The civil unrest in Bahrain escalated this week as foreign troops rolled into the tiny Persian Gulf state to suppress the revolt. Neighboring Saudi Arabia deployed some 1,200 troops while the United Arab Emirates sent eight hundred. The intervention puts the kingdom at odds with the United States which has publicly endorsed Arabs’ calls for political reform.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are both critical American allies in the Middle East. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain.
As demonstrations swept the Arab world in February, the royal family in Bahrain allowed protesters to camp at Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama. It pledged the release of political prisoners and called for a national dialogue.
Initially the mostly Shiite demonstrators demanded constitutional reforms that would grant them full and equal civil rights. After security forces violently attempted to disperse the protests however and several were killed, the movement began to clamor for the downfall of the monarchy altogether.
When Bahrain’s own police and military forces proved unable to quell the unrest, its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member states came to the royal family’s aid — a first in the organizations’ history.
According to one Saudi official the operation is just in its initial phase. “Bahrain will get whatever assistance it needs,” he was quoted as saying. “It’s open ended.”
The Saudi kingdom has itself largely escaped the sort of turmoil that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year reign in Egypt and may remove Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from power. There have been signs of discontent however.
As in other parts of the Middle East, high unemployment, especially among the young, coupled with a yearning for greater political freedoms has inspired minor demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. A ban on public protests coupled with increased welfare spending and a huge police presence would appear to have defused the unrest.
Like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia is home to a sizable Shia population which lives mostly in the oil rich eastern part of the country. The Saudi royal family, which dominates national politics, is Sunni, as are all monarchs in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Bahrain is linked to the Saudi mainland by a sixteen mile causeway and both nations share the proceeds of the offshore Abu Safa oilfield.
The Saudi military presence doesn’t merely signify one beleaguered autocrat helping out another; is a reminder of the kingdom’s concern over the growing regional preeminence of Shiite Iran, across the Persian Gulf.
With Mubarak gone and the Saudi backed government of Lebanon undermined by Iran’s ally Hezbollah, the Saudis are without powerful allies in the Middle East. Whereas previously, they might have preferred to rely on checkbook diplomacy, they have now begun using force to stop the unrest on their border.
The newfound Saudi assertiveness puts some pressure on the Americans who have long dreaded that the royal family’s resistance to reform and their often muddled succession politics might threaten the stability of a key regional ally.
When President Barack Obama urged his Egyptian counterpart to resign in the face of mounting protests last month, it worried the Saudis. Riyadh and Washington are still very much on the same page when it comes to containing Iran and keeping the oil flowing, but the monarchy has little appetite for the sort of universal values championed by the American administration.
Saudi Arabia has helped stabilize world energy prices by increasing its oil production to make up for the loss of Libya’s supply. It was reported last week that the United States asked the Saudis if they could supply the Libyan rebels with arms.
The American military’s longstanding ties to the Saudi armed forces have also weathered the recent diplomatic tempest. More than 4,000 Saudi and American troops participated in training exercises in northwestern Saudi Arabia last week.
Making clear to Iran that the alliance remains strong is critical in preventing the Islamic Republic from increasing its own influence in the region. Maintaining that alliance will likely demand of the United States that they not only tolerate Saudi human rights abuses — as they have for years — but also accept an increasingly forceful Saudi foreign policy that would all the more plainly expose Washington’s dilemma in the Middle East; the disparity between its strategic interests and the values it upholds.