The movement of Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates troops into Bahrain on Monday is a cause for concern on three levels.
It suggests that conservative Arab leaders in key energy-producing states are worried about the potential for unrest in Yemen to their west and Bahrain to their east to spill over into their countries.
It accelerates the long-simmering ideological war between some Arab leaders and the Iranian government, with an unspoken but strong undertone of Shiite-Sunni tensions.
It is likely to spark fresh internal tensions in some Gulf states where Shiite minorities will raise the level of their demands and protests.
It is potentially good news, though, on two other fronts: Saudi Arabia is asserting itself and showing it can act decisively, and the United States is showing itself to be a marginal spectator in this process.
The U.A.E. foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed el-Nahyan, said Monday the Saudi-U.A.E. move was designed to defuse tensions in Bahrain and “to support the Bahraini government and to get calm and order in Bahrain and to help both the Bahraini government and people to reach to a solution which is for the best for the Bahraini people.”
This is a legitimate and reasonable goal, but sending troops from other Arab countries is about the worst possible way to achieve it, given the context in which this occurs.
Internally, a serious homegrown challenge to the ruling elite in Bahrain reflects the wider revolt of Arab citizens who are fed up with being denied their full rights. Regionally, this is likely to be seen as the latest political proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which in some places (Iran, Palestine, Lebanon) also occasionally become armed clashes. And globally, (with the added symbolism of the U.S. Fifth Fleet home base in Bahrain) this is the latest phase of the ideological battle that has defined the Middle East for the past two decades, and especially since the demise of the Iraqi state in 2003: The Iranian-Syrian-led regional defiance and resistance to U.S.-Israeli-Arab conservatism.
In most of these spheres and in proxy battles, pro-American conservative Arabs have generally retreated and lost ground to Iranian-Syrian-led groups, with only occasional exceptions.
If Bahrain is now the latest active battlefield of ideological and ethnic conflict, the military gesture by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council is likely to have exactly the opposite effect of its intended calming goal. It will stoke resentment and active opposition by many in Bahrain and around the region, who will see this move as an “occupation,” as some Bahrainis already said Monday.
The lesson that many will draw is that two different standards apply to Arab citizen rights. In countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, the world will accept or actively support constitutional changes that citizens of those countries demand. In other Arab countries like Bahrain, the rights of citizens are secondary to wider energy and security needs, which is one reason that protests by citizens of some Gulf states are increasing.
Sending in Saudi-U.A.E. troops is probably a counterproductive overreaction because tensions in Bahrain are purely political and local. They can be resolved through national negotiations that reconfigure the system in a manner that affirms the equal rights of all citizens and subjects the power elite and national decisions to credible mechanisms of accountability and participation — which is what Arabs are demanding across the region.
Political Issues that were fixable in Bahrain will now be less resolvable because they have shifted into an arena defined by foreign troops.
An inner beast has awoken in Saudi Arabia, as sending Saudi troops to other lands is a sign of real concern and growing panic, but also of self-confidence in foreign policy.
The implications of this move are enormous and also unpredictable. It is also fascinating that the United States says it was not aware of the decision on cross-border military movements by its closest Arab ally.
As my learned political scientist friends would say, “Holy smokes!”
There is no better sign of the reality that Washington has become a marginal player in much of the Middle East, largely as a consequence of its own incompetence, inconsistency, bias and weakness in allowing its policies to be shaped by neoconservative fanatics, pro-Israeli zealots, anti-Islamic demagogues, Christian fundamentalist extremists, and assorted other folks who trample American principles and generate foreign policies that marginalize the United States abroad.
Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.