inland border. Oman’s long seacoast runs along the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. And its northern tip forms one side of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz across from Iran.

Oman’s autocratic monarchy has long been one of the closest U.S. allies in the Middle East. And, as with authoritarian U.S. allies in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, a largely nonviolent, pro-democracy struggle has arisen in Oman as well.

Protests began in the capital of Muscat on February 19 but soon spread to other cities across the country. Similar to the other largely nonviolent insurrections taking place elsewhere in the Arab world, the protests have been centered on demands for democracy, human rights, economic justice, and curbing official corruption. As in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and other monarchies that have witnessed protests in recent weeks, most protesters are not demanding the abolition of the monarchy. They’re seeking an elected parliament with real power, essentially transforming the current absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy.

On February 26, protests in Oman spread to the northeastern industrial city of Sohar. Although starting out exclusively nonviolent, a forcible response by government security forces the following day resulted in some stone-throwing by the crowd. A police station and government building were reportedly torched. Security forces killed two protesters and wounded several others. On Monday, protesters temporarily blocked roads leading to the country’s second largest port and new protests broke out in the capital. Meanwhile, in the southern city of Salalah, demonstrators began a sit-in near the office of a provincial governor. In response, the sultan replaced nine cabinet members, raised the minimum wage by 40 percent, and announced his intention to create 50,000 new civil service jobs. These measures did not satisfy the pro-democracy protesters. On March 3, demonstrators set up a tent city in the center of Sohar. Two days later, protests hit Oman’s oil producing region. Workers at the main oil field at Haima began an ongoing sit-in.

The Obama administration has thus far refused to support the protesters demands or call for a democratic opening. But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that U.S. officials had contacted the Omani government and encouraged them “to undertake reforms that include economic opportunity and move towards greater inclusion and participation in a peaceful political process.”

Our Man in Muscat

Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is well-regarded in the West. An Anglophile (trained at Sandhurst) and a cultured man with musical talents, he has long been depicted as a “moderate” Arab leader. He has ruled Oman since 1970 when he overthrew his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, who had effectively banned almost all aspects of 20th-century development.

The sultan serves as both head of state and head of government, as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, prime minister, defense minister, foreign affairs minister, and finance minister. There is no crown prince or other major figures in the royal family to either serve as a counterweight or to back up his rule. Nor is there a legal process currently in place for selecting a successor. There is no heir apparent, nor is there likely to be one. Qaboos is 70 years old, has no children, and is unmarried. (He is known to have a harem of at least 100 men, though they generally keep a low public profile.)

Although Oman’s oil reserves are significantly less than its richer neighbors to the north, in recent years they have provided the country with impressive economic growth. However, that does not substitute for the lack of political freedom. Qaboos refuses to allow any group to meet without official permission, and all NGOs must be licensed by his regime. There is severe press censorship, there are no political parties or independent human rights groups, and it is strictly forbidden to criticize the ruler. The sultan established an 84-member quasi-parliamentary body known as the Majlis Shura in 2002, which has no legislative authority and only serves in an advisory capacity.

Despite such limitations, pro-democracy activists have sought creative means of spreading their message, such as using donkeys as mobile billboards to criticize the regime. Such efforts had little impact. The events of the past two weeks are the first time the regime has faced a serious challenge to its autocratic rule.

Economic and Strategic Ties

Oman is also the location of one of the lesser-known U.S. military interventions. In the late 1960s, a popular leftist uprising composed primarily of peasants from the southwestern province of Dhofar as well as participants from other parts of the country began challenging the regime. In response, in the early 1970s, the United States and the British helped coordinate a counter-insurgency war with the support of troops from Pakistan and Iran, which was then under the rule of the Shah. This strategy of finding regional surrogates to intervene in counterrevolutionary warfare rather than dispatching U.S. forces to do the actual fighting came to be seen as the most marked success of the Nixon Doctrine. The Omani government, with this outside assistance, crushed the leftist rebellion by 1976. Ties between the United States and Oman have been close ever since.

In the years between the overthrow of the Shah in early 1979 and Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait (which led to an opening for U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and other emirates further north), Oman was the country in the Persian Gulf that most welcomed U.S. forces. In subsequent years, the availability of Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait for U.S. forces has limited Oman’s role to providing air bases for refueling, logistics, and storage. Despite its friendly relations with the United States, Oman has maintained better relations with Iran than other Arab countries of the Gulf and has thereby served at times as an intermediary.

Oman’s total population is around 2.5 million. But approximately 600,000 of them are guest workers from the Philippines, Egypt, and South Asia, who serve as maids, drivers, and construction workers. The U.S. State Department has noted that abuses of foreign workers and even human trafficking are commonplace. Despite this, Congress approved a free trade agreement with Oman in 2006, which appears to have boosted the fortune of the sweatshop owners rather than the earnings of either Omani or foreign workers.

As with other allied autocracies in the region, Oman’s human rights record has been something of an embarrassment. Under the Clinton administration, the authors of the State Department annual human rights report, as a result of pressure from department superiors, changed the description of the Sultanate of Oman to downplay the authoritarian nature of the regime. Although the 1991 report described Oman as “an absolute monarchy,” subsequent reports simply referred to the sultanate as “a monarchy without popularly elected representative institutions.” The sultan’s speeches, justifying his country’s lack of democracy as a reflection of its cultural traditions, have been first written in English by Western advisers and then translated into Arabic.

Although most Americans may not be familiar with Oman, Omanis are certainly familiar with the United States and its support for the sultan. The growing unrest will make it difficult for the United States to remain silent about the severity of the country’s problems. Oman is yet one more test of whether the Obama administration will continue to back an autocratic status quo in allied Arab countries or respect the wishes of their people, manifested through large-scale nonviolent action.

America Blows It on Bahrain

The Obama administration’s continued support of the autocratic monarchy in Bahrain, in the face of massive pro-democracy demonstrators, once again puts the United States behind the curve of the new political realities in the Middle East. For more than two weeks, a nonviolent sit-in and encampment by tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters has occupied the Pearl Roundabout. This traffic circle in Bahrain’s capital city of Manama – like Tahrir Square in Cairo – has long been the symbolic center of the city and, by extension, the center of the country. Though these demonstrations and scores of others across the country have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, they have been met by severe repression by the U.S.-backed monarchy.

Understanding the pro-democracy struggle unfolding in this tiny island nation requires putting into context the country’s unique history, demographics, and its historically close relations to the United States.

Though Bahrain has a long and rich history, the modern state did not receive full independence from Great Britain until 1971. This is the same year the British withdrew their security commitments from the area and the United States stepped in as the major foreign power. Bahrain is the smallest country in the Middle East, located on an island of only 290 square miles (smaller in area than New York City) in the Persian Gulf between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Its population is only 1.2 million (smaller than San Antonio, Texas). More than half of that total consists of foreign guest workers, primarily from India and other South Asian countries. The small size of the country belies its perceived importance by the U.S. government.

