February 20, 2011


[India's deep commitment to the principles of noninterference in another country's affairs, and its own perceived geopolitical interests, do not always sit easily with its belief in democracy, especially when popular uprisings break out in places such as Egypt, Iran and Burma.]
By Simon Denyer

NEW DELHI - When the leader of the world's largest democracy was asked whether he supported the popular uprisings in Iran, Yemen, Algeria and Bahrain, his first instinct seemed to be to try to avoid the question.

"We have 5 million Indians working in the gulf countries, and if peace is not prevalent, if orderly processes of the management of the economy and polity break down, that could affect this vital community of Indian citizens," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at a televised news conference this week.

But sir, the editor from the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera pressed, do you support the revolution in the Middle East?

Singh looked hesitant

"Let me say, if the people of Egypt want to move toward the processes of democratization, they have our good wishes. And that's true of all countries," he said. "Though we do not believe it is our business to advise other countries, we welcome the dawn of democracy everywhere."

From the uprisings in the Middle East to U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran and Burma, New Delhi often seems to be looking for an inconspicuous perch on the fence.

But as India draws into a closer partnership with the United States, campaigns for a permanent place on the U.N. Security Council and grows into a global power, it is finding that its opinion increasingly matters, that it is increasingly being asked to take sides - that the fence will not take its weight.

Noninterference pledge

This month, as the uprising in Egypt gathered pace, the Foreign Ministry in New Delhi issued statements widely seen here as verging on the evasive, recognizing the people's aspirations for reform while hoping the situation would be resolved in a peaceful manner.

"Such severe circumspection is unbecoming of a rising global power," the Indian Express newspaper complained this week. "If the world is to take you seriously, you have to demonstrate for its benefit that you do so yourself."

A former foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, now in opposition, put it even more bluntly. "If you sit for too long on a fence, the fence enters your soul," he said.

India's deep commitment to the principles of noninterference in another country's affairs, and its own perceived geopolitical interests, do not always sit easily with its belief in democracy, especially when popular uprisings break out in places such as Egypt, Iran and Burma.

Its visceral allergy to outside interference also stems from its own disputed rule in Kashmir and unwelcome Security Council resolutions on Kashmir dating back to the years just after independence.

Lecture from Obama

In Washington, there is a feeling that India has to decide what kind of global power it wishes to be. With increased power comes increased responsibility, President Obama warned on his November visit, as he threw his weight behind India's Security Council bid but at the same time complained that India had too often been silent about human rights abuses elsewhere.

"Speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries," he said. "It's not violating the rights of sovereign nations. It's staying true to our democratic principles."

That lecture, in front of India's Parliament, struck a "jarring note," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. India's rapidly growing energy needs, and its strategic competition with China, mean it simply cannot cut its ties to countries such as Iran and Burma. Indeed, the West's withdrawal from those nations had simply allowed China to "fill the vacuum," Sibal said.

Although Obama urged India to take stronger action against the regime in Burma, it is over Iran that the foreign policy tensions between India and the United States are arguably at their sharpest. They could come to a head this year, officials in Washington warn, with India a rotating member of the Security Council and fresh votes on further sanctions a distinct possibility.

Although New Delhi shares U.S. concerns about Tehran's nuclear aspirations, it has come out strongly against further sanctions, not only because of its significant oil imports from Iran but also because of its large Shiite Muslim population. Upon which side of the fence it ultimately decides to alight, administration officials say, could be a big test of its new strategic partnership with Washington.


[“Saudi Arabia has always had a fear of encirclement, whether with Communism or with Iranian influence,” said Rachel Bronson, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Bahrain to me is the tipping point for when this becomes really unsettling.”]

