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BAHRAIN: Saudi Intervention Likely to Bring Regional Blowback

Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON, Mar 15 2011 (IPS) - Saudi Arabia’s incursion into neighbouring Bahrain is a risky move that could further inflame domestic unrest in both countries and give a propaganda boost to Tehran’s campaign to cultivate the Arab street.

Saudi authorities and officials from the United Arab Emirates – which sent 500 police to augment 1,000 Saudi troops – said they had entered the island kingdom Monday at the request of the Bahraini government to safeguard the country’s infrastructure and provide space for a political solution.

However, analysts said there was no apparent threat to infrastructure and that the intervention appeared to be a heavy-handed attempt to intimidate protesters who have built a tent city in Pearl Square, a roundabout in the capital, Manama, and erected roadblocks around Manama’s financial hub.

“I don’t get it,” said Thomas Lippman, a Saudi expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t believe for one minute that this was a collective response to a decision by the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] foreign ministers.”

The move appeared to reflect panic by the Saudis and the Sunni Muslim ruling family of Bahrain, the Khalifas, at the persistence of protests by Bahrainis, who are predominantly Shiites and who have long complained of discrimination in government and the economy.

There have also been protests in recent days in Saudi Arabia’s heavily Shiite Eastern Province, which is connected to Bahrain by a 16-mile causeway and is the site of most Saudi oil installations.

“The Saudis feared the demonstrations in Bahrain were having a contagious effect on the Shia of the Eastern Province,” said Simon Henderson, a Gulf analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So they just had to move.”

Henderson said it was possible that the Saudi forces, which appeared to include both National Guard and Army units, would be used to clear away barricades erected by the demonstrators around the financial sector in Manama, the mainstay of the Bahraini economy.

Already Tuesday there were reports of clashes and the deaths of two protesters and a Saudi. The circumstances were unclear.

Henderson said the Saudi intervention might make it even more difficult for Bahrain to reach a political solution. While Shiites complain about discrimination, other Bahrainis also have grievances about political changes that have reduced the power of parliament and about the Khalifa family’s domination of top ministerial posts. The country’s prime minister, the uncle of King Hamad, has held that job since Bahrain became independent in 1971.

Saudi media have accused Shiite Iran of fomenting unrest in both countries, but analysts said there is little evidence to support this.

“Iran is not the driving force in these actions,” Afshin Molavi, an Iran expert at the New America Foundation, told an audience Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

He noted that Iranian state media directed at the domestic Persian speakers was barely mentioning the situation in Bahrain. However, Iran’s Arabic-language satellite channel, Al-Alam, has focused heavily on the protests and the Saudi incursion. Of the top 10 stories Monday covered by Al-Alam, all 10 dealt with Bahrain, Molavi said.

Lippman said, “Iran can profit from this by sitting on their hands” and watching anger at the Saudi intervention unfold in the Arab world.

An Iranian official who spoke on condition of anonymity told IPS that Iran had condemned the Saudi action and would probably stage its own military maneuvres but not send its forces to Bahrain. The official, echoing other regional comments, said he believed Bahrain had gotten U.S. approval to invite in the Saudis and the Emiratis when Secretary of Defence Robert Gates visited Bahrain last week.

The Obama administration has denied this, but has not condemned the Saudi and UAE move, albeit urging the foreign troops and the Bahraini authorities to show restraint.

“This is not an invasion of a country,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

While asserting that it cares about the “universal rights” of Bahrain’s half a million citizens, Washington is also concerned about safeguarding its base in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Some 3,000 U.S. military officers oversee 30 ships and 30,000 sailors from Bahrain. These U.S. forces safeguard the Gulf states from Iran and the base is also used to support U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

*David Elkins contributed to this report.

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