By William Fisher
Last week, as he accused outside agitators of planning a pro-democracy “Day of Rage” demonstration in Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal told a press conference in Jeddah, “The kingdom does not interfere in the affairs of others and will not allow for anyone to interfere in its own affairs.”
Sunday, an estimated 2,000 Saudi troops rumbled across the 26 km causeway separating the Kingdom of Saud from its neighboring kingdom – Bahrain, ruled by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah.
The Saudi troops were soon followed by some 500 others from the UAE, the United Arab Emirates.
As the Saudi and UEA troops were transported to an undisclosed location, (Euronews: 0155 PST, March 14, 2011) reported: “In one of the most violent confrontations since troops killed seven protesters last month, police used tear gas and water cannon to break up demonstrations against the kingdom's royal family. Witnesses said rubber bullets were also fired by police.”
In the Euronews video of the Sunday confrontation, a police officer is seen firing a tear gas canister point blank into the chest of a protester.
Why are the Saudi and UAE troops in Bahrain? Were they invited or did they invade? They were almost certainly invited. Bahrain is gripped in its worst unrest since the 1990s. For the past several weeks the Shi'ite majority has held demonstrations to rail against what it terms discrimination by the ruling Sunni minority.
So the official mission of the foreign troops is ostensibly to protect Bahraini government buildings, key military and oil installations, and the financial district of the capital, Manama. The financial district is reportedly occupied by several hundred Bahraini pro-democracy protesters, who have blocked off the streets in and out of the area.
But Bahrain has its own 30,000-strong military and would be capable of taking on these chores without foreign help. So arguably more important mission of the Saudi and UAE troops is symbolic: to help the country’s rulers, who are Sunni Muslims, maintain their grip on power by frightening protesters, largely members of the Shia majority, into participating in negotiations as proposed by the regime.
Bahrain’s rulers have recently laid out six main issues to be discussed in talks. These include establishment of an elected parliament empowered to affect government policy; fairly demarcated electoral constituencies; steps to combat financial and administrative corruption; and moves to limit sectarian polarization.
But the Bahraini Crown Prince revealingly did not mention one of the opposition's primary demands -- the prime minister's resignation. The reform opposition has not wavered in its demand that the Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, step down.
All reports to date indicate that the Saudis were invited by that very same Prime Minister, one of the hard-liners in the ruling Khalifa family. He is reportedly opposed to any substantive negotiations with the demonstrators.
Moreover, they were invited only hours after the departure from Bahrain of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who met with Bahraini leaders and urged genuine political reforms instead of what he called "baby steps," that, he said, would not be successful in diffusing the tense situation.
Dr. Jean-Francios Seznec, a professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, writing in “Foreign Policy” yesterday, says the Bahraini invitation is a direct slap in the face to the U.S.
The pro-democracy forces in Bahrain consist of members of the Shia majority plus some of the poorer Sunnis. The majority Shia country is ruled by a Sunni royal family, which controls virtually every aspect of Bahraini life.
The Sunni v. Shia dimension of the struggle over reform has inevitably drawn in Shia Iran, which has characterized the Saudi and UAE forces as having invaded a sovereign nation. They said it was “unacceptable.”
Saudi Arabia's decision to send troops to Bahrain will almost surely have an impact on its relations with the United States. How serious an impact is unclear. Historically close, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have recently been slogging through some diplomatic mud, with Saudi Arabia disapproving of America’s treatment of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. The Kingdom’s advice to President Obama was to support Mubarak even if his forces started to kill demonstrators. Obama chose another road.
At home, Saudi Arabia has so far managed to quell public demonstrations through a strategy of direct grants to Saudi citizens, billions of dollars in new government employment programs, and a massive police presence. The Saudi foreign minister said last week his nation would “cut any finger that crosses into the kingdom.” A major part of the current pro-democracy narrative as conveyed on State TV, radio and in print, is that the demonstrations sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa are being instigated by “outside forces.”
Various Internet sites have called for a Saudi “Day of Rage” on March 11 (which did not happen) and March 20, with nationwide demonstrations. But public protests are banned by the Saudi authorities, and publicly identifying with demands for political reform also remains risky and can lead to harassment or detention.
On February 25 there were peaceful marches in the Shia towns of Safwa and Qatif in the Eastern Province. Residents of al-‘Awwamiyya, an adjacent small Shia town, held a silent vigil the same day calling for the release of the so-called “Forgotten Prisoners,” nine Shia Saudis detained without charge or trial for over 12 years over unproven allegations of their involvement in the 1996 attacks on U.S. military targets in Khobar that killed 19 Americans.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said from Cairo, “Saudi Arabia should rescind its categorical ban on peaceful demonstrations and release the more than 20 protesters detained on March 3, 2011, in the eastern town of Qatif.”
Saudi Arabia is one of only two countries in the Middle East and North Africa that ban protests as a matter of principle; Oman is the other. Saudi Arabia is not party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protect the right to peaceful assembly, but in 2009 the country acceded to the Arab Charter for Human Rights, which also guarantees this right.
“By banning all protests Saudi rulers are telling their countrymen and women that for all political purposes they are not citizens and have no right to participate in public affairs,” said Whitson. “Saudis have had enough of unaccountable rulers telling them to do as they are told and shut up.”
According to Amnesty International, “In the five years since he ascended the Saudi throne, King Abdullah has loosened the reins stifling Saudi society. But his reforms have been largely symbolic, with few lasting institutional changes.”
The group says that, under King Abdullah, Saudis have become freer to criticize the government or societal norms, but those who cross lines such as questioning the role of religion or singling out princes for criticism face harassment or jail.
It adds that women have become more visible in public and in the workplace. But even an adult woman still requires her male guardian’s written consent to make decisions about marriage, work, education, health care, and travel. Abdullah allowed women to stay in hotels without male guardians, but has left the guardian system as a whole intact.
As for the Saudi military presence in Bahrain, Prof. Seznec of Georgetown puts it this way:
“Any troubles caused by Bahraini Shiites will only provoke further Saudi intervention. Ultimately, the island risks falling under de facto, if not de jure, Saudi control.
“The Saudi intervention, however small, is therefore a major step backward for the region. It represents a major slap in the face to the United States, a defeat for the liberal Shiite and Sunni elements in Bahrain, and ultimately a catastrophe for the entire Khalifa family, both the liberal and conservative wings, who may have just surrendered their power to the giant next door.”