The Ties that Bind

The fortress-like U.S. embassy in Manama is probably the largest embassy relative to the population of the host country of any in the world. The U.S. military in Bahrain, which directs the Fifth Fleet and the U.S. Naval Central Command, controls roughly one-fifth of this small nation, making the southern part of the island essentially off-limits to Bahrainis. For more than 20 years, approximately 1,500 Americans have been stationed at the base (which the U.S. government refers to as a “forward operations center”), supporting operations and serving as homeport for an additional 15,000 sailors. As University of California–Irvine Professor Mark LeVine describes it, “If the United States is Egypt’s primary patron, in Bahrain it is among the ruling family’s biggest tenants.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe once told me in an interview that Bahrain was “pound for pound, man for man, the best ally the United States has anywhere in the world.”

Unlike in other Gulf states, where Americans have traditionally kept a low profile, the U.S. presence is quite visible in Bahrain as a major port of call for sailors on leave. Just prior to my last visit, the government threw a big Christmas party for American military personnel, even bringing in Santa Claus riding on a camel. This is made possible thanks to its U.S.-friendly dictator, King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa. The prime minister is Prince Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, the king’s uncle and reputedly the richest man in the Bahrain, who has governed for nearly 40 years. Both are firmly committed to a close strategic alliance with the United States. And close economic ties as well.

Indeed, economic interests also draw the two nations together. Bahrain was the first Arab country to produce oil back in 1932. Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), later joined by Texaco, succeeded in controlling the country’s oil industry through ownership of the Bahrain Petroleum Company, until the Bahraini government purchased the company in 1980. In 2005, Bahrain became the first Persian Gulf state to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. The government has embarked upon a massive privatization program in recent years–selling banks, financial services, telecommunication, and other public assets to private interests. The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom ranks Bahrain as having the “freest” economy in the Middle East and the tenth “freest” in the world.


Most Bahrainis are not happy with such policies. But Bahrain’s political system doesn’t allow them to do much about it. Even the State Department acknowledges that the Bahraini government “restricts civil liberties, freedoms of press, speech, assembly, association, and some religious practices.”

As far back as the 1990s, Bahraini officials with whom I met were beginning to sense that greater attention needed to be paid to human rights and economic justice. At that time, the United States did not appear to push them in that direction. “An overemphasis on profitability for corporations at the expense of other more basic concerns could lead to political instability,” said Mohammed Ali Fakhro, Bahrain’s minister of education, in all-too prescient remarks. “If there is going to be stability, there needs to be greater fairness in the distribution of wealth, both between the North and the South, but also within countries, including the United States.” He, and other Bahraini officials I interviewed at that time, stressed that the United States needed to be more consistent with its professed concerns about human rights, that American policymakers often compromised on these principles when they conflicted with short-term interests. Democratization is sweeping the world, they observed, including in the Middle East. In their view, it would be in the interest of regional stability for the United States to play a role as catalyst of change rather than simply as an armed power.

The 1990s saw periodic and widespread protests throughout Bahrain, including scattered acts of violence, against the authoritarian Sheik Issa. When Issa died in 1999, his son and successor King Hamad announced a series of major reforms. Approval of the National Action Charter of Bahrain, codified in a 2001 referendum, ended more than seven years of protests against the regime. While Bahrainis did enjoy a somewhat more liberal social and political environment under their new ruler, most promised reforms never materialized. For example, the charter allowed for the establishment of an elected lower house of parliament, but it has remained largely powerless. The upper house – appointed by the king – must approve any legislation passed by the lower house. Furthermore, the king can still veto any legislation with no option of override and can abolish the entire parliament at will. All of the important cabinet posts – and majority of the cabinet posts overall – are filled by members of the royal family.

While Bahrain permits greater freedom of speech than in many neighboring countries, criticism of the royal family – which applies to the government and most of its ministries – is significantly restricted. Similarly, laws against fomenting “sectarianism” have been broadly applied. This comes as no surprise, given that the royal family is Sunni and most opposition groups are based in the majority Shia community.

Several political forces boycotted the October 2010 parliamentary elections, including the main opposition party Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy (which includes both Shia and Sunni leadership) as well as the Wafa Party, the Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Khalas Movement, and the Islamic Action Society. Just prior to the vote, the authorities arrested a number of opposition leaders after they raised concerns about human rights abuses.

A Popular Progressive Tradition

The authoritarianism of the Bahraini government contrasts with the island’s relatively progressive and pluralistic tradition. Despite many years under monarchies and empires, Bahrainis have long embraced a tradition of freedom and social justice. During most of the 10th and 11th centuries, an Islamic sect known as the Qarmatians governed the island and created a radically egalitarian society based on reason and the equal distribution of all wealth and property among the adherents. In the 19th century, Bahrain was the largest trading center in the entire Gulf region – with Arab, Persian, Indian, and other influences – reinforcing traditions of cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and pluralism.

A visit to Manama today reveals not only Sunni and Shia mosques, but Christian churches, Hindu and Sikh temples, and a Jewish synagogue. Bahrain was the first Arab country in the Gulf to provide formal modern education to women. With an economy traditionally based on fishing, pearl diving, and trade – and with too little land for much grazing or fresh water for farming – Bahrain has been a largely urban society for centuries, even prior to the discovery of oil. Thus, it has never been subjected to the kind of parochial tribalism of other Arabian countries. Furthermore, unlike the other oil-rich sheikdoms of the Gulf region, the diverse sources of its wealth have led to the establishment of an indigenous middle class.

Though an island, Bahrain is accessible by road. A 16-mile causeway connects it to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Bahrain’s relatively liberal social mores have made it a residence of choice for Saudis who wish to live in a less restrictive environment. It’s also become a popular weekend destination for Saudis who want to party.

Although Bahrain’s oil supplies are running out, it still serves as a major refinery center. It still has plenty of natural gas reserves and has become a major financial center. Ship repair, aluminum refining, and light manufacturing have also helped diversify the economy. With an annual per capita income of $26,000 (similar to Greece), low unemployment, a literacy rate over 90 percent, and an average life expectancy and infant mortality rate comparable to some European countries, it is one of the better-off nations in the Middle East. Still, impressive social and economic statistics are no substitute for political freedom, particularly when combined with ongoing discrimination against the Shia majority.

