24 February 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
“Floggings will continue until morale improves.” As a way of dealing with a discontented crew it was much favoured by 18th-century sea-captains, but the Bahrain government has been an apt pupil. Alas, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa doesn’t quite grasp that this sort of policy statement must be clear and concise.
Announcing that the Bahraini authorities would intensify the repression that has prevailed since the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations two years ago, the sheikh declared last October: “It has been decided to stop all gatherings and marches and not to allow any activity before being reassured about security and achieving the required stability in order to preserve national unity.”
He’s got the spirit of the thing right, but he falls short in the clarity and brevity departments. (He’s obviously been listening to spin doctors, and they always hate clarity.) At any rate, the demonstrations, gatherings and marches have not stopped, although they have got even more dangerous for the participants.
Bahrain’s brief role in the “Arab Spring” began on 14 February, 2011, when demonstrators demanding a constitutional monarchy, a freely elected government and equality for all citizens took over Pearl Square in Manama, the capital of the tiny Gulf state. But one month later the protesters were driven from the square by force, and after that the repression became general.
By no coincidence, that was also when Saudi Arabian troops arrived “to help the government of Bahrain restore order.” (Bahrain is an island connected to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by a long causeway.) Officially the Saudi soldiers were invited in by Bahrain’s ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Unofficially, he probably had no choice in the matter.
Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni Muslim, like Saudi Arabia’s and those of all the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman). However, 70 percent of Bahrain’s population is Shia, whereas the rest of the GCC countries are overwhelmingly Sunni. And the relationship between Sunnis and Shias throughout the region is coming to resemble that between Catholics and Protestants in 16th-century Europe.
The ensuing century of religious wars in Europe was not really about doctrinal differences. The wars were driven by the rulers’ conviction that people who did not share their particular brand of Christianity could not be loyal to them politically.
It was nonsense, but millions of Europeans were killed in the 1500s and 1600s in wars triggered by this belief. The same disease now seems to be taking root in the Arab Gulf states. Shias, it is argued, cannot be loyal to a Sunni ruling family. And if they object to being oppressed, it can only be because Shia-majority Iran has deliberately stirred them up.
There is a real political and military rivalry between Iran, the major power on the north side of the Gulf, and the smaller Arab states to the south-west. It has got even worse since the US invasion of Iraq ended centuries of Sunni rule and put a Shia regime in power there. The competition is actually geopolitical and strategic, not sectarian, but people get confused.
So Saudi Arabia worries a lot about the loyalty of the large Shia population (maybe even a majority) in its Eastern Province, where all the oil is. It was certainly not going to tolerate a democracy – which it thinks would be a “Shia” democracy, and therefore a hostile regime – in Bahrain, right next door.
And, of course, it believed that the downtrodden Shia majority in Bahrain (who cannot even serve in their own country’s army and police) had been stirred up by Shia-majority Iran across the Gulf. So when Bahrain’s king had still not got the pro-democracy protesters under control after an entire month, it sent its troops in.
This may not be what the king had in mind. It certainly wasn’t what Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa intended: he was trying to negotiate with opposition parties about giving Shias a bigger role in the kingdom’s affairs. But Saudi Arabia didn’t want that kind of example right next-door, and it found hardline allies in the Bahraini royal family.
It may have played out somewhat like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Moscow, determined to crush the reform movement there, got some second-rank Czech Communists to request military intervention. At any rate, hard-liners in the royal family have called the tune since then, while the king and the crown prince have effectively been sidelined.
The triumvirate who are now running Bahrain are Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, prime minister for the past forty years, and the brothers Khalid bin Ahmed bin Salman al-Khalifa, the royal Court Minister, and Khalifa bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, who commands the Bahrain Defence Forces. (Do pay attention at the back; there will be a test on these names later.)
The brothers belong to the Khawalid branch of the royal family, descended from another royal who led a brutal crackdown against a Shia uprising in the 1920s. With them in charge, there will be no compromise, even though more than 80 Shia protesters have already been killed.
