For the first time since the eruption of popular protests in the Middle East last December, Arab military forces are being deployed in a neighboring state, as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) forces entered Bahrain on Monday at the invitation of the government.
But analysts and activists said the 1,200 Saudi troops and 800 police personnel from the UAE are being used not to stabilize Bahrain but to reverse the drive for reform and democracy. The move came two days after US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain and pressed its rulers to implement political reforms to defuse tensions with the Shi'ite Muslim majority.
"This is one of the most significant episodes in shaping the Middle East," Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based think tank, told The Media Line. "The question now is whether we can avoid escalation and start meaningful dialogue between government and opposition. I would say the chances of that are very slim."
Less than 24 hours after the deployment, the force suffered its first casualty when a Saudi soldier was shot dead by a Bahraini protester in Manama, a security official told the Associated Press. Meanwhile, Bahrain’s King Hamad Al-Khalifah announced a three-month state of emergency, granting the army wider authority to clamp down on protesters.
Saudi Arabia and the US have deep, but not necessarily identical, interests in Bahrain, which has struggled for weeks to quell massive popular protests that focused around Pearl Square in the capital Manama. The Saudi kingdom is anxious to preserve fellow monarchies like Bahrain as well as to ensure Shiite unrest is contained. Saudi Arabia has its own restive Shi'ite minority.
The US is concerned about regional stability in the Gulf, which holds the world’s biggest oil reserves and is shared by Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as well as Iran. The US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, a tiny country with no oil reserves but critical to Washington’s strategic thinking. Faced with calls for democracy across the Middle East, the US has sought to accommodate demands for reform in the hope they will ensure long-term stability.
The Saudi and UAE forces officially belong to the Peninsula Shield Force, the military arm of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a primarily economic grouping of six Gulf Arab countries, including Bahrain. The Peninsula Shield Force, based in Saudi Arabia, was established in 1984 to deter military aggression against any GCC member.
Deploying the forces to Bahrain was easy because a causeway links the island state to the Saudi mainland.
Mounira Fakhru, a member of the liberal Bahraini opposition group the National Democratic Action Society, said that although she didn’t consider the Saudi forces an occupying army, their deployment did mark the end of dialogue between the king and opposition.
"The government has escalated the situation," Fakhru told The Media Line. "This move indicates a complete rejection of all opposition demands. It’s a dangerous situation for our country, because it breaks national unity and tears society into two groups: Sunnis versus Shiites."
Sectarian tensions were the backdrop of demonstrations that began in Bahrain in mid-February, with the country's Shiite majority bemoaning discrimination in employment and housing by Bahrain's Sunni king, Sheikh Hamad, whose family has ruled the kingdom since the 18th century.
The deployment of troops could exacerbate tension not only with the US but with Iran and sharpen the religious divide that has largely remained in the sidelines as opposition leaders focused on political reforms, analysts said.
On Tuesday, bellicose exchanges between Saudi Arabia, a regional patron of Sunni Islam, and Iran, a patron of Shiites, indicated how explosive the sectarian divide could potentially be.
Ramin Mehmanparast, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the presence of foreign forces in Bahrain was "unacceptable and will further complicate matters." Saudi Arabia, for its part, defined the troop deployment as the "collective responsibility" of the GCC states to "maintain security and stability." The Saudi daily Al-Watan reported on Tuesday that the forces were protecting Bahrain from attempts of "foreign intervention," a blunt allusion to Iran.
"If you watched Bahraini TV today you would see harsh attacks against local Shiite clerics," Fakhru said. "They are being told to leave for Iran. We have never witnessed anything like this."
A Bahraini Justice Ministry official on Tuesday blamed anti-government protesters of repeatedly attacking mosques in the kingdom since protests began in mid-February. In an article published in the Al-Watan daily, the official urged Shiite clerics to instruct worshipers to refrain from attacking Sunni mosques.
Fakhru contended that the country was being partitioned into Sunni and Shiite regions, with word of certain hospitals not accepting Sunni patients.
On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and Qatari Prime
Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al-Thani visited Manama and met Bahraini
officials, Al-Jazeera reported. Al-Thani said the deployment of troops
was sanctioned by agreements signed by GCC countries.
Saudi Arabia has other fires breaking out around it on the Arabian
peninsula, with opposition protesters confronting leaders in Yemen and
Oman -- and its army is equipped with advanced military technology. But
the armed forces have rarely been deployed. In the last two decades they
were sent to help allied forces in the first Iraq War and in 2009 they
launched a sweeping ground offensive against Yemeni Shiite rebels after
they allegedly crossed the Saudi border. The army took 113 causalities
The US downplayed the significance of the Bahraini deployment, echoing Riyadh’s version of events.
"This is not an invasion of a country," White House spokesman Jay Carney
said on Monday. He urged the government of Bahrain as well as other GCC
(Gulf Cooperation Council) countries "to exercise restraint."