The Nonviolent Struggle

Inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Iran, pro-democracy activists called for nationwide pro-democracy protests on February 14, the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter referendum. The mostly young organizers called on Bahrainis “to take to the streets on Monday 14 February in a peaceful and orderly manner” in order to rewrite the constitution and establish a body with a “full popular mandate to investigate and hold to account economic, political and social violations, including stolen public wealth, political naturalisation, arrests, torture, and other oppressive security measures, [and] institutional and economic corruption.”

According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the government’s response was “a state of confusion, apprehension and anticipation,” including an attempt to placate the opposition with money. The king ordered that 1000 Bahrani dinars (approximately $2,600) be distributed to each family in celebration of the referendum’s tenth anniversary.

On February 12, the BCHR sent an open letter to the king to “ease tensions” and “avoid the use of force” by releasing 450 detainees, dissolving the security apparatus, and prosecuting officials guilty of human rights violations, and beginning “serious dialogue with civil society and opposition groups on disputed issues.” BCHR President Nabeel Rajab stated, “The dissolving of the security apparatus and the prosecution of its officials will not only distance the King from the crimes committed by this apparatus especially since 2005, such as systemic torture and the use of excessive force against peaceful protests, but will avoid the fatal mistake committed by similar apparatuses in Tunisia and Egypt which led to the loss of lives and hundreds of casualties and eventually resulted in the fall of the regimes who created these ‘double edged swords.'”

When protests did break out across the country on February 14, the government responded with mass arrests and beatings, killing one young man and injuring dozens of others. At his funeral, police shot into the crowd. One person was killed and 25 injured. Al Wefaq, a predominantly Shia party that had won a plurality of seats in the recent parliamentary elections, announced a suspension of their participation in the parliament and formally joined the demonstrations. Tens of thousands of protesters occupied the Pearl Roundabout, setting up tents in a manner similar to the mass sit-ins in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

At around 3:00 AM on February 17, without warning, riot police attacked the sleeping encampment of thousands with tear gas, batons, and bullets. Four more people were killed, including a two-year old girl shot multiple times. Al Jazeera reported that hospitals in Manama were filled with hundreds of wounded protesters and described “doctors and emergency personnel who were overrun by the police while trying to attend to the wounded.” Directly contradicting eyewitness accounts and video footage, the regime insisted the protesters had attacked the police and that security forces had used only minimal force in self-defense. Bahrain’s government, like the dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Libya, tried to blame outsiders. It insisted, for instance, that it had found weapons and flags from the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Despite such provocations, the opposition’s response was largely peaceful. Pro-democracy activists gathered to pray and hold vigil outside hospitals. They engaged in more peaceful protests in the capital the following day. When confronted by security forces, protesters held their hands up high and shouted, “Peaceful! Peaceful!” Police and army units again attacked the demonstrators – along with mourners, journalists, and medics – resulting in one additional death and scores of injuries.

As has often occurred elsewhere, when a government uses illegitimate force against peaceful protesters, the protests increased in intensity rather than diminished. Recognizing this, the regime withdrew the military and police from the capital. Thousands of protesters returned to the Pearl Roundabout to resume their peaceful sit-in.

On February 22, more than 100,000 anti-government protesters took to the street. This time, the government allowed the demonstrators to march. Smaller protests continued over subsequent days. The government attempted to back down from its hard line stance–declaring a national day of mourning for those killed, freeing hundreds of political prisoners, dismissing four unpopular cabinet officials, allowing an exiled opposition leader to return, and making a series of economic concessions. On February 25, more than 200,000 people marched, a number constituting a full 40 percent of the indigenous Bahraini population. In recent days, they have escalated their protests by blockading the state television headquarters and the parliament building

Most of these protesters have called for a transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, rather than the overthrow of the monarchy. They want the prime minister to resign, greater civil liberties, and a popularly elected parliament with real power.

The Iranian Bogeyman

Nearly three-quarters of the indigenous Bahraini population are Shia, even though Shias constitute barely 10 percent of the Islamic community worldwide (they are also the majority in neighboring Iran and Iraq). The Sunni-controlled Bahraini government has long discriminated against Shias in employment, housing, and infrastructure projects. The military, particularly the top elite, is mostly Sunni. The secret police are almost exclusively Sunni, and reportedly include Pakistanis and other foreign elements. Only a handful of cabinet posts, restricted to the less important ministries, have been granted to Shias. In an effort to bolster the number of Sunnis, the government has taken the unusual step of granting citizenship to some foreign Sunni workers, virtually unprecedented in other Gulf countries with large foreign worker populations. As a result, there is a sectarian element to the ongoing struggle, even if the majority of the pro-democracy protesters are not seeking a Shia-dominated state per se.

When disenfranchised Shia populations in the Middle East have organized for their rights, the regimes often label them as Iranian agents. In some cases, Iranian intelligence has supported these movements, although the vast majority are popular indigenous struggles with legitimate grievances. The Iranian connection, however false or exaggerated, introduces the fear of an Iranian plot to assert their influence and establish an Iranian-style theocracy. Thus, the specter of Iran is raised to bolster the argument that it is in the U.S. interest to support repressive regimes to suppress such movements.

However, most Bahraini Shias, unlike their counterparts in Iran and other countries, do not follow ayatollahs. Having been conquered by the Persian Empire for periods of their history, they cherish their independence and reject calls by some Persian ultra-nationalists to reincorporate Bahrain into Iran. While many Bahraini Shias were initially enthusiastic about the Islamic revolution in the immediate aftermath of the Shah’s overthrow in 1979, they – like most Iranians themselves – have since soured on the revolution as a result of its reactionary and repressive turn. Despite some fear-mongering from some pro-authoritarian elements in the United States and elsewhere who seek to depict the Bahraini uprising as a fundamentalist Shiite revolution, the protests in Bahrain have the support of both the progressive Sunni and secular populations. This pro-democracy movement is as legitimate as the popular struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Signs and chants at the demonstrations indicate that they eschew sectarianism, emphasizing Shia-Sunni unity in the cause of democracy.

At the same time, because the Shia majority has the most to gain from democratic change, the protesters have been overwhelmingly Shia. The U.S.-backed regime, in a divide-and-rule strategy, has raised the specter of a Shiite fundamentalist takeover in an effort to enlist the sizable Sunni minority in protecting their privileged status, thereby creating the potential for a self-fulfilling prophecy of a polarization of Bahraini society along sectarian lines. Indeed, it was no accident that a pro-government rally organized by the regime took place in the plaza near the grand Sunni mosque–a rally thousands of Indian and Pakistani Sunnis were encouraged to join. The government is also feeling the pressure from the Saudi regime to crack down. The Saudis fear that a successful Shia-led pro-democracy struggle in Bahrain might not only encourage pro-democracy elements in their kingdom, but might encourage the restive and oppressed Shia minority in Saudi Arabia – which is concentrated in the oil-rich northeastern part of the country – to rebel as well.

