Friday, April 8, 2011

China under pressure over Saudi rise
By Peter Lee 

China is doing its utmost to avoid contagion from the Arab revolutions. At the same time it is trying to anticipate developments in the Middle East and get on the right side of history - instead of impotently mourning strongmen it couldn't save and militaryinterventions it couldn't prevent - by championing the Palestinian peace process. 

However, Beijing's Middle East initiatives may be scuppered by its two biggest energy suppliers - and mortal enemies - Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

In mid-March, China dispatched its special envoy for Middle East affairs, Wu Sike, on a swing through Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar. Wu's stated aim was to highlight the central

importance of the Palestinian peace process to security in the Middle East. His theme: change is perhaps pregnant with opportunity. 

His interlocutors appear to have listened politely. It's difficult to say for sure, since his visit was virtually ignored by the regional press. Chinese media dutifully reported his earnest statements about how the Palestinian question could not be marginalized, even in the current turmoil. 

As the Arab nations nervously listened for the sound of the next democratic domino - or interventionist bomb - to crash on their heads, Wu's views do not seem to have excited any conspicuous response. 

China has no credibility as a democratic reformer or clout as amilitary power in the Middle East; it seems to be trying to carve out a role for itself as a regional facilitator, one with good relations with all the key players, from Egypt to Israel to Saudi Arabia to Iran. 

China's emphasis on the Palestinian peace process is, to some extent, founded on wishful thinking: the People's Republic of Chinagovernment attempting to shift the framing from the uncomfortable "freedom-loving people assembling in a big square to overthrow authoritarian masters". 

As paraphrased in a Xinhua article, Wu stated in a March 25 interview, "A partial reason for the unrest was the dissatisfaction of the people of the region with the Middle East policies of their governments. Therefore, if the Palestine problem is resolved, it would be beneficial for the resolution of other problems." [1] 

A similar, hopeful view was outlined in an op-ed by Zhu Weilie, head of the Middle East Department of the Shanghai Foreign Languages Institute. He asserted that the Chinese cooperative approach contrasted favorably with the "clash of civilizations" narrative that put the West at odds with Islam. [2] 

Taken as a whole, this indicates that China has decided to view the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime not as a reaction against corrupt authoritarianism; instead it takes the more comforting position that changes in Egypt are a repudiation of failed US Middle East peace policies and its strategy of using Egypt as a bulwark against Palestinian aspirations. 

Conspicuous progress in the Palestinian peace process post-Mubarak could be viewed as a validation of China's views and, one would imagine, a source of some internal reassurance to the anxious Chinese leadership. 

The context for China's interest in the Palestinian issue is that the matter of Palestinian statehood will probably be the next big drama that roils the Middle East. 

Mahmoud Abbas has stated that Palestine will unilaterally declare statehood in September unless significant progress occurs in negotiations with Israel. It appears likely it will gain recognition from a not inconsiderable number of Western and developing world states. 

Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated that Israel faces a "diplomatic tsunami" if Palestine declares statehood. [3] 

China apparently hopes to surf that diplomatic tsunami. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persists in his usual policy of defiance, China enjoys the favorable contrast between its conciliatory policies and Israel's intransigence, inevitably abetted by the UnitedStates

If Israel is stampeded to pre-empt the Palestinian move by announcing its own peace process - a group of security and business heavyweights forwarded a plan to Netanyahu that would fix some key concessions up front instead of withholding them for the conclusion of negotiations - China can claim some credit for being on the side of the good guys. [4] 

Beyond lip service to constant principle of Palestinian self-determination, Wu explicitly endorsed reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, a development that was strongly opposed both by Mubarak's Egypt and by the Israeli government. 

Wu went to considerable lengths to sweeten this bitter pill for the Israelis, stating, "These new changes will possibly create greater pressures on Israel; only if the Middle East questions are resolved, will Israel be fundamentally relieved of these pressures." [5] 

However, the Middle East is hard on dreamers and optimists and diplomats that stake their hopes on Netanyahu's willingness to make peace with the Palestinians. 

