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Saudi Arabia Protests Could Strain U.S. Loyalty

Aaron Liu |
March 10, 2011 | 3:54 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Protests planned in Riyadh Friday. (PressTV)
Protests planned in Riyadh Friday. (PressTV)
As Saudi Arabia becomes the United States’ latest Arab ally to aggressively crackdown on rising political upheaval, Washington increasingly finds itself tangled on whom to support – governments aiding American interests, or dissenters reflecting American values?

Saudi Arabia upheld its promise to enforce its ban on protests Thursday as police opened fire on a rally in the eastern town of Qatif. According to Al Jazeera, police used “gunfire and stun grenades” to combat and disperse the several hundred protesters demanding the release of political prisoners. Bloomberg reported that at least two people were injured.

The incident occurred hours before a planned “Day of Rage” demonstration on Friday in Riyadh, the kingdom’s capitol. Using social networking websites like Facebook to organize the event, activists gathered over 32,000 people to pledge their support online. But with public displays of civil disobedience rare in Saudi Arabia, doubts pervade regarding whether the protests will reach that magnitude. 

"I am not so sure much will happen Friday. We just don't know," Mohammed al-Qahtani, head of the Saudi Civil And Political Rights Association, which meets once a week to work out opposition strategies, said to Reuters. "It's like an experiment."

Nevertheless, the possibility of political turmoil in Saudi Arabia complicates affairs for the Obama administration, as the kingdom has traditionally been an important partner to the United States for an array of reasons.

Saudi Arabia is the third largest exporter of oil to the U.S., behind Mexico and Canada – in December 2010, the U.S. imported on average around 1,076 thousand barrels per day from the oil-rich nation.

The U.S. also considers Saudi Arabia to be an important partner in combating terrorism. On its website, the U.S. Department of State maintains that both countries “share common concerns about regional security, oil exports and imports, and sustainable development.”

But tensions are tightening between the two nations.

The Obama administration’s sudden abandonment of former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak following a popular uprising in Egypt last month raises questions as to the brink at which the U.S. is willing to support autocratic allies. According to observers, Washington’s handling of the Egyptian uprising is particularly worrisome to Saudi head-of-state King Abdullah. Further rumors on a “cooling” of Saudi-U.S. relations have arisen in recent days, with Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal remarking “if ties were cold, then it would not be at our end.”

Yet, if anything, the Saudi’s can take solace in the United States’ handling of another turbulent ally – Bahrain. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Despite its eagerness to show support for protesters across the Middle East, the Obama administration has lined up squarely with the royal family of Bahrain as tens of thousands march in the streets demanding reform in the strategic kingdom that is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Meanwhile, upon news of the Saudi police’s efforts to disperse the protesters, oil prices shot up $3 per barrel in less than 12 minutes, erasing the 3.6 percent decline in prices earlier in the day. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil eventually came around to perch at $102.70 per barrel, a 1.6 decrease.

Reach reporter Aaron Liu here.

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