And even if it gets a great deal worse in Bahrain, no Western government is going to condemn the country’s rulers. That would seriously annoy Saudi Arabia, and they will never do that.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 14 and 15. (“There is…confused”; and “The triumvirate…killed”)
28 September 2011
Balancing Act in Saudi Arabia
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s amazing how much sub-text you can pack into a single word. Consider this recent announcement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: “Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal elections and will EVEN have the right to vote.” Well, hurray.
On the other hand, you could easily accuse the 87-year-old monarch of dragging his feet on reform, because he waited until this year’s municipal elections were almost upon the country (they were held on Thursday) before announcing that women could vote the next time, in 2015. Boo.
But that’s not fair to King Abdullah. He’s actually moving fast on women’s rights, because 2015 will be only eight years after Saudi Arabian men were allowed to vote for the first time, in the 2007 municipal elections. AND women will henceforward also be eligible for appointment to the Shura Council, the 150-member unelected congress that the king consults with on matters of public concern. Hurray.
Hang on a minute. Two days after Abdullah made that announcement, a Saudi court sentenced a woman to receive ten lashes for the crime of driving while female. Boo. And then on Thursday the king overturned the court ruling and spared the woman. Hurray. And on and on, in a endless counterpoint of progressive measures and conservative crack-downs.
So what is actually going on here? What we are seeing is a few surface manifestations of the struggle that is going on among the Saudi elite about how to respond to the “Arab spring”. The pro-democracy movements are operating right along Saudi Arabia’s frontiers, in Jordan, in Yemen, and most frighteningly in Bahrain. Everyone agrees that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE – but what?
In the case of Bahrain, where a largely Shia protest movement threatened to infect the Saudi Arabia’s own Shias (who live mostly in the eastern province, where the oil is), the answer was clear. Bahrain’s democratic movement was crushed by force, with much of the force being supplied by Saudi troops that Riyadh lent to Bahrain’s ruling family. Indeed, it was probably Saudi pressure that swung the balance in Bahrain in favour of an armed crack-down.
Elsewhere, what happens beyond the borders is of less importance, for Saudi citizens know that they are vastly richer than Yemenis or even Jordanians. But they are probably not entirely immune to dreams of democracy, so what should be done to strengthen their immune systems?
When King Abdullah returned from three months’ medical treatment abroad in February, he announced a vast new package of welfare measures, including education and housing subsidies and 15 percent pay raises for government employees. Total cost: about $36 billion. That’s about $1,300 for every man, woman and child in the country.
Thus began the latest round in the perpetual tug-of-war between those (including the king) who feel that some economic and political concessions are necessary to head off worse trouble, and others (including much of the royal family and most of the religious establishment) who believe that even one step back from the status quo would put the regime on a slippery slope.
This is an argument that breaks out inside any autocratic regime whenever change threatens, and it’s clear which side Abdullah is on, but he has very limited space for manoeuvre.
His first priority is to keep his immediate family – around 22,000, at last count – in the style to which they have become accustomed, and their expectations are very high. If they collectively decide that his decisions are endangering their privileges, they will remove him. In a system of succession that does not have a strict rule of primogeniture, that is easily done.
Then he must contend with the ulema, the senior religious authorities of the Wahhabi sect of Islam that the Saudi ruling family has been allied to for more than a century. Their support is vital to the regime’s legitimacy, and it would certainly weaken if Abdullah carried out reforms that conflicted with their austere and deeply conservative vision of Islam.
If, despite all that, he chooses to make major reforms to the political system, he cannot even be sure that they will stop the slow decline in the ruling family’s authority. When forty percent of those in the 20-24 age group have no work, and fully half the country’s population is under-19′s who will be looking for work in the next two decades, you cannot call the system stable no matter how good the welfare system is.
There is a striking difference in what the pro-democracy movements have led to in the one-party dictatorships of the Arab world and in the traditional monarchies. In the dictatorships, mostly military, the outcome has been revolution and regime change: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, perhaps soon Syria. In Jordan and Morocco, by contrast, there is a good chance that the outcome will be much democratisation backed by a stable constitutional monarchy.
