Saudis in Bahrain, Where Now for the US

What does the Saudi deployment mean for the US?

Needless to say, the introduction of 1000 Saudi Arabian soldiers (Saudi Arabian National Guard) and 500 Emirati police into Bahrain truly complicates the situation in the Gulf. The internationalization of the Bahraini uprising has serious consequences for not only the immediately relevant actors (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) and the secondary actors (Iran and the United States), but also the entire revolutionary movement throughout the Middle East. For Bahrain, the introduction of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) force indicates a possible schism between the Crown Prince and the prime minister as well as a clear intention not to give in to the demands of the protesters. Likewise, the introduction of Saudi troops is a statement heard in Riyadh and Tehran that Shi’ite unrest will not be tolerated in the Gulf. The recent developments put the United States in a tight place diplomatically as the suppression of the Shi’ite majority by two major allies in Bahrain runs counter to all America rhetoric while the internationalization of the protests could result in similar Arab interventions in other countries.

Bahrain, with a population of about 600,000, is about 70% Shi’ite, though it has been controlled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa family since the 1700’s. The government consists of two houses, one appointed and one elected, though the elected house remains primarily Sunni due to official gerrymandering of districts while the 30,000 strong military is completely Sunni. There are many question marks surrounding the deployment of the GCC forces (officially the Peninsula Shield Forces). The Saudis crossed the bridge into Bahrain a day after US Secretary of Defense Gates left the island nation where he was advocating for dialog and change, thus immediately putting the GCC forces at odds with US policy. Moreover, there has been little noise from other GCC countries in support of the move; Kuwaiti MPs are asking if their country is supporting the intervention and Qatar (who has an old rivalry with the al Khalifa family) is unlikely to support the al Khalifa dynasty. Uncertainty amongst the GCC members raises the question of whether this was truly a unanimous GCC decision.

For Bahrain, the Saudi presence demonstrates a clear break in the leadership. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa (who controls the army and is faithful to his father) is seen as more of a moderate whereas his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa (who controls the police and general security forces) is far more conservative and refuses the demands of the protesters – including the demand that the he resign. When Gates was in Bahrain, he reportedly met with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the Crown Prince, but not with the prime minister – who is said to have asked the Saudi government for support. If this is the case, the Sunni leadership in Bahrain may have irreversibly split into a more moderate camp that supports the US policy of negotiation (“national dialog“) and a more conservative camp that rejects any challenge to the historic rule of the al Khalifa family. On the side of the prime minister, it is clear that there is no intention to acquiesce to any of the demands of the protesters.

For Saudi Arabia, intervention in the domestic affairs of its island neighbor demonstrates two concurrent concerns. On the one hand, increasing unrest in Saudi Arabia has been met with the dual strategy of offering immense monetary subsidies while harshly cracking down on protesters. The Saudi reaction to its own domestic unrest makes it clear that the Kingdom is rejecting any type of negotiation at home. Support for the more conservative elements in Bahrain indicates that the Saudi authorities are perhaps wary that gains made by Shi’ite protesters in Bahrain may encourage the Saudi opposition; aid in defeating the Bahrain protests would help demoralize the Saudi movement.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has always been obsessed with the idea of an Iranian presence in Bahrain. If Bahrain were to transform into a true democracy, a Shi’ite government – that is, one more open to an alliance with Iran – would be elected. The Saudi paranoia was confirmed last year when the Kingdom bought nearly $60 billion of military hardware from the US to counter the Iranian threat. Of course, the idea of Iranian influence in Bahrain is simply the result of paranoid Saudi princes. Until the 1970s Iranian policy contended that Bahrain was Iranian territory; still today Iranian politicians often remark about the 14th Iranian province. Thus, the Saudi intervention is a preempting the possibility of Iranian involvement on the behalf of the Shi’ite protesters. Meanwhile, the Iranian Foreign Ministry and Parliament have condemned the deployment of Saudi forces, resulting in the withdrawal of the Bahraini ambassador from Tehran.