There are bigger forces afoot in the region, and China is caught between them. 

As the various popular revolutions stagger toward their equivocal denouements, China has to deal with the fallout: the Arab counter-revolution and the league of conservative states led by Saudi Arabia that has adopted anti-Iranism as its organizing principle. 

While the West focuses on the tragicomic spectacle of the Libyan intervention, the two great powers in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia are moving towards confrontation. 

Saudi Arabia's ruling family is not supportive of Egypt's desire to move beyond its role under Mubarak as America's most reliable client to normalize relations with Iran, and assert its regional clout as a great Muslim nation and a political paragon to the democracy-starved citizens of the Arab world. 

Saudi Arabia believes that Egypt, and the Arab League it dominates, can and deserves to be pushed aside. 

Riyadh feels a sense of urgency since it must confront the contingency that Iran might be accepted as a legitimate Middle Eastern state, and the regional consensus to contain it through sanctions and military encirclement might waver. 

The kingdom also needs to inoculate itself against the possibility that the US response to unrest within Saudi Arabia will be as ambivalent and destabilizing as its at first fitful and then open support of the forces seeking to remove Mubarak in Egypt. 

The Saudi response has been to ratchet up the hostility to reframe the instability in the Middle East as a matter of Iranian subversion, not popular discontent, thereby shifting the focus away from Egypt and North Africa and back to the Gulf. 

Saudi Arabia has asserted its freedom of action by reclassifying the United States as more than an asset but something less than an ally in its front-line struggle against the Iranian threat. 

Two days after US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Bahrain on March 14 to urge conciliation with the demonstrators, the Obama administration was blind-sided as the Peninsula Shield Force was sent across the Fahd Causeway to backstop Bahraini securityforces in a pervasive and violent crackdown on demonstrators and activists. 

US-Saudi relations are now "strained" and Gates was obliged to visit Riyadh again to persuade King Abdullah of American reliability and the attractions of concluding the largest US arms deal in history - a $60 billion package of F-15 fighter jets, bunker busting bombs, and a variety of missiles suitable for blasting Iran. 

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has made the case for the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) - a Saudi-dominated collection of Persian Gulf sheikdoms - as the successor to the widely derided Arab League as the premier leadership grouping in the Middle East. 

The GCC recently met to condemn alleged Iranian meddling. 

How much Iranian meddling is going on - and how important it might be as popular demonstrations shake Middle East autocracies to their foundations - is open to debate. 

Iran has continually flayed the Saudi government in official and press statements for its role in the crackdown in Bahrain on the largely Shi'ite demonstrators. Kuwait claims to have cracked an Iranian spy ring and has sentenced two Iranians and one Kuwaiti to death, withdrawn its ambassador to Tehran, and promised the expulsion of several Iranian diplomats. 

The April 3 backgrounder given to Arab Times, a Kuwaiti newspaper, is a clear indication that the GCC has gone all-in on the Iranian threat.
Persian conspiracy seen to target GCC countries ‘Bahraini crisis just a spark' 

KUWAIT CITY, April 3: The Iranian plan includes dangerous plots against the Gulf nations, not just Bahrain. Kuwait, in particular, is one of the targets and the spy network is only a tip of the iceberg, because the main objective is for the Iranian Naval Forces to invade some islands in the country and other Gulf nations under the pretext of protecting Shiites in Bahrain, say security sources in the Gulf. 

Sources disclosed the Bahraini and Kuwaiti foreign ministers revealed the conspiracy uncovered by the security departments in both countries in the recently-concluded meeting of the GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh. After hearing the report, the GCC foreign ministers presented recommendations, which will be implemented soon, because the GCC nations are keen on revealing the truth to the international community. [6]
Bridge-burning is definitely on the agenda.
[An integrated and strongly-written] letter will be delivered to Tehran by the Qatari foreign minister or his Omani counterpart, without disclosing details of thetrip ... the letter will contain an explicit and direct call for an end to the ridiculous game on the security and stability of the GCC countries - a situation which can no longer be denied by the Iranian leadership and authorities, considering the clear pieces of evidence in the hands of the GCC. 

