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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dismembering the Shi'ite Crescent

Last updated: February 23, 2008

The Shi'ite Cresecent

Source: Wikipedia

February 22, 2008

A few weeks ago an opposition leader in Bahrain called for a top minister to be sacked in a row over Bahrain's latest demographic statistics. Sheikh Ali Salman, chairman of the Al Wefaq parliamentary bloc that draws its support from the kingdom's Shi'ite majority, said that Cabinet Affairs Minister Sheikh Ahmed bin Ateyetala "had either failed to keep track of rapid population growth, or had hidden it because the figures had been swelled by massive naturalization of foreigners".

The scandal started when in a written response to a parliamentary question by Sheikh Salman, Sheikh Ahmed, also responsible for the Central Informatics Organisation (CIO), put Bahrain's combined population at 1,046,814. Sheikh Salman said he was stunned.

Fury at 'hidden' population surge

"The Cabinet Affairs Minister has stunned us all, as we thought that the population was just 750,000," Shaikh Salman said at yesterday's session.

"This is what the government used to base its studies on, along with all international investment centres until the end of last year and even American intelligence when American President George Bush visited the country (last month)," he said.

"The figure 750,000 would have been reasonable, since the last figure issued by the CIO was 724,000, in 2005."

According to Sheikh Ahmad, out of this million and something 529,446 were Bahraini citizens. Sheikh Salman found this number no less astonishing.

Shaikh Salman said the normal annual population growth rate was 2.7 per cent for Bahrainis. Given the 1981 census, which recorded the Bahraini population as 238,420, today's figure should be 447,531.

"But we are shocked to see it at 529,446," he said.

"This shows that the increase, which happened suddenly in the last years, is the result of criminal political naturalisation.

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Source: Gulf Daily News

The "criminal political naturalization" refers to the past practice of the country's ruling Sunni dynasty of granting citizenship to foreign Sunni Arabs in a bid to boost the numbers of the local Sunni minority. Sheikh Salman says too many Bahrainis have been spotted recently, a sure sign the government is back to its old tricks.

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On the other side of the Arabian peninsula, in a protest letter sent to the governor of Najran province in south-west Saudi Arabia, the local Ismaili Shi'ites claimed that the government has reneged on a promise it gave them two years ago to scrap plans to resettle the area with thousands of Sunni Arabs from Yemen.

RIYADH, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Saudi Shi'ites have asked the authorities to scrap plans to settle Sunni Muslim Yemenis in southern Saudi Arabia to change the demographic balance in an area where they are the majority.

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Ismaili Shi'ites, who form the bulk of the 420,000 strong population of the province, have a history of violent protests against the authorities. The last protests of this kind were raging in the province in 2000. The government's response came in the form of a plan to settle up to 10,000 Yemeni tribesmen in and around the regional capital. Since then King Abdullah had halted the settlement plan in exchange for the promise of good behavior from Najrani Shi'ites, yet it appears now that the plan has either been revived or never halted in the first place.

On a recent trip to the region, large billboards signed in the name of Yemeni tribal leaders had been erected to thank the local governor and senior Saudi royals for funding some of the housing projects -- prim towns with grid street designs, one storey villas, street lighting and electricity.

"It's a form of racial discrimination. We don't have services," said Said, 30, pointing to a map on the wall of a deserted office outlining plans for new housing units.

"There are families here who cannot get a new house or a legal deed to the land they live on. Even the children of the newcomers are given pieces of land."

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The government's Human Rights Commission has said previously it is looking into the Najran issue.

"We really do not know much about what's going on," said Turki al-Sudairy, head of the official body on Monday. "I'm not sure what information to believe. We don't have a man there."

An Interior Ministry official declined to comment.