Such an outcome is unlikely in Saudi Arabia, which has a great deal further to travel. On the other hand, there is not much visible demand for full democracy in the kingdom; maybe some cosmetic measures will suffice. King Abdullah is old and ill, and he is hoping that will be enough.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“In the case…systems”)
7 August 2011
The Food Bubble
By Gwynne Dyer
There are all kinds of bubbles. We had the financial bubble that burst in 2008, causing economic devastation that we are still paying for. There is the Chinese real estate bubble, the biggest in history, which may take the whole world economy down with it when it bursts. But nothing compares with the food bubble.
Back in 2008, the OECD published a report on world food supply predicting that the price surge of that year would quickly revert to normal: “Barring any underlying climate change or water constraints that could lead to permanent reductions in yield, normal higher output can be expected in the very short term.” And barring age, disease and accidents, we will all live forever.
Between April, 2010 and April, 2011 the average world price of grain soared by 71 percent: not a very big deal for people in rich countries who spend less than 10 percent of their incomes on food, but a catastrophe for poor people who already spend more than half their money just to keep their families fed. And that is before “climate change and water constraints” get really serious. But they will.
Let’s ignore the effects of climate change, because it’s too early in the game to be certain that any given drought, flood or heat-wave has been caused by rising temperatures. Besides, there are a few countries (notably the United States) where climate change is still seen as controversial by a significant number of people. So let’s just talk about what happens to the world food supply when the irrigation water runs out.
The first great food price crisis was in the early 1970s, when consumption was outrunning production due to rapid population growth: the world’s population almost doubled between 1945 and 1975. Grain prices were even higher in real terms than they are now, and there was near-starvation in some areas. But the problem was quickly solved by the famous “Green Revolution”, which hugely increased yields of rice, wheat and maize (corn).
The only drawback was that the Green Revolution wasn’t really all that green. Higher-yielding strains of familiar crops played a part in the solution, certainly, but so did a vastly increased use of fertilizer: global fertilizer use tripled between 1960 and 1975. And above all, there was an enormous expansion of the world’s irrigated area. It has more than tripled since 1950.
Only 10 percent of the world’s cropland is irrigated even now, but that irrigated land provides about 40 percent of the world’s food, so it is absolutely vital. Yet they didn’t discover any new rivers after 1950. Almost all of the new irrigated land – two-thirds of the total – uses water that is pumped up from deep underground aquifers.
A lot of those aquifers are “fossil”, meaning that they filled with water long ago and are now cut off from the surface. They will eventually be pumped dry. Others still recharge from surface water that filters down, but they are almost all being pumped at many times their recharge rate, so they will effectively go dry, too. Then the world will have to make do with the one-third of irrigated land that gets its water from the weather. It won’t be enough.
Obviously, the aquifers won’t all go dry at once. Some are bigger than others, and some have been pumped much longer or more heavily than others. But most of them are going to go dry at some point or other in the next thirty years.
The irrigated area in the United States has probably passed its peak already. In key agricultural states, it is already long past: 1978 in Texas, 1997 in California. In China and India irrigation may be at its peak right now. A World Bank study reported in 2005 that the grain supply for 175 million Indians is produced by over-pumping water, and some 130 million Chinese similarly depend in a dwindling supply of underground water for their grain.
It gets worse. In the Middle East, Israel banned all irrigation of wheat in 2000 in order to conserve the remaining underground water for people. It now imports 98 percent of its grain. More recently Saudi Arabia, which was self-sufficient in wheat production only five years ago, decided to shut grain-growing down completely before the major aquifer under the country runs dry. Next year, it will import 100 percent of its grain.
Saudi Arabia will be able to go on importing grain even when the price is twice what it is now, and so will Israel. But there are a great many countries that will lose their ability to feed their own people once the irrigation bubble bursts – and will not be able to afford to import food at the vastly inflated prices that ensue.
Never mind what climate change will eventually do to the world food supply (although we will mind very much when it finally hits). The crisis is coming sooner than that, and it is quite unavoidable. We are living way beyond our means.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“A lot…enough”)
6 June 2011
Yemen: After Saleh, What?
