by Mónica G. Prieto / translation: Blanca García
- The economic agreements with the Arab dictatorships of the Middle East and the North of Africa explain the silence of the international community.
- The revolts don’t only defy the regimes’ repression: also the implicit Western support of the tyrants through the economy
“It’s the economy, stupid!”. The famous phrase by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist during the 1992 election that led him to power, can be used to answer the questions that many people are asking themselves. Why the unbearable international silence towards the legitimate uprisings of people demanding freedom, economic and personal dignity, and democracy? Why have the Human Rights abuses of the dictatorships that are Western allies and that have generated the current revolution that runs through the Arab world, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, been tolerated for decades? What explains the official visits to dictatorial regimes and cleptocracies, the hugs and kisses with the Arab autocrats, the blessings to government systems diametrically opposed to legality? The answer is thousands of millions of dollars and a regional stability which has benefited Europe and the US and their main regional ally, Israel, in exchange for the insecurity of the Arab population.
The credit that goes to the Arab protesters that are causing serious trouble to, when not overthrowing, their regimes, is huge. They face not only an oppressing security system- which sentences them, if they fail, to be persecuted and probably massacred- but also the whole world from the moment in which the dictators they rise against are tied to the other countries with bonds that are hard to erase: commercial contracts that know nothing of ideology or morality.
That’s the reason why the documents from NGO’s denouncing tortures, repression, lack of liberties and rigged elections never cast the least shadow of doubt upon friendly regimes: Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, the actual Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan, Morocco… In fact, looking at the reports written by the Spanish commercial offices in said countries no one would doubt the legitimacy of these regimes, and especially no one would question the juicy profits they bring to the US and Europe. At the expense, that is, of the abuses committed against their populations. This is a summary of what our governments wanted to see in the Middle East and North Africa and of what their citizens where seeing, what they are rising massively against their dictators for.
Saudi Arabia: With an economy dependent on oil exports, Saudi Arabia depends on foreign exports given their scarce productivity in any other sector. A circumstance well taken advantage of by their international partners. Among its main providers are the US (with businesses valued in over $13600 million in 2009) or China ($10800 million that same year) and more modestly, France ($3800 million), Italy ($3500 million), and the UK ($3400 million). Spain is among the top 10 costumer countries with businesses valued in over $3400 million in 2009.
Also, last November it was negotiating the sale of 200 tanks which would have brought in €3000 million, the largest contract of the Spanish arms industry. What would these tanks have been for? The last known interventions of the Saudi Arabian army, a Wahhabi regime [the most radical faction of Sunni Islam, which implicates absolute sexual segregation, pushes women back to the condition of second-class citizens] whose source of jurisprudence is the Sharia, have taken place in Bahrain and Yemen. In the first one, kingdom activists denounced the entrance of Saudi soldiers to support the monarchy in the repression of the protests; in the second one it took place a few months ago, when the Saudi army attacked the Huthis’ positions, the Zaidi rebels [branch of Shia Islam] located on the border of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, in a sectarian attack.
In the country of the Saud dynasty, not only is the death penalty in force (it is done by decapitation and it is rising, according to local authorities because crime tolls are also rising) but corporal punishment is also applied: amputation of hands and feet for theft and whipping for minor felonies such as “sexual deviation” – in reference to homosexuality and sodomy- and drunkenness. Discrimination against women, who lack any kind of rights – their situation is much worse than in Afghanistan – reaches them even at their own homes. They don’t have the right to vote or to drive, they can’t even walk alone without a male accompanying them. There’s no religious freedom, nor sexual liberties or freedom of reunion, press or speech. Unions are prohibited, the same as political parties. Like their European partners, Spain doesn’t seem to care much about such minor details. Between 1993 and 2008, according to Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce data, Saudi Arabia invested in Spain more than €70 million. The people of Saudi Arabia are called to protest on march 11th and 20th.
Algeria: Like in Morocco and Mauritania, in Algeria- great producer of gas- Spain has big cooperation agreements that influence positively its businesses. The Madrid government is the fourth provider behind France ($6114 million), China ($4700 million), and Italy ($3700 million) with imports for the value of almost $3000 million a year. In exchange, Spain imports Algerian gas for almost €3900 million a year, being the third costumer country of the Algerian regime. Among the exports are airplanes for the value of half a million euros.
