Need for double standards on Gulf rights and reform?

Gulf conservative states’ insistence that domestic reform movements are Iranian proxies striving to destabilize rather than democratize is debunked in a new analysis from a leading Washington think-tank.

“Shia movements in the Gulf …are still  driven more by local concerns than by Iranian meddling,”  according to “The Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula,” a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Similarly, the pro-democracy reform movement in Bahrain is “driven largely by local discrimination and issues,” according to Anthony H. Cordesman and Robert M. Shelala II, the report’s authors. Contrary to local Sunni rulers’ claims, they observe that “Tehran was unable to successfully spread the Islamic Revolution or win large-scale Arab Shia support” within Gulf states.

But the report takes a cautious approach to democracy and rights issues on the Gulf, arguing that the US confronts major challenges in confronting Iran, the threat of terrorism, and a “tide of political instability” across the Middle East.

Accordingly, the US “must adopt ‘dual standards’ in dealing with each Arab Gulf state and the Gulf Cooperation Council collectively,” the report argues.

“The US must find the right balance between a narrow, short-term ‘pragmatism’ that focuses on the security threats posed by Iran and extremism and the need to help each state ensure its internal stability, modernize, and meet the needs of its people,” Cordesman and Shelala contend.

Would-be external actors must also take into account the region’s distinctive cultural and religious characteristics, the report suggests.

“The US and its European allies must recognize that US and Western values are not ‘universal’ values, that each state is both Arab and Islamic, and that the rate of modernization has to focus on evolution and not revolution,” the authors write. “The US must accept the fact that it must often give security priority over its own approaches to human rights and democracy.”

Rather than adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, external actors should consider the distinctive features of each Southern Gulf state separately, highlighting the “need to constantly adjust US policy to find the right balance [and] mix of ‘standards,’” write Cordesman and Shelala.

“Successful US efforts are going to take continuing US dialogue with each Southern Gulf state. It is going to take strong country teams that can both build more effective security forces and help each state move towards the necessary level of political, social, and economic modernization and reform. “



The US must work with Saudi Arabia and the GCC to try to find some workable approach to sheer scale of Yemen’s economic and demographic problems, its growing population of nearly 25 million, and its lack of effective governance and poverty. Such progress is likely to be negligible in real terms in the near future because of the country’s lack of effective governance, inability to absorb aid, corruption, and poverty. The sheer scale of Yemen’s problems also preclude any credible combination of US, Saudi and other aid efforts from buying Yemen out of these challenges and make real membership in the GCC a serious potential liability to the GCC.

The US does not need to make major changes in its security policies towards Saudi Arabia, but it does need to focus on the following challenges.


The US faces a difficult balancing act in Bahrain. Bahrain is a key security partner, its stability is critical to the GCC, and there is no stable substitute for its present regime. The US needs to take these strategic interests into constant account, as well as the fact that the problems in its regime – serious as they may be – are matched by an opposition that has elements that are unwilling to compromise and would be destabilizing, and some opposition elements with at least some ties to Iran.


Iran on the other hand will continue its attempts to exert influence in the Gulf, seeking to rival Saudi Arabian hegemony and GCC power. The emergence of Qatar as a second Sunni rival to Iranian influence in the broader Middle East can be expected to continue as the situations in Syria and Gaza grow more volatile. As the principal supporters of the belligerents in the Syria conflict, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the one hand and Iran on the other will be in a position to influence any resolution to the Syrian Civil War, though developments in that conflict are not likely to drive broader US-Iranian and Gulf-Iranian tensions.

Iran will continue its political and covert support to Shia opposition movements in Bahrain and Yemen, while looking for opportunities to exploit other Sunni/Shia rifts elsewhere in the Gulf. The Islamic Republic’s success in those endeavors could be mitigated by continued efforts on the part of the Arab Gulf states to avoid internal Sunni-Shia tensions, as well as by what some believe to be rights-driven Shia movements, rather than pro-Iran movements.

The Need for Country-by-Country Case Studies

If there is any single message that emerges from these statistics, it is just how different each Southern Gulf state is, and just how different the factors are that drive its internal stability, the ability of the US and Iran to compete, and the issues the US must be prepared to deal with in each partner country. As a corollary, it is also clear that military and internal security are only part of the challenges each state and the GCC must meet.

Economics, demographics, politics, and social change are at least as important to each country’s future, and both they and the US must constantly remember that competition with Iran is only one of many priorities.

It is also important to note that while the US and the Arabian Gulf states share a common interest in deterring and defending against Iran, no Gulf state has identical strategic interests with the US or its neighbors.

