A raid on pro-democracy groups in the United Arab Emirates underscores a contradiction at the core of the Obama administration’s response to the Arab Spring.
As the U.S. advocates for freedom in Libya and Syria, its closest allies in the Persian Gulf region consider democracy a threat to their stability.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the only representative of a democracy when she met Persian Gulf allies, including the UAE, in Saudi Arabia on March 31 to discuss a common defense against Iran and support for Syria’s anti-regime, pro-democracy uprising.
“While the U.S., European Union and Turkey are keen to support more secular forces and democratic ones, there is no reason why the Gulf states would do the same thing,” Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research and policy organization, said in an interview.
The political divide over the Arab Spring movement for change in the region was most evident when Clinton expressed regret about the UAE’s March 28 raid on the offices of several foreign pro-democracy groups. They included a U.S. organization, the National Democratic Institute, whose members are among those charged with breaking laws in Egypt. The raid came a week after Clinton waived a congressional requirement that Egypt advance democracy before receiving $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid.
Clinton was attending the inaugural meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Strategic Cooperation Forum, where foreign ministers discussed the creation of a shared missile-defense system based on technology from U.S. defense contractors Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co.
The missile-defense plan, proposed by the U.S. to shield the oil-rich region from Iran’s missiles, marks a departure from the usual one-on-one U.S. defense and diplomatic negotiations with those nations, according to a State Department official who was authorized to discuss the plan only on condition of anonymity.
Iran “continues to threaten its neighbors and undermine regional security” and could endanger freedom of navigation in the Gulf, Clinton said in Riyadh at the close of the meeting.
Fear of Iran and of unleashing sectarian hostility underlie the anxieties that Sunni Muslim monarchies in the Gulf have toward democratic movements, according to David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group. In Bahrain, Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of the population, while in Saudi Arabia they represent about 10 percent.
These Gulf countries see their Shiite populations as a potential fifth column for Shiite-ruled Iran, Ottaway said in a telephone interview. The monarchies clamped down as pro-democracy protests swept across the region and began to inspire Shiites in the Gulf to agitate for greater opportunities.
Saudi Arabia has shut down protests in its oil-rich, largely Shiite Eastern Province by force, with state security shooting and killing some protesters. Shiites there have long pushed for equal treatment in government jobs and security forces without much success, Ottaway said.
When Shiites began protesting in neighboring Bahrain, where the U.S. has pushed the ruling Sunni royal family to grant the restive minority greater rights, Saudi Arabia rushed troops in to help quell the unrest. Watchdog groups such as New York-based Human Rights Watch say Bahrain has failed to follow through on reforms recommended by a panel that investigated the crackdown and ensuing deaths.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has also focused on smaller-scale activism. It barred a human-rights advocate, Waleed Abu al-Khair, from leaving the country to attend a six-week State Department leadership and democracy program in the U.S. last month.
President Barack Obama and his White House predecessor, George W. Bush, “believed the monarchies’ salvation lay in more democracy at home and in integration of their respective defense forces to establish a more credible deterrent to Iran,” Ottaway wrote in a 2011 analysis. The Gulf monarchies “viewed democratic reform as the principal threat to their power, even survival, at only Iran’s gain.”
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said last week that the U.S. urge to back “democratic reconstruction” must not obscure the need to counter Iran and protect American interests such as the free flow of oil and a “durable peace between Israel and its neighbors.”
“A process that ends with regional governments either too weak or too anti-Western in their orientation to lend support to these outcomes, and in which U.S. partnerships are no longer welcomed, must evoke U.S. strategic concerns -— regardless of the electoral mechanisms by which these governments come to power,” Kissinger wrote in an opinion article for the Washington Post on March 30.
The Gulf countries have been pursuing cooperation largely among their security and intelligence forces and not their militaries until now, Ottaway said in the interview. The aim of the Riyadh meeting was to entrench military cooperation, according to the State Department.
The shared missile-defense system would help Gulf countries protect each other, and the new strategic forum would advance discussions about weapons proliferation, weapons of mass destruction and maritime security, the State Department official said.
The missile system -- similar to one in Europe that has caused friction with Russia -- is one of at least three regional arrays the U.S. wants to build. Shields under discussion also would cover Japan and South Korea, and Japan and Australia, to counter threats seen emanating from North Korea.
Clinton re-emphasized the U.S. commitment to the Gulf region in her remarks in Riyadh, expressing hope that the Strategic Cooperation Forum becomes a permanent structure that helps the U.S. and Gulf Cooperation Council militaries pursue practical steps to improve shared operations, cooperate on maritime security and missile defense, and coordinate responses to crises.
The missile-defense system would be based on a variety of systems, using existing architecture and recent weapons purchases, the State Department official said.
Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Maryland, received a $1.96 billion contract from the Pentagon to supply the United Arab Emirates with a missile-defense system.
The order is for two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, systems that include interceptors, launchers and radar, the Pentagon announced Dec. 30. Batteries of land-based interceptors would be linked with the U.S. Navy’s detection and control systems on Aegis-class destroyers and cruisers.
Raytheon said in June that it received a $1.7 billion order from Saudi Arabia to upgrade the kingdom’s Patriot anti-missile system. The order includes supplying hardware, training and support to improve the country’s existing system to Patriot Configuration-3, the Waltham, Massachusetts-based company said in a statement.
Congress was notified in August 2010 about the possible sale to Kuwait of 209 Patriot Gen-T missiles for an estimated cost of $900 million, the official said.