The deployment of Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates security forces to Bahrain on Monday is a cause for concern at several levels.
It suggests that conservative Arab leaders in key energy-producing states are worried about the potential for the unrest in Yemen to their west and Bahrain to their east to spill over into their own 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. And it is likely to spark fresh internal tensions in some Gulf states, where Shiite minorities will raise the level of their demands and protests.
However, the move, potentially, is good news on two other fronts: Saudi Arabia is asserting itself and showing that it can act decisively, and the United States is a marginal spectator in this process.
The Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, said Monday that the Saudi-UAE move aimed to defuse tensions in Bahrain and â€śsupport 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.â€ť
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 internal, regional and global contexts in which the measure is occurring. 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 citizenship rights. Regionally, this is likely to be seen as the latest proxy political battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which in some places (Iran, Palestine, Lebanon) has also occasionally spilled over into armed clashes.
And globally, with the added symbolism of the U.S. Sixth 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, especially since the demise of the Iraqi state in 2003 due to the Anglo-American attack. This battle has been defined by Iranian-Syrian-led regional defiance against and resistance to American-Israeli-Arab conservatism.