The United States is truly in a difficult place in regards to Bahrain. After helping remove allies in Tunisia and Egypt and calling for the fall of Qaddafi in Libya, the US is facing the subordination of two major regional allies. While Tunisia was of little strategic significance and Mubarak was relatively valuable to the US in the war on terror as well as the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are strategically significant allies that cannot be lost. Bahrain is the home to the American Fifth Fleet (consisting of 5 aircraft carriers, 6 amphibious assault ships, multiple support craft as well as 30 vessels from the Royal Navy) that protects shipping in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf as well as providing support for the US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, of course, provides 25% of the world’s oil supply and has been a strong US ally for decades. As the Obama administration calls for freedom and democracy in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it is faced with a very undemocratic stance from its two most important allies in the region.

The moralist rhetoric of the United States and the country’s brutal pursuit of national interests are coming to a distinctive intersection in Bahrain, forcing the Obama administration to act extremely carefully. While the Bahraini opposition groups have called the Saudi intervention the beginning of an occupation and even a declaration of war, the United States has used more soothing language, noting that the Bahraini government requested support from the GCC while refusing to call the intervention a Saudi invasion. Considering the deployment of the Saudi troops immediately after the departure of Gates, the Bahraini opposition as well as Iranian politicians are accusing the US of agreeing to the GCC troops; the US claims that Gates was not informed of the plans of the GCC. It seems that the US is able to either prove such accusations inaccurate by supporting the opposition or maintain its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The first choice possibly threatens vital American assets while the second choice frames the United States as an opponent to democracy and justice.

Regionally, the crackdown and cooperation in and between Bahrain and Saudi is perhaps a sign that the Gulf countries are not looking to resolve domestic unrest a la Ben Ali and Mubarak. The tensions between the Sunnis and Shi’ite in the Gulf (within Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and between Iran and Saudi Arabia) are perhaps compounded by the resilience demonstrated by Qaddafi in Libya. Moreover, the importance of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to the United States makes it less likely that the Obama administration will come out as strongly against a violent repression of protests. It is impossible to say whether the protests in the Gulf will face a Libyan-like response from the governments (though Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have hardly attempted to contain violence), though the presence of Saudi troops in Bahrain certainly seems to rule out the possibility of a relatively quick and peaceful resolution.

In the end, the military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the conservative branches of the Bahraini government is likely to create a “delicate stalemate, which is liable to explode at any moment.” Perhaps importantly, the decision to send troops into Bahrain will, eventually, produce clear winners and losers. The al Khalifa family and Saudi Arabia will find themselves deeply entrenched in the latter category, with the minority government in Bahrain depending on its larger neighbor and Saudi potentially being sucked into a de facto occupation of a Shi’ite dominated country. This latter fact could potentially transform the island nation into proxy battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States could improve its status in the Middle East by ‘resetting‘ its relationship with its Gulf allies and redefining its priorities in the area. Without supporting the protesters in Bahrain, the US risks “being seen as complicit, by the majority of Bahrain’s population, in the armed occupation of Bahrain” and without condemning the Saudi deployment, the US risks seeming irrelevant in the Gulf. Meanwhile, resetting its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would be to sacrifice valuable and important allies.

Unfortunately, the US will likely continue its current, ineffectual balancing act for two reasons: 1) the US fears losing its assets in the Gulf and 2) the US does not want to be seen as siding with Iran against its traditional Sunni friends. As for Iran, it seems as though the Persians – despite its own violent response to demonstrations – will invariably be the winner in what is likely to become a protracted and polarizing dispute. Shi’ite moderates will be forced to harden their stance to not appear as US or Saudi puppets while the Shi’ite population in Bahrain will become more determined to remove the discriminatory system in their country. This response to what is being seen as a foreign, Sunni occupation will undoubtedly benefit Iran. Moreover, if the Saudi presence persists or increases, this will only inflame the Shi’ite-Sunni tensions on the island and will predictably push the majority of Shi’ite in Bahrain closer to Iran.

