Saudi troops in Bahrain quash hopes for reform

When Saudi troops rolled into Bahrain this week, Gulf Arab leaders were reacting to the possibility that Arab uprisings would cross their borders. For Saudi Arabia, the pro-democracy protests in Shiite-dominated Bahrain were too close for comfort.


For nearly a month, as pro-democracy demonstrators turned the Pearl Roundabout in the Bahraini capital of Manama into their own Tahrir Square, Washington had been urging Bahrain, a close US ally, to engage with the opposition and enact meaningful reforms.

But on Monday, March 14, the tiny Gulf nation's other gigantic ally, Saudi Arabia, answered Washington's reform calls with a resolute “no”.

As television images showed convoys of unmarked, desert-brown Saudi armoured vehicles snaking over the 25-kilometre King Fahd Causeway linking the two nations, Washington was caught by surprise.

While a stunned international community watched the first cross-border military operation since the Arab uprisings began late last year, a Pentagon spokesman admitted that Washington was not forewarned about the plan.

By Tuesday though, US officials had moderated their discourse, maintaining that Washington was aware of the action, but not "consulted" about it.


A tiny Gulf kingdom, the world's smallest Arab nation, Bahrain lies at the strategic heart of the divide between the Arab and Persian – or modern-day Iranian – spheres of influence.

To the west of the Bahraini archipelago - and linked by the critical King Fahd Causeway - lies the Sunni powerhouse of Saudi Arabia.

To its east, across the Persian Gulf – or Arabian Gulf as the Arabs call it, revealing the deep, historic schisms between the two worlds – lies Iran, the world's Shiite powerhouse.

Bahrain itself is a Shiite-dominated Arab nation ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family, which has controlled this tiny island nation located in the crossways of naval empires and sectarian divides for centuries.

The official plea for the cross-border military force - which consists of about 1,000 Saudi troops and a 500-strong police force from the UAE (United Arab Emirates) – came from Bahrain, according to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) a six-nation regional grouping that includes Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Officially, the deployment of the GCC's Peninsular Shield Force was a response to a call from Bahrain's monarchy to protect government buildings from opposition protesters who had blocked the Pearl Roundabout and were threatening to cripple Bahrain's critical financial services sector.

But Bahrain, as every single Bahraini knows, does not call the shots in the region, or in the GCC.

The main player here, according to Steven Sotloff, a fellow at the Washington DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudis fund a huge percentage of the Bahraini budget. They’re pumping oil out of Bahraini oil refineries; they’re pumping millions of dollars a day into Bahrain,” said Sotloff. “Bahrain is Saudi Arabia's biggest ally in the GCC.”

And it was Saudi Arabia, most experts maintain, that called the shots on the latest troop deployment, thumping a nose at Washington's calls for reform and political engagement.

Mass movement with a Shiite hue

At the heart of the latest deployment is the Saudi monarchy's fear that the Arab uprisings will wash onto Gulf Arab shores, sparking popular movements among Saudi and Bahrain's long oppressed Shiite community.

Bahrain's Shiites have a long list of grievances against the ruling Al-Khalifa family. Although they make-up about 70 percent of the population, Bahrain's Shiites are denied proper political representation in the country's largely gerrymandered, rubber-stamp parliament.

Away from the gleaming skyscrapers of Manama - where wealthy Bahrainis and skilled expatriates work - impoverished Shiite villages are home to unemployed youths who complain that the country’s top posts and prime housing allocations are reserved for elite Bahrainis, or non-nationals.

While the pro-democracy protests at Pearl Roundabout, which began on February 14, predominantly comprised of Shiites, they also included Bahraini Sunnis who have grown weary of the Al-Khalifa family's failure to deliver on long-promised meaningful democratic reforms.

But for Saudi Arabia, the Bahraini demonstrations were not so much a call political for representation and economic justice,  as a sectarian problem that might empower the region's long oppressed Shiite minority.

Saudi's 'Brezhnev Doctrine' confronts the Iran bogey

Saudi Arabia, the spiritual home of Sunni Islam, has an abysmal minority rights track record for its Shiites citizens who make-up around 15 percent of the Saudi population.

The majority of Saudi Shiites live across the King Fahd causeway in the oil-rich Al Hassa province, home to the kingdom's major oil installations.

“The Saudis are very afraid of a Shiite reform movement,” said Sotloff. “Saudi Arabia’s largest Shia population is in Al Hassa. There’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas with their Shia brethren in Bahrain. The Saudis don’t want any Iranian influence over their Shiite population. They are vehemently anti-Iranian because they are anti-Shiite.”

Although it enjoys scant influence in Bahrain, Iran has been the bogey that Bahrain has traditionally deployed to deflect Washington’s calls for democratic reforms. A close US ally, Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet and is viewed as a bulwark against Iran.

In an online essay blasting what he calls Saudi Arabia’s "Brezhnev Doctrine" – referring to Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan - Ray Takeyh of the Washington DC-based Council of Foreign Relations, said the Saudi regime has “made a major mistake in casting the crisis in Bahrain as a sectarian conflict in which Iran's Shia proxies are battling a benign Sunni ruling class for sake of Persian aggrandizement.”

Iran, not surprisingly, has condemned the latest troop deployment and is locked in a diplomatic spat with Bahrain over the current crisis.

But Takeyh notes that while “Tehran will likely continue its unequivocal condemnations and portray itself as champion of democracy without actually practicing it at home,” Iranian authorities are not interested in a “regional show of force”.

Foreign Sunni troops secure predominantly Shiite population

In Bahraini opposition and Middle East policy circles, reactions to the Saudi troop deployment in Bahrain have been excoriating.

“I thought the purpose of the Peninsular Shield Force was to provide security if there was a foreign threat – like the (1990) Iraqi invasion of Kuwait,” said Jasim Hussain, a parliamentarian from the country’s main Shiite group, Al-Wefaq in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “In Bahrain, we’re facing a local issue that requires dialogue and political compromise.”

Political negotiations however have taken a backseat as violence has mounted since the cross-border military operation, with growing evidence of Sunni vigilante groups attacking Shiite neighbourhoods and institutions emboldened by the green light provided under the new emergency laws, which the king instituted a day after foreign troops arrived in Bahrain.

Many observers believe the arrival of the Penninsular Shield Force would exacerbate sectarian conflict in the tiny Gulf kingdom.

Sotloff notes that a longstanding Bahraini Shiite grievance has been the Al-Khalifa family's mistrust and disinclination to employ Shiites in the country's critical security services.Bahrain’s reviled police force is largely comprised of foreign Sunnis from countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Jordan.

“Although they make up more than 80 percent of the labour force, the Shiites have been predominantly prevented from working for the country's largest employer, the security forces, which have only a three-to-five percent Shia makeup,” notes Sottloff.

With the deployment of the Peninsular Shield Force, Bahraini Shiites are confronting the imposition of more foreign Sunni forces in their homeland.

“This is taking a turn for the worse,” said Sotloff. “This is something that infuriates everybody. The Sunnis don't like to see foreign troops in their country either.”

Like many experts on the region, Sotloff foresees dark days ahead with the Peninsular Shield Force deployed in Bahrain. “It's unclear what the Saudi forces will do – is it just a show of force or are they going to use force,” mulled Sotloff.

If the latter scenario came to pass, he believes the situation in the world's smallest Arab nation would be very dark indeed.

“Saudi troops aren't beholden to the Bahraini people. They are indoctrinated in an anti-Shia ideology,” he said referring to the Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic ideology, which views the Shiites as apostates. “This is a nightmare scenario.”


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