As is the case throughout the Middle East and the world, the US only must adopt “dual standards” in dealing with each Arab Gulf state and the GCC collectively. The US must find the right balance between a narrow short term “pragmatism” that focuses on the security threats posed by Iran and extremism and the need to help each state ensure its internal stability, modernize, and meet the needs of its people.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia differs from most countries in the world in that it’s ruling and economic elites seek modernization and reform but do so in the face of much of its clergy and an extremely conservative population. Reform comes slowly from above, and not from popular pressure.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling elites are divided, however, and often act out of narrow self-interest and in ways that are corrupt and abuse power. King Abdullah has pressed for reform in all these areas, but it will come slow and outside pressure often does as much to mobilize opposition as aid the case for change. That reform will also come in a Saudi way, in a Saudi form, and largely at a Saudi pace. No amount of US pressure will make Saudi Arabia like the US.

Saudi Arabia is a deeply religious Sunni puritan state whose political legitimacy depends as much on its religious legitimacy as popular support, and plays a critical role in offsetting the threat from violent religious extremism. No amount of pressure will suddenly make it liberalize in religious or social terms – particularly outside pressures under the guise of human rights that is a thinly disguised effort to open the country to Christian proselytizing.

Tensions Over Saudi Shia

While the Shia remain a small demographic within the broader Saudi population, much of this population is in its Eastern Province, the key strategic petroleum region in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia feels Iran has deliberately encouraged recent uprisings witnessed in key Shia parts of the country.

While the Kingdom has made progress, Saudi Arabia’s Shia still suffer from social, economic, and political discrimination that has led to periodic unrest in parts of the Kingdom.  This treatment of Shia in the Kingdom is reflected in the US State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report, which highlights the illegal detention of key Shia, the incarceration for over 14 years of a Shia for “apostasy” with an additional five years for “criticizing the judicial system and the government’s human rights record,” prohibitions on gatherings in mostly Shia areas, and a small Shia representation in the country’s Consultative Council.

These tensions between the Saudi government and the Shia community are not a recent phenomenon. Relations between the two were particularly tense at the end of the 1970s.The Islamic Revolution in Iran is believed to have escalated Sunni-Shia tensions but not to have driven them – which was more a result of a repressive governor in the province.

There were also incidents in Bahrain, but again driven largely by local discrimination and issues. Tehran was unable to successfully spread the Islamic Revolution or win large-scale Arab Shia support.

They have, however, taken a new form following the beginning of the current political upheavals in the Arab world, as calls have come for greater Shia rights within Saudi Arabia, and as Sunni-Shia tensions have escalated in Bahrain. One prominent Shia figure – Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr – has gone so far as to speculate about the Shia parts of the east breaking away from the rest of Saudi Arabia, which led to calls for his arrest in 2009. He has been accused of also disrespecting the passing of Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud. Shortly thereafter in July 2012, the police allegedly shot and then apprehended him. The arrest triggered protests, which saw the shooting deaths of two men. Adding to this incident, it is reported that all of the ten fatalities in the Kingdom linked to the uprisings that spread across the Arab World starting in 2011 were Shia.

Riyadh claims that Iranian meddling in the Kingdom is responsible for such Shia unrest, but it is unclear how much leverage Tehran now has in driving Shia actors in the Kingdom. For one, religious leaders from Iraq have made greater inroads with Shia in Saudi Arabia than have their Iranian counterparts.

According to Iran expert Ray Takeyh with the Council on Foreign Relations, it appears that Shia movements in the Gulf – not including Iraq – are still driven more by local concerns than by Iranian meddling. A number of US official experts share this view.

The above brief extract is taken from “The Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula,” a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).


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Bahrain court confirms jail terms for dissidents

A Bahrain court today upheld the convictions of 13 leading pro-democracy activists, in a judgment that government critics cited as confirmation that the ruling Sunni monarchy is uninterested in negotiating a political solution with the largely Shia opposition movement calling for democratic reform.

“The mind-boggling verdicts in these cases did not mention a single recognizable criminal offense, instead pointing to speeches the defendants made, meetings they attended, and their calls for peaceful street protests in February and March 2011,” said a spokesman for Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain’s Cassation Court has proven its inability to protect the most basic rights guaranteed in Bahrain’s Constitution and the international treaties it has signed.”

Amnesty International called the convictions an outrage and slammed the decision as “further proof of how the country’s justice system simply cannot be relied on.” 