International Accountability

In the aftermath of the nonviolent overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, President Obama warned other Middle Eastern leaders that they should “get ahead of the wave of protest” by quickly moving toward democracy. Even though his February 15 press conference took place during some of the worst repression in Bahrain, he chose not to mention the country by name. In the face of Bahraini security forces unleashing violence on peaceful protesters, Obama insisted that “each country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can’t dictate how they run their societies.” Although certainly a valid statement in itself, in this case it appears to have been little more than a rationalization for silence in the face of extreme violence by an autocratic ally. Indeed, the United States has hardly been silent in the face of the ongoing repression by the authoritarian regime in Libya, even though elements of the pro-democracy movement in that country, unlike in Bahrain, have taken up arms.

Meanwhile, on February 23, U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to Bahrain to meet King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman, who serves as commander-in-chief for the Bahraini armed forces. According to Mullen’s spokesman, Navy Captain John Kirby, the admiral “reaffirmed our strong commitment to our military relationship with the Bahraini defense forces.” And, despite the massacres of the previous week, he thanked the Bahraini leaders “for the very measured way they have been handling the popular crisis here.”

Indeed, the February 25 The New York Times reported how the Obama administration “has sent out senior diplomats in recent days to offer the monarchs reassurance and advice — even those who lead the most stifling governments.” The article stressed that the administration is not averse to encouraging reforms, noting however that “American officials have sought to keep the focus on what they insist have been concessions made by Bahrain, where the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed, as a sign that the protests can prod the king, and the crown prince who will head the dialogue with the protesters, in the right direction.”

A more democratic Bahrain would probably be friendlier to the Iranian regime than the current Bahraini government, but it would certainly not be an Iranian puppet. Similarly, a more democratic Bahrain would likely scale back the U.S. military presence on their small island, though it would not be stridently anti-American. Questions remain as to how much democracy the United States will encourage, even if led by a popular mass nonviolent movement. Putting the normative arguments aside, anything short of support for full democratization would be extremely short-sighted. As Professor Levine puts it, “What is more essential to American security today, convenient bases for its ships, planes and troops across the Middle East, or a full transition to democracy throughout the region?”

In both Tunisia and Egypt, the United States had to play catch up in its policy toward these allied regimes in the face of popular struggles against authoritarianism, only belatedly coming out in support of the massive nonviolent pro-democracy struggles in those countries. It would be nice if, when it comes to Bahrain, the United States would not wait until the last minute to be on the right side of history.

Arming the Saudis

The Pentagon has announced a $60 billion arms package to the repressive family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the largest arms sale of its kind in history. Rejecting the broad consensus of arms control advocates that the Middle East is too militarized already and that the Saudis already possess military capabilities well in excess of their legitimate security needs, the Obama administration is effectively insisting that this volatile region does not yet have enough armaments and that the United States must send even more.

According to reports, Washington is planning to sell 84 new F-15 fighters and three types of helicopters: 72 Black Hawks, 70 Apaches and 36 Little Birds. There are also reports of naval missile-defense upgrades in the works.

Though supporters of such arms sales argue that if the United States did not sell weapons to the oil-rich kingdom, someone else would, neither the Obama administration nor its predecessors have ever expressed interest in pursuing any kind of arms control agreement with other arms-exporting countries. A number of other arms exporters, such as Germany, are now expressing their opposition to further arms transfers to the region due to the risks of exacerbating tensions and promoting a regional arms race.

The United States is by far the largest arms exporter in the world, surpassing Russia — the second-largest arms exporter — by nearly two to one.

The Iranian Rationalization

The ostensible reason for the proposed arms packages is to counter Iran’s growing military procurement in recent years, though Iranian military spending is actually substantially less than it was 25 years ago. Furthermore, Iran’s current military buildup is based primarily on the perceived need to respond to the threatened US attack against that country, a concern made all the more real by the US invasion and occupation of two countries bordering Iran on both its east and west in recent years.

This US insistence on countering Iran through further militarizing this already overly militarized region is particularly provocative. Not only has the United States refused to engage in serious negotiations with Iran regarding mutual security concerns, but it has discouraged its regional allies from pursuing arms control talks or other negotiations that could ease tensions between the Arab monarchies and the Islamic Republic. If the Obama administration were really interested in addressing its purported concerns regarding Iranian militarization, it would be willing to engage in more serious diplomacy to limit the procurement of conventional arms on a region-wide basis.

In addition to alleged worries about Iran as a military threat to the region, US officials have also tried to justify the arms package as a means to respond to Iran’s growing political influence. However, most of Iran’s enhanced role in the region in recent years is a direct consequence of the decision by the Bush administration — backed by the current vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and other leading Obama administration officials — to overthrow the secular anti-Iranian regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and replace it with a new government dominated by pro-Iranian Shiite parties. Another key element of Iran’s growing influence is the earlier US decision to oust the anti-Iranian Taliban of Afghanistan and replace it with a regime dominated by tribal war lords, a number of whom have close Iranian ties. Similarly, Iranian influence has also increased in the Levant as a direct consequence of US-backed Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, which have strengthened popular political support for Hamas and Hezbollah and their ties to Iran.

Iran’s emergence as a major regional military power also took place as a result of earlier American arms transfers. Over a 25-year period, the United States pushed the autocratic regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi to purchase today’s equivalent of over $100 billion worth of American armaments, weapons systems and support, creating a formidable military apparatus that ended up in the hands of radically anti-American Shiite clerics following that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Rather than respond to these setbacks by further militarization, the Obama administration should, instead, seriously re-evaluate its counterproductive propensity to try to resolve Middle Eastern security concerns primarily through military means. Instead of meeting the legitimate defensive needs of America’s allies, the proposed deal is yet another arrogant assertion of American military hegemony. As US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns put it in 2007 in response to a previous arms package to the Saudis, such weapons transfers “say to the Iranians and Syrians that the United States is the major power in the Middle East and will continue to be and is not going away.”

As exiled Saudi activist Ali Alyami of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia put it, “Appeasing and protecting the autocratic Saudi dynasty and other tyrannical regimes in the Arab world will not bring peace, stability, or an end to extremism and terrorism.”

There is also the possibility that, as with Iran following the 1979 revolution, US arms provided to the Saudis could end up in the hands of radical anti-American forces should the government be overthrown. The Saudi regime is even more repressive than Iran’s in terms of its treatment of women, gays, religious minorities and political dissidents. Indeed, seeing their countries’ wealth squandered on unnecessary weapons systems pushed on them by the US government and suffering under their despotic rulers kept in power in large part through such military support are major causes of the growing appeal of anti-American extremism among the people of the Middle East.

