The Envoy

Arab spring setbacks in the shadow of complicated U.S.-Saudi alliance

The Envoy

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Something of a chill has settled over Washington's early hopes for Arab spring.

In the wake of the Egyptian and Tunisian democratic revolutions, Washington was cautiously optimistic about the prospect for democratic reforms in the Arab world. But such expectations have been greatly frustrated in the face of a stalemate in the Libyan civil war, growing sectarian tensions in Bahrain and Syria, and a broader Saudi backlash against further dramatic change to the regional status quo.

Riyadh, alarmed by the Obama administration's failure to prop up its ally of three decades Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is sending signs of its displeasure and interest in exploring alternative security arrangements. Last month, former Saudi envoy to Washington now Saudi national security chief Prince Bandar went to Pakistan, ostensibly to discuss the possibility of recruiting Pakistani troops to help Sunni Gulf allies suppress Bahraini unrest.

But some Washington Middle East analysts interpreted the visit as a signal of possible Saudi interest in exploring being protected by a Pakistani nuclear security umbrella, or acquiring Pakistani nuclear weapons, if Washington doesn't sufficiently assure Riyadh that it will protect it from a nuclear Iran.

"The big problem we face is that at the very least the Saudis and [United Arab Emirates] wonder to what extent we are committed to their most vital interests," said Patrick Clawson, a Persian Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Prince Bandar's visit to Pakistan is a shot across our bow of what the Saudis may feel is necessary if the U.S. is not providing an effective security guarantee.... The rumors in the region have long been that the Saudis paid a fair chunk of the bill" for Pakistan's nuclear program.

"The momentum of the Arab revolutions has stalled, and the old Middle East is reasserting itself," said Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who frequently consults with the Obama administration.

In the current strategic malaise, Lynch said, "the Israelis and Palestinians are saying, 'what about us?' The 'contain Iran' crowd is saying, 'don't forget about Iran.'" And the Saudis are playing up rising Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region, which "gives them an excuse," he added, to push their contain-Iran agenda, as well as to "equate Iranian subversion for use against their own Shia population. Any time Saudi Shia make demands for political rights, they are accused of being Iranian agents."

Technically, Bahrain's Sunni monarchy "invited" the Saudi troops in, along with security forces from other Persian Gulf bloc neighbors, to help the tiny kingdom protect infrastructure as anti-government protests by the country's largely disenfranchised Shiite majority swelled.

In reality, the March 14 Saudi invasion brought an abrupt end to efforts by Bahraini government moderates to open up a dialogue with Bahraini opposition parties. It has also empowered Sunni hardliners in the government--who have carried out a brutal anti-Shiite witchhunt, arresting doctors, lawyers, human rights activists, journalists and bloggers. Four of those detained have died in custody, Human Rights Watch said last week.

The United States has been unusually restrained in its public criticism of the Bahraini crackdown, in large part out of sensitivity to Riyadh. But in private, Middle East experts say, the Obama administration is working actively behind the scenes to try to ease inflamed sectarian divisions.

Washington has "pressed Bahrain to ease repression and gotten into some serious arguments with the Saudis about this behind closed doors," said Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski. "But in the last few weeks, they have not condemned the escalating viciousness of the [Bahraini] government's attacks ... and have not publicly said what kinds of reforms they would like to see Bahrain undertake, as they did in Egypt."

The danger, Malinowski said, is that "no matter how hard diplomats may be pressing privately, there is a public perception that the U.S. is softer on Bahrain because of Saudi pressure. And that poses a strategic risk: that the United States will be seen by Shi'a Muslims throughout the region as complicit in a sectarian campaign waged by Sunni autocracies against their legitimate aspirations."

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman arrived in Bahrain Monday to try to convince the government to ease up on its crackdown, renew a dialogue with members of the opposition, and lift the state of emergency it imposed last month. But Washington Middle East experts say sectarian divisions have only hardened in Bahrain -- divisions they warn could offer even more of an opening for Iran to exploit.

"Because the Saudis are cracking down so hard, it is radicalizing the Shia," said George Washington University's Lynch.

"Unfortunately the dynamics of the region are such that opportunities are being created for Iran that were not there a couple weeks or months ago," said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the progressive National Security Network, who recently returned from a trip to the United Arab Emirates.

Washington is trying to "help the Saudis and other allies in the region think through what the new status quo is ... a very challenging task that is not happening fast," Hurlburt said. Working primarily behind the scenes, she said, "you see a lot of lumps under the bed."

Little has been disclosed about the closed-door discussions that took place when Defense Secretary Robert Gates met for three hours with the Saudi King earlier this month, nor of last week's conversation between Saudi leaders and U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who'd brought a private letter from President Barack Obama to the king.

But a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month by former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was being read in Riyadh "as a warning shot to the Saudis," Lynch said.

"Helping the Saudi king effectively erect a wall against the political tsunami sweeping across the Arab world is not a long-term solution," Indyk, a frequent Obama administration Middle East adviser, wrote. "If there's one thing that we can now predict with some confidence, it's that no Arab authoritarian regime can remain immune from the demands of its people for political freedom and accountable government. … And the Saudi system is fragile."

(Iranian demonstrators burn representations of the U.S. and Israeli flags in a protest against Saudi and Bahraini leaders' crackdown against the Bahraini opposition, in front of the Bahraini Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 15, 2011.: Vahid Salemi/AP)

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