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Adam Hanieh: US policy in region based on Gulf Cooperation Council ability to suppress opposition

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Bahrain, brutal repression of the protesters continues. At least 31 people have been killed. Apparently, four people have been killed after they were arrested in detention. And if you don’t want to see brutal photographs, you’d better turn your eyes away, because here’s photographs of one of the men that apparently was arrested, tortured, and then killed. Here’s a few photographs of what he looked like. As we know, Saudi troops are in Bahrain helping the police there suppress the democracy movement, the opposition forces. Now joining us to talk about what’s going on in Bahrain and the whole role of the Gulf Cooperation Council is Adam Hanieh. Adam is a lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He focuses on the political economy of the Middle East. His forthcoming book is Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States. Thanks for joining us, Adam.


JAY: So, first of all, bring us up to date. What’s been happening on the streets and politically in Bahrain? And then let’s get into the Gulf Council.

HANIEH: Well, we’ve seen over the last few days a wave of repression that’s ongoing, repression against the protests after the Saudi troops went in on March 15, about a month ago. As you said, there have been reports of up to 31 people have been killed during the demonstrations. And now other stories [are] emerging of torture and detention, and up to four people have died in detention, of the latest figures that we see. This should also be put on top of the hundreds of people who have been picked up in raids on villages around Bahrain. The latest figures I’ve seen are about 600 people have been picked up during these raids, and many of them facing torture.

JAY: The American media has done a little, but very little, on Bahrain. The US has said something, but again very little, about the repression there. And the kind of rationale is, as the argument you hear from the Saudis, this is all being inspired by Iran, and so everyone should kind of ignore the repression, ’cause this is sort of in the interests of stopping Iran from taking over. What do you make of that?

HANIEH: Well, this is not a new story, of course. This is something that all of the Gulf states, and Bahrain in particular, have been saying whenever there is any movement to try and push forward some kind of change in the region. It’s clear from the demonstrations that we’ve seen over the last couple of months that the demonstrators in Bahrain have been very, very adamant that they are not controlled or being influenced by Iran. They’ve also been very adamant that this is not a sectarian conflict; these are demonstrators that are asking for a constitutional monarchy, democratic reforms. We have to remember that since 1973, that Bahrain has had its constitution suspended by the ruling Al Khalifa monarchy. So this is something that’s long overdue. It’s not the first time we’ve seen demonstrators come to the streets in such numbers in Bahrain. But certainly it’s something that really will have a prolonged impact over the next few months, I’m sure.

JAY: Now, one of the things most people don’t know is that, if I have it correctly, I think it was in 1970 there was a UN-organized referendum actually asking people if they wanted to be part of Iran, and people said no. And these are essentially the same kind of people that are in the streets right now.

HANIEH: That’s right. And the demonstrators are not just Shia. They’re also Sunni demonstrators have been prominent in [inaudible] and the political organizations that we see, of course, many drawing upon the Shia political communities. But we also see Sunni and secular organizations that have been very prominent throughout these demonstrations.

JAY: So [incompr.] here is to a large extent the Gulf Cooperation Council is under the rubric of that, that the Saudi sent their forces in. So give us a description of the council and the role it’s playing in Bahrain, and a little bit in other countries that are part of the council.

HANIEH: The GCC was formed in 1981. It was formed between the six states, six Gulf Arab states, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain. It brings together these oil-producing, gas-rich states in the Gulf. And it was initially formed, you could say, as somewhat of a security umbrella. It was formed in early 1980s, 1981. And this was at the time, of course, of the Iran-Iraq War that occurred throughout the 1980s. But since then, we can see it’s the integration [incompr.] original integration project that’s quite similar in many ways, though not as advanced as the European Union. And we have seen over the last few years in particular closer moves towards integration. So things like monetary–talks about some kind of monetary union. We see joint defense forces. We see a customs union. We see the relatively free movement of citizens of these states across the intra-GCC borders. So that’s the kind of thing we’ve seen. But as you’ve pointed out, the GCC very much has been dominated by Saudi Arabia, as the largest state in the region and the biggest reserves of oil. And in the last few weeks, we see, March 15, the Saudi troops went into Bahrain to help the Bahraini monarchy in suppressing the uprising that was occurring there.

