A month after Bahraini Shiites first took to the streets to protest against their Sunni dominated government, the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreed to deploy troops to guard energy facilities and infrastructure in the country. Opposition members characterized the move as an “occupation” if not “a declaration of war.”
According to one Saudi official, “the force will work under the directions of the Bahraini government and protect vital facilities like oil and power.” The kingdom is the GCC’s largest member along with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
With a total GDP of more than $1 trillion, together the six members of the Persian Gulf’s economic union are estimated to hold 40 percent of the world’s oil reserves and they account for a quarter of all oil exports.
The move came on the very day parliamentarians asked Bahrain’s king to impose martial law after protesters had blocked main highways and riots erupted on a university campus. Approximately one hundred demonstrators were reported to have blocked access to the Bahrain Financial Harbor in the capital, in effect shutting down the commercial district.
Inspired by the toppling of longtime dictators in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, young Bahraini Shiites launched their own anti-government movement in February.
Although Bahrain’s Shia population is sizable, a Sunni minority has dominated national politics since the country gained independence in 1971. As Daniel DePetris put it last month, “the Bahraini government is the definition of nepotism, with the ruling Al Khalifa family controlling all of the country’s power.”
Saudi Arabia too has a large Shiite population, concentrated in its oil rich east, near Bahrain. The kingdom has seen relatively minor outbursts of dissent in recent weeks but a ban on demonstrations coupled with an increase in welfare spending would appear to have defused unrest.
Iran, which is one of few other countries with a Shiite majority, urged Bahrain not to instigate violence against civilians on Monday. Its foreign minister told Iran’s state news agency that he expected “the Bahraini government to be wise in responding to the demands of protesters and respecting their rights.”
According to official figures, seven Bahrainis have died in confrontations with security forces in past weeks. More than five hundred were wounded.