By Gwynne Dyer
President Ali Abdullah al-Saleh, in power in Yemen for the past 33 years and under siege for the past three months, left the country on Saturday night with a large piece of shrapnel lodged just below his heart. He may not come back.
Accompanying Saleh to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment were the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the speakers of both houses of parliament, and Saleh’s personal security adviser, all of whom were also wounded in the Friday explosion at the al-Nahdayn mosque in the presidential compound in Sanaa. It’s a pretty clean sweep, so the question is: who comes next?
Nobody even knows whether the explosion was caused by a bomb planted in the mosque, a shell, or a rocket. The situation is very complicated, so you’d better take notes. (There will be a brief test afterwards.)
The turmoil in Yemen is really two separate conflicts. One is a traditional power struggle between two elite factions. The other is a non-violent, pro-democratic youth movement inspired by the popular revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world. They were linked at the start (though most of the young idealists didn’t realise it), but they will be disentangled by the finish.
One of the elite factions is dominated by President al-Saleh’s own family: his son Ahmed Ali commands the Presidential Guard, and his nephews Tariq, Yahya and Ammar control other vital elements of the security and intelligence apparatus. The rival faction is led by the al-Ahmar family, whose current head, Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, is the leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, one of the two most powerful in Yemen.
Sadeq al-Ahmar’s brother Himyar was deputy speaker of parliament, and another brother, Hussein, was a member of Saleh’s Governing People’s Council, until the two men resigned three months ago in protest against the regime’s brutal shooting of student demonstrators. That was the signal that the long truce between the two factions was at an end.
The most important al-Ahmar brother is Hamid, a businessman and a leader of the opposition Islah party. There is ample evidence that Hamid helped to get the student protests underway, making his Sabafon mobile network available to send out messages organising the protests and then covering the demos lavishly on his Suhail TV network (whose head office was burned by Saleh’s troops last week).
So far, so bad. What makes it worse is that the quarrel is among such a narrow and unrepresentative elite. The Saleh family, like the Ahmar family, belongs to the Hashid tribal confederacy. They both therefore follow the Zaidi tradition of Shia Islam, whereas a majority of Yemenis are Sunnis. Eighty percent of Yemenis don’t even have a dog in this fight.
But the young Yemeni protesters in the streets are not interested in a mere reshuffle of the elite, and the Ahmar family has never controlled them. They actually do want democracy, and they have already paid a high price for their idealism: about half of the 350 people killed since the first “Day of Rage” in January have been unarmed youths.
The other half, in the past two weeks, have mostly been tribal fighters backing the Ahmar family and military forces controlled by the Saleh clan (plus lots of innocent bystanders). In terms of how Yemen has always been run in the past, the Ahmar family is now on the brink of victory. But the drama will not end there.
One of the student leaders, Hashem Nidal of the Independent Movement for Change, put it well in a recent interview with the BBC. “They wanted to push the revolution towards violence and we refuse this completely….We are co-ordinating with many protesters across the country to make sure they don’t fall into the trap of violence.”
“After three months of great efforts in raising awareness among people to avoid violence,” he added, “we managed to reach a level of understanding that refuses violence. We are looking to topple this regime by peaceful means.” By “regime”, he means the tribal, sectarian, undemocratic way in which Yemen has always been run.
The departure of President Saleh won’t be the end of the story. The Ahmar family’s allies may take over the government, but they will face just the same demands from Yemeni youths who want a non-sectarian, democratic, non-tribal state that offers them a decent future regardless of their tribe, their sect, or even their sex.
If they get the chance to build that state, they will face horrendous challenges. Yemen is the poorest Arab country, and its modest endowment of oil is running out. So is the underground water it depends on for irrigation, and the population is growing at 2.6 percent a year. Half of the 24 million Yemenis are illiterate, and half the population is under 18.
The kids may fail, but who stands a better chance of surmounting these challenges? A democratic government run by the younger generation of Yemenis, or a regime controlled by the Salehs or the Ahmars?
It’s all quite simple, really. So there will not be a test after all.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Sadeq…end”; and “After…run”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.