What makes the Bahrain situation extremely difficult to resolve is that almost all the templates of the Persian Gulf politics are to be found there - Shi’ite empowerment, Wahhabism vs. Shi’ism, Saudi-Iran tensions, Iran’s rise, US-Iran standoff, US regional strategies, ‘Arab revolt’, GCC, oil, and so on. What happens in Bahrain will set the trend of the ‘Arab awakening’ in the entire region.
Added to this is the increasingly ineffectual role of the US. It is a conspiracy theory, in my opinion, that US is conniving with the Saudi intervention in Bahrain. My reading is that the Saudis are on a trip of their own and they are no longer willing to put their trust on the US judgment or ‘grit’. I read a most revealing piece in Al-Hayat newspaper two days ago, which says bluntly that the bottom line is, Saudis simply cannot afford Shi’ite empowerment to happen in Bahrain or let the Sunni regime be subsumed by the Shi’ite revolt. No matter what it takes, Saudis seem willing to go the whole hog to prop up the Bahrain regime and keep the Shi’ite majority subdued.
I find the same trend of thinking in a ‘news analysis’ by Helene Cooper of NYT, who, as you know, is a well-informed Washington reporter. She reveals some startling details which show US-Saudi ties are really at a very low point today. What does this mean? It means the crackdown in Bahrain will continue. Will that mean the revolt will be put down? I don’t think so. What can happen is that continued use of force and the Saudi occupation will contribute to a gradual radicalisation of the Bahraini opposition. The opposition seems willing to settle for a constitutional monarchy today but that may not remain the case if they get radicalised.
Al Hayat says some of the opposition activists are already in touch with Iran (which shouldn’t be surprising, actually). Iran may give them advice but an Iranian intervention in Bahrain can be ruled out. Traditionally, Bahraini Shi’ites are drawn toward Najaf and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq.
Look at it another way. The Saudis also have a point that the road to reform is a highly risky road. Also, Saudis are now stuck in Bahrain. If they pull out, Bahrain regime will crumble and there will be anarchy. But if they stay on, disaffection will only grow. Again, reform in Bahrain will mean the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will also clamour for similar empowerment. Shi’ites account for 30 percent of Kuwait’s population. Kuwait has broken ranks with the GCC and refused to send a contingent to Bahrain. Most western scholars put the Shi’ite figure as 15 percent in Saudi Arabia.
In short, Saudis are riding a tiger in Bahrain - they just can’t get down lest they get devoured by the beast of Shi’ite empowerment. On the contrary, the more Saudis get drawn into a quagmire, the more they will get frustrated. Iran has proposed an OIC ‘contact group’ to monitor Muslim issues! Iranians are on a wild spree. I came across an Iranian commentary arguing that the Saudis are showing themselves to be more rotten fellows than even Israelis!
Read Helene Cooper’s dispatch in NYT…
Posted in Diplomacy, Military, Politics, Religion.
– March 18, 2011