The diplomat confirmed there are efforts to inform Tehran on the deportation of some Iranian diplomats from the six GCC countries, especially Bahrain and Kuwait. The number of diplomatic representatives in the cities of Arab nations will also be reduced after the GCC authorities found out that many Iranian intelligence agents are using diplomatic cover and immunity to engage in unscrupulous activities; thereby posing grave security threats to the countries, so there is no option but to expel them, he asserted.
Bahrain has emerged as the key proving ground for the anti-Iran doctrine. 

The GCC countries are attempting to overturn the accepted narrative: that Bahrain has a Shi'ite majority that has been unfairly disenfranchised and which is now attempting to gain expanded political rights through popular agitation. 

The GCC framing is that Shi'ite are not the majority, that in fact they are a minority attempting to seize power on behalf of their Iranian masters. 

The determination of the GCC to deny the Shi'ite majority - and the legitimacy of the demonstrations - is clear from the Arab Times backgrounder. 

The arcane and conveniently murky issue of Bahraini demographics - there hasn't been an official census since 1941 since the results would inevitably embarrass the emirate's ruling Sunni minority - is being thrown into the fray.
Sources went on to say the world powers have taken into consideration the real demographic situation in Bahrain, particularly the fact that the Shi'ites are not the majority, contrary to the claims of Iran and others involved in the conspiracy. These world powers have also realized that what is happening is not a sectarian conflict, considering the attempt to manipulate the demographic scale to deprive the majority of their political rights. They have discovered there is no truth in such claims and the naturalization issue was based on the law, not politics; hence, no one can interfere in the process, sources added.
Justin Gengler, PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, who administered the first-ever mass political survey of Bahrain in 2009, provides a unique and authoritative statistical profile of the local demographics. 

According to Gengler, the Shi'ite share of the population probably peaked at 65 to 70% in the mid-1980s. Since then, there has been a concerted effort by the government to dilute Shi'ite numbers by an aggressive program to naturalize Sunnis. 

Also, it was alleged that, in order to boost Sunni turnout in the 2002 parliamentary elections, the Bahraini government naturalized a large number of Sunnis residing in the Saudi town of Dammam, on the coast facing the island and, for their convenience, erected a polling booth on the King Fahd Causeway! 

China under pressure over Saudi rise
By Peter Lee

The briefer tries to turn the naturalization issue on its head by claiming that disloyal Shi'ites were disproportionately nationalized in the 1980s:
"In the 1980s, the Bahraini authorities granted citizenship to many people with Iranian roots, but none of the Shi'ites or the Sunnis objected then. Some of those who were naturalized at the time are still loyal to Persia, as proven recently when they instigated conflicts upon the orders of their masters from Tehran. This issue is totally different from what is being portrayed by some people, especially since the Shi'ite opposition members with Iranian roots have remained loyal to the Iranian authority," sources clarified.
Despite the Sunni demographic campaign and the attempt of

government sources to obscure the situation with their bluster, according to Gengler's 2009 study, Shi'ite still hold the majority over the Sunni, with a split of 58/42. 

Gengler told Asia Times Online:
''There is a consensus from in and outside Bahrain that a) the Shi'ite population must have increased more rapidly than the Sunni population since the last census in 1941; and b) in the last decade the government has sought to shift the balance for political purposes through naturalization.''
It is a testimony to the intensity of Sunni desire to delegitimize political activity by Bahraini Shi'ites that the GCC and hardliners with the Bahraini government insist on defining the political conflict inside Bahrain as a "sectarian conflict" despite the consequences for Bahrain's social fabric. 

Moderate voices within the Gulf states have been overwhelmed. 

Gengler told Asia Times Onine:
''The only moderate we've seen within the al-Khalifa - the crown prince - seems to have lost utterly all influence within the ruling family, having spent all of his political capital on the failed attempt at bringing the opposition to the National Dialogue Initiative. During those two weeks or so ... the crown prince was on TV every day, supposedly giving military orders, etc. ... Since the GCC force arrived he has become irrelevant.
Stamping out the protests has become a matter of crowd control that has merged seamlessly with anti-Iranian doctrine and anti-Shi'ite bigotry, despite the fact that the Shi'ite are the indigenous inhabitants of the island and do not have an especially close affinity to the government in Tehran. 