More Arms, Less Security

US officials insist that the Saudis alone are responsible for their procurement of these sophisticated weapons. Yet, underneath this convenient claim of Saudi sovereignty that supposedly absolves the United States of any responsibility in the arms purchases and their deleterious effects, lies a practice that can be traced as far back as the 1940s: The U.S Defense Department routinely defines the kingdom’s security needs, often providing a far more pessimistic analysis of the country’s security situation than do more objective strategic analyses. Conveniently, these alleged needs lead directly to purchases of specific US weapons.

As Robert Vitalis, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, looking at the history of US arms transfers to the Saudi royal family, observed:

If the billions have not been useful to the Saudis, they were a gold mine for Congresspersons compelled to cast pro-Saudi votes, along with cabinet officials and party leaders worried about the economy of key states and electoral districts. To the extent that the regime faces politically destabilizing cutbacks in social spending, a proximate cause is the strong bipartisan push for arms exports to the Gulf as a means to bolster the sagging fortunes of key constituents and regions — the ‘gun belt’ — that represents the domestic face of internationalism.
These military expenditures place a major toll on the fiscal well-being of Middle Eastern countries. Military expenditures often total half of central government outlays. Many senior observers believe that debt financing in Saudi Arabia that has been used in the past to finance arms purchases has threatened the kingdom’s fragile social pact of distributing oil rents to favored constituents and regions.

A very important factor, often overlooked, is that a number of Middle Eastern states — such as Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco — are highly dependent on Saudi Arabia for financial assistance. As Saudi Arabia spends more and more on arms acquisitions, it becomes less generous, leading to serious budget shortfalls throughout the Arab world. The result is that these arms sales may be causing more instability and, thereby, threatening these countries’ security interests more than they are protecting them.

The implications of these ongoing arms purchases are ominous on several levels. For example, one of the most striking, but least talked about for the Middle East, is the “food deficit,” the amount of food produced relative to demand. With continued high military spending — combined with rapid population growth and increased urbanization — the resulting low investments in agriculture have made this deficit the fastest growing in the world.

For these and other reasons, ultimately the largest number of civilian casualties, the greatest amount of social disorder and the resulting strongest anti-American sentiment may come as a consequence of US-supplied weapons systems and ordinance that are never actually used in combat.

60 Second Expert: The U.S. in Yemen

Much attention has recently been focused on the poverty-stricken country of Yemen. The planning of the Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight by al-Qaeda members in Yemen and other incidents have revealed that al-Qaeda cells in Yemen represents a genuine threat. However, if the U.S. yet seeks a military solution to a complex political, social and economic situation, however, it could prove disastrous to both Yemen and U.S. security interests.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. Forty percent of Yemenis are unemployed and live on a per capita income of $600 per year. As a result, though there is much need for sustainable economic development in the country, most U.S. aid has been military particularly since the growing prominence of al-Qaeda in the country.

As Washington contemplates whether or not to increase its military role in Yemen, it must keep in mind that Yemen is one of the most complex societies in the world with considerable tribal divisions and political rivalries, including two other major insurgencies unrelated to al-Qaeda. Thus, sending U.S. forces or increasing the number of U.S. drone strikes carries serious risks. Such actions could result in the expansion of armed resistance, and the strengthening of Islamist militants and anti-American sentiment.

Any military action against al-Qaeda and Islamists should be Yemeni-led. Washington should also press Yemen’s increasingly autocratic government to become more democratic and less corrupt. There should also be a significant increase in development aid for the poorest rural communities that have essentially served as havens for radical Islamists and the growth of al -Qaeda’s presence in Yemen.

Yemen: The Latest U.S. Battleground

The United States may be on the verge of involvement in yet another counterinsurgency war which, as is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, may make a bad situation even worse. The attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight by a Nigerian man was apparently planned in Yemen. There were alleged ties between the perpetrator of the Ft. Hood massacre and a radical Yemeni cleric, and an ongoing U.S.-backed Yemeni military offensive against al-Qaeda have all focused U.S. attention on that country.

Yemen has almost as large a population as Saudi Arabia, but differently lacks much in the way of natural resources. What little oil the country has is rapidly being depleted. Indeed, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per-capita income of less than $600 per year. More than 40 percent of the population is unemployed and the economic situation is increasingly deteriorating for most Yemenis as a result of a U.S.-backed structural adjustment program imposed by the International Monetary Fund.

The county is desperate for assistance in sustainable economic development. The vast majority of U.S. aid delivered to the country, however, has been in the form of military assets. The limited economic assistance made available has been of dubious effectiveness and has largely gone through corrupt government channels.

Al-Qaeda’s Rise

The United States has long been concerned about the presence of al-Qaeda operatives within Yemen’s porous borders, particularly since the recent unification of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of the terrorist network. Thousands of Yemenis participated in the U.S.-supported anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s, becoming radicalized by the experience and developing links with Osama bin Laden, a Saudi whose father comes from a Yemeni family. Various tribal loyalties to bin Laden’s family have led to some support within Yemen for the exiled al-Qaeda leader, even among those who do not necessarily support his reactionary interpretation of Islam or his terrorist tactics. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have served as migrant laborers in neighboring Saudi Arabia. There, exposure to the hardline Wahhabi interpretation of Islam dominant in that country combined with widespread repression and discrimination has led to further radicalization.

In October 2000, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the U.S. Navy ship Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. This led to increased cooperation between U.S. and Yemeni military and intelligence, including a series of U.S. missile attacks against suspected al-Qaeda operatives.

Currently, hardcore al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen — many of whom are foreigners — probably number no more than 200. But they are joined by roughly 2,000 battle-hardened Yemeni militants who have served time in Iraq fighting U.S. occupation forces. The swelling of al-Qaeda’s ranks by veterans of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Iraqi insurgency has led to the rise of a substantially larger and more extreme generation of fighters, who have ended the uneasy truce between Islamic militants and the Yemeni government.

Opponents of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq correctly predicted that the inevitable insurgency would create a new generation of radical jihadists, comparable to the one that emerged following the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Bush administration and its congressional supporters — including then-senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton — believed that a U.S. takeover of Iraq was more important than avoiding the risk of creating of a hotbed of anti-American terrorism. Ironically, President Obama is relying on Biden and Clinton — as well as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, another supporter of the U.S. invasion and occupation — to help us get out of this mess they helped create.

Not a Failed State

Yemen is one of the most complex societies in the world, and any kind of overreaction by the United States — particularly one that includes a strong military component — could be disastrous. Bringing in U.S. forces or increasing the number of U.S. missile strikes would likely strengthen the size and radicalization of extremist elements. Instead of recognizing the strong and longstanding Yemeni tradition of respecting tribal autonomy, U.S. officials appear to be misinterpreting this lack of central government control as evidence of a “failed state.” The U.S. approach has been to impose central control by force, through a large-scale counterinsurgency strategy.