“The decision ends all appeals for the dissidents, who were sentenced to between five years and life in prison for their leadership roles in the revolt that began in February 2011, The New York Times reports:

The 13 are part of a group of 20 opposition leaders who were sentenced by a military tribunal on charges that included trying to overthrow the government. Other dissidents were sentenced in absentia.

Since pledging to accept reform recommendations made by an independent panel that investigated the uprising — including to commute sentences of those charged with “political expression” — the government has continued to silence its critics. In November, the government stripped 31 people, including former opposition members of Parliament and exiled dissidents, of their citizenship.

“They are trying to pull us toward a security solution,” said Radhi Mohsen al-Mosawi, the acting secretary general of the National Democratic Action Society.

“They have made things so difficult for them, and for us,” said Mr. Mosawi, who added that his group still favored negotiations for a constitutional monarchy. “Our demand is a peaceful demand. It is a minimum demand.”  

The court’s decision follows last month’s confirmation of a prison sentence for a popular democracy advocate, Nabeel Rajab.

The Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has issued a statement of concern over Rajab, who is president of the BCHR, director of the GCHR and deputy secretary general of the Paris-based Federation for International Human Rights. Other international human rights groups, including the World Movement for Democracy, have called for letters of appeal and protest to be addressed to the authorities.

The monarchy’s mass dismissal of labor union activists, who supported a general strike called by the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions in support of the non-violent democracy movement, has “sparked a divide between pro- and anti-government labor groups, and has prompted unions in the United States to call on the Obama Administration to revisit its free-trade agreement with this key Washington ally,” reports suggest:.

Since the general strike, Bahrain’s Labor Ministry says all public sector workers have been rehired and only 2 percent in the private sector, or 176 people, remain out of work. The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, however, says the number is closer to 500, and many others were asked to accept lower status jobs. Few received back pay.

Critics say the government, in its attempt to divide the opposition, backed a new union umbrella group — the Bahrain Free Labor Union Federation — that promotes itself as “non-political.” The new group supports the government on most labor issues, including the matter of fired workers.

The authorities “have launched an all-out attack on the Bahraini trade union movement,” says the Solidarity Center.

“Thousands of workers have been dismissed for taking part in trade union activities supporting the peaceful calls for greater democracy and reform,” said the Washington-based democracy support group, calling on activists to send a protest message through LabourStart.

“The government is trying to create a federation it can control,” said Abdul Radhi, the assistant secretary general of the original union federation.

“Some members want complete political reform,” through removal of the monarchy, he said. “Some want a constitutional monarchy. Generally, we support the King’s original project when he said he wants Bahrain to be a model of democracy.”

“There is no dominant ideology,” he said. “Our work is based on trade unions.” ?


The Solidarity Center is one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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2012: a good year for elections, but bad for ….

……democracy, argues Democracy Lab’s Christian CarYL.

Also in the latest Democracy Lab Weekly Brief:

Rick Rowden argues that accounts of “Africa’s rise” are fundamentally flawed.

Juan Nagel outlines scenarios for Venezuela if Hugo Chávez leaves the scene.

Peter Passell sums up recent research in transitional economics.

In the latest collaboration with Princeton’s Innovations for Successful Societies, Deepa Iyer recounts a Brazilian experiment aimed at uprooting corruption. 

And this week’s recommended reads:

Syria Deeply publishes the powerful tale of a young Alawite woman whose pro-revolutionary mother was killed by her pro-regime father — a vivid example of how the civil war is tearing families apart. Al-Monitor shares the experience of Alawites living under siege.

Democracy Digest provides a useful collection of views from experts on the directions that might be taken by a post-Chávez Venezuela.

Writing for The Irrawaddy, Gustaaf Houtman offers a vivid take on the recent changes in Burma as the society continues to open up.

Over at The New York Times, Simon Romero presents an unforgettable portrait of Uruguay’s ultra-modest president.

A new working paper from the International Monetary Fund analyzes economic transitions in post-conflict nations.  

As part of its discussion of Vali Nasr’s new book The Dispensable Nation, Democracy Digest wonders whether American democracy promotion will survive relative economic decline.  

Rami G. Khouri casts a critical gaze on some of the most frequent analytical assumptions about the Arab Spring.  

Sebastian Mallaby, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, joins the argument over Africa’s economic development, insisting that the continent is growing in more ways than one.



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Vietnamese dissident blogger on hunger strike

le_quoc_quanA Vietnamese lawyer and dissident blogger detained by authorities has started a hunger strike, RFA reports:

Le Quoc Quan began refusing food on Sunday, three days after he was arrested on his way to drop off his children at school in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, according to a priest with the Vietnamese Redemptorist Church in Ho Chi Minh city.

