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Saudi Arabia and the UAE have intervened in Bahrain to restore stability. Yet there is a real sense of fear that in their haste to avoid allowing a precedent to be set and to prevent any potential Iranian interference, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's actions may well precipitate these very outcomes.
By David B Roberts, Deputy Director RUSI Qatar, for RUSI.org
With escalating tensions and increasingly violent rioting on the streets of Bahrain's capital, Manama, Saudi Arabia sent in troops to 'stabilise' the Bahraini Government. The UAE too has responded to the request from the Bahraini government to contribute "to establishing security and domestic stability" and has sent at least 500 police.
Thus far there are is no evidence that Qatar or Kuwait has taken part in this mission, though they have offered strong rhetorical and financial support for Bahrain.
The Saudi contingent is nominally part of the 'Peninsula (Jazeera) Shield Force', a multi-national task force of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Established in the mid-1980s to counter any potential Iranian threat, this force was soon beset with command and control issues and it is questionable if it was ever an active or effective fighting unit. By the mid-2000s it was defunct. In 2009, prompted by Yemeni incursions into Saudi Arabia, it was re-branded and re-tooled as a 'Peninsula Shield Rapid Reaction Force' though questions as to whether it could ever function as a genuine multi-national task-force remain.
The force's raison d'etre has always been to preserve GCC security and unity. This explains the particular utility in using the 'Peninsula Shield Force' for the majority of the intervention into Bahrain; so it appears more like fraternal support based on mutually agreed common goals and identities than a heavily armed incursion to prop-up an unpopular, minority-based Royal government.
The entry of at least 1000 Saudi troops with armoured troop carriers and other assorted lightly armed vehicles plus the UAE contingent signifies a qualitative shift in the dynamics of the troubles in Bahrain. Until now there has only been stiff rhetorical and financial support from neighbouring governments.
GCC Royal families are, perhaps understandably, severely concerned about allowing any kind of republican precedent. While conditions are different in Bahrain as compared to their neighbouring states, the GCC leadership, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, appear to follow an 'Article 5' mandate: a threat to one Royal family is seen as tantamount to a threat to them all.
The Shia twist in Bahrain too will have contributed to their calculus. Typically, the Sunni-Shia dimension has been lazily applied as a lens to understand Bahrain's issues. Certainly, it has been prominent, but - until recently - economic cleavages have been equally important as a delineating line in Bahraini politics. Yet the recent troubles have significantly exacerbated sectarian tensions and current Sunni-Shia relations are as bad as they have been in decades.
The key backdrop to this is the insidious notion of Iranian, Shia fifth columnists pervading Gulf States and Bahrain in particular. Certainly Iran has sporadically alluded to such threats in the past and has overtly described Bahrain as the 'Fourteenth province of Iran', which drew immediate and vociferous Arab denunciations. Saudi Arabia in particular is acutely sensitive to any potential Iranian influences spreading in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern province is where the majority of Saudi Arabia's Shia live. There are genuine and deep-rooted concerns in Riyadh of further uprisings in these areas. On Thursday 10 March, police fired into a group of Shia protestors demanding the release of prisoners and the next day, on Saudi Arabia's 'day of rage', there were larger though peaceful protests in Hofuf and Qatif in the east of the Kingdom. Riyadh is highly motivated not to give these protestors any encouragement from their religious brethren nearby in Bahrain.
The UAE too have concerns regarding Iran's influence. After oil-rich Abu Dhabi bailed out Dubai from its spectacular financial collapse it set about emasculating Dubai's power in the federation. One result is that Dubai's 'perennial' role as an Iranian-friendly port city is coming under increasing pressure from Abu Dhabi and America. The recent uncovering of an Emirati 'spy ring' in Oman, allegedly there to investigate Oman's Iranian links, further propagates the notion of the Emirates as highly concerned with Iran's activities.
A calculated risk?
For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, therefore, this intervention is a calculated risk. Immediately, opposition groups in Bahrain castigated the entry of foreign troops as 'a blatant occupation' or even as 'an act for war' despite official protestations that the troops are there to protect official installations. Indeed, the soldiers and police from Saudi Arabia and the UAE arrived soon after Bahrain's financial district, the core of its economy, was closed down by protestors.
There are real concerns that this move in and of itself may escalate the violence. For while the foreign soldiers and police are nominally in Bahrain to protect critical infrastructure, any footage of them arresting, subduing or otherwise harming a Bahraini protestor would be hugely incendiary in Bahrain and similarly provocative in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Moreover, the spectre of a proxy war in Bahrain between Saudi Arabia and Iran is apparent now that Riyadh has broken the taboo of direct intervention.
These actions further complicate an already Gordian problem for the Unites States. Thus far the reaction has been to simply note that 'this is not an invasion' and Washington will surely head off any mooted Bahraini overtures at the United Nations for support. It is also worth noting that Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, was in Manama on Saturday for discussions with the Bahraini leadership, a critical US ally as the home of the US Fifth Fleet. The US Administration has denied that Gates was informed about this plan.
The events set in motion carry dark overtones. There is a profound sense of fear that in their haste to avoid allowing a precedent to be set and to prevent any potential Iranian interference, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's actions may well precipitate these very outcomes. Ominous statements emanating from Tehran and an outraged reaction from the largely un-cooperative opposition in Bahrain, suggest that these actions have further polarised and inflamed an already highly troubled situation. The announcement of three months of martial law by the Bahraini King confirms the deeply worrying trends in Bahrain.
Aside from an ignominious withdrawal by the foreign troops and police, which would play incredibly badly in their own countries, or the dissolution of the opposition, which appears wholly improbable, the most likely outcome is a delicate stalemate, which is liable to explode at any moment.
Main image courtesy of Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs