Obama’s policy alarms oil-rich Arabs

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama on Wednesday sidelined the significance of the long-standing conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the Persian Gulf, further weakening U.S. influence in a region whose oil supplies are vital for U.S. economic growth.

Despite the economic crisis hitting Japan in the aftermath of its catastrophic earthquake, the turmoil in the Middle East nudged oil prices upward and closer to the $100 per barrel mark.

In a presidential phone call to Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, the president urged the Saudis to withdraw some security forces it sent into its neighboring country, Bahrain. The island-nation of Bahrain is being rocked by widespread protests that many fear could end up being promoted by the Iranian government.

“The president expressed his deep concern over the violence in Bahrain and stressed the need for maximum restraint,” White House spokesman Jay Carney announced at the daily press conference. When asked how Iran’s push for influence in Bahrain has shaped U.S. policy, Carney dismissed the concern. Obama’s “concern about Bahrain is what’s happening in Bahrain,” he said.

“From a Saudi and Bahraini point of view… Obama does not seem to be that concerned about Iran,” said Simon Henderson, a director of the gulf and energy policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Gulf countries who are U.S. allies, don’t understand the reasoning of the United States,” he said. Because of the growing divide with the U.S., he said, “they’re going to make their own decisions, to [deal with the demonstrators] their own way.”

The rulers of Saudi Arabia, and of the nearby oil-rich United Arab Emirates, have both sent troops into Bahrain to jointly suppress what they fear is a revolt that could be backed by Iran and potentially spread into their territories.

The rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are Sunni Muslims, and have long-dominated the region’s Shia Muslims, who comprise a majority of the Bahraini population. Iran is run by a militantly Shia government that has long been hostile to regional Sunni rulers, and frequently declares itself to be the champion of Shia Muslims. For example, Iran heavily supports the Shia-populated Hezbollah army in southern Lebanon, as well as Shia elements in Iraq. Also, Saudi officials fear that the Iranian government will also push the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia to revolt. Many of the Saudi oilfields are in a region heavily populated by the country’s Shia minority.

Obama’s intervention in the Bahrain upheaval matches his earlier preferences, as reported in the New York Times, for “organic” political reforms in Arab countries that are completed without foreign intervention. But tribal rebels in Libya are being crushed by Muammar Gaddafi’s tanks because they lack support from foreign governments. Similarly, the pro-democracy voters in Iran in 2009, and the Lebanon’s non-Shia population in 2009, lacked outside support and were defeated by the Iranian government or Iranian-supported forces, while international opposition to Gen. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt recently helped persuade him to retire amid large street-protests.

Officials in U.S. friendly oil-rich governments around the Gulf dislike Obama’s stance, said Henderson. “What drives them witless is that the [administration’s] demand for universal [human] rights only apply to U.S. friends, not to Libya or Iran,” he said.

Other Muslim populations have gained from foreign intervention, including the Shia majority in Iraq who were ruled by Saddam Hussein and his allied Sunni tribes, the Bosnian Muslims facing Serbian attacks in the 1990s, and the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq.

“I have been trying to make sense of U.S. policy,” Henderson said. But, he added, “I, along with many others, don’t think there is a coherent policy.” U.S. officials, despite their emphasis on diplomacy in the region, “don’t seem to be listening to what other people say to them.”

“It is rather reminiscent of George W. Bush,” he added.