The three theaters of the Arab world


Arab spring was always a media short hand. After spending some time in the region, I have in my focus three distinct dramas being played out.

From North Africa – Tunis, Egypt – to Jordan and Syria is one theatre. This is the arena of positive evolution.

Then there is the GCC theatre. Saudi Arabia is the spider in this web, its tentacles deep in Bahrain and Yemen, two countries it shares border with.

The third is something of a solo number with Muammar Qaddafi dancing between minefields being inexpertly laid by an Anglo-French pair of plotters. The Americans, having had their fingers burnt in Iraq, are clearly keen not to be seen conferring martyrdom on another Arab despot.

In an excellent interview with a journalist who specializes in Africa, Fareed Zakaria conclusively established Qaddafi’s immense popularity with sub Saharan Africa where people are collecting donations to help Qaddafi. Surely slaughterers of their citizens are made of harsher stuff.

Little wonder African leaders have been jointly pleading with the international community not to apply UNSC resolution 1973, as a means to advance Western interests.

The Anglo-French desire to dress up their designs with altruism, is just not selling. The Arab public is taking the Anglo-French propaganda with large doses of salt. “Foreigners have entered my house in Mesrata”, says Rafiq Hamadi in Baghdad, “and When I shoot them, they run to the media with the story that I am ‘slaughtering’ my people!”

In the short term, it appears Libya will be divided between East and West. The world, including the Arab public and 20 million Muslims in Europe will see the partitioning of the country for what it is: not to stop the “slaughter” of the innocents but for Libya’s light crude for which European refineries are specially geared.

Bahrain, meanwhile, has been an avoidable tragedy. Avoidable, because the Americans very nearly navigated an agreement between the Crown Prince and the opposition. But hardliners in Riyadh and Manama scuttled it.

Events in Bahrain deserve to be understood because they will resonate for a while. A 37 km causeway links Dammam headquarters of Saudi Arabia’s exclusive oil bearing eastern province, which also happens to be a Shia majority region. In fact, in one of the districts, Qatif, the Shia population is over 90 percent.

Ever since the Ayatullahs came to power in Teheran in 1979, the Saudi state has been firm in handling Shia restiveness in the province, real or imagined. Since King Abdullah’s benign rule, Moharram processions and other Shia practices have been tolerated. But vigilance is as total as can be in a police state.

Across the causeway, Bahrain is, by comparison, a haven of openness except that political freedoms are cleverly circumscribed. A large segment of Bahrain’s 1.5 million population are expatriate.

Nearly seventy percent of the 8,00,000 Bahrainis happen to be Shias. The rulers, however, follow a strict Sunni school. For over 200 years the Khalifa family have been Emirs of Bahrain.

A decade ago Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared himself King. An Emir, he thought, had colonial connotations. Kingship would lend itself to the possibility of a “constitutional monarchy”. Along with Kingship, almost in sequence, comes a Crown Prince – in this case Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

King Hamad, ever since he ascended the throne has had his uncle, Khalifa Ibn Salman al Khalifa as Prime Minister under whom, by popular consent, corruption has flourished as it has elsewhere in the Arab world. He was one of the targets of recent demonstrations.

Infection of popular protest from Tunisia and Egypt arrived in Bahrain and youngsters, Shias and Sunnis, began to collect at Pearl Square for peaceful demonstrations. They even mounted Mahatma Gandhi posters.

The, police largely Pakistani, cracked down hard. In the ranks of the protesters there was some confusion. Did they want freedoms? A free press? Participatory democracy? Constitutional monarchy? or that the Kahlifas must flee?

American special envoy, Jeffery Feltman, the Crown Prince and moderate Shia leader Shaikh Ali Salman secretly met and hammered out a compromise agreement.

The Prime Minister, seeing his power recede, agreed to Saudi Interior Security chief Prince Naif’s hard line. No quarter should be given to the Shias who will be the staging post for Iran. Brutality on the Shias was unleashed. And now the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister are probably in rival camps. Obviously the story is not yet over.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)