“Dr. Le Quoc Quan began the hunger strike three days after being arrested by police,” priest Dinh Huu Thoai told RFA’s Vietnamese service.

“His wife Hien said the chief of the detention center had announced that Dr. Quan cannot receive any food sent by relatives nor eat in the prison because he started the hunger strike [nearly] a week ago,” he said.

Quan is being held incommunicado in Hoa Lo Prison No. 1. and neither his lawyer nor his family have been able to visit him to date, according to a statement by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), which joined other rights groups in condemning his arrest.

By arresting one of Vietnam’s best-known dissidents and bloggers, the authorities are “raising the stakes in the Communist-run nation’s crackdown on Internet criticism of its one-party rule and potentially worsening the country’s relations with the United States and other important trading partners,” one observer suggests.

Quan’s arrest is the latest step in a “political vendetta” waged by Vietnamese authorities, said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

“[They] have been pursuing a political vendetta against Le Quoc Quan for several years, and now we see a tax evasion charge coming out of nowhere, just as in the Dieu Cay case previously,” Robertson told RFA.

Quan was previously arrested in 2007 for three months on his return from a five-month Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Chávismo ‘facing deepest crisis’ as Venezuela ‘hurtles toward constitutional chasm’

Overriding Venezuela’s constitution to permit President Hugo Chávez to retain power would be “morally unacceptable,” the country’s Catholic Church said today.

But the authoritarian populist’s designated heir insists that Chávez will continue in office even if he is unable to be sworn in, as the constitution requires, on Thursday.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro said that Chávez shall “continue his functions and the formality of being sworn in can be resolved later by the Supreme Court.”

“It was the clearest indication yet from the government of how it plans to handle the increasingly likely possibility that Mr. Chávez will be unable to return before then from Cuba, where he had cancer surgery last month and is said to be gravely ill,” the New York Times reports.

The democratic opposition may organize street protests if the government ignores the constitutional requirements for the January 10 inauguration.

“People should get ready to protest and rebel against what will be a failure to uphold the constitution,” said Julio Borges, national coordinator of the opposition Justice First party.

“We are preparing a real campaign, which will involve going to institutions, countries, embassies and organizations outside of the country to let them know that authorities are trying to twist the constitution due to an internal problem.”

By insisting on political continuity, Maduro “is trying to make clear that there is a political will dictated by the president and that he is the heir… because he needs to be recognized as such,” Venezuelan newspaper columnist Luz Mely Reyes told AFP.

Opposition leaders say that would leave a power vacuum that by law should shift authority to an interim leader of the leftist government and trigger fresh elections, a scenario that could end the socialist government that has transformed one of the world’s great oil powers, The Washington Post’s Juan Ferero reports. That is unlikely to happen, however, with the president’s top aides sending strong signals over the weekend that they were scrambling to postpone the inauguration.

“It is a crisis situation that you have an elected leader on his death bed,” said David Smilde, co-editor of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture Under Chávez. “Chávez is very clearly near the end. You can imagine him recovering, but it appears he is on his death bed.”

Maria Corina Machado, a former civil society activist and opposition member of the National Assembly, said it has become clear the inauguration is considered by the government’s ruling circle to be a mere formality.

“Never in 200 years of our history has the destiny of the country been decided outside of the country,” she said. “What they want is to let January 10th pass like it’s any other day, that it is simply a formality because Chávez was reelected.”

“The most-asked question is ‘What will happen January 10?’” said analyst Luis Vicente Leon. “The answer is probably nothing. The status quo will continue.”

Ram?n Guillermo Aveledo, a top opposition official, has demanded the government “tell the truth”. A rising chorus of Venezuelans on Twitter and other social media is calling for the government to offer “proof of life” for Mr Chávez, such as a photograph or video.

If Thursday passes without any formal inauguration ceremony, the Supreme Court could take up the case and issue a ruling in the weeks ahead. But analysts say it is unlikely to rule against the government position.

“The courts, and specifically the Supreme Court, are absolutely, unconditionally, without fail, totally faithful to Chávez,” said Antonio Canova, a law professor at Universidad Catolica Andres Bello.

“For the Chávista movement it is fundamental that if Maduro is to be the candidate in presidential elections because of Chávez’s exit, that he do so from the position of head of state or some advantageous position, with an aura of power and control over all the institutions,” said Leon, the head of the polling firm Datanalisis.