Such a military response could result in an ever-wider insurgency, however. Indeed, such overreach by the government is what largely prompted the Houthi rebellion in the northern part of the country, led by adherents of the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam. The United States has backed a brutal crackdown by Yemeni and Saudi forces in the Houthi region, largely accepting exaggerated claims of Iranian support for the rebellion. There is also a renewal of secessionist activity in the formerly independent south. These twin threats are largely responsible for the delay in the Yemeni government’s response to the growing al-Qaeda presence in their country.

With the United States threatening more direct military intervention in Yemen to root out al-Qaeda, the Yemeni government’s crackdown may be less a matter of hoping for something in return for its cooperation than a fear of what may happen if it does not. The Yemeni government is in a difficult bind, however. If it doesn’t break up the terrorist cells, the likely U.S. military intervention would probably result in a greatly expanded armed resistance. If the government casts too wide a net, however, it risks tribal rebellion and other civil unrest for what will be seen as unjustifiable repression at the behest of a Western power. Either way, it would likely increase support for extremist elements, which both the U.S. and Yemeni governments want destroyed.

For this reason, most Western experts on Yemen agree that increased U.S. intervention carries serious risks. This would not only result in a widespread armed backlash within Yemen. Such military intervention by the United States in yet another Islamic country in the name of “anti-terrorism” would likely strengthen Islamist militants elsewhere as well.

Cold War Pawn

As with previous U.S. military interventions, most Americans have little understanding of the targeted country or its history.

Yemen was divided for most of the 20th century. South Yemen, which received its independence from Great Britain in 1967 after years of armed anti-colonial resistance, resulted from a merger between the British colony of Aden and the British protectorate of South Arabia. Declaring itself the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, it became the Arab world’s only Marxist-Leninist state and developed close ties with the Soviet Union. As many as 300,000 South Yemenis fled to the north in the years following independence.

North Yemen, independent since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, became embroiled in a bloody civil war during the 1960s between Saudi-backed royalist forces and Egyptian-backed republican forces. The republican forces eventually triumphed, though political instability, military coups, assassinations, and periodic armed uprisings continued.

In both countries, ancient tribal and modern ideological divisions have made control of these disparate armed forces virtually impossible. Major segments of the national armies would periodically disintegrate, with soldiers bringing their weapons home with them. Lawlessness and chaos have been common for decades, with tribes regularly shifting loyalties in both their internal feuds and their alliances with their governments. Many tribes have been in a permanent state of war for years, and almost every male adolescent and adult routinely carries a rifle.

In 1979, in one of the more absurd episodes of the Cold War, a minor upsurge in fighting along the former border led to a major U.S. military mobilization in response to what the Carter administration called a Soviet-sponsored act of international aggression. In March of that year, South Yemeni forces, in support of some North Yemeni guerrillas, shelled some North Yemeni government positions. In response, Carter ordered the aircraft carrier Constellation and a flotilla of warships to the Arabian Sea as a show of force. Bypassing congressional approval, the administration rushed nearly $499 million worth of modern weaponry to North Yemen, including 64 M-60 tanks, 70 armored personnel carriers, and 12 F-5E aircraft. Included were an estimated 400 American advisers and 80 Taiwanese pilots for the sophisticated warplanes that no Yemeni knew how to fly.

This gross overreaction to a local conflict led to widespread international criticism. Indeed, the Soviets were apparently unaware of the border clashes and the fighting died down within a couple of weeks. Development groups were particularly critical of this U.S. attempt to send such expensive high-tech weaponry to a country with some of the highest rates of infant mortality, chronic disease, and illiteracy in the world.

The communist regime in South Yemen collapsed in the 1980s, when rival factions of the Politburo and Central Committee killed each other and their supporters by the thousands. With the southern leadership decimated, the two countries merged in May 1990. The newly united country’s democratic constitution gave Yemen one of the most genuinely representative governments in the region.

Later in 1990, when serving as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Yemen voted against the U.S.-led effort to authorize the use of force against Iraq to drive its occupation forces from Kuwait. A U.S. representative was overheard declaring to the Yemeni ambassador, “That was the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.” The United States immediately withdrew $70 million in foreign aid to Yemen while dramatically increasing aid to neighboring dictatorships that supported the U.S.-led war effort. Over the next several years, apparently upset with the dangerous precedent of a democratic Arab neighbor, the U.S.-backed regime in Saudi Arabia engaged in a series of attacks against Yemen along its disputed border.

Renewed Violence and Repression

In 1994, ideological and regional clan-based rivalries led to a brief civil war, with the south temporarily seceding and the government mobilizing some of the jihadist veterans of the Afghan war to fight the leftist rebellion.

After crushing the southern secessionists, the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh became increasingly authoritarian. U.S. support resumed and aid increased. Unlike most U.S. allies in the region, direct elections for the president and parliament have continued, but they have hardly been free or fair. Saleh officially received an unlikely 94 percent of the vote in the 1999 election. And in the most recently election, in 2006, government and police were openly pushing for Saleh’s re-election amid widespread allegations of voter intimidation, ballot-rigging, vote-buying, and registration fraud. Just two days before the vote, Saleh announced the arrest on “terrorism” charges a campaign official of his leading opponent. Since that time, human rights abuses and political repression — including unprecedented attacks on independent media — have increased dramatically.

Obama was elected president as the candidate who promised change, including a shift away from the foreign policy that had led to such disastrous policies in Iraq and elsewhere. In Yemen, his administration appears to be pursuing the same short-sighted tactics as its predecessors: support of a repressive and autocratic regime, pursuit of military solutions to complex social and political conflicts, and reliance on failed counterinsurgency doctrines.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen represents a genuine threat. However, any military action should be Yemeni-led and targeted only at the most dangerous terrorist cells. We must also press the Yemeni government to become more democratic and less corrupt, in order to gain the support needed to suppress dangerous armed elements. In the long term, the United States should significantly increase desperately needed development aid for the poorest rural communities that have served as havens for radical Islamists. Such a strategy would be far more effective than drone attacks, arms transfers, and counterinsurgency.

Congress Approves Flawed Oman Trade Pact

One of the sub-plots in last year’s critically acclaimed film Syriana tells the story of two young Pakistani ?guest workers? in an unnamed Persian Gulf nation who, after years of resentment over miserable living conditions, are taken in by a radical cleric and recruited to be suicide bombers. The film is an all too accurate portrayal of the exploitation of ?guest workers? in many Gulf countries, and how these conditions can cause instability.

