Bahrain: Adam Hanieh on the US, the Gulf states and Libya

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April 19-21, 2011 -- Real News Network -- Adam Hanieh is a lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His research focuses on the political economy of the Middle East, with an emphasis on state and class formation in the Gulf Cooperation Council. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States.

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Paul Jay, senior editor, The Real News network:... 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... Thanks for joining us, Adam... 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.

Adam 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.

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?

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.

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-organised 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.

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

So 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.

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 talks about some kind of monetary union. We see joint defence 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.

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 US Fifth Fleet's sitting there.

Yeah, that's absolutely right. It's very important to situate 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 US 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]

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 [drone] 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."

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.

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?

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 dictate 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.

Okay. Well, of course it's all about oil, and it's all about enormous amounts of money, and in very few hands...

Why did the Gulf Cooperation Council states lead the charge on Libya?

More generally, I think it's important to see the GCC has played quite a critical role throughout all of these uprisings. It's --really has coordinated very closely with the United States, NATO and Europe around response to the uprisings from December 2010, when the uprisings first began in Tunisia. So I think the Libyan example is another further step in this example of very close cooperation.

Now, as you said, Qatar in particular has been playing a particularly prominent role in the Libyan example. There have been reports coming out over the last few days that Qatar has been sending arms to the rebels in Benghazi. There's also a summit that happened over the last few days in Doha in Qatar, which was attended by the British, by the Americans, and looking at some kind of more prominent recognition of the Benghazi Interim National Council as an official government of Libya. So, yeah, absolutely, Qatar has been a key player in this. The other very important thing to understand is Qatar is now playing the role of exporting and marketing oil from Libya through the rebel-held territories in Benghazi. So every step of the way, if you like, Qatar has been playing that role and working closely with NATO and the United States in coordinating [crosstalk].

So why? I mean, it's not like Qatar needs to get hold of or will have long-term control, one would think, of the oil coming out of Benghazi. They're sitting on, you know, rivers and oceans of natural gas and oil. This is, I would think, more a geopolitical play. But what's the play?

Well, absolutely. This is not an attempt by Qatar to dominate Libya at all. But this is really part and parcel of what the US (through NATO) and the other European states have attempted to do across the broader Middle East, which is to weaken control and divert, if you like, the uprisings themselves [incompr.] Qatar's foreign policy cannot be seen in separation from these broader US- and NATO-led goals. Qatar and the rest of the GCC work hand-in-hand with what the United States and NATO see and intend to see as an outcome in the Middle East.

So do you see these, first of all, these uprisings -- some pundits and analysts are portraying this as kind of US-inspired, that this is all part of a prearranged plan for specifically to bring down Gaddafi. Or is this sort of a people's uprising they saw coming and are now doing everything they can to control the outcome of?

Well, the first point I think needs to be made is that we have to reject, I think, out of hand any suggestion that the uprisings that have occurred across the Arab world were led or promoted by the United States. They were genuine popular uprisings, particularly in the cases of Egypt and Tunisia. And they caught the United States by surprise, and the United States has tried to step in and really mold the outcome to their interests. In the end it became clear that these uprisings were moving ahead.

In the case of Libya, I do think there's no question that the Libyan uprising was a popular movement against Gaddafi, who is a dictator just as Mubarak and Ben Ali in Tunisia were dictators. So there's no question that initially the popular uprising was a popular uprising in Libya. What I think has happened over the last month or so is that the United States and Europe has essentially, for a few weeks, stood aside and allowed Gaddafi to really weaken and attempt to destroy the popular content of the uprising. So what has happened over the first few weeks of the uprising is that Gaddafi went in quite strongly, [incompr.] military sense against the rebels. And what that led to is that over time the rebels themselves became much more put in a corner, if you like. And at this point they asked for US and NATO support. And, unfortunately, I think what that has done is has lessened the popular content of the uprising itself. Some of the figures that we see at the head of the rebel -- particularly the head of the rebel military, the head of the rebel governments themselves, I don't think reflect the popular character [crosstalk].

Yeah, it's a very bizarre collection of people who were -- up until two months ago were working hand-in-glove with Gaddafi, or this guy that comes from Virginia that seems to have all the CIA connections, although he's complaining -- and this kind of jives with what you're saying. Hefter or Hifter, depending on how you pronounce it -- apparently there are two ways to pronounce it, which is why I keep saying it that way -- that Hifter apparently is complaining now that after being told by the CIA he's going to get all this support when he went back to Libya can't get any weapons or any real support. So at the top of the rebellion seems to be a very strange hybrid leadership.

Absolutely. I mean, you have Hefter. You also have ex-Gaddafi people very, very close to Gaddafi who have moved on from the Interior Ministry -- former interior minister, who is now speaking for the Interim National Council. So these kind of figures I really do think indicate that the uprising itself has lost its largely popular character. And the question of NATO intervention in Libya I think has become quite clearly an attempt to put NATO's stamp, and particularly the United States' stamp, on the endgame that occurs. This is where I think the role of the GCC very much fits in with what the US and NATO intend to see in Libya.

Because through the Gulf Cooperation Council they get to do this, but with an Arab face. And, of course, not saying Gulf Cooperation Council doesn't have its own interests here, because they're far from puppets, those guys.

Well, absolutely ... I'm sure once the full story of these uprisings come out, we'll see the extent of coordination, collaboration between the US and European governments and the GCC states. Maybe we'll see some WikiLeaks in the future looking at -- I'm sure there are some very fascinating cables that have been sent between the states in the Gulf and the US and European governments over the last few months.

So the system of states, mostly dictatorships iin alliance with the US, their raison d'etre, the mission here, is to make sure this popular uprising doesn't get out of control and turn into a more fundamental class struggle. Or, of course, it is a more fundamental class struggle. But the question is: can they contain it? And sort of as Sarah Palin might say, how's that working for you? How is it working for them? Are they going to be able to contain this?

Well, I think here we need to come back to the struggles that happened in Tunisia and Egypt and realise that -- as you were saying earlier, that although they no longer appear on the front pages of the newspapers in the United States and elsewhere, but these struggles continue to be ongoing.

We see very heightened levels of mobilisation, we see strikes, we see new political organisations forming. And the revolutions have not been decided in these two countries. What is important to understand is that the Egyptian and Tunisian cases in particular are not just struggles against their own governments; they are also a struggle against the system of states that exists across the Middle East as a whole.

Particularly, they are struggles against the type of governments that we see in the Gulf and the whole system of foreign interests in the Middle East that are articulated through these Gulf regimes. As these struggles move forward, I think, in Egypt and Tunisia -- and I certainly hope that they continue to do so -- we are going to see this system of states being pushed back. And particularly I hope to see the GCC and its fundamental role in this system challenged in a much more fundamental way.

And of course, I'm wrapping up here, a big -- one of the players in all of this is Israel. It's not a member of the GCC, but the GCC gets along with Israel very well, and that's something US does not want to see change. Thanks very much for joining us, Adam.

Thank you, Paul.