While rulers shake hands, the state of emergency that has been in place in the country for 19 years has justified irregular arrests, doubtful trials, forced disappearances, tortures, police abuse and restrictions of freedom of speech, press and civil rights. Since 1993 the number of disappearances is estimated between 30.000 and 40.000 people. The Algerians have been protesting against their government since December, and they demand measures against unemployment, lack of housing, inflation, corruption, lack of liberties… Their first victory: the repeal of the state of emergency that justified the illegal arrests of thousands of people for decades.
Bahrain: This tiny oil kingdom whose population is almost 70% Shia and who is ruled by a Sunni since two centuries ago is a privileged commercial partner of Saudi Arabia – hence its huge support of the Bahraini monarchy, based on economic and strategical interests because Riad is not interested in a popular uprising that gives any ideas inside the Wahabi kingdom- but also of Japan, the US and Germany in that order. In exchange, Bahrain exports oil. Its Shia population, meanwhile, withstands a discrimination that reaches every circle: they cannot access public offices or join the army, they denounce that they can only access the worst housing and that every time they have publicly protested they have been repressed. Torture is common in prisons, the same as in other Persian Gulf countries, as well as the arbitrary arrest of political dissidents. According to activists, there are about 400 political prisoners in prisons across the country. The country’s population doesn’t reach 1 million. The protests, repressed with blood and fire, have achieved for now the liberation of political prisoners and promises of democratic reforms.
Egypt: During the 18 days that the popular revolution which resulted in the fall of Hosni Mubarak lasted, barely any European critics were heard, and the few that came from the United Stated sounded mild. Let’s examine why: Egypt’s first commercial partner is the European Union, who exported goods for the value of €18 million in 2009. Among the European countries Italy, Germany, France and the UK held the first places. Spain was the sixth exporter of the country of pharaohs. The US, however, is the third exporting power with businesses for over €5300 million that year. The reports from NGO’s couldn’t compete with such volume of money, no matter how much they spoke of reoccurring tortures, arbitrary arrests, prison violations to obtain confessions and complete police immunity. However, millions of Egyptians overcame their fear and took the streets taking down the dictatorship and making History. One of the activists that launched the protests, Wael Ghonim, threw and unequivocal message to the West after their success: “You haven’t gotten involved in 30 years. Please, don’t get involved now.”
United Arab Emirates: President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has come back from his tour around the Gulf ecstatic about the economic agreements promised by the Emirates sheiks but without mentioning the Human Rights violations. In the UAE -rich in gas and oil- Spain has closed deals for over $1900 million, joining countries such as China, the US, Germany or India, its main commercial partners. The fact that in the seven emirates most of the population (an estimated 80%) are Asian workers with no rights, many of whom are exploited and live in subhuman conditions, doesn’t bother any of them. Human Rights organizations report on the lack of protection and the discrimination they suffer. Also in the Emirates institutions are not chosen democratically, and freedom of speech and of the press encounters many difficulties.
Kuwait: While Zapatero walked around the Emirates and Qatar, king Juan Carlos of Spain shook hands with sheik Sabah al Ahmad al Jaber, emir of Kuwait, a supposedly constitutional monarchy where the prime minister is Al Jaber’s nephew and where he chooses the members of the Government. His relatives hold the main power positions. Political parties don’t exist, although ideological organizations are allowed in the elected Parliament, which can be dissolved -as has already happened five times- at the emir’s will. The US, Japan, Germany and China are its main commercial partners; and hydrocarbons its greatest asset. It maintains its principal relationship with Washington, which explains the existence of American military bases on Kuwaiti territory. Enough for nobody to raise their voice against Human Rights violations such as those cited by Amnesty International in its 2009 report. “Migrant workers are still suffering from exploitation and abuse and they still demand protection of their rights. In some cases they were expelled from the country for having taken part in massive demonstrations. The government promised to improve their conditions. Journalists were prosecuted. One case of torture was reported. At least 12 people were sentenced to death, but no executions were heard of”. The protests in Kuwait, very minoritary, have settled with dozens wounded. The next one has been called for March 8th.
Libya: Oil and gas. Since Muammar al Gaddafi was declassified as a terrorist leader in 2002 and added to the category of Western partner, business with the Libyan dictatorship -40 years of tyranny- has rocketed ignoring the internal repression and the complete lack of democracy. Gaddafi was too generous to be questioned when he invested $2000 million in Canada or $30000 million in the US. Now, the use of military aviation against protesters who demand the end of the tyranny has forced international leaders to react. Italy and Germany are its biggest commercial partners, Spain is the third client country: it imports mainly oil and gas. Between 1993 and march 2008, it invested €189.36 million in Libya. Spanish exports of defense material grew 7700% in 2008.
