Shashank Joshi, a doctoral student of international relations at the Department of Government, Harvard University, looks at where next for Bahrain.
Arab states are the linchpin of this week’s diplomacy. It was therefore jarring, though not unexpected, to see the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) send a thousand troops into Bahrain to quell the country’s unrest at the same time as it decried Gaddafi’s counter-revolution.
The GCC and Arab League’s unexpected support for a no-fly zone broke last week’s diplomatic impasse, and their promised role (at least that of Qatar and the UAE) in any intervening coalition was critical in persuading the United States to throw its weight behind the expansive resolution that was dramatically passed last night.
But every GCC state is Sunni-majority, and Bahrain’s Shia majority is agitating for equal rights as much as a constitutional monarchy. As the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof puts it, Bahrain’s al-Khalifa dynasty has been using:
“…the language of white South Africans – or even like the language of white southerners in Jim Crow America.”
The Saudi and Bahraini monarchies have condemned protesters as Iranian fifth columnists. They are drawing on pre-existing but wildly exaggerated fears stoked by Iran’s growing regional clout in both Iraq and Lebanon. Iran has in the past claimed Bahrain as its territory.
Saudi Arabia, which forms the preponderance of the intervening forces, has stepped in because most of its own two million-strong Shia population lives in the oil-rich eastern provinces, which are connected to Bahrain by a bridge.
Whereas Libya was a renegade republic that had turned its back on the Arab world, and even tried to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s king, Bahrain is a red line; a protest too far.
Though the regime’s crackdown has been brutal – entailing attacks on medical personnel – the western response has been muted. Regime change would put at risk the US Fifth Fleet, which is headquartered in Manama and protects Saudi oilfields and sea-lanes as well as covering the Persian Gulf.
So where does Bahrain go from here?
First, the sharpening of sectarian lines is making compromise much harder. Bahrain’s uprising is not as broad-based and inclusive as its Egyptian counterpart. The divisive slogans on display contrast sharply with the remarkable scenes of Egypt’s Muslims and Coptic Christians offering mutual protection during prayer.
Second, the US has pushed gently for reforms without understanding that the uprising wants a constitutional monarchy. The US will eventually be forced to drop the al-Khalifa family, because the alternative – backing it – will be too unpalatable. But protesters increasingly suspect that Obama approved the Saudi intercession. They are predictably embittered, and will get more so.
Third, and finally, expect more violence. Just as Gaddafi calculated that mercenaries would be more willing to fire on his citizens than Libyans, Bahrain has long infused its security forces with Sunni Muslims from neighbouring countries. They, and the Saudi troops, will have less compunction about firing on Shia protesters.
Iran will not hit out precipitously, but its longer-term reaction – whether through proxy militants or arming groups inside Bahrain – will ratchet up tensions. When that occurs, the Arabian Peninsula will be too preoccupied to give much consideration to Libya at all.
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