In Asia Times Online, Derek Henry Flood provided a haunting picture of the systematic assault on Shi'ite political and social institutions during the emergency.
Asia Times Online spoke with Nabeel Rajab, the outspoken director of Bahrain's Center for Human Rights. Rajab candidly outlined the outbreak of gross human-rights violations directed against the island state's Shi'ite majority population in recent weeks. 

"It is intimidation ... every Shi'ite [Muslim] is a target," Rajab said of the overall climate of fear gripping the kingdom. Rajab described in detail a campaign of a fear being waged not only in villages in the shadow of the once glittering capital but now in downtown Manama itself. 

He said the appearance of graffiti supporting King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, desecration of traditional food offerings left outside husseiniyas (Shi'ite religious halls), and a plethora of humiliating checkpoints where being caught with any imagery related to the uprising or bans on photography can lead to a severe beating coupled with interrogation.
During a recent visit to a local hospital, Rajab noticed posters of King Hamad and other leading members of the al-Khalifa dynasty that low-level hospital workers of suspect allegiance were apparently urged to kiss in a display of coerced allegiance. 
According to a Western diplomat who spoke to Asia Times Online, the active placement of foreign Sunnisoldiers in Bahrain's military was an effort to firmly consolidate the kingdom's place as a Sunni power, however minor.
Rajab, who was detained on March 20 in a night raid that terrified his family, depicts what amounts to a policy of collective punishment being deployed against the monarchy's now possibly irreconcilable subjects along with an economic implosion that is shaking the nation to its core. [7]
It seems that sectarian co-existence in Bahrain - and indeed, the entire Bahraini economy, which is in a shambles - is simply collateral damage in the Sunni effort to secure authoritarian rule within the GCC, sustain the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia's role as the regional arbiter of what political dissent can be tolerated, and frame dissent in the Gulf emirates as Iranian sedition. 

Anti-Shi'ite concerns also play a major role in the GCC's other intervention in Saudi Arabia's near beyond: efforts to ease Riyadh's unpredictable and unreliable client, President Ali Abdallah Saleh, out of Yemen. 

Yemen is pretty much a basket case. In addition to a secessionist movement in the south, an al-Qaeda problem whose severity and degree of sponsorship by Saleh as a military and security auxiliary is the subject of much debate, across the board demonstrations against his corrupt and impoverishing rule, Yemen has a Shi'ite rebellion problem - followers of a charismatic Shi'ite imam, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi who congregate in the mountainous wastes near the Saudi border. 

Belying its reputation as the gold-plated but sedentary army "ready to fight until the last American", the Saudi military has been blooded in several violent clashes with the Houthi, losing over 100 men. Riyadh has claimed the Houthi are receiving support from Iran. 

Now the GCC has stepped up to offer mediation (superseding anti-Saleh declarations from the Obama administration), presumably hoping to facilitate the installation of a pro-Saudi strongman who will restore order and suppress the Houthi rebellion more effectively. 

As a sign of Saudi Arabia's determination that it must look after itself and not rely on the United States to help with its regional problems, one Saudi commentator proposed a "Marshall Plan" of Saudi tutelage and financial assistance that would lift Yemen out of its impoverished and violent misery. [8] 

Saudi determination has already provoked a concession from Egypt on the issue of Iran. 

The post-Mubarak government had permitted passage through the Suez Canal for an Iranian naval vessel for the first time since 1979 and had stated its willingness to normalize diplomatic relations with Tehran. 

