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>> The Daily Star


The Daily Star - March 16, 2011

by Rami G. Khouri

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 “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 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.

In most of these spheres and in proxy battles, pro-American conservative Arabs have generally lost ground to Iranian-Syrian-led groups in both the political and the military realms, with only occasional exceptions. If Bahrain is now the latest active battlefield of ideological and ethnic conflict, the military gesture by the Saudis and the Emiratis on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is likely to have exactly the opposite effect than its intended goal of calming the situation down. It will stoke resentment and active opposition by many in Bahrain and around the region, who will see the move as an “occupation,” as some Bahrainis described it on 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; while in other Arab countries like Bahrain, the rights of citizens are secondary to wider energy and security needs, which is one reason that both mild and major protests by citizens of some GCC states are increasing.

Sending in Saudi-UAE troops is probably a counter-productive over-reaction, because tensions in Bahrain are purely political and local. They can be resolved through national negotiations that reconfigure the constitutional governance system in a manner that affirms the equal rights of all citizens and subjects the incumbent power elite and national decisions to credible mechanisms of accountability and participation, which is what Arabs are demanding across the region. Issues of a political character that were resolvable in Bahrain will now be less resolvable because they have been shifted into an arena defined by foreign troops and a proxy battle for regional and global powers.

An inner beast has awoken in Saudi Arabia. Sending Saudi troops to other lands is a sign of real concern and growing panic, but also of self-confidence and assertion in foreign policy. The implications of this Saudi move for the region are enormous and unpredictable. It is also fascinating that the United States says it was not informed or aware of the decision on cross-border military movements by its closest Arab ally, in the heart of the most strategic real estate in the world.

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 Middle East policy to be shaped by neoconservative fanatics, pro-Israel zealots, anti-Islamic demagogues, Christian fundamentalist extremists, and assorted other strange folks who trample American principles and generate foreign policies that harm and marginalize the U.S. abroad.

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