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Christian Henderson: Great hypocrisy of Saudis, crushing opposition in Bahrain and supporting it in Syria

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

At a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on Sunday, a resolution was passed that included a language that said that Arab countries from the league could provide all forms of material support to the opposition in Syria. Diplomats are quoted by Reuters as saying, yes, this means arms.

Now joining us to talk about the Arab League meetings and the situation in Syria is Christian Henderson. He’s—for 15 years have had experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa. He’s worked as a journalist for The Daily Star in Lebanon and Al Jazeera in Qatar. And he runs a consulting company called Dunlin Consultants, which consults with private sector businesses about the Middle East. Thanks for joining us, Christian.


JAY: So it’s hard not for me to start with the incredible hypocrisy that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but particularly Saudi Arabia, which sent troops into Bahrain to suppress the opposition there, is now talking about sending in peacekeepers in Syria to defend democracy and talking about passing—not talking about, actually having passed a resolution saying it’s okay to send arms to the opposition. If Iran ever sent any arms to the opposition in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia would be going crazy, and so would Qatar. So what do you make of this positioning? What—first of all, what is the game or agenda or objectives of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries here?

HENDERSON: There is an obvious hypocrisy there, you’re right. But, you know, hypocrisy is not a uncommon phenomenon in the Middle East, so I’m perhaps a little less surprised than you. But I think the strategy of the Gulf countries since the Arab Spring has begun has been very interesting. Essentially, they have attempted to market themselves as stable countries in which, you know, human rights are respected. And there is some sort of form of local democracy. In reality, that may be different.

But what they’ve tried to do is then accuse the republics in the Arab world of being the places that are undemocratic, where human rights are not respected. And this is the line that they’ve been pushing now. So, yes, there may be—it may be hypocritical, but I think what the Gulf countries are really trying to do are take advantage of the Arab Spring and manipulate it for their own interests. And this is certainly, in my opinion, what seems to be happening in Syria.

JAY: Right. I should say it’s not that I’m surprised that Saudi Arabia’s doing it; it’s that it needs to be drawn to people’s attention, in the sense that the media’s completely ignoring it. And I guess I’m not surprised at that either, in the sense that if something lines up with Western foreign-policy objectives, the media quite easily—I should say, most of the media quite easily overlooks things like that. But let’s get into what the real objectives here are. If the arms do start flowing into Syria, you know, most analysts are saying this is going to really intensify a civil war that could lead to more sectarian war, a very chaotic situation in Syria. What do the GC countries gain from that?

HENDERSON: The GCC countries, as I said, are trying to manipulate the situation for their own interests. And they are, in my opinion, primarily interested in weakening Iran. And one way to weaken Iran would be for them to encourage or to assist the overthrow of the current Syrian regime.

JAY: Do they see it somehow in their interest that even if they’re looking at perhaps what happened to Lebanon for years, like, just to this—you know, years of civil war and sectarian warfare, that this—because that weakens an Iranian ally, that that’s worth it, that that—’cause I mean, that seems to where this would be heading.

HENDERSON: From the outset, as you say, there has been a hypocrisy. And the Gulf states and certain other states in the region have been very supportive of the Syrian opposition and their attempts to overthrow the regime. And if you look at a country like Bahrain—and, incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that it’s the anniversary since the first—the year’s anniversary since the uprising against the Bahraini monarchy started. And that’s completely ignored. That’s not discussed in any way in the Gulf.

JAY: From what you know of the situation in Syria, it’s kind of both an economic warfare going on against it from the outside, and there’s been a lot of discussion about who’s really the opposition. In terms of this external pressure to bring down the regime, how much of that internal opposition is spurred by this external, you know, support? And how much is just legitimate fight against the dictatorship?

HENDERSON: Well, I think that’s a very important point. I think that, yes, whilst there may be a strategy by the Gulf states, and also states in the West, to assist the Syrian opposition in overthrowing the regime—and that may be through financial support or through the provision of arms—I think that—and that may well be the case—I think this cannot be used to discredit the uprising that is taking place within Syria. You know, there is a sizable section of the Syrian population who is fighting against the regime. This is an unelected regime. And I think that you have to consider that uprising to be legitimate, regardless of what may—who in the region may be trying to take advantage of that.