However, after the GCC broadside against Iran, the Egyptian foreign minister obligingly stated that "the stability and Arabhood of the Arab Gulf countries is a red line against which Egypt rejects any trespass". [9] 

In this fraught atmosphere, it remains to be seen whether China can enjoy the luxury of acting as an innocent bystander in the contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

China has already found it advisable not to veto sanctions against Iran in response to US and Saudi pressure; recently, it abstained instead of vetoing the no fly zone intervention against Gaddafi - a resolution spawned by the activism of the GCC - even though it detested the intervention in principle and as an opportunity for the West to reinject itself into the region

Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton crudely inserted America in the Saudi-Chinese relation by promising American good offices to replace whatever crude China lost by backing UN sanctions against Iran. 

That idea didn't go anywhere, perhaps because China has replaced the United States as Saudi Arabia's biggest customer - as part of its well-advertised desire to diversify energy sources and supplies, the US is now only the 4th largest buyer of Saudi crude - and the two nations are more interested in developing their direct bilateral economic and strategic ties than mediating them through the United States. 

In The National Interest, analyst Bruce Riedel pungently summed up the state of play after the Obama administration haltingly participated in the downfall of Hosni Mubarak:
The Saudi leadership also believes they have seen this American movie before. Jimmy Carter threw the Shah under the bus in 1978 and we got the Islamic Republic of Iran. George Bush toppled Saddam in 2003 and we got a Shia government in Iraq. The princes think America is na๏ve at best, untrustworthy at worst. So they are circling the wagons and telling their fellow monarchs in the Gulf and King Abdallah in Jordan to do the same. 

They are also looking east for help to old allies in Pakistan and China. Prince Bandar, former ambassador in Washington, reportedly visited Islamabad late last month to ask the Pakistanis for troops to help ensure internal stability in the kingdom and the Gulf States if needed. He invoked an understanding that dates back to the 1980s when then-Pakistani dictator Zia ul Huq provided over 10,000 Pakistani troops to protect the country after the Iranian revolution. Bandar also has been in Beijing to promote more trade and to ensure the Chinese communist dictators stand with their Saudi friends. Bandar was the deal-maker in the Saudi-Chinese intermediate range missile sale in the 1980s that provided Riyadh with its now aging missile force. He reportedly keeps a residence in China. [10]
China currently imports 4 million tons of crude per month from Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia is looking east to China as the most insatiable market for Saudi petroleum products. Two world-scale refineries with Saudi investment are already in operation in Shandong and Fujian. [11] 

China and Saudi Arabia announced a deal for a 200,000 ton per year refinery in Yunnan, and China has taken a 37.5% share in an Aramco refinery at Yanbu. 

China only gets half as much crude from Iran as it does from Saudi Arabia. Beijing may be forced to make the decision to protect its deep and strategically vital relationship with Riyadh if Saudi Arabia demands that China participate in the isolation of Iran. 

A potential wild card in the Middle East is the possibility that Saudi Arabia will choose to ally with the other main anti-Iranian power in the region - Israel

Intriguingly, the non-government Israeli peace proposal proffered forPrime Minister Netanyahu's consideration is advertised as being based on the regional peace proposal first prepared by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in 2002. 

Maybe that's a hint that Saudi Arabia might be Israel's preferred post-Mubarak power broker in the Arab world. 

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has presumably given up on the United States as head-cutter-off in chief of the Iranian snake; perhaps the specter of a Saudi-Israeli united front will keep Iran's ambitions in check. 

An overt Saudi-Israeli tie-up would be a blow to the United States' role as the essential superpower in the region. China, as long as it can lift oil from Saudi Arabia, might be satisfied with an unglamorous supporting role in the post-American Middle East. 

1. Click here for the Chinese text. 
2. Click here for the Chinese text. 
5. Click here for Chinese text. 
7. Dangerous change rattles Bahrain, Asia Times Online, Apr 7, 2011.
8. How the GCC can save Yemen, Gulf News, Mar 30, 2011.
9. Egypt says Arab identity of Gulf a 'red line', AFP on Google, Apr 7, 2011.
10. Saudi Arabia on the Brink, National Interest, Apr 6, 2011.
11. Shifting Sands: Saudi Arabia's Oil Moves East to China, Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, Apr 5, 2011. 

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy. 

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