Morocco: Human Rights violations, mainly related to Western Sahara, never come to the surface -not even the most violent episodes- with the Moroccan partner, good friend of Spain and ally of the European Union and the US. Among its main commercial partners are France, the US, Sweden, Germany and Spain. As with Algeria and Mauritania, Madrid holds large cooperation agreements with Rabat which include the sale of weapons and defensive material. Spain is estimated to be the main provider of the Alaouite kingdom after France, and its market represents the main source of Spanish exports in all of Africa. In 2009, Morocco received €30 million in Spanish military vehicles. The Rabat regime was initially understanding towards the protesters, who last February 20th took the streets to demand democratic and economic reforms, to later on act violently upon any glimpse of protest.
Oman: In this absolute monarchy with no political parties and whose sultan, Qabus al Said, overthrew his father in a coup in 1970, hydrocarbons are the key to its excellent international relations. The
Emirates, India, the US and China are its main commercial partners, among which is to a much lesser extent Spain, who between 1993 and 2008 has invested about €38 million in the sultanate’s economy. According to the NGO Frontline, Human Rights activists in Oman “endure harassment, random arrests and torture at interrogations. Hundreds of academics, journalists and commentators were held in massive arrests, and isolated with no kind of legal assistance. Oman is signatory of three of the seven fundamental United Nations treaties about human rights. Independent human rights organizations cannot operate inside the country”. The protests in Oman have cost two lives, and they demand respect for Human Rights, economic and political reforms that fight against inflation and raise salaries,and freedom of information.
Qatar: Another one of president Zapatero’s destinations that bore important economic results, with verbal agreements for €3000 million -more than 2700 go to inversions in an energy company and a telecommunications corporation, and 300 to a savings bank- and one of the few countries safe, for now, from the protests. Anticipating any kind of internal opposition, the Qatar regime -a traditional monarchy where every decision falls upon the reigning dynasty- has just moved forward the municipal elections, one more step in the slow reform process started by sheik Hamad ben Jalifa al Thani. He maintains excellent relations with every side, with the West, with the Arab world and with Iran, which has turned him into a mediator par excellence in the region. Japan, the US, Germany and Italy are its main providers, and Spain is its seventh client country. With regards to Human Rights, restrictions of freedom of speech -despite having created Al Jazeera- are common, activists are frequently harassed, the Internet is closely watched and Al Thani’s regime is accused of not guaranteeing foreign workers’ rights. There are no political parties. Qataris are called to protest in mid march.
Yemen: Protests have already been going on for two months and they are daily: dozens of thousands of Yemenis defy every day the security deployment and those faithful to dictator Abdula Ali Saleh, 32 years in power, to demand the end of the dictatorship. The first concessions didn’t take long after facing popular pressure: Saleh gave up the constitutional reform he was preparing to stay in his spot for life, then he gave up on his son succeeding him, after that he announced that he wouldn’t renew his term after 2013, when it officially expires, and now he offers a national unity Government which the opposition and the activists reject. The dictator stands lonelier every day: even his tribe as well as other decisive clans of the Middle East’s poorer country have withdrawn their support. The most important Yemeni cleric, Abdul Majid al Zidani, has joined the protesters, who demand his immediate exit and the establishment of a democracy. Its wealth also resides on oil, and its main commercial partners are China, India, the Emirates and the US, with whom it maintained close military relationships that allowed secret US bombings against alleged Al Qaida objectives that Saleh claimed for himself, as Wikileaks revealed. In the matter of Human Rights torture, repression, lack of liberties, random arrests of dissidents and cooperation with the North American extraordinary surrenders program -the kidnapping of citizens who are questioned in third countries to allow the use of torture in the obtainment of confessions- are usual. About 30 people are estimated to have died already in the protests.
Tunisia: Ben Ali’s 20 years in power gave him control over the Tunisian economy and forged links with France, Italy, Germany and the US among other Western countries in the shape of contracts. The cleptocracy was overthrown by the popular revolutionary movement that broke out after a young man from a province set himself on fire, expanding all over the North of Africa and the Middle East. The economic reasons -high unemployment, rise in prices, housing shortage- combined with a population that is educated and sick of the governmental corruption, but like in the rest of the protests the violations of Human Rights, from police repression to discrimination or lack of liberties, have also played a role.