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The selective winds from the Arab Spring

Last updated on: August 24, 2011 14:55 IST
The most surprising part in the whole so-called Arab Spring is that the countries which were relatively more liberal and secular were the ones to see mass uprisings, while the countries that are more inward-looking and theology-driven, such as Saudi Arabia, have yet to see the kind of protests witnessed on Cairene or Tunisian streets, says Faisal Kidwai

The West, especially America, loves to preach about democracy and human rights, but the reality is that when it comes down to it, the West has no problem in going to bed with dictators and autocrats.

It has a long history, especially in the Middle East, of propping up and supporting monarchs and rulers.

Take the case of Egypt. The Western countries supported Hosni Mubarak, a leader who used to win 'elections' with more than 95 per cent votes, for more than 30 years until he became too hot to handle.

Or, take the example of Tunisia's former president Zine Al Abidine, who ruled the country for nearly 25 years, and the West, instead of forcing him to hold free and fair elections, continued to back him until he was forced to flee.

And, now after dropping and embracing him for more than 40 years, the West has finally decided to get rid of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

So, does it mean the West is finally giving up on Middle East dictators and monarchs?

Far from it.

At the height of anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt in the early part of 2011, similar anti-government demonstrations engulfed the Gulf state of Bahrain.

The ruling family first used its own army to crush the pro-democracy activists and then it drafted in mercenaries from Pakistan and regular army soldiers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to crack down on reformers.

In the process, thousands were left dead and injured.

The brutal repression jolted human rights activists around the world and they started putting pressure on America to take action against the Bahraini government, but the US, apart from issuing bland statements, chose to completely ignore the bloodbath.

Why America turned a blind eye to the mass killings and then beating and jailing of doctors who had gone to help the wounded becomes apparent when you consider that the US not only has its naval base there, but the Gulf region is too crucial for it, both militarily and financially.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not only one of the biggest oil exporters, they are also one of the biggest military hardware buyers, and most of these weapons and fighter jets come from America or France.

The Gulf countries are the main trading partner of Germany and have long historical and business links with the United Kingdom.

On top of that, they play a crucial role in keeping in check Iran's influence and helping Israel-Arab relations.

For the Western world, the Gulf region, unlike Libya or Tunisia, is simply too big to fail.

But the future does not look so certain

Bahrain is more likely to see political upheaval than any other regional country simply because of its sectarian nature.

It is a country where the ruling family is Sunni, while the majority of population is Shia.

Add this sectarian anomaly to the fact that the wealth of the country is in the hands of the Sunni elite and you have a powder keg waiting to explode.

Bahrain was able to control the uprising by brutally suppressing the movement with the help of Pakistani mercenaries and Arab soldiers, but the ruling family cannot keep on killing and beating its own citizens.

One day it would have to either introduce real, meaningful political and economic reforms or face the fate of Mubarak and Gaddafi.

Saudi Arabia is another country that has tried every possible method to beat back reformists.

It has jailed, tortured and even forked out billions of dollars in the form of subsidies to shut the voices of dissent.

But, even with all its oil wealth, it just cannot keep on throwing money to buy silence.

Like Bahrain, it will have to face the reality that without freedom and democracy, the ruling family will continue to face an existential threat.

Other countries, like the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar, are unlikely to face any major political challenge, at least not in the near future.

These countries are not only flush with cash but also have low population, so keeping them in line is easier.

The most surprising part in the whole so-called Arab Spring is that the countries which were relatively more liberal and secular were the ones to see mass uprisings, while the countries that are more inward-looking and theology-driven, such as Saudi Arabia, have yet to see the kind of protests witnessed on Cairene or Tunisian streets.

Maybe it is because they are so closed that organising protests is a difficult task, to say the least.

Or, the West isn't just ready to greenlight the overthrow of these regimes.

Faisal Kidwai