Why Bahrain is unlikely to turn into an Iran-Saudi battleground

The intervention of Saudi forces has escalated tensions between Bahrain's protesters and the country's Sunni rulers, leaving at least one dead and drawing criticism from Iran.

Hasan Jamali/AP
Bahraini antigovernment protesters wait at barriers they've set up for Saudi forces to arrive on March 14, in Manama, Bahrain. A Saudi-led military force crossed into Bahrain to prop up the monarchy against widening demonstrations that have sent waves of fear through Gulf states over the potential for enemy Iran to take a new foothold on their doorsteps.

The intervention of Gulf forces to help put down Bahrain's pro-democracy uprising escalates an already dangerous situation but does not necessarily mean the entire region will be pulled into the conflict, say analysts and scholars.

For now, Saudi Arabia's decision to send 1,000 troops to Bahrain under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) is most likely a protective, albeit provocative, measure – one Sunni monarch helping another, says Michael C. Hudson, director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

“It's not [that] other countries are coming to the rescue,” says Dr. Hudson, who was on his way to Bahrain Tuesday. “It's like other families coming to the rescue. It's symbolic.”

While both Arab and Iranian leaders may seek to influence the outcome in Bahrain, ultimately the central tension is between the tiny nation's ruling Khalifa family and an increasingly resolute protest movement.

“The main issue is that [the] Khalifas have been extremely poor managers of their country,” says Jean-François Seznec, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. "They have promised reform for many, many years and never delivered."

He called the Saudi troop presence on Bahrain soil a "terrible mistake" and, while only a symbolic gesture, one that will likely escalate tensions between the protesters and Bahrain's ruling Sunni family.

“It could have been solved very easily by having the Shiite liberals and Sunni liberals come together with the crown prince to establish a constitutional monarchy,” he adds.

Bahrain, key US ally, declares state of emergency

The protests started in earnest Feb. 14 as Bahrain's Shiites rallied against widespread discrimination. Bahraini security forces responded violently, shooting and beating protesters. Since then the calls have been to topple the entire ruling monarchy.

Yesterday, Saudi Arabia sent its troops together with 800 police from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Bahrain on Monday to help the government deal with weeks of unrest in the tiny island nation. Bahrain's king went on state television today and declared a three-month state of emergency to deal with the uprising.

Located just offshore Saudi Arabia's oil-rich east, Bahrain has some oil facilities of its own and is host to a US naval base and other installations crucial to American military operations in the Persian Gulf.

RELATED: Why Bahrain matters to the US

Bahrain is not part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the influential group of oil-producing nations. But it does benefit from membership in the GCC, a political and economic bloc established in 1981 that includes all of the countries on the Arabian Peninsula except for Yemen. The others are Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi intervention could radicalize protesters

Saudi Arabia's intervention was made under the GCC umbrella and by invitation from Bahrain, but was nevertheless perceived by the predominantly Shiite protesters as well as Shiite-run Iran as a foreign invasion.

Hudson says the presence of Saudi troops will radicalize the more extreme elements of the protest movement. Wire services reported that at least one Saudi soldier was killed Tuesday during clashes with protesters in Manama, Bahrain's capital.

“They will see this basically as an occupation and crude threat or warning for them to stand down and it's probably what it is,” says Hudson. “That may not calm the situation at all. It may make it actually worse. It also has given the Iranians an opportunity, and it seems they'll take advantage of it in an astute way."

Iran unlikely to provoke Saudi troops

Seznec says that the Iranians will "take advantage" of the upheaval to bolster their standing with Bahrain's 70 percent Shiite majority.

“The Bahraini Shiites aren't necessarily pro-Iranian," he adds. "It's an excuse for the Iranians to put some pressure on their own Shiite brothers to get more support.”

SPECIAL SERIES: Shiites rising

But Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, says Arab rulers will take advantage of the situation as well by stirring up fear about the perceived dangers of a stronger Iran and its militant allies.

“Saudi Arabia, all the other dictatorial Arab regimes, and their enablers and allies in Washington and Israel have long been obsessively focused on the Iranian bogeyman, which they see under every bed,” he says. “I have just come from Cairo where the old regime's harping on about Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas have been exposed by the revolution for the tired lying propaganda that it is.”

Mr. Khalidi said the problems in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would exist even if there was no Iran.

“The problems are discrimination, denial of human and political rights, arbitrary authority which does not derive from the consent of the governed, and diversion of resources to a tiny minority on a gigantic scale,” he said. “The same problems exist in nearly all the Arab countries, with local variations of course. Of course Iran is happy to fish in troubled waters, but that has nothing to do with why they are troubled.”

But Iran will not go so far as to engage in confrontation with the Saudi troops, says Nader Habibi, economics professor at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

“My feeling is that Iran is unlikely to start a military confrontation over Bahrain because Saudi Arabia enjoys the support of the United States,” he says. “The Shiites are a majority but they have little chance of removing the Sunni king from power because of the Saudi support for Bahrain's monarchy.”

'A lot of promises floating around the GCC'

The GCC works similarly to the European Union, allowing residents to travel between the countries without visas and coordinating economic, political, and military policy in the Gulf region.

But GCC members are not unified on all issues, of course. When rioters in the northern Omani port city of Sohar burned and looted shops in late February, most cellphone users in the country received an anonymous early morning text message accusing UAE of being behind the unrest.

When asked, many Omanis insist – even though they have no evidence – that UAE organized the demonstrations in Sohar. The protests have disrupted business at the Port of Sohar, which is at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.

Since uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in toppling the leaders of those two countries, revolts have broken out in Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis quickly moved to stop demonstrations there, warning that security forces would use any measures against people who disobey laws prohibiting protests.

RELATED: Day of Rage in Saudi Arabia: How much change can the Gulf expect?

In Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin said al-Said, a much-revered leader among the people, has responded with unprecedented concessions, including new unemployment benefits for job seekers, pension increases, and 50,000 new jobs.

On Sunday, Qaboos granted legislative powers to a joint council of appointed and elected representatives, seen in Oman as a potentially significant step in advancing democracy. The sultan also ordered an examination of the country's “White Book,” which offers some constitutional protections to the people.

Dawn Chatty, an Oman scholar at the University of Oxford, says Oman took an important step – if the decrees are actually carried out. “I am afraid there are a lot of promises floating around the GCC countries,” she says. “Many are not going to materialize.”

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