The House of Saud's intervention in Bahrain is a slap in the face of the United States, and a setback for peace on the island.
- By Jean-François SeznecJean-François Seznec is a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
One thousand "lightly armed" Saudi troops and an unspecified number of troops from the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain on the morning of March 14, in a bid to end the country’s monthlong political crisis. They are reportedly heading for the town of Riffa, the stronghold of the ruling Khalifa family. The troops’ task, apparently, is to protect the oil installations and basic infrastructure from the demonstrators.
The Arab intervention marks a dramatic escalation of Bahrain’s political crisis, which has pitted the country’s disgruntled Shiite majority against the Sunni ruling family — and has also been exacerbated by quarrels between hard-liners and liberals within the Khalifa clan. The clashes between protesters and government forces worsened over the weekend, when the security services beat back demonstrators trying to block the highway to the capital of Manama’s Financial Harbor. The protesters’ disruption of the harbor, which was reportedly purchased by the conservative Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa for one dinar, was an important symbolic gesture by the opposition.
For the United States, the intervention is a slap in the face. On Saturday, March 12, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain, where he called for real reforms to the country’s political system and criticized "baby steps," which he said would be insufficient to defuse the crisis. The Saudis were called in within a few hours of Gates’s departure, however, showing their disdain for his efforts to reach a negotiated solution. By acting so soon after Gates’s visit, Saudi Arabia has made the United States look at best irrelevant to events in Bahrain, and from the Shiite opposition’s point of view, even complicit in the Saudi military intervention.
The number of foreign troop is so far very small and should not make one iota of difference in Bahrain’s balance of power. The Bahraini military already total 30,000 troops, all of whom are Sunnis. They are under control of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa and supposedly fully faithful to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Bahrain also has a similar number of police and general security forces, mainly mercenaries from Baluchistan, Yemen, and Syria, reputed to be controlled by the prime minister and his followers in the family.
At this time, therefore, the Saudi intervention is largely a symbolic maneuver. It is so far not an effort to quell the unrest, but intended to scare the more extreme Shiite groups into allowing negotiations to go forward. The crown prince recently laid out six main issues to be discussed in talks, including the establishment of an elected parliament empowered to affect government policy, fairly demarcated electoral constituencies, steps to combat financial and administrative corruption, and moves to limit sectarian polarization. He notably failed to mention one of the opposition’s primary demands — the prime minister’s resignation.
The Saudi move, however, risks backfiring. It is extremely unlikely that the Saudi troops’ presence will entice moderate Shiite and Sunni opposition figures to come to the table — the intervention will force them to harden their position for fear of being seen as Saudi stooges. The demands of the more extreme groups, such as the Shiite al-Haq party, are also likely to increase prior to negotiations. These elements, having seen job opportunities go to foreign workers and political power dominated by the ruling family for decades, have grown steadily disenchanted with prospects of talks.
The crown prince is well aware that the Saudi intervention only makes a negotiated solution to this crisis more challenging, so it is difficult to imagine that he invited the Saudis into Bahrain. The more liberal Khalifas, such as the crown prince, know very well that the only way out of the crisis is to obtain the resignation of the prime minister and some of the more extreme Sunni ministers.
However, the prime minister — with whom Gates did not meet with during his weekend visit — does not appear to have any intention of resigning and is the most likely figure behind the invitation to the Saudis to intervene. Although details are still sketchy, he is likely joining with the Saudi king to pass the message to the United States that he is in charge and no one can tell him what to do. Furthermore, it signals that the Saudis agree with Bahrain’s conservatives that the Shiite must be reined in rather than negotiated with, even at the cost of telling the United States to kiss off.
The Saudi intervention may also have been precipitated by the deepening rift between the extreme Sunni elements and the liberal Khalifas. If the Saudis are indeed heading to Riffa, it is possible they are tasked with defending the Khalifa stronghold not so much against the Shiite rabble but against the Bahraini military, which is under the command of the crown prince. The Saudi intervention would therefore be an effort by the prime minister and the Saudis to pressure the crown prince into not giving in to the protesters’ demands and to fall in line with their plans to secure Bahrain as the personal fiefdom of the Khalifas and their tribal allies.
Whatever the case, the future appears bleak. The Saudi intervention will no doubt provoke a reaction from Iran, which will argue that their Shiite brothers are being systematically oppressed. Any troubles caused by Bahraini Shiites will only provoke further Saudi intervention. Ultimately, the island risks falling under de facto, if not de jure, Saudi control.
The Saudi intervention, however small, is therefore a major step backward for the region. It represents a major slap in the face to the United States, a defeat for the liberal Shiite and Sunni elements in Bahrain, and ultimately a catastrophe for the entire Khalifa family, both the liberal and conservative wings, who may have just surrendered their power to the giant next door.
Ultimately, this may also be a defeat for Saudi Arabia as well. The Saudis have long tried to avoid overt interventions in their neighbors’ affairs. They intervened once during the 1994 upheavals in Bahrain and in the past two years have been active on the Yemeni border — but under King Abdullah they have tried to arbitrate, rather than dominate, events on the Arabian Peninsula. Their decision to intervene directly in Bahrain’s affairs suggests a weakness in the Saudi leadership and Riyadh’s surrender to the more conservative elements in the country.