And you thought America had a lot to learn about COIN? Check out the Saudis.
Libya - Misrata, Benghazi, Tripoli. Saif al-Islam, Kaddafi, No-fly zones. This country is generating all the news and the West is happy for that to be the case. There are some uncomfortable events happening further East, but it just won't do to ponder them too much.
When Ken Waltz declared that, 'Belgium doesn't matter' he only got it half right. He implicitly observed that world affairs are conducted between powerful states, the rest is mere vaudeville In fact, small states matter, provided they are of strategic import to powerful neighbours.
The United States' key ally in the region is Saudi Arabia. Yesterday the two countries signed an Open Skies agreement, not in itself surprising (the US has over a hundred Open Skies agreements with foreign nations), but is indicative of the general strength and continuing development of ties between the two nations. The United States' Fifth Fleet is harboured in Bahrain which enjoys strong links to the House of Saud, both ruling Sunni regimes: all of which explains why the West has been very quiet on the developments there. The regime is employing similar tactics to Iran in the 2009 Green Uprising, when it brutally quelled protests and imprisoned suspected leaders. Four prominent Shias have died after being taken into police custody.
Compared to Libya, the death toll may be small - only just over 20 people are believed to have died in the protests since they began on February 14th, but the heavy handed tactics of the police, watched by some of the 1000 Saudi soldiers sent into the country on March 14 has inflamed tensions and as many as 500 Shias are known to have been detained. The Shias have been angered by the desecration of many of their sacred sites that they say has been authorised, if not conducted, by the Saudi armed forces (informative article by the indefatigable Patrick Cockburn for the Independent). The undisguised hatred that the Sunnis are showing for the Shia make this protest look like escalating. True the Sunnis hold the complete monopoly of violence, but the absence of any economic prosperity can make a majority ethnic component of a country do funny things.
The Shia/Sunni divide has been bitterly felt in the region recently, not least when Zarqawi's reign of violence towards the Shia in Iraq in 2006 precipitated a brutal series of sectarian confrontations that some sources estimate cost 100 lives a day throughout that year. The Bahrain fault line is severe because the Shia form the poor but majority underbelly and the Sunni occupy the ruling eschelons (a typical sunni blogpost looks like this in Bahrain). So not only is there economic disparity but there is economic disparity running along sectarian lines. This then unites the Bahrainis protesting not only under the banners of economics and national freedom but also religion. The West must be hoping that the crackdown quells the protests, because any continuing unrest only heightens the irony in observing the zeal with which the US, UK and France have ridden to the rescue of a population, risen up, now at the mercy of a tyrannical regime intent on retribution.
The UK and oil in the Iraq War
Finally, no-one should be surprised that the British government and oil companies discussed an Iraqi occupation in 2002, or that it was denied at the time. According to the memoir of Richard Clarke, US national coordinator for Counterterrorism at the time of 9.11, on September 12, 2001, neoconservatives at the White House were already discussing Iraq. Richard Perle had argued for regime change in Iraq in the year previous to 9.11. So it was always on the agenda and Blair would have been privy to the ideas emanating from the White House; it was natural that Britain was at the forefront of other nations considering the Iraq landscape. And on that note I clear the floor for Tarak Barkawi writing in 2006:
'The question 'Did the United States really invade because of oil? is somewhat misplaced, however. It is most likely the case that ensuring Western control over oil - say, by the creation and maintenance of friendly regimes in the region - is seen by US elites and others as in the long-term interests of both the Middle East and the West. It is the West that has the appropriate model of liberal democracy and capitalism that in turn ensures economic development for the world. Thus 'appropriate arrangements' for the production and sale of Iraqi oil can be described, with a straight face, as part of the West's civilizing mission...It is nearly always the case that Western military action in the non-European world is represented as a species of 'humanitarian war', warfare that seeks to liberate and civilize. Western self-interest is occluded among tropes of civilization and barbarism'
(Barkawi, Globzalization & War, 2006, p.106)