On July 19, with U.S. public attention focused elsewhere in the Middle East on the unfolding tragedy in Lebanon and Israel, the House of Representatives narrowly approved a free trade agreement with the Sultanate of Oman. The 221-205 vote could very well bring this threat home to the United States. The Senate approved the measure last June on a 60-34 vote.

Over two million people live in the Sultanate of Oman. However, at least 600,000 of these people are guest workers from the Philippines, Egypt, and South Asia, who serve as maids, drivers, and construction workers. Oman bans independent labor unions (as well as many other civil society organizations) and has been cited by the U.S. State Department for human trafficking and abuses of foreign workers.

The Oman Free Trade Agreement will do nothing to improve the conditions for workers, as its labor provisions merely require Oman to enforce its existing weak laws.

Recently, The New York Times reported on an expose instigated by the National Labor Committee (NLC), which chronicled the conditions of foreign factory workers in the Kingdom of Jordan since a similar free trade pact was ratified in 2001. The NLC found that the Jordan Free Trade Agreement had resulted in a surge of sweatshops producing clothes for export set up by foreign investors from China and other countries setting up factories. These owners have brought in 25,000 foreigners to work in these factories, many of whom have their passports seized, are regularly denied pay, made to work 20-hour days and are physically abused. When workers complain, they are subjected to jail, beatings, and summary deportations.

The abuse and marginalization of guest workers in countries such as Oman presents a key challenge for the security of this vital region and the United States. James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute has referred to the situation as a ?time bomb.?

It is profoundly disturbing that Congress would approve a free trade agreement that will exacerbate conditions that are likely to trigger a reaction which could threaten the security interests of the United States. Without efforts to significantly improve the conditions of guest workers, primarily from poor Muslim countries, the United Nations and other international observers predict that the Gulf States could see severe political unrest in the years ahead. Trade pacts that create economic incentives for such abuse make the United States a source of the problem. Signs of future unrest can already be seen in last year’s protests and riots by foreign guest workers in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar and?in March of this year?in Oman’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates. The climate of anger and alienation created by the current situation facing guest workers is just the type of environment in which radical Islamic groups thrive.

As a strategic ally of the United States, it is important to encourage further economic development in Oman. However, by promoting a trade model that encourages the further import of guest workers without any mechanisms to ensure decent work conditions, the United States is contributing to the instability of the region and undermines efforts to fight Islamic extremism.

The Dubai Ports World Controversy: Jingoism or Legitimate Concerns?

Congressional Democrats, who proved themselves to be so timid in challenging the Bush administration in its invasion and occupation of Iraq, the initial passage of the Patriot Act, the bombing of Afghanistan, the detention without due process and torture of thousands of detainees worldwide, and other horrendous policies finally found the courage to challenge the Bush administration on a post-9/11 security issue and won. Unfortunately, they chose an issue of little real importance and decided to appeal to popular racist and jingoistic sentiments by raising exaggerated fears over the implications of a routine transfer of ownership of a company which operates facilities at some terminals in six U.S. ports.

Though there were some legitimate concerns regarding security issues and the Bush administration’s handling of the situation (outlined below), the decision to focus such disproportionate attention on the purchase of the British firm Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company by Dubai Ports World was blown way out of proportion. As a result, DP World has announced they will be selling the segments of the P&O operations in the United States to an American firm.

Even under the original agreement, ownership of the American ports would have remained with state and local entities. Most port operations in the United States are currently run by foreign interests, including companies owned by the governments of Singapore and China, with no apparent objections from Congress. However, in a corporate version of racial profiling, a bipartisan group of Capitol Hill lawmakers expressed outrage over the prospect that some port operations will be managed by a company owned by an Arab government.

To make their case against allowing the company’s new owners to continue its operations in the United States, opponents of Arab ownership distorted the nature of the purchase. For example, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who had no qualms about making false claims supporting the Bush administration’s contention that Iraq still had chemical and biological weapons on the eve of the U.S. invasion, proved herself quite willing to make false claims against the administration. In a recent letter to her San Francisco constituents, the Congresswoman insisted, “the administration brokered a deal with Dubai Ports World to provide port security at six major U.S ports.” 1 In reality, the Bush administration did not broker any deal with Dubai Ports World but merely approved the transfer of the company which had already been managing the operations of the port facilities to a new owner. More critically, DP World, like P&O, would have only been responsible for managing normal port operations, such as the docking facilities, the cranes, and the coordination with ground transportation of container shipment. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security would have continued to “provide port security.” Indeed, no port company determines or sets standards for security in American ports, which—according to federal law—are solely the purview of the U.S. government.

The hyperbole of some Democrats has bordered on racism, with New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg claiming that the transfer of title of operations at one of Newark’s four terminals constitutes an Arab “occupation,” 2 adding that, “We wouldn’t transfer the title to the Devil; we’re not going to transfer it to Dubai.” 3 In response to criticism of his comparison of the Dubai government with Satan, Lautenberg defended his remarks by noting the failure of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to support U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran. 4

While Congress may have had concerns about the UAE owning a company in charge of some port operations, they have had no qualms about supplying that government with sophisticated armaments. If Congress was really concerned that the UAE was intent on doing harm to the United States and its interests, they would have made an effort to exercise their prerogative to block the more than $2.5 billion in U.S. arms sales made to that government over the past three years. 5 However, Congress has apparently determined that protecting the enormous profits enjoyed by American arms merchants by these arms transfers is of higher priority.

The reaction by Congress appears not to have been solely prompted by public outcry. Polls show far more Americans disapprove of companies owned by the Chinese government managing U.S. port operations than companies owned by friendly Arab governments, 6 yet Congress has not raised similar concerns over the ongoing management of the important Long Beach terminal in California by a company owned by the People’s Liberation Army.

While anti-Arab racism may indeed be part of what motivated Congresswoman Pelosi, Senator Lautenberg, and other Democrats to make exaggerated assertions about potential terrorist threats from the UAE government, the Bush administration has certainly made it easy for them by making false and exaggerated claims of terrorist links to other Arab governments, such as the absurd pre-invasion claim that the secular Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein had connections with the radical Islamist al-Qaida. Such charges, along with more recent exaggerated claims regarding the Syrian regime’s ties to terrorism, have made all Arab governments suspicious in the eyes of the American public. President Bush is also in the tricky position of insisting that we trust Arabs to manage port facilities while distrusting them almost everywhere else, including those living in the United States: in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the administration rounded up hundreds of law-abiding Arab-American immigrants and placed them in secret and indefinite detention because of their ethnicity. After four and half years of fear-mongering about non-existent threats from Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world, it was hard for Congress and the public to trust President Bush’s assurances that “people don’t need to worry about security.” 7

Legitimate Concerns

Despite the hyperbole, there were some legitimate concerns about the security implications of the DP World ownership of the port management which the Bush administration seems to have ignored. For example, a suppressed Coast Guard assessment did raise concerns regarding “many intelligence gaps” regarding the potential for DP World assets “to support terrorist operations” that make it difficult to make an accurate threat assessment of its potential control over port operations. 8 In addition, given that the invasion of Iraq, the PATRIOT Act, and other dubious administration policies have been justified as a precautionary measure with regards to what is at stake in the post-9/11 security environment, it seems odd that the Bush administration did not bother even going through the normal security review required for approving such transfers of ownership.