So in terms of the makeup of the Syrian opposition, I think there’s been a simplistic depiction of this in the Western media. And there seems to be an idea—of course, in certain forms of Western media. And there seems to be an idea that there is a simple battle taking place between people like the Free Syrian Army and the regime. And the Free Syrian army is [incompr.] sometimes being led to believe is being entirely supported by the Gulf states and certain states in the West.

In reality I think it’s a lot more complex than that. I think you have a opposition that is fragmented and made up of many different groups who have a variety of supporters. And outside of the countries, in some cases, they are almost certainly supported by the Gulf states and the West. In some cases they are not.

Unlike Libya, there isn’t a window of opportunity for intervention, there isn’t a situation in which there is a clear part of the country that has been taken over by the rebel forces and, therefore, that can be used as a landing point for intervention. And there isn’t a schism within the military. If you look at what happened in Libya, there was a very clear division within the country between East and West, and that enabled the West to intervene in an easier manner. That’s not happened in Syria. And therefore I think there is little appetite for intervention in Syria.

JAY: And it’s hard to see Saudi Arabia going to war with the Syrian army, which is essentially [what] I guess would happen if the Saudis try to cross the border.

HENDERSON: Well, I mean, that’s extremely unlikely. I think the Saudis have no interest in committing troops directly.

JAY: Although I understand from the Reuters report that the Arab League is now going to go to the UN General Assembly and ask for support for this peacekeeping force, ’cause they know they can’t get it through the Security Council. It seems to me that it’d be hard for them to get the votes in the general assembly as well, though. And even if they did, does that actually mean anything?

HENDERSON: I mean, I think the likelihood of a peacekeeping force with any clout is unlikely.

JAY: Just quickly, I guess the real long-term issue here is how long can the Syrian economy withstand all of this.

HENDERSON: Well, that’s a major issue, I think. You know, there is—the Syrian Central Bank is running out of foreign currency reserves. Their ability to transfer money into Syria is now—has been disabled by the fact that there are sanctions on the Central Bank. So I think the functionality of the Syrian state is in question here. The ability for Syria to—the Syrian state to carry on operating if it runs [incompr.] money will be—should be questioned. Syrian currency is now—the exchange rate is now weaker. So the spending power of Syrians has been reduced. So imported goods now, for example, have become a lot more expensive.

JAY: Now, there’s a very wealthy Syrian elite that has a lot of assets that are depreciating rather quickly. How long before they throw Assad under the bus? And how long can the Syrian elite hang with this guy?

HENDERSON: Well, that’s an interesting point, and I think the—over the years there has been an alliance between the Syrian regime, the Alawite part of the regime, and the kind of middle-class Sunni merchants, Sunni business community, who are very strong in places like Aleppo and Damascus. Now, if that relationship were to end, I think the regime would find itself in a very difficult position. But so far, the regime has—the relationship has withstood the pressure that it’s been under. I think for many people in Syria who are, you know, within this group, they’ve done very well over the last ten years. There’s been a liberalization of the Syrian economy, and they’ve benefited from that. And so far they still seem to have some support for the Syrian regime.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Christian.

HENDERSON: Thank you very much.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Christian Henderson has 15 years of experience of working and living
in the Middle East and North Africa. He worked as a journalist for 6
years at the Daily Star in Lebanon and Al Jazeera in Qatar. During his
time as a journalist he wrote stories that appeared in the
Independent, Daily Express, Scotsman and the South China Morning Post.
Since 2006 he has specialised in research and political analysis in
the Middle East and North Africa and has worked on projects across the
region including in the UAE, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Oman and
Lebanon. He has a MA in Middle East Studies from Edinburgh University
and a BA from Middlesex University in Development Studies. He speaks
Arabic. He is the director of the Middle East political risk
consultancy Dunlin Consultants.