Two-thousand Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, most of them from Saudi Arabia, entered Bahrain on Monday — ostensibly to provide security to government installations "threatened" by protestors. In fact, such a show of force, with more troops on the way, is an attempt by the Saudi-led GCC to stiffen the resolve of the ruling house in Bahrain to put down the democracy protests if need be with force. The violence unleashed by the Bahraini army and police against peaceful protestors on Tuesday was the direct outcome of the Saudi/GCC military intervention.
Various interpretations have been put forward as to the reasons behind the Saudi-led military intervention. These include pre-empting the emergence of a pro-Iranian, Shia-dominated government in Bahrain and tilting the balance in favor of the hard-line faction among the al-Khalifa and against the more moderate faction allegedly led by the crown prince.
What is missing from these explanations is a discussion of the essential nature of the GCC that has propelled it to intervene in the internal affairs of a member country. The Gulf Cooperation Council was established in 1981 in the wake of the Iranian revolution, ostensibly to promote economic cooperation and defend its members against external threats. However, it quickly became clear that given the similar nature of oil producing rentier economies in the Gulf, talk about increasing economic exchange was merely a façade. So was the argument that the Gulf monarchies needed an organization to coordinate their external security policies. The only act of major security cooperation they engaged in was to supply billions of dollars to the Saddam regime in Iraq, first to help it invade Iran in 1980 and then to stave off an Iranian victory that seemed imminent between 1982 and 1984.
Their lack of capacity to protect themselves against external threats was clearly demonstrated in 1990 when Iraq occupied Kuwait. Despite the billions spent by Saudi Arabia in particular to acquire state of the art weaponry from the United States, the kingdom had to invite in a half million American troops to defend itself and eventually force Iraq out of Kuwait. It was clear that the Gulf monarchies, above all Saudi Arabia, the largest and most powerful among them, were incapable of defending themselves against external threats, actual or presumed, without American boots on the ground.
The real reason for the establishment of the GCC in 1981 was not defense against external enemies threatening the security of GCC states but cooperation against domestic challenges to authoritarian regimes. Its main task was and continues to be coordination of internal security measures, including sharing of intelligence, aimed at controlling and suppressing the populations of member states in order to provide security to the autocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The establishment of the GCC was in large measure a reaction on the part of the Gulf monarchies to the Iranian revolution of 1979 in which people’s power toppled the strongest autocracy in the neighborhood. The Arab autocracies of the Gulf did not want to share the Shah’s fate.
That ensuring the security of autocratic regimes was the principal reason for the existence of GCC has become crystal clear with the military intervention by Saudi-led forces in Bahrain to put down the democracy movement and prevent the freedom contagion from spreading to other parts of the Gulf. It is true that the Saudis are apprehensive of the Shia majority coming to power in Bahrain because of the impact it could have on its own restive Shia minority in the oil-rich east of the country. Riyadh is also worried about the impact of a change in regime in Bahrain on the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region. (One can, however, argue that Saudi military intervention in Bahrain’s affairs will in fact redound to Iran’s benefit in the long run by further de-legitimizing the al-Khalifa rule in Bahrain).
But these are secondary explanations. The primary concern of the Arab autocracies in the Gulf is the suppression of democratic movements regardless of the sectarian character of the populations engaging in democratic struggles. They are worried that if any of the autocracies fall or even reach a substantial compromise with democratic movements it will have a domino effect in the entire Gulf region consigning all of them to the dustbin of history. The GCC was established as an instrument to protect and prolong autocratic rule on the Arabian littoral of the Gulf. Its military operation in Bahrain has clearly shown this true colors.
Mohammed Ayoob is university distinguished professor of international relations at Michigan State University.