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Gulf squeeze on dissent raises alarm with allies

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 2:02 pm •  Published: November 4, 2012
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The Gulf has been the slow burn of the Arab uprisings.

The fraternity of rulers in the oil-rich region has remained intact with tactics ranging from withering force in Bahrain to arrests of perceived dissenters in the United Arab Emirates. And it's been done without too much serious blowback from their Western allies, which count on the region's reliability as an energy supplier and military partner against Iran.

But that now could be put to the test as Gulf states attempt to muzzle voice of opposition by adopt sweeping measures, such as protest bans and clampdowns on social media.

"The Western governments have taken essentially 'do what it takes' policies with the Gulf regimes," said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs at Britain's Durham University. "That requires a certain level of silence and a practice of looking the other way from the West."

Last week, however, State Department spokesman Mark Toner issued unusually blunt criticism of a decision by Bahrain — a strategically located island country that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet — to temporarily outlaw all anti-government protests amid rising violence in the nearly 21-month-old uprising against the Western-backed monarchy. Early Sunday, protesters rained homemade firebombs on at least three police stations in yet another sign of the deepening tensions.

Kuwait also could bring further questions from the West over its widening clampdowns on an Islamist-led opposition ahead of Dec. 1 parliamentary elections, including bans on public gatherings of more than 20 people. Protesters, however, have defied the order and on Sunday thousands staged a march in a Kuwait City suburb as security forces countered with tear gas and stun grenades.

The UAE, meanwhile, has angrily challenged a European Parliament resolution last week that denounced "assaults, repression and intimidation" against rights activists and suspected members of an Islamist group that officials consider a threat to the state. More than 60 people have been detained in the past year in one of the quietest ongoing crackdowns of the Arab Spring, rights groups say.

And Saudi Arabia said last month it was "insulted" by a British parliament inquiry into possible Saudi human rights violations and its military assistance to Bahrain's embattled monarchy. Saudi forces also have waged an ongoing battle against groups from the kingdom's Shiite majority that claim they face systematic discrimination.

Across the region, bloggers and social media activists also are facing increasing pressures for violating laws against direct criticism of the sheiks and monarchs that control the Gulf. Last week, a Bahraini man was sentenced to six months in prison after being charged with insulting the king.

"The Gulf is a delicate dance for the West," said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs. "The Gulf leaders know they are insulated. There could be rising complaints from Washington or London about various hardline measures, but no one realistically thinks the West will do anything more than complain."

That's because the likely price would be too high for anything else.

The Gulf states host perhaps the highest concentration of Western military might outside NATO, including about 15,000 U.S. ground forces in Kuwait and air bases dotting the desert down to Oman. The arrangement works for both sides because of a shared concern: Iran. The West gets firepower right at Iran's doorstep and the Gulf leaders have resident protectors.

The West also cannot ignore the rising political ambitions of the Gulf as the wider Middle East is reshaped by the Arab Spring.

Qatar, a leading backer of Libyan rebels last year and now a key supporter of the Syrian rebellion, is hosting a critical meeting this week of Syrian opposition officials. The U.S. hopes to use the gathering to overhaul the anti-Damascus forces into a new leadership with fewer Syrian exiles and more rebels commanders.

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