WASHINGTON — As pro-democracy uprisings spread across the Middle East, the rulers of Saudi Arabia — the region’s great bulwark of religious and political conservatism — are feeling increasingly isolated and concerned that the United States may no longer be a reliable backer, officials and diplomats say.
Saudi Arabia is far less vulnerable to democracy movements than other countries in the region, thanks to its vast oil wealth, its powerful religious establishment and the popularity of its king.
But the country’s rulers were shaken by the forced departure of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a close and valued ally. They are anxiously monitoring the continuing protests in neighboring Bahrain and in Yemen, with which Saudi Arabia shares a porous 1,100-mile border. Those concerns come on top of long-festering worries about the situation in Iraq, where the toppling of Saddam Hussein has empowered Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival and nemesis.
The recent illness of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, 87, who is expected to return to the kingdom this week after an absence of more thanthree months for treatment in the United States and Morocco, has reinforced the sense of insecurity.
“The Saudis are completely encircled by the problem, from Jordan to Iraq to Bahrain to Yemen,” said one Arab diplomat, voicing a view that is common in the halls of power in Riyadh, the capital. “Saudi Arabia is the last heavyweight U.S. ally in the region facing Iran.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with diplomatic protocol.
The Saudis tend to see any threat to the established order in the region as a gain for their nemesis Iran, and its allies Syria and Hezbollah. They have grown increasingly worried that the Obama administration is drifting away from this perspective and supporting movements for change whose outcome cannot be guaranteed. Those worries were heightened by the crisis in Egypt, where the Saudis felt that Mr. Mubarak should have been allowed to stay on and make a more “dignified” exit, Saudi officials say.
King Abdullah had at least two phone conversations with President Obama to convey his concerns in the weeks before Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, and the last conversation ended in sharp disagreement, according to officials familiar with the calls.
Saudi officials have tried to appear unruffled. On Wednesday evening, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the interior minister, invited a group of prominent intellectuals and journalists in Riyadh to discuss the recent turmoil. He struck a confident tone, saying that Saudi Arabia is “immune” to the protests because it is guided by religious law that its citizens will not question.
“Don’t compare us to Egypt or Tunisia,” the prince said, according to one of the attendees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was meant to be off the record. But the attendee said he and others were skeptical, and suspected the prince was merely hiding his anxieties.
The Saudi and pan-Arab news media have been cautiously supportive of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, with a number of opinion articles welcoming the call for nonviolent change. That may change now that protests and violence have seized Bahrain, which lies just across a 15-mile causeway from the Saudi border. Bahrain is a far more threatening prospect, in part because of the sectarian dimensions of the protests. Bahrain’s restive population is mostly Shiite, and is adjacent to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, an important oil-producing area where the Shiite population has long complained of unfair treatment by the puritanical Saudi religious establishment. They feel a strong kinship with their co-religionists across the water.
“The Bahrain uprising may give more courage to the Shia in the Eastern Province to protest,” said one Saudi diplomat. “It might then escalate to the rest of the country.”
Most analysts say that is unlikely. Although Saudi Arabia shares many of the conditions that bred the democracy uprisings — including autocracy, corruption and a large population of educated young people without access to suitable jobs — its people are cushioned by oil wealth and culturally resistant to change.
Moreover, analysts tend to agree that Saudi Arabia would never allow the Bahraini monarchy to be overthrown. Ever since Bahrain began a harsh crackdown on protesters on Thursday, rumors have flown that Saudi Arabia provided military support or guidance; however, there is no evidence to support that. In recent days, the deputy governor of the Eastern Province, Saud bin Jalawi, spoke to Shiite religious leaders and urged them to suppress any rebellious sentiment, according to Saudi news media reports.
Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University. “It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.”
The sectarian divisions in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia could also work against unrest, allowing the authorities there to blame a sectarian agenda by Iran or its Shiite proxies for any protests. That accusation is a powerful weapon in a region where suspicion of Iran runs deep.Saudi protesters have issued a call for demonstrations in all of the country’s major cities on March 11, though many seem skeptical about the results.
“I do not expect much,” said Ali al-Ahmed, the director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, himself a Shiite who has been critical of the Saudi monarchy. “I think people still expect that the Saudi king will make things better.”
Still, the Saudis are closely watching American diplomatic gestures toward Bahrain. Any wavering of American support for Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, analysts say, would provoke a deep sense of betrayal, and could create an unprecedented rift in a partnership with the United States that has been a pillar of Saudi policy since 1945.
Saudi Arabia has always had a fear of encirclement, whether with Communism or with Iranian influence,” said Rachel Bronson, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Bahrain to me is the tipping point for when this becomes really unsettling.”

@ The New York Times