There is little the opposition can do “to defend itself against an all-powerful government, that is armed, rich and in control of the country’s institutions.”

Under Chávista rule Venezuela has witnessed “a drastic erosion of the separation of powers, accompanied by an inevitable concentration of power in the executive branch,” writes analyst Maxwell Cameron. “The temptation to play fast and loose with the constitution will be high.”

Chávez has “built a formidable apparatus of clientelism and patronage politics,” notes Cameron, organizer ofthe Andean Democracy Research Network, which monitors democratic trends in the region. Nevertheless, ……

The deepest crisis that Chávismo faces, however, is not governmental or even constitutional. Although the changes introduced by Mr. Chávez over 13 years in office have been deep and in many respects irreversible, the extreme personalism of his rule raises the prospect that the entire Boliviarian revolution could unravel without the force of his personality to keep followers in awe and opponents at bay.

Yet the pro-Cuban vice-president lacks Chávez’s charisma and capacity to unite the disparate factions of a fractious movement, observers suggest.

“Maduro’s main characteristic is his close relationship to Chávez,” said Aníbal Romero, a retired political science professor from Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas. “He’s always trying to be close to him, be seen with him.”

Maduro is hardly ever seen working his way through crowds. His voice has croaked at times while he tries to deliver impassioned speeches, and he has been caught in recent TV interviews glancing down at note cards. Mr. Chávez has nearly 3.9 million followers on Twitter. Mr. Maduro doesn’t have an account.

Maduro is seen to have the closest ties of any of Mr. Chávez’s inner circle to Cuba and the Castro regime. Diplomats also say the Foreign Ministry under Mr. Maduro has solidified ties with China, Russia and Iran.

“He’s a guy that you can talk to, but whether there will be any agreement, that’s another story,” said one foreign envoy to Venezuela.

A succession struggle would likely pit pro-Cuban radical leftist factions against military-nationalist elements within the ruling coalition.

“Indeed, despite Chávez’s stated wish that his followers should throw their support behind Maduro if he is forced to leave power, the former trade unionist has competition,” writes the FT’s Benedict Mander:

The main rival of Mr Maduro, who started out as a bus driver and is known to enjoy the favor of Cuba’s Communist government, is considered to be Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer who has the support of the military and is well-connected with Chávista business magnates. If Mr Chávez cannot be inaugurated for his next six-year term, Mr Cabello would be the interim president, due to his re-election as president of congress on Saturday.

Whoever prevails would inherit a country facing a range of intractable problems – not least, an increasingly fragile economy. While Mr Chávez sprayed money at his problems, as he presided over a 10-fold rise in oil prices over the past decade, his successor may not be so lucky.

“This kind of spending-led socialism can’t last,” argues Francisco Toro, a prominent opposition commentator.

Cabello “has been making his own play for the top spot,” notes analyst Mary Anastasia O’Grady:

Cuba recognized the danger and last week moved to resolve the problem. When the top leadership flocked to Havana, it was ostensibly to be near the cancer-stricken Chávez. The real reason for the trip may have had little to do with praying at the comandante’s bedside. On Saturday El Nuevo Herald reported that sources told it Cuba has been trying to fashion a Venezuelan “junta” that would pull the various factions together and preserve Chávismo.

Both Cabello and Maduro are “potential leaders bearing plenty of anti-American, anti-democratic baggage,” writes Heritage analyst Ray Walser:

If snap presidential elections are held in the coming weeks, they will not necessarily favor the democratic opposition, especially if the Chávistas preserve their unity. While the likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda, appears more popular than either Maduro or Cabello, his ability to deliver an electoral victory is still in doubt. An emotional hangover following Chávez’s death promises to continue in the fallen leader’s footsteps, and an unfair electoral process might easily give a decisive edge to Chávez’s successor.

Whoever succeeds Chávez will inherit an economic crisis that will constrain their room for political maneuver, analysts suggest.

“Chávez has bequeathed the nation an economic crisis of historic proportions,” said Moisés Naím, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy and former minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela.  

Venezuela continues to hurtle toward a constitutional chasm, says Walser:

While there are reports of conversations between U.S. officials and the Venezuelans about restoring ambassadors, it is important to remember that deeds, rather than mere words, count. Changes in Venezuela’s foreign policy and security behavior will not likely occur until after Venezuela has crossed into the post-Chávez era.

Former U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro predicts that “a deeply polarized and de-institutionalized Venezuela will be both turbulent and unstable for the foreseeable future.”




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