And, despite President Bush’s insistence that the UAE is an “ally partner in the war on terror,” 9 their record has been somewhat spotty. The UAE was the only government besides Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to recognize the Taliban regime when it ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. President Bush’s former counter-terrorism chief Wayne Downing was quoted on MSNBC in September 2003 as noting how Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktum, the UAE Defense Minister and Crown Prince of Dubai, was among a number of wealthy and influential Gulf Arabs who visited Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan for horseback riding and hunting parties. 10

Though there is no evidence to suggest that the government of the UAE or the governments of any of its sheikdoms have directly supported al-Qaida, there have been credible concerns that the UAE has not sufficiently investigated money-laundering operations or private contributions in support of the terrorist network. Two of the 9/11 hijackers were from the UAE and some of al-Qaida’s financing has come through the Emirates. By contrast, none of the 9/11 hijackers and none of al-Qaida’s financing appears to have come through Saddam’s Iraq, Iran, or Syria, countries which have been targeted by the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties as part of the post-9/11 “war on terror.”

The sale of P&O to DP World has also highlighted the issue of port security, long seen as one of the most vulnerable areas for a potential attack against the United States by international terrorists. While the Bush administration has spent hundreds of billions of dollars for wars against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, it has refused to spend more than $700 of the estimated $7 billion needed to adequately upgrade port security. 11 Only a small fraction of the containers arriving daily in U.S. ports from overseas are inspected by U.S. Customs. Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard has received little in the way of the additional funding needed to adequately cover its extended responsibilities to protect the country’s 3,700 seaports and cargo terminals.

The United States and the UAE

Despite such concerns, control of port operations at some U.S. terminals by a UAE-owned company is not a particularly significant threat to U.S. national security. But, then again, neither was Iraq, and that did not stop the Bush administration from pretending it was so. Why, then, did President Bush take the politically risky step of downplaying the security concerns regarding DP World’s operations of the terminals and initially defended their right to do so in the face of such strong bipartisan opposition? Much of it has to do with the role of the UAE as an American ally in a strategically-important region.

The United Arab Emirates—the only federal government in the Arab world—consists of seven autocratic sheikdoms. The two most important emirates are Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven and the source of most of UAE’s oil reserves, which are believed to be the fifth biggest in the world. Unlike Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the two other major oil-producing kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, UAE has made a conscious decision to use its oil revenue to diversify its economy. This can be seen most impressively in the bustling port city-state of Dubai, where DP World is based, along with a number of other important transnational corporations. Dubai also serves as the second largest air/sea hub in the world and as an important economic and strategic asset to the United States.

With the exception of Israel, no Middle Eastern county purchases as many U.S. goods and services as the UAE. U.S. exports to that federation last year totaled $8.5 billion. Contrasting with only $1.5 billion in imports, this has resulted in a badly-needed trade surplus of $7 billion for the United States, currently struggling with a record trade deficit overall. 12 UAE has also been a major purchaser of U.S. arms, leading the entire world as the recipient of U.S. military hardware from 1997-2000 (when it was supporting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan) with the purchase of $6.8 billion in armaments. 13

UAE has been a longstanding U.S. ally in the region and has been a major and secure port of call for the U.S. Navy. The UAE government supported the U.S.-led war against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1991 and has provided major logistical support for the U.S. armed forces since then, though—like the vast majority of Arab governments—the UAE opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Today, Dubai is a major transit point for military contractors, mercenaries, contract workers, and others bound to support U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then there is the issue of the connections between the Bush family and others in the Bush administration with the UAE. For example, the UAE government is a major investor in the Carlyle Group, the private equity investment firm for which President Bush’s father, former president George Bush, served as a senior adviser. The emir also responded generously to appeals by the former President Bush for financial assistance for victims of Hurricane Katrina and for donations to his presidential library. The president’s brother Neil Bush has reportedly received substantial funding for his educational software company from UAE investors. CSX, the rail and transport company chaired by John Snow before he became Bush’s secretary of the Treasury, recently sold its foreign port operations to DP World for more than a billion dollars. David Sanborn, former director of DP World’s European and Latin American operations, was recently named by President Bush to head the U.S. Maritime Administration, the agency that oversees U.S. port operations.

There are other embarrassing Republican connections to UAE as well. For example, Robert Dole—the former Republican Senate leader, 1996 Republican presidential nominee and husband of Senator Elizabeth Dole—has served as a lobbyist for DP World.

In conclusion, despite disturbing examples of racism and jingoism which have come to the fore in the debate over DP World’s potential ownership of port operations of some U.S. terminals, the controversy provides opportunities for critics of U.S. foreign policy to raise some important questions regarding the misplaced priorities of the Bush administration in countering the threat from international terrorism, the dubious nature of some of America’s Middle Eastern allies, the ties of the Bush administration to big business, and the impact of globalization on the American economy.

End Notes

* Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, “Protect Our Ports,” Pelosi Update, March 3, 2006.
Ironically, Sen. Lautenberg does not refer to the West Bank—seized by Israeli forces in the 1967 war—as “occupied” by Israel, but claims they are simply “disputed” territories.

* Transcript, “Democratic Members of the Senate Deliver Remarks on Port Security at Rally,” Congressional Quarterly, February 27, 2006.
Robert Cohen, “Lautenberg Accused of Anti-Arab Racism,” Star-Ledger, March 2, 2006.

* “Database of Notifications to Congress of Pending U.S. Arms Transfers,” Federation of American Scientists,
USA Today/CNN Gallup Poll, February 28-March 1, 2006, USA Today, March 23, 2006, p. 1.

* Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by the President after Meeting with Cabinet,” The White House, February 23, 2006.

* Jonathan Weisman, “Coast Guard Saw ‘Intelligence Gaps’ on Ports,” Washington Post, February 28, 2006, Page A04.

* Office of the Press Secretary, “Fact Sheet: The United States-UAE Bilateral Relationship,” The White House, February 23, 2006.

* James Ridgeway, “Dubai’s Port of No Return,” Village Voice, February 22, 2006.
Paul Blustein and Walter Pincus, “Port Problems Said to Dwarf New Fears,” Washington Post, February 24, 2006, Page A06.

* U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Statistics,

* U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-06-319r, January 2006.