Photo from Aletho News

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8 thoughts on “Saudis in Bahrain, Where Now for the US

  1. Very useful analysis. Thanks.

    I am wondering about a couple longer-range dynamics.

    First, the protests coming from Moqtada al Sadr and various Najaf Shi’i clerics beg the question of how Saudi moves in Bahrain might complicate Saudi efforts to gain influence in Iraq as well as the degree to which Iraq might have influence in Bahrain that could pose long-term problems for regime consolidation there. Beyond that, it would be interesting to know the degree to which al Sadr is serving in part (beyond his personal feelings about mistreatment of Shi’a) as a representative of Iranian efforts to respond to the Saudis.

    Second, I am starting to see visions of Nasser in Yemen way back when. If the Egyptian army for whatever reason decides that it needs to play in the regional game or if the army simply allows democracy and a pan-Arabist popular regime advocating civil rights takes power, then Cairo might decide to confront a Saudi military repression. (I am obviously assuming something here…that Riyadh’s intervention in Bahrain will encourage a hardline by Saleh which in turn will provoke civil war and thus entice Riyadh to intervene in Yemen as well. Once the troops start moving, things get out of hand.

  2. this analysis is indicative of how those in power are using their might to reshape the purpose of the protest. it appears that now everyone is listening to the grievances of the iranian and the saudi leadership, rather than the protesters themselves. it is important to always keep in mind that the protesters in bahrain have no intention of creating an alliance with iran. the bahrainis are a progressive shi’ite community. they do no want to live under an islamic republic. they like their open society. the only complaint from them is political participation. even if they were to have a shi’ite majority in gov’t, there is a strong consensus that the gov’t of bahrain will operate similarly as before, only it will have the face of more shias in gov’t. a shia majority does not necessarily result in hostility to saudi arabia, but with so many years of politicians in the region not keeping their words, who could take the chance? i think it is very smart of obama to remain on the sidelines and let this play out on its own. therefore, whatever the result, the demagogues could not say it was the result of US influence. the results will be of their own political play and therefore, they will be responsible for the outcome. i would take a wait-and-see approach. lastly, the protests in bahrain are becoming violent. i don’t know how many times i have to say this but violent protest never works. the protesters must restrain from doing any act perceived as violent. at the beginning when they did a peaceful protest, the lines of communication were open. now, it is closing because sadly, the protesters themselves need training on how to smartly implement a revolution.

    1. Some good points. Marc Lynch – I linked to him in my next post – has a great article about how the Saudis and Sunni leadership in Bahrain are actively trying to make this a battle about religion and not about rights. And, unfortunately, it is working. For Saudi, they are paranoid about Iranian influence and for Bahrain (Sunni leadership) secularization of the protests allows them a more just (so the thought goes) reason to crack down. For the US the strategic importance of Bahrain cannot be overstated. The entire fifth fleet is there and any change in that would drastically alter the US capacity to act in the region.

      While you are right about Shi’a leadership not equating to an Iranian colony, there is a distinct possibility (probability?) that a Shi’a government is not as hostile to Iran. And Saudi and the US both dont want that. In fact the secularization of the protests is probably making it more likely that a new govt turns closer to Iran. Michael Collins Dunn wrote a post -I linked to it somewhere- in which he talks about the protests getting more violent. I agree with you 100% there.

  3. This is indeed an objective analysis. But in most cases there are no causes for fear either by the US or the Saudi govt. It would have been better for the Saudi to support a peaceful settlement such negotiating for a UK type govt system. That will ensure the safety of the Kingdom in Bahrain and a possible similar settlement in Saudi in case the protesters decided to uprise. for US to just take Watch-and-wait stand will affect her in interest in the long run. It is always in the best interest of US to take mediator stand where ever her interest is involved. At least both parties in the conflict will try to win her favor and support which will give her an upper hand. That does not mean just sending envoys to the government, she should call for a round table negotiation involving all parties in the conflicts.

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