JAY: So talk about this in relationship to US foreign policy. This, I guess, is sort of one of the now-important pillars of US (if you want to use the word) hegemony in the area. What is the relationship of the Gulf Council, the US, and then again how this relates to what’s happening in Bahrain? I mean, we know the Fifth Fleet’s sitting there.

HANIEH: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. It’s very important to kind of–to situate, I think, the US policy, US foreign policy across the whole of the Middle East in relation to the GCC. Unfortunately, this is something I think that’s largely been lacking in terms of speaking about the Middle East as a whole, particularly in the uprisings that we’ve seen in Egypt and Tunisia; cannot be understood, I think, without placing it within the context of US policy towards the GCC as a whole. The GCC really is the core of capitalism in the Middle East. It’s the primary place that–where accumulation occurs. It’s also the linkage with the broader world market. And US foreign policy–not just the United States; Europe as well, and other states–really see their relationship with the broader Middle East through the lens of the GCC. Now, obviously, this has got to do with the vast amounts of oil present in the region. But it’s also got to do with the financial weight that the GCC has. So you can see the GCC is a major investor globally. For these reasons, the US since the end of the Second World War, but particularly in the post-1970s period when it became the dominant power in the Middle East, has really put an emphasis on placing a military strength and a political alliance with the GCC at the forefront of its Middle East policy. As you mentioned, they have the Fifth Fleet located in Bahrain. But there’s also CENTCOM, the forward command headquarters of CENTCOM, which is essentially the military headquarters that coordinates US military policy across 27 neighboring states, including Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq. That CENTCOM headquarters is located in Qatar [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah [incompr.] only about five, six miles away from the Al Jazeera office, and also a major air force base. We saw that. It’s an enormous air force base. In fact, when we were there, we were quite sure we saw a Predator land there. And we’re trying to find out where the Predator might have been. And we mentioned to somebody we know at Al Jazeera, “That’s a great story. Why don’t you go do the–find out where that Predator just came back from? ‘Cause it might be rather explosive if it had just come back from Pakistan, say.” And then–just to finish the story–the journalist says to us, “We don’t just not report that there might have been a Predator on the base.” This Al Jazeera person tells us, “We don’t report that there’s a base here.”

HANIEH: Exactly. It’s very important to understand the US military interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader Central Asia region have been coordinated from the GCC, from the CENTCOM headquarters in the GCC. There are, I think (the figures that I’ve seen most recently), over 100,000 US troops stationed in various bases across the GCC. And as you pointed out, most of the GCC states really don’t talk about this or don’t in any way make it public knowledge.

JAY: Now, the regimes in these countries are dressed up to look like traditional monarchies that sort of come out of the culture of the places. But this really is a system of dictatorships. Now, the US does not seem to be encouraging any oppositional movements there. Where there is some indication they have, in Egypt and in Libya, and perhaps in Tunisia, you can find influence of the US, you know, in the opposition forces. And I’m not suggesting the opposition is just US-created, but certainly you can find a handprint there. First of all, why this complete schizophrenia in US policy?

HANIEH: Well, I think the answer’s very simply that the US sees the regime, the Gulf regimes, the governments in the GCC, as being their principal allies in the region. And there’s a symmetry of interests that exists between the Gulf monarchies, the Gulf regimes, and the US policy in the region. So you’re quite right to point out, in the case of Bahrain, the US made it very plain–Obama said this in one of his speeches–that our interests are what dictates our policies towards these uprisings. And in the case of Bahrain, it’s in their interests to see the Al Khalifa monarchy retain power and retain that kind of very undemocratic system within the country itself.

JAY: Okay. Well, of course it’s all about oil, and it’s all about enormous amounts of money, and in very few hands. In the next segment of our interview, ’cause this is going to be a series of two or three interviews, we’re going to talk about Egypt, what’s happening there. Apparently, there was a demonstration today, being Friday, that marched to the Israeli Embassy, and calling for an end to Egyptian-Israeli relations. I don’t think this is what–if the US had a hand in overthrowing Mubarak, I don’t think this was part of the plan. So please join us for part two of our interview with Adam Hanieh.

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