As the so-called Arab Spring enters its sixth month, it appears to have run into seriously wintry headwinds.
While some observers in Washington have blamed Saudi Arabia and its neighboring Sunni-led sheikhdoms as a major source of the icy winds that are blasting through the Gulf, the growing contradictions between the U.S. and Western "values" and their interests are adding to the unseasonable weather.
Thus, while Washington has privately expressed strong doubts about the wisdom of the increasingly brutal and indiscriminate crackdown against the majority Shia population in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, its failure to clearly and publicly denounce the Saudi-backed repression is only the most blatant example of this trend.
Far less noticed let alone condemned are actions such as Thursday’s dissolution by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of the board of directors of the Jurist Association, one of the country’s most prominent civil society organizations, which earlier this month had the temerity to sign a petition seeking political reform.
Human Rights Watch said the move was part of a "broader crackdown on peaceful dissent" by the government, whose de facto defence minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, will meet with President Barack Obama here next week, the White House announced Friday.
Indeed, despite his growing if reluctant military investment in "regime change" in Libya, Obama’s avowed efforts to put Washington "on the right side of history" in the Arab world appear increasingly lame and hypocritical.
Not only is the U.S. not to say the rest of the West effectively deferring to Saudi policy, particularly in the Gulf, but it also appears to be hedging its bets against truly democratic change elsewhere in the region by, for example, bolstering its support for Egypt’s military while withholding substantial economic aid in the apparent hope that the army will retain control over the country’s defense and foreign policies, especially toward Israel.
Meanwhile, the more idealistic youth-led movements that initiated the early "pro-democracy" demonstrations that succeeded in ousting Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt have in some cases, as in Yemen and Libya, been displaced or marginalized by less altruistic forces acting on behalf of narrower sectarian, tribal, or clan interests.
Current efforts by the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to mediate the terms of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure to which Washington has also somewhat reluctantly deferred could well end up with the replacement of one group of elites by another, with little or no prospect for a significant expansion of democratic freedoms or governance.
"Is the United States confident that the dominant narrative today, of democrats vs. oppressor, will continue to play out and will not be overtaken by latent ones such as tribe vs. tribe, haves vs. have-nots or, worse, Islam vs. ‘crusaders’?" asked former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former CIA chief Michael Hayden in an op-ed published by the Washington Post Friday.
The deference shown to the Saudi kingdom, the clear leader of the region’s counter-revolutionary wave, is explained by a number of factors, not least of which is its role as the world’s swing oil producer at a time when the price of petrol at the pump here has hit the four-dollar-a-gallon level.
Political analysts here warn that Obama’s chances of re-election which are currently considered pretty favorable could be reduced in politically significant ways unless the price comes down by this time next year.
"My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis, and right now gas prices are weighing heavily on people," Obama himself noted at a fund-raising event in California earlier this week.
In addition to its great influence over oil prices, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for that matter buys tens of billions of dollars in advanced U.S. weapons systems whose manufacturers are worried about the implications of a declining defence budget at home, and the risks of strained ties between Washington and their big clients overseas, for their bottom lines.
"Most Americans, to the extent that they think of it, do not understand how little leverage …the U.S. has with the Saudis," wrote Col. Pat Lang (ret.), the former top Mideast analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis, last week. "They have decided to change the basic nature of their relationship to the U.S., taking from now on a much more independent course and encouraging resistance to revolutionary groups throughout the region."
Finally, Saudi Arabia, eagerly backed by the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan, has emerged as the principal regional rival of Iran in what Riyadh and its allies are increasingly depicting as an existential conflict between the Mideast’s Sunni and Shia communities.
Their eagerness to charge Tehran with foreign interference in the Arab world’s internal affairs is music to the ears of the powerful "Israel Lobby" whose patient cultivation of the idea of a "strategic consensus" uniting Israel with the Sunni-led states against Iran finally appears to be bearing fruit over their shared anxieties about the possibly dire consequences of the region’s democratization.
Thus, Congressional reluctance to provide substantial aid or even debt relief to the wounded and sinking Egyptian economy at such a critical moment in that country’s political evolution is due as much to the desire for assurances that its future government will remain faithful to the Camp David Accords and cooperate with Israel on Gaza as it is to the budget-cutting mania that has seized Washington. Cairo’s decision last week to begin normalizing ties with Tehran will bolster those who believe that a democratic Egypt may not be such a good investment.
But the winds that are chilling the Arab Spring could make for a scorchingly hot summer, warn some analysts who believe that the growing polarization caused by the Saudi counter-revolution both within countries and across the region carries major and increasing risks for the U.S. and its current allies there.
"The situation is increasingly urgent, especially given the intensification of acrimony between Iran and its Arab neighbors," according to a paper [.pdf] by Toby Jones, a Gulf expert at Rutgers University, published this week by the U.S. Institute of Peace. It warned that Washington could get "dragged into another military conflict" if it fails to take a more assertive role.
Noting that Washington’s quiet appeals to the Saudis and their allies for restraint and reform have been ignored or rejected, he added that the feared expansion of Iranian influence could become a self-fulfilling prophecy certainly in Bahrain, a point with which the prominent neoconservative hawk, Elliott Abrams, emphatically agreed in a blog post this week entitled "Bahrain Heads for Disaster" if not the wider region, including Saudi Arabia itself.
"Should Riyadh continue on its current path, the U.S. should make clear that a reconsideration of U.S. military commitments may be necessary," according to Jones, who suggested that Washington can protect its regional interests from "over the horizon" as it did before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.