Source: Reuters

There is more to it than resettlement projects. Saudi Arabia is currently constructing a massive security barrier along its other border, one with Iraq. Apart from fencing off Iraqi Sunni Jihadists, the barrier is also meant to cut overland access for another Saudi Shi'ite minority to the Shi'ites in Iraq and Iran, effectively cutting off the southern wing of the Shi'ite Crescent from its main axis. In the era of globalisation and satellite TV physical separation may be of limited effect. Yet, it's also clear that the part of the Crescent running through the relatively sparsely populated areas along the western coast of the Gulf should be very vulnerable to resettlement projects of any kind.

Where a few dozens of thousands of Sunni colonists would suffice to permanently change the sectarian balance, governments should be very tempted to resort to engineering such demographic solutions. In those parts of the Gulf where the Shi'ite question is particularly acute, such as Bahrain and some provinces of Saudi Arabia, it may be already happening. The human input required for implementation of such solutions is minimal when compared to the hundreds of thousands of potential candidates from all over the Arab world ready to relocate themselves to the Gulf at the first call. And whatever misgivings the locals may have about naturalizing more foreigners, they are plainly more fearful of their Shi'ite neighbors.

In short, as concerns about Iran and the rising Shi'ite Crescent keep mounting in the Gulf, the local Shi'ite minorities should expect to see more resettlement projects of this kind aimed at diluting the Shi'ite presence along the western coast of the Persian Gulf as well as cutting them off from the main body of the Crescent and from other Shi'ite mini-crescents such as one in the southern Arabian peninsula. Some Arab governments in the Gulf just don't think that "demography is destiny" in any way . . . and they mean it.

February 23, 2008

Seen Sliding Towards Breakdown

While Saudi Arabia is busy with its security fences and resettlement projects its southern neighbor seems to be doing so badly that some are starting worrying in serious about its imminent collapse. The latest analysis published by Reuters puts it blatantly: Yemen seen sliding towards breakdown.

SANAA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Yemen's painful struggle to build a modern state may be overwhelmed by rampant population growth, dwindling resources, corruption and internal conflicts.

"I don't believe there is another nation in the world...that is this close to a population-cum-resources catastrophe," said Ramon Scoble, a water expert from New Zealand working in Yemen.

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Like many other Arab economies Yemen is hard hit by the rising oil and food prices and the budget is stressed to the breaking point by the government's policy of subsidizing prices of basic commodities and fuel. The fuel subsidy is reaching $1 billion a year which is about 1/3 of the oil revenue that keeps falling each year as the country's oilfields are nearly depleted. The government though is hesitant about moving to abolish subsidies and liberalize prices fearing widespread social unrest. With a full blown Shi'ite insurgency in the northwest and the separatist sentiment live and kicking in the south these fears are more than well founded.

And on top of this Yemen's demographic explosion shows few signs of relenting. While population growth is decelerating across the region, Yemen seems to be caught in some sort of a high fertility trap and to its own peril.

The population has doubled to 22 million since Saleh (the current president) took power in the former north Yemen in 1978. It could gallop to 40 million in the next 20 years unless aggressively reined in.

"The catastrophe is looming faster than anyone can imagine," said Scoble, consultant to Germany's GTZ development agency. He said Yemen had enough rainfall for only about 2 million people.

According to the government, 19 of Yemen's 21 aquifers are in negative balance, with more water extracted than replenished. Most goes to irrigate qat, a mild narcotic widely used in Yemen.

Some Yemeni officials though insist on remaining optimistic:

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The government tends to minimise the impact of southern unrest, terrorism and tribal insecurity, citing the potential of tourism and foreign investment to turn Yemen's fortunes around.

Such views are echoed by Faris Sanabani, editor of the Yemen Today monthly, who argued that regional prosperity was at stake.

"Yemen shouldn't be a failing state and it won't be," he said. "If Yemen goes down, Saudi Arabia will go down with it."

Source: Reuters

Needless to say, some people may find this argument lacking somewhat. Let alone that Saudi Arabia is building another fence along its southern border too. Yemen may yet have to come to terms with the idea of going down alone.

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