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Aiming to Preserve Autocratic Mideast Rule, Saudi Arabia Helps Crush Uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen

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While the United States remains heavily involved in the Libya conflict, it has been noticeably silent on the violent suppression of popular uprisings against autocratic regimes in Bahrain and Yemen, both of which are close allies of Saudi Arabia. In March, Bahrain called in Saudi troops to help crush massive pro-democracy protests. We discuss the role of Saudi Arabia in recent regional uprisings with Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University and a former Persian Gulf analyst with the International Crisis Group. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: While the United States remains heavily involved in Libya, it’s been notably silent on other uprisings in the region. We turn now to Yemen and Bahrain, where protests continue amid a far-reaching crackdown. Yesterday in southern Yemen, anti-government protesters raided government buildings, killing three people, wounding a dozen, according to security officials. Meanwhile, Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, remains in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. In his absence, the CIA is building a secret air base at an undisclosed location in the Middle East that will serve as a launching pad for armed drone strikes targeting al-Qaeda militants in Yemen.

In Bahrain, trials of 48 medical professionals accused of attempting to topple the monarchy began this week. Yesterday, three women were arrested as they tried to stage a sit-in at a United Nations office. Throughout their seven hours in captivity, they managed to hold onto their phones and access social media outlets. One of the protesters, Zainab Alkhawaja, tweeted, quote, “I think the UN might have misunderstood, we wanted the release of political prisoners, not to join them.” Zainab had previously launched a hunger strike to demand the release of her father, a noted human rights activist and political protester in Bahrain. We have had Zainab on Democracy Now!

Both Bahrain and Yemen are close allies of Saudi Arabia. In March, Bahrain called in Saudi troops to help crush the pro-democracy protests. On Tuesday, the award-winning Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk of The Independent of Britain, wrote, “Bahrain is no longer the kingdom of the Khalifas. It has become a Saudi palatinate, a confederated province of Saudi Arabia, a pocket-size weasel state from which all journalists should in future use the dateline: Manama, Occupied Bahrain.”

Well, yesterday, news broke that Bahrain hired a British-based legal firm to sue The Independent newspaper, accusing it of, quote, “orchestrating a defamatory and premeditated media campaign” against the Gulf state and neighboring Saudi Arabia.

To talk more about this controversy and the role of Saudi Arabia in trying to quell these uprisings in the Middle East, we turn to Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about Saudi Arabia and its power right now, first its attempt to sue Robert Fisk and The Independent for what he said.

TOBY JONES: Well, the Bahraini regime thinks it has — you know, it’s acting as though it has a public relations problem. It’s ignoring the political crisis that’s going on in the kingdom. But this is the way the al-Khalifa typically respond to criticism from outside, from abroad, and that is to attempt to defame those who are speaking truth to power and to undermine the credibility of experts and observers and journalists who would like to bring light to the extensive abuse and crackdown and cruelty that’s being carried out by the ruling family.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the role of Saudi Arabia in Bahrain. I mean, now all these doctors and nurses are on trial for giving medical assistance, to actually all sides of the conflict, but they’re saying they’re aiding the protesters. Saudi Arabia working with the United States in the CIA drone attack, using Yemen as a launching pad for that.

TOBY JONES: Saudi Arabia has two big sort of priorities in the region. One is to preserve the political status quo. It’s threatened by the possibility of democracy, more generally, and the empowerment of citizens and subjects. Secondly, it wants to preserve a political economy that bestows upon it considerable privilege. I mean, oil is an engine of incredible wealth in the Persian Gulf. The Saudis are the biggest — they benefit more directly than anybody else and at a level that exceeds anybody else. So preserving that system and preserving kind of the rule of autocrats explains why they went into Bahrain in the first place. Punishing Bahrainis and punishing those who have challenged the existing — the political status quo is also par for the course for the Saudis. Right? We’re past the point where they feel a deep sense of anxiety. Now they’re carrying out a vendetta, and the Bahrainis are all too willing to do their part against Shi’is in Bahrain, and I’m sure the Saudis will look for allies elsewhere to do the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of allies, how close is the United States to Saudi Arabia? And how would you describe what’s happening in Saudi Arabia right now, what the government is, what the regime there is?

TOBY JONES: Well, it’s autocratic. And it’s borderline tyrannical, in many ways. It uses a number of tools in order to sustain itself and keep itself in power. It has an incredible security apparatus. Its ability to use coercive power is perhaps unparalleled in the region. And the bottom line, from the perspective of the United States, is that Saudi Arabia is, and has been, if not our most important, our second most important ally in the Middle East. And we have made it a priority — very clearly and most obviously in President Obama’s unwillingness to mention Saudi Arabia in his May 19th speech, we’ve made it a priority to keeping the Saudis in power and to remaining on their good side.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Saudi Arabia in all of these uprisings, and the role of the United States in shoring up the Saudi regime right now?

TOBY JONES: Well, I think, by default. I mean, the United States has a more nuanced and complicated position on the Arab Spring than Saudi Arabia does. With the exception of Libya, Saudi Arabia has moved with Egypt, in which it was behind the curve, just like the Americans were. The Saudis have moved in order to preserve some semblance of the status quo. Even in Yemen, where they wanted to see the replacement of Saleh with some alternative, they wanted the Yemeni regime to